Surrounded by family in Ireland

Today my sister and baby niece and I spent five very cold minutes at the beach in Salthill. It's been almost three months since I started this trip by touching the other side of the Atlantic. Clearly today called for a brief but eloquent speech on the smallness of the world and the interconnectness of all its people.

"Brrr. Ok, I'm done. Coffee?"

And on that note, I'll leave this blog too. It's been a good journey, dudes. If you've read this far, thanks for coming with me :-)

In Brussels train station

My favourite thing about central Europe is how everyone speaks four languages. The woman in the cafe here told me the specials in English, then fielded a question in French from the table behind, interrupting herself to share a joke in Dutch with a passerby. It's astounding.
I said "Hallo!" to the man at the ticket desk and he started out in German, switching fluidly, mid-sentence, to English when I said "Wait, I mean 'Hi!'". It makes me feel like a slacker: I can sort-of-kind-of follow what's happening in German if everyone speaks slowly and uses small words, but it's not enough to pull my weight in a conversation; I can barely get by in Irish for that matter. This relaxed and easy multilingualism is a wonderful thing. I love it.
My other favourite thing about central Europe is bread. I could live entirely on bread and butter here. And the other best thing is cheese, of course. And the way that enormous dogs come up to talk to you in cafes, though I admit that this doesn't always happen. And pedestrian streets and plazas with markets on them. Those are great. And bikes, too, and separated bike paths and miles and miles of canal paths to ride along. Or riverbanks where you can sit and think and watch ducks. Although, actually, big train stations with lots of platforms are even better than any of those. All of those trains heading off to everywhere. Trains and trains and trains. Europe is amazing at railways.
I love trains. That's pretty much why I'm here, travelling, I mean, instead of being a productive member of society. I wanted to sit on a lot of trains. Europe has the most fantastic network of high speed services. I have a timetable here for international trains from Brussels: in the next few hours, just to list a few options, I could take the TGV to Nice, the Benelux IC to Luxembourg or Amsterdam, the Thalys to Paris, or the ICE to Frankfurt. From each of those cities more lines spiderweb off in all directions. If you've got your visas sorted out, you can take trains from London to Tehran and beyond. How cool is that?
International railways feel positive and optimistic to me. It takes time and effort and cooperation (and a huge pile of money) to build them and, if you stop being friends with your neighbour, you can't just point them off in another direction. Wars happen and borders close and the tracks sit there, getting grassy, waiting for people to get over themselves and reconnect. Just think about that! The conflict fizzles out and the engineering is ready to go again. Cooperation and trade and unity, all symbolised by parallel lines running off into the distance. Wonderful!
I do realise how cheesmongery this sounds, but I can't help it. I get pretty excited about railways :-) And individual trains, for that matter. My favourite days on this trip have been sitting by the window watching the countryside go by, reading for a bit, maybe talking with other passengers, just sort of logging out of the real world and into the train world, and getting such a kick out of the parts of the journey when the train is going around a curve and you can see it out of its own window. That just about makes my day.
I'm about to get on the Eurostar to London. This time tomorrow I'll be on the Dublin ferry, and then off to Galway on the last train of my trip. I'm looking forward to seeing you, Ireland-people!

On the Rail. Way. To. The. Euro zone.

(Joel says that isn't as hilarious as I think it is.)

Right now I have fourteen currencies in my bag, including a Sri Lankan two rupee coin, an inch thick wodge of Uzbek som and some goaty Mongolian tögrög worth $120. If asked at some border to declare the money I'm carrying, I think I would lie.

But no new currencies for me for a while, because it's eurotime! I'm writing this on the Spirit of Zurich, a lovely red Railjet train bound for Austria. This wasn't in the plan, but I suddenly realised I could have breakfast in Vienna tomorrow morning and there was no good reason not to. I'll get an early train from there to Munich so I'll have daylight for looking out the window: the internet says that it's a scenic part of the country. That said, the only part of Germany I've ever been in is Frankfurt. Let's just say that the bar is low :->

We had fun in Budapest. It's a peaceful place to walk around and look at things, and it's insanely beautiful at night. The wind was too cold for us to work up enthusiasm for the baths, but we saw the synagogue and the cathedral and the castle and Buda's old town and some bridges and a Christmas market. That actually sounds much more productive than we were: mostly we just sat around and ate things. It was pretty great. More of that kind of thing.

