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A man from Cockshutt.

a travel blog by olliejohnson

This is the story of my journey to Australia, and the erratic wanderings that followed.
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The beginning

Brussels, Belgium

First things first.
1.Brad Friedal really DOES look like Skeletor.
2.As much as I hate to say it, Robbie Savage seems like a nice guy.

Flew to Brussels from Manchester Airport, where Blackburn Rovers were making a desperate, obvious, albeit ultimately fruitless attempt to keep me in the country by holding up the queue through security. Savage was the most blatant, waiting for ages to sign autographs for anyone passing within pen-range.

I arrived in Brussels without any hassle, and the free shuttle bus to the hotel arrived soon after. Nice room, free breakfast, everything so far pretty sweet.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on August 4, 2006 from Brussels, Belgium
from the travel blog: A man from Cockshutt.
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Crazy Russians.

Moscow, Russia

Free breakfast?! Since when does did meat and cheese go with croissants? (how is that spelt?)

Sent the bleeper off again going through security.
"Come with me please Sir."
Oh shit. This hasn't happened before. I begin to fear that the mythical aiport security anal probe is to be unleashed on my sensitive derrier. Luckily this time he just wants to rub me and touch me with his metal detector wand. Pervert. He looks suspiciously at my hoodie.
"What do you call this?"
"errr....a hoodie?"
Something in my pronunciation of hoodie somehow makes him think that to pronounce it properly, you have to really phlem it up at the start. "Ccccchuuuuudie. Hmm. Thankyou, you can go."

On the plane i'm sat next to a Russian woman and her little daughter. (Anya and Nastier - at least that what it sounded like) The drinks trolly comes by, and Anya asks me in broken English to ask for a little bottle of red wine and a tomato juice (all drink is free). Although it's only 11 in the morning, I get a Stella. Mainly because it's free. I decide it could be a good idea to read my Rough Guide on Moscow. Skimming through, I read about how in Moscow, and in Russia in general, there seems to be quite high levels of alcoholism. Apparently 1 in 4 or something (I could just be making that figure up, but it was something like that). And in Moscow in 2004, an alcohol rehab centre for CHILDREN opened. Hard bastards.

The drink trolly comes by again a little while later. Anya pokes me in the side.
"2 Vino"
So I ask the stewardess for 2 bottles this time. She looks a little perplexed then hands them over. Anya fills her glass with the first one and downs it.
"Russian girl" she says smiling.
Anya then decides it's time for some entertainment. She says something to her daughter and asks for my attention. The girl then bursts into song.
"I love my mummy, I love my mummy; she mikes my hippy, she mikes my hippy."
Long pause. The little girl looks up at me expectantly.
"Errr. Very good."
The little girl beams and launches into another song.
"I hiv I Kit, I hiv I Kit. My kit is fit, My kit is fit"
This was about a cat that was fat by the way.
Not wishing to give her any inclination to fill out the family tree for me, I just smile and pick up my book.

I'd taken advantage of the hostel's offer of transport from the airport, and eventually found him with 'TSH'(trans siberian hostel) on a little sign. His first words to me,
"Oliver Johnson?"
were to be his only, despite the hour and a half journey ahead. That is, apart from when I tried to put my seatbelt on in his Lada.
"Net! NET!"
I quickly undid it. He must have taken my gesture to attempt to protect my life as a sign that i didn't trust his driving. Either that or it's bad luck to or something. But having seen the way that they drive over here, getting in a car is not something i'm going to risk again in a hurry.

Hostel is small, obviously just starting out, but really cool. The staff are really helpful and the other people are friendly. And it's not too far to walk to Red square. It's getting pretty late here now, so i'm just going to go for a look around the area and grab something to eat. Off to see a pickled Lenin first thing tomorrow! Oh, and I found the Russian for 'thankyou' really funny: Spasibo! That's all for now. Spasibo.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on August 5, 2006 from Moscow, Russia
from the travel blog: A man from Cockshutt.
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Red square and beyond

Moscow, Russia

I've managed to land on my feet with this hostel. The French guy that runs it, Francois, is awesome. I only booked for the first night and they were full after that, but he sorted it out so that I got a mattress on the floor for the next 2 nights. We get 'authentic' Russian breakfasts here - which have included sour pastry dough with some weird cheese inside plus sour cream; a bread roll; and (bizzarely) mini frankfurters and mustard. Yogurt and proper french coffee every day too. There is a hostel laptop that you can use as and when, too. So this is why i've been able to do so much on my blog. Don't reckon it's going to be quite so easy from here on in.

The first day here, I went with a Swiss couple to see Lenin. The queue took 2 hours for a 30 second walk around the big man, but it was probably worth it. He doesn't look quite as waxy and unreal as the guide book suggested, and seems to have worn rather well for an 80 year old corpse.

I then went on a snap-happy tour of Red square
which has St Basil's Cathedral at one end. This was commisioned by Ivan the Terrible to celebrate a victory in a war (not too sure which one, but i guess it was important.) Ivan was a bit of a bastard by all accounts. One of his favourite forms of amusement was torturing and killing dogs and birds. He liked to throw dogs off the Kremlin wall. (I guess after a bit of trial and error he worked out that this wasn't going to work so well on the birds.) So if you were to walk past the Kremlin in those days whilst admiring St Basils, you may have had a startled labrador land on you.

Next day I decided it was time to pick up my train ticket, and remarkably found the place and picked it up without any hassle. Walked back through the city past Moscow University to the river, where the Church of Christ the Saviour is. This was originally built in the mid 19th Century, but Stalin decided that it was in this exact location that he wanted to build The Palace of the Soviet. This building was intended to be the major centrepiece of Communist Russia - designed to be just taller than the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building put together. However, just as they were putting the foundations in, the Nazi's came knocking on the door, so the metal was instead used to build anti-tank devices. The idea was never seriously pursued after the war, but it wasn't until 1998 that the Russian government decided to rebuild the Church exactly as it was.

At the same time, the Mayor decided to build the monument to Peter the Great - which is massive, and a love or hate thing amongst the population. I think it looks pretty sweet though.

Managed a visit to Statue park, which I was hoping would be just like that level in GoldenEye where you have to meet up with Robbie Coltrane and then get captured at the end. Disappointingly, it wasn't like that at all. However, spotting on the way home a chap dressed up in stupid clothes and clearly hating his job cheered me up no end.

Today was the first day that I managed to get properly lost. I'd decided to walk to a big park in the Northern suburbs cos it was a nice day. Only thing was, I hadn't realised that my map changed scale as it went out until it was too late. It also didn't help that they've taken down some major landmarks since the map i've got was made. All in all, it took 3 hours to get there, so after a little while wandering around, I decided it was best to take the metro home.

My train for Beijing leaves in 4 hours. I'm still at the hostel at moment, feeling a little tired and sorry for myself. There's a metro nearby that'll take me to the station i need. I just need to pop out and get supplies for the 6 day journey. The cooking appliances on board consist of boiling water, so it's going to be a whole lot of rehydrated pasta, potato and soup. I just hope I don't get a load of weirdos in my cabin. Oh yeah - I've decided that the occasion calls for a beard. It's looking awesome already.

Obviously I'm going to be out of touch for a while - it won't be until i've got a hostel in Beijing that I'll be able to start the search for an internet cafe.

One more thing: I've managed to meet Russian nobility. One of the guys staying in my hostel is French, but his family originally came from St Petersburg, fleeing during the Russian Revolution (the nobles weren't too popular at that point). Apparently there are quite a few decendants from this around France.

Anyway, that's it from me for the time being. See you in China.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on August 8, 2006 from Moscow, Russia
from the travel blog: A man from Cockshutt.
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Trans-Mongolian Day 1

Perm', Russia

Took the metro to the train station, which, confusingly, was one of 2 stations that are right next to each other. After a quick game of dumb-Englishman charades with a woman in the ticket booth, gathered that i'd got the right station and waited on the platform.

When the train did finally pull up, with the Chinese carriage attendants popping their heads out of the windows, I began thinking that this was going to be really sweet. I gave my ticket to the attendant, who fingered through it suspiciously before barking "NATIONAlITY?" at me.
He greeted this with a furrowed brow and glanced me up and down. "BAHWAIN?"
"No, no. Not Bahrain. U-ni-ted King-dom."
This only confused him further, but as a long queue was forming behind me, he folded my ticket in half, then half again, and stuck it in his leather wallet. I tried to object that i wanted to keep hold of my ticket, but he just chased me up the stairs into the train.

My cabin had 4 beds - 2 up top, 2 that were the seats during the day. Clearly, I wanted one of the upper ones. Luckily I got one. Already in my cabin when I arrived was what turned out to be my only travelling companion for the first 4 days - Marie, a Swedish woman of late 30's, early 40's. Into motorbikes and that, she was meeting up with some friends in Mongolia who were biking back to Sweden. I soon formed the opinion that she was almost definately a lesbian.

We couldn't work out how to turn the fan off for the first night, so we both pretty much froze (Siberia was actually still pretty cold).