Budapest is funny because it starts off so hostile. You get off the train in a station that has few signs and no ATMs. Guards stand blocking the doorway for no obvious reason. You leave the station and go down the street to find an ATM between a gambling hall and a sex shop. Then you walk along a building site until you notice steps leading down to the unmarked metro station. There's a woman selling orange paper tickets at an unofficial looking desk near the top of the stairs. When you see a more traditional ticket booth inside the station, you wonder whether you just bought a black market metro ticket or maybe entered a raffle. On the platform, there's no subway map and no list of stops for the line. Many of the other stations have both, but I guess they want visitors to prove their worth.

I mean, obviously it's saner than the MTA -- the one time I took a bus from Montreal to New York, the gate from the bus station to the subway was locked and I had to find my way out to the sketchy, poorly lit street, cross over, then navigate through a party of winos to get to the A train. Where there were rats on the platform. Welcome to America, Canadians! -- but that's New York for you, bless its grubby, surly heart. We expect better from you, Hungary! Be more Central European! Aw, ok, or give us more of that bean soup and we'll call it good.

Btw, I feel like I must know someone who lives near Munich. If that's you and you'd like to have dinner, please drop me a line.

On the Bosfor Express

The restaurant at Istanbul's international train station is called the Orient Express. I found myself humming "I would have liked to know you, but I was just a kid", wishing for the romance and adventure of the Paris-Istanbul train. Aw, even by the time Paul Theroux did it in 1975, it wasn't too exciting any more, but the legend is good enough to withstand any kind of reality check. RIP, Orient Express, 1883-2009.

By the way, Theroux's short story, Misery on the Orient Express is great fun and I thoroughly recommend it: It's expanded in his travelogue, the Great Railway Bazaar. I'm only half way through that and I recommend it too, but the short story is magic.

The Bosfor Express goes to Bucharest. Joel and I are on it! Istanbul is one of the best places it's possible to be, and we were almost hoping the train would be booked out, but time is tight and it makes most sense to move on to Bucharest tonight and then Budapest the day after tomorrow. Joel will fly out from there, and I'll continue to Munich and then probably go home via Brussels rather than Paris because I don't know what Belgium looks like. Everyone is a monk or a politician, right? And the streets are paved with waffles?

We crammed a lot into three days in Istanbul. We took a boat to Asia and bought berries from a street vendor. We devoured pomegranate molasses and figs and a view of the city at a new-Turkish rooftop restaurant. We admired recreations of machines and winced at surgical implements at the Islamic Museum of Science. (Upstairs: astronomy, navigation, clocks, warfare, medicine. Downstairs: chemistry, mathematics, not sure what else because the museum closed.) We drank endless glasses of lovely tea. And of course we saw the Aya Sofia and several impressive mosques and the fantastic haunting Basilica Cistern, which would be one of my favourite things on the planet if only the other tourists would just stop chattering for ten minutes. Grr.

It would take a long time to be bored of Istanbul, and then you'd just be a few hours away from any number of other wonders, so it'd be hard to stay bored. Istanbul is great. We'll be back.

But for now we're in our own little compartment for two on this pleasantly rumbling train and it's about as good as it gets. The carriage was built in a time when wood panelling was the classiest of all possible decor, and it has a little wash basin and tons of storage space and tiny reading lights. We love it, but feel that we dressed inappropriately for the occasion: those hooks should have hats on them. We should probably be smoking. There is insufficient intrigue.

Look, seat61 has pictures of train compartments! Scroll down a wee bit to see the Bosfor:

At Ankara Otogar

The bus from Trabzon blew a tire, so we had a bumpy journey and then a two hour delay. We also had an unscheduled stop at a petrol station because some idiot foreigner got food poisoning and needed private time. It was dramatic. But we made it in the end.

The good news is that I have a ticket to Istanbul, or actually to somewhere called Bayrampasa, which probably means Istanbul. With luck, no unscheduled stops this time, but I'm not going to risk eating anything for a while.

Stranded in Trabzon

I'm still on the Black Sea, this time in Turkey. Trabzon is probably an ok city, but tourists mostly come here to change buses. It's the easiest stop between Georgia and Istanbul.

Except, wow, it turns out that every seat on every bus to Istanbul is booked out for the next _three days_. I managed to get the very last ticket to Ankara instead, leaving tomorrow night. It gets me closer at least!

Ankara is six hours by bus from Istanbul (if there are any seats left) and I get there around eight hours before Joel lands in Istanbul, so this can still work... *cue dramatic theme music*

In Georgia, trying to get "Georgia On My Mind" out of my mind

"A khachapuri please. What's the difference between Imeretian style and Megrelian style?" "Imeretian has cheese on the inside. Megrelian has cheese on the outside too". Wow. You have to admire a cuisine whose food options are "lots of cheese" or "seriously, tons of cheese".

I'm in Batumi, a port town on the Black Sea, just north of the Turkish border. The Stalin museum is sadly closed for the season, but I took a bus out of the town to see the Roman fortress at Gonio, then went to the beach and added the Black Sea to my short list of maritime firsts for this trip. (Also on the list: the Yellow Sea; the Pacific Ocean from this side. I could have added the Caspian too, but I decided against touching that. I don't know where it's been.)

I think a lot of people fall madly in love with Tbilisi on their first visit. That didn't happen to me. It's a nice looking (though kind of decrepit) town and I liked it plenty, but I was waiting for the magic that entices everyone and it never appeared. Maybe it's weather related. We had miserable sleeting snow, and power outages kept taking out the streetlights, so that didn't show the city at its best. It's probably more magical with dry socks.

I dutifully saw some churches and I  got a violent massage at the sulphur baths, but mostly I spent my two days in Tbilisi randomly getting into  conversations with strangers. That always happens a bit, but it was unusually constant in Tbilisi (maybe that's the magic, actually), and I had fun dialogues on subjects as diverse as Armenian politics, spoons, special relativity, nomadic dog ownership,  the Norwegian film industry and evangelical hitchhiking. The last was enlightening: I didn't know that being a Hitchhiker (as opposed to just hitchhiking) was a Thing, but apparently they have events and competitions. Behold:

Tomorrow I guess I'm going to Turkey somewhere, but I don't have anything approaching a plan. Three sleeps until I meet Joel in Istanbul!

Leaving Baku

Wow, Baku is expensive. A manat is worth around the same as a euro, but it doesn't seem to go as far. I've made six separate withdrawals from ATMs in 48 hours. After Uzbekistan, everything costs a shocking amount of money. You want to charge me $3 for tea? You thief! Going back to New York will take some adjusting.

It felt like a month since I'd met a fluent English speaker, so last night I dragged the two Japanese kids from our hostel to the local Irish pub/restaurant, Finnegans. Jackpot! The oil industry means tons of expats working in construction, and we got talking with an Irish architect and a bunch of Liverpudlian builders, all apparently called Danny. "There's no building happening in Liverpool now", Danny told us, "and we heard there was lots of work in Azerbaijan.". "I bet I know what your first thought was", I said. (In chorus) "Where the hell is Azerbaijan?"

We went to hear a live band at a gay bar where my Japanese friends danced and I got all the English conversation I could wish for. I can survive another week of talking to myself now. And I got a cultural experience to boot: a gay bar in a Muslim country is a new one for me.

Yesterday I just walked around a lot, enjoying the difference between the old town and the rapidly developing new city. There's a great promenade along the water, very striking in cloudy weather when the (oily) water, the seagulls and the distant smoky ships are all starkly black and white.

The old town here is quite lovely and well preserved. Wooden balconies covered in flowers hang over busy flagstones streets. It's a good place to stroll. On Thursday I had dinner in the old town with people from the hostel, one Japanese and one Turkish. We went to a caravanserei -- a sort of old travellers' inn with little stone rooms around a courtyard -- which is now converted into a good restaurant. Carpets and kilims covered the walls, and the rooms were lit by little gas fires and candlelight. A band played Azeri music, which sounded great to me but infuriated the Turk: he ranted (at great length) about how the Azeris are exceptional poets and musicians and how the tourist-quality music wasn't acceptable to his ears. Apparently the Azerbaijan Philharmonic is incredible, if you're in the neighborhood.