The toilets/bathrooms were also a major issue. It consisted of a normal lavatory - loo and sink, but with a hole in the floor. This was the 'shower'. Of sorts. The loo just had a lever underneath which would dip the bottom part, so that whatever had been in there was just dropped onto the track. Lovely stuff. Understandably they weren't very clean, so this was probably the worst thing about the trip for me - mainly due to the fact that a whole Dutch tour group that was in our carriage seemed to have diarrhea, so the thing always stank. Bloody Dutch.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on August 9, 2006 from Perm', Russia
from the travel blog: A man from Cockshutt.
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Trans-Mongolian Day 2

Omsk, Russia

Spent the day reading, sleeping, listening to my ipod and getting bored. At the stops, which are about every 4-5 hours, you can get off to stretch your legs for about 20 mins. At the first few, everyone was a bit panicky and didn't leave the train's side. It was really funny - as soon as a train whistle or any loud noise was heard, everyone suddenly ran to the carriage doors, before realising that it wasn't actually our train. A bit like musical chairs for grown-ups. This, sadly was a source of entertainment for me. That's how bored I was.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on August 10, 2006 from Omsk, Russia
from the travel blog: A man from Cockshutt.
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Trans-Mongolian Day 3

Novosibirsk, Russia

Today was the day I began drawing little plans of the train in my diary. So, yes, I was a bit bored still. Decided to sleep most of the day to combat it.

Also, discovered that there are forks in the dining car to steal!! Stupidly, I'd bought 6 days worth of rehydratable food, but no fork on board - so i'd been borrowing Maria's till then.

In other news, we passed through sleet at one point.

Siberia looks the same. All of it looks exactly the same.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on August 11, 2006 from Novosibirsk, Russia
from the travel blog: A man from Cockshutt.
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Trans-Mongolian Day 4

Irkutsk, Russia

Got 2 new room-mates. An Italian couple. Neither say too much. She just takes a shit load of photos of everything. Including, at one point, 2 coffee mugs on the table. I was slightly insulted that she moved my pot noodle out of the background for the shot.

Russian customs in the evening, which took ages - about 3 hours. As they came on board, everyone was in the hallway, so we got a stern "SIT!" from the Russian guards. It was the Mongolians' turn next, and that took half the time.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on August 12, 2006 from Irkutsk, Russia
from the travel blog: A man from Cockshutt.
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Trans-Mongolian Day 5

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Mongolia is definately more interesting than Russia. Massive plains as far as you can see, and really friendly people at the stations. Everyone in my carriage got out at Ulaanbaatar, but then I got 3 new room-mates. 2 English guys - P.E. teachers from the same school in London (i'd always had suspicions about P.E. teachers) who'd had to bribe their way onto the train, and a crazy Chinese guy, who was going to be the prime source of entertainment for the rest of the journey.

This chap was clearly a smuggler. Bag after bag was brought on and stuffed away in various compartments. He tried to hide some contraband underneath my backpack, which was swiftly thrown back in his direction (we'd heard that the customs officials on the Chinese border were pretty unforgiving.) He laughed. "You're a sneaky little bastard aren't you?" He nodded appreciatively.

Passed through the Gobi Desert in the afternoon. Stupidly, I'd left the window open as we all had a nap, and we woke up coughing as our cabin was now full of dust and none of us could breath. I did the only decent thing, and blamed the guy that couldn't speak English.

Mongolian customs and Chinese customs followed late at night, through which our sneaky little companion passed without a hitch.

One day away from getting off the train!

permalink written by  olliejohnson on August 13, 2006 from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
from the travel blog: A man from Cockshutt.
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Day 6 and Beijing!

Beijing, China

Got vouchers for free breakfast and lunch in the dining car - real food! As we were approaching Beijing, the train pulled into a station that gave a really good view of the Great Wall.

Was amazing to finally get off the train after so long on it. Found a cash point, got my Yuan out (currency - I'm not hot for cash points) and went on the metro to a hostel that i hoped would have room. Luckily it did, is air conditioned, and i'm here for 4 nights. It's quite near a famous eating / drinking area, so i went there in the evening. Unfortunately, I hadn't met anyone at the hostel to go with, so i had a bit of a 'Lost in Translation' evening, sitting outside a Karaoke bar eating my beef with oyster sauce and anjoying an ice cold beer. The conversion here is 15 Yuan to the pound, which meant that my meal and 2 beers came to 5 pounds. Sweet! It was power ballad stuff on the mic, which was hilarious.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on August 14, 2006 from Beijing, China
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Getting sunburnt in the Forbidden City and climbing the Great Wall

Beijing, China

Well, it was only a matter of time wasn't it? On my first morning in Beijing I foolishly decided against using my top of the range suntan lotion (only one application lasts all day...), and set out for Tianamen Square in shorts and t-shirt. The Chinese seem to be early risers; as despite the fact that I was there by about 8:30, the place was already heaving. And baking hot, with not a cloud in the sky. It seemed at least half the people were wandering around with parasols, and those that weren't were taking shelter underneath anything that gave off the remotest bit of shade - including, pointlessly, lamposts.