Today I visited the Shirvanshah's palace, a surprisingly big complex of mosques, mausoleums, galleries, etc, connected together with steep stone stairs. I played with some cats and sat in the plaza watching people go by. It was relaxed and easy.

And I drank a lot of tea. There's good chai in these parts.

In summary, Baku is a pleasant place to be. As the capital city, it's probably not at all representative of Azerbaijan, and I'm curious now about what Azeri people are like. I won't find out on this trip though. To Georgia!

In Baku

Aw, I take it back. Baku seems rather nice. I auditioned the city on the walk to the train station, and concluded that I should stay for a second night. Besides, who knows when I'll have a reason to be in Azerbaijan again.

Azeri appears to be Turkish with a French accent. Who knew?

Killing time in Tashkent

I've sorted out my next visa, collected my next ticket, and handed off a load of laundry, and now there's nothing to do but sit in a cafe and read the paper. You could argue that Tashkent has attractions, buildings, statues, etc, that any worthwhile visitor would go look at, but after Bukhara and Samarkand I have monument fatigue. I have seen enough wonderful blue tiled buildings with beautiful domes, thank you. I'll just sit here with my coffee and cake.

Pictures are at if you'd like monument fatigue too.

Tomorrow I'm going to Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. From my brief reading about Azerbaijan, it seems that this is one of those places that have suffered horribly from finding oil and having sudden wealth: their environment's fouled up, their hotels cost a fortune, but somehow the average person is still broke. The Lonely Planet's suggested three day itinerary includes places that it later describes as "spirit crushing","mesmerising ugliness", "infamous pollution", "a nightmare vision of leaky small-scale oil detritus and rusting old boats". (I know at least two people reading this are buying plane tickets already).

I do enjoy horrific decay as much as the next person, but this, the book reckons, is the very best the country has to offer if you only have three days. If you visit for a whole week, who knows what kind of oily adventures you get to have. Poor Azerbaijan.

[Side note: six months ago, Tanya's knowledge of Azerbaijan was: 1) beside Armenia, right? 2) probably has a complicated relationship with Russia 3) um...? Since then, she has skimmed a pdf version of an out of date travel guide to the country. There is a reasonable possibility that she has no idea whatsoever what she's talking about. Azerbaijan might be perfectly charming. Also, Baku's old town has UNESCO world heritage status, so it does have some nice things and stop being mean.]

Anyway, I'm flying to Baku tomorrow afternoon. I've got nine days to get from there to Istanbul, so I won't be there long enough to see much of anything, nightmarish or otherwise.

Having to fly is disappointing, because I'd hoped to go by land, but without a Russian visa the options were
- wait three weeks for a Turkmenistan visa that's 50% likely to be rejected for no reason, or
- go back through the border crossing of doom, spend 84 hours on a train across Kazakhstan, then wait around until a cargo ship is crossing the Caspian sea. Since they'd like me to be back in the office at some point[1], Tashkent airport, here I come.

[1] Probably. It's likely that I've been automated by now.

Freezing my fingers off in Samarkand

Brrr. Winter arrived. Joel's bringing my winter coat when we meet in Istanbul in a couple of weeks, so I'm trying to survive without buying a coat until then. I'm up to five layers.

Alain de Botton says this: "A danger of travel is that we may see things at the wrong time, before we have had an opportunity to build up the necessary receptivity so that new information is as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain". In other words, "Ok, this monument was built in the Shaybanid dynasty? So what? Why do I care?". I was kind of braced for this feeling in Bukhara and Samarkand. I tried to read some background information and quickly build an understanding of 14th-16th century central Asian and Islamic architecture, but my eyes kept glazing over. It takes some time before it's interesting and you start to care.

Luckily, Samarkand and Bukhara are magnificent. Even if you can't remember the difference between an emir and a khan, you can stand there with your jaw dropped at how big everything is, how striking the blue tiles are, and what a great job the restorers have done.

The Registan is the obvious attraction here, and it is indeed awe-inspiring. It's impressive that Ulugbek's madrassa, built in the 1400s, has withstood earthquakes and chaos better than anything built since. It's good to have a nerd running the country. Today I also saw the tomb of the prophet Daniel from the Old Testament (probably; there's a contender in Iran). These were both great and fascinating things to see.

However, the thing I found most interesting in Samarkand, which isn't on any of the tourist maps, is a modern graveyard attached to the Shah-i-Zinda avenue of Mausoleums. Rather than just names and dates, the gravestones have lovely etched pictures of the deceased person. Maybe this is a common thing, but I haven't seen it before, and I spent an enjoyable hour guessing people's lives and personalities, looking for family resemblances and so on. After some internal debate, I decided that photographing gravestones is only disrespectful if anyone sees you who is likely to be offended (This is my philosophy on a lot of things) so I have a bunch of pictures of the people I liked the most. It was interesting: couples tended to match in attitude, some solemn, amused, friendly, thoughtful, etc, but usually matching.

Walking around here is still fraught with pestering, worse than in Tashkent. It feels like every second Uzbek who passes is all "Hello! Madame! Signora! Where are you from? What is your name?". It's a prelude to money changing, tour guiding, buying appalling junk, etc, so after a couple of days I started only responding to the kids. The problem is that the police do the same rigmarole, and it seems less wise to blank them. The ones around the Registan come up close and, after we've ascertained what everyone's name is and where everyone is from, whisper "Climb a minaret? Very cheap!". Grr. I don't object to paying a few quid to get a better view, but there's no way I'm lining their pockets to do it. And I'd rather not be in a tiny enclosed space with them. Taxi drivers are the other worst: they slow down and crawl along beside you in case maybe you remember that you did need a taxi after all. It's creepy at night.

On the other hand, yesterday I was kidnapped by a delightful middle class family of four who saw me reading my map under a streetlamp after getting out of a shared taxi from Bukhara (That's the problem with travelling in winter; you always get to new cities after dark) and decided that taking me to my hotel was their good samaritan duty. I promise I don't usually get into cars with insistent randomers, but the 17 year old pharmacology student, her baby sister and their mum and dad were the least threatening people you can imagine. And they did indeed get me to my hotel :-)

One day each is enough in both Bukhara and Samarkand (or two if you cleverly visit a city of mosques when they're all in use on a Friday and you can't come in). It's easy to travel between them and Tashkent, the other point of the triangle that tourists usually see. Actually, Uzbekistan would make a good one week holiday, if you're looking for a place to go. Let me know and I'll tell you all about it. Madame! Signora! Where are you from? I give you good advice for Uzbekistan!

In Tashkent

Hello! This is a very quick post to say that I'm in Uzbekistan. The border control to get here was hell,  probably the worst two hours I've ever spent doing anything. I'll tell you something: I care about my carbon footprint and I will always choose a twelve hour bus journey over a one hour flight, but if I need to cross the 134km between Shymkent and Tashkent again, I will fly.

Tashkent is good. I like it so far. It's not like Almaty though, where people leave you alone and let you get on with things. This is a pestering city. Everyone wants to say hello or help you find your way, and everyone official wants to see your passport. I presented mine to six different people before noon today. Three of them photocopied it.

Money is hilarious here. The first thing I did when I arrived was change $20 into 46000 Uzbek som. The official rate is much worse than that, but everyone changes money on the black market. You find a dude in the market with a bin bag full of money, and they give you a bundle of cash. It's the unofficially official way to do it, so they're mostly honest too.

The other weird thing: the biggest note is 1000 som ($0.43). I haven't even seen one of those yet, it's all been 500 som notes. $20 becomes 96 bits of paper. It takes two pockets to hold it all.

Tashkent has a metro with stations that are absolutely beautiful, but you're not allowed photograph them.
In other news, I've uploaded pictures of kokpar. Look, I'm not making it up! (Millions of pictures, sorry, but I've got six minutes left online and don't have time to cull them.)

Watching sports in South Kazakhstan

It was Sunday so the guesthouse owner asked if anyone would like to see the Kazakh national sport, kokpar, being played. Of course we would! We drove in his Lada to an enormous field where Shymkent and Tulkibas were warming up their horses.