The Square itself is massive, but it wasn't quite as imposing as I expected it to be. Perhaps this is because it's actually surrounded by a fairly busy 6 lane road, and the enduring image (certainly for me) is of it as one big block with a few chaps and some tanks in it. Luckily for me, it was tank free, but the road I think makes it seem more like any other Square. Anyway in the middle is the Chinese version of Lenin's mausoleum, but with Mao as the starring centrepiece. The queue for this was massive, and seeing as Mao is on every single piece of paper currency in this country, I didn't need to see him again.

At one end of Tianamen is the Gate to the Forbidden City, with the iconic portrait of Mao in the middle. Unfortunately, some of the buildings in the City itself were surrounded by scaffolding (I guess to make sure everything is perfect for the Olympics), but it was still pretty sweet. I rented out an audio guide, which was absolutely hilarious. It automatically spoke about different areas as you went around (that's not the funny part), but the woman's accent was priceless. On top of this, she'd pause in the middle of sentences and raise and lower her pitch in all the wrong places. (I'll point out now of course that her English is a million times better than my Chinese. But anyway...) The best example:

"In front OF...you, you wiw SEE the ah-Hole of ah-Supweme ah-Harmony." [Hall of Supreme Harmony]
I glance up. There it is. Under scaffolding, but it's there. I move on.
I pause mid step. Did she just say what i think she said?
"....the ah-number of ST-WAAANGE beasts on the woof. It has more beasts than...any other ah-HOLE, indicating it's importance..."

Anyway, after spending the day wandering around here and the gardens, I had managed a good shade of red. On the way home at dusk, I managed to catch a load of pensioners ballroom dancing to some really loud music in the middle of the street - just outside the Workers' Stadium, and some more a bit further on doing Tie-Chi. Great entertainment.

Ok, so other things I've managed to do in Beijing since I've been here:
- Went around the Hutongs (really small old alleyways around the centre, where they sell weird antiques and strange food)
- Saw the Temple of Heaven in a park a couple of miles South of Beijing (hopefully i'll be able to put the photos from all this on here soon)
- Visited a really famous night market, where food from around China is cooked and sold from small stalls (including everything imaginable on kebab sticks - from insects to baby sharks to Starfish and Seahorses.)
- Had an authentic Beijing Duck (which is carved at the table with the meat presented on little plates. The grand finale is the poor chap's roasted head, split in half, which is stuck on a plate of it's own. I managed to hide this behind some other dishes so I didn't have to see him eyeballing me.)
- Failed in my attempt to get a train ticket to Xian, so booked a flight to Chengdu instead for tomorrow morning. (This is where the Pandas are, and mountains and giant buddhas)

And today - I hiked along the Great Wall of China!! Was amazing even being on it, but the scenery was just as good - rolling mountains as far as you could see. We got dropped off at one point and picked up at another 5 hours later. The walk was actually a lot tougher than I expected - so many stairs! and we all sweated bucketloads in the heat. The worst bit was that after about 1/2 hour of hiking we were accosted and joined by an old Chinese woman, who took a liking to me straight away.
"You are vewy young, vewy young. Beautifuw."
"Err...thanks," and i try to walk a bit faster to get away from her. She keeps pace no problem though. I slow down, she slows down. After 2 hours she asks me if I want to buy a t-shirt.
"Not really, thanks"
"Ok, so you buy later"
"erm. No. No, I don't want a t-shirt "
"maybe later?"
"no thankyou. no t-shirt"
"maybe later," she says and stuffs it back in her bag.
1 hour later she tells me she is now going home and that I should buy her t-shirt.
"But I don't want your t-shirt. I never asked you to come with us"
"Only 50 Yuan"
"No, no thankyou. I don't want a t-shirt." I start walking away, and she bursts into hysterical tears, clawing at my t-shirt.
"Ok, ok. Look I don't want your t-shirt, but i'll give you some money for walking with us."
"you buy t-shirt?!"
"No. But here, have 10 and go home."
She looks stunned. Then very very angry.
"Only 10!! More!! Give more!!"
"No! That's all I can afford right now"
"You small man!! Small man!!"
And with that she sprints off. Not home, but off after the rest of the group who had made some ground on us since our discussion began. For the rest of the journey she ignores me, apart from the occasional glance around combined with "Small man! Smaaaallll man!"

At the end of the walk, we had the opportunity to take a zip-slide across a river down to the youth hostel where we were being collected, which I went down. It was pretty cool.

Right, had best go. Written far too much as usual. Apologies for that. Ollie

permalink written by  olliejohnson on August 18, 2006 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: A man from Cockshutt.
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