Kokpar is kind of like rugby, but played on horseback by entire villages of men who claim to be descended from Genghis Khan. Riders fight to grab the ball out of the scrum and then use a combination of violence and ingenuity to get it across the opposing team's line. There isn't a limit on the number of players. I'd say there were around 120 on Sunday.

Also, the ball is a dead goat.

Kokpar is played in teams, and they do keep score, but really it's a game of individual glory. Here's how it works: The commentator (in a little makeshift box with a couple of local bigwigs) announces what the prize for the next goat is, and who sponsored it. There's some milling around as people decide whether they're in. Two men haul the goat into the centre. Some signal is given, and suddenly the mass of horses is spinning like a tornado. Clods of turf spray the spectators, who, I should mention, are standing around the action, not safely off in stands or anything. They scatter as the horde lurches towards them. Whips fly and the horses, enraged, exhausted and steaming, are yanked in one direction after another. I can't overstate this: it is madness.

In the middle of this storm, players hang off their horses between all those thundering hooves and try to grab the ball by a hind leg. The goat is heavy -- it takes two arms to hold it -- so when someone's successful, a friend grabs his reins. The two of them wheel around and gallop off at ferocious speed for the other team's goal line, pursued/attacked by the entire pack.

The game is fast. It's hard to keep your eye on the goat. Directions change abruptly and, if you're a spectator, you spend a lot of the game running for your life or diving under the horse trailers they've set up to give the kids a better view. There's no out of bounds: the field is enormous and the horde can end up behind the commentator box, among parked cars, or out of sight in the distance where nobody can see what's going on.

Eventually a goal is scored. The scorer gets this round's prize, usually cash, but I saw some carpets and things too. The team gets a point. The ball is checked for structural integrity and either goes in for another round or finds its way to someone's car boot for dinner.

Some riders swap horses, or take a rest and give someone else a go. (The horses don't get this option). A champion might sit out the rounds with low prize money to let less experienced players have a chance to win. Spectators meet their friends, shake hands, smoke continuously, spit sesame seeds. Young boys talk together in encyclopedic detail about players and previous games; older ones shove and play-wrestle. The commentator announces the next prize. Horses and riders get into position. A couple of guys bring out the goat. Game on.

So that's kokpar. I was hesitant about barging in on an activity that is really not for women -- someone told me that not even any of the horses are female -- but our guesthouse guy said it was fine. Foreigners don't really count as women. Nobody seemed to mind, anyway. Fathers dragged their kids in front of me, nudging them all "You learn english in school. Let me see you talk english!". Teenagers used my little Russian phrase book in reverse, reading out sentences in english and laughing at each other. There's an "Encounters" page for asking someone on a date, and of course they found it. "Can I buy you a drink heeeheeheehee?" The commentator did a whole bit where the word "Irlanda" was mentioned a few times. I'm a celebrity!

I've got a ton of pictures, so I hope there's fast internet somewhere in Tashkent. I'm going to find someone here in Shymkent who can sell me lunch and then I'm off to the Uzbek border.

Off to Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve

Aksu-Zhabagly is fun to say. Aksu-Zhabagly! I may even be pronouncing it correctly, but I don't think it's very likely. Aksu-Zhabagly! Ten points for Griffindor!

My train ticket is actually for Shymkent, near the Uzbek border, but once I started reading about the city, the surrounding countryside seemed much more interesting. I'm arranging to get picked up by some people from a guesthouse in a village in the nature reserve. They do ecotourism, which, honestly, I'm not really sure what that is, but it looks like I give them some money and they give me a place to sleep and a couple of tours to places that are difficult to get to without a car. It works for me.

Almaty's been a good place to rest and get used to this part of the world. I have eaten a lot of plov, a lot of kebabs and and a lot of what I call "street-meat surprise": you point at the pie you want and later you find out what's in it. Greasy mutton is the most popular choice, but sometimes it's potatoes. I also tried horsemeat sausages but they weren't very good. I managed to pull together enough Russian to say "please, what is good for breakfast in Kazakhstan?" and the woman in the cafe laughed at me in a nice way and gave me some blini, which are pancakes which come with sour cream. It's all a bit stodgy, but it's good stodge.

I spent a very pleasant morning at the Arasan baths, where you move between Turkish, Finnish and Russian steam rooms, "refreshing" yourself in between by pulling a rope that dumps a bucket of freezing water on your head. Wowee. The Russian rooms were painfully hot, which was interesting, but not as interesting as the  lobster-red Russian women beating themselves with birch leaves. Apparently it's good for your circulation. (I'm not commenting on whether I tried it.). The bathhouse itself is spectacular; when you swim in the pool, it's under a huge dome.

Almaty looks a bit like this, but with more trees:

Spending the day at the Uzbek embassy

This city has one coffee shop with free wifi. It's at least a mile from my hotel, but somehow I keep ending up here, heh. I do like the internet. And coffee, of course.

Everything I've read about the Uzbek embassy tells me that I'm not going to enjoy today. If it's unusually quiet and I'm enough of a bully, I might get away with only queuing (outside in the rain, obviously) from 1pm to 4pm. A couple of hours later is more likely though, and then they'll try to find some reason to say come back in a week. They like to discourage people from casually coming to spend money in their country. These ancient cities had better be worth it.[1]

So, a fun and exciting day ahead. I'm fortifying myself with cake for second-breakfast.

[1] People I've met who've been there say they mostly aren't, but you can't really come to Almaty and not make a best effort to see Samarkand.

In Almaty

Almaty is covered in trees, like they built a park first and then decided to run some streets through it. There are tons of parks too, but it's often not clear where the park ends and the city streets begin. Autumn looks beautiful here. All of the trees are changing colour and everywhere you look there are yellow leaves falling constantly. I saw a few wheelbarrows and people raking, but mostly there are just streets and streets of crunchy yellow leaves. It's brilliant. Yesterday also had that lovely sun you sometimes get in early Autumn where everyone's face is glowing and everything looks calm and seriously pretty. (Today is raining, which is less attractive.)

So far, being in Almaty is relaxing and easy. Nobody bothers you and nobody stares. It's a relief to not be interesting. There's very little English, but it's easy to make yourself understood here. When I try to say things in Russian, people figure out what I mean and speak slowly in response. Nobody looks at me like I just fell out of the sky, which is the default response in China when a foreigner makes mouth-sounds. It'll probably be different outside the big city, but Almaty at least is much, much easier to be in than China.

I will eventually go look at the things tourists are supposed to look at here, but so far I've just been walking around and dealing with bureaucratic nonsense. Kazakhstan is, by all accounts, the sanest country in the region, but one of their odd ex-Soviet habits is that all visitors have to register with the migration police. When you eventually find the building and the right counter and fight your way to the front of the line, they give you two forms to fill out. These are only available in Russian, which is tricky. A woman in a nearby shop did them for me and refused payment. The kindness of strangers, eh? It never lets you down :-)

In Urumqi

It's pronounced "uh-rum-oo-chi". You wouldn't guess, would you?

Urumqi is 3000km from Chengdu. That's actually a pretty long journey to spend in a tiny room with two people (a middle manager and a fashion designer, if I had to guess) who share no languages with you. Once you've covered "hello" and what your names are, there aren't many conversations you can have. The hours did not fly by.

Comic relief came in the form of a coin collecting member of the kitchen staff who called in at intervals to geek out over the euro and raid my collection of foreign coins. He didn't speak english either, but he didn't let that stop him hanging out in our room and telling me lots of things I didn't understand.  It passed the time and I got free meals any time he was pushing the food trolley, so it was all good.

Other than that, I divided the time between reading, sleeping and taking a crash course in tourist Russian. ("Is this the bank?" "No, it is the theatre". "Is the train station far away?" "Yes." See? I'm sorted.)

The views out the window were pretty great. Hours and hours of sandy desert with proper sand dunes. Spiky grey snowcapped mountains in the distance. Signs in this province include Uighur, which uses the Arabic script, so I can read at last. Alphabets! They're going to be huge! Of course Uighur is yet another language that I don't speak any of, but I have a bit of Arabic and that's enough to read place names and feel like a functioning human again.

Leaving Chengdu

Chengdu is great, by the way. It's an easy place to spend time. Clean, safe, modern streets. Brand new subway. Fast internet. Probably the best hostels in the country. It's famous for its super-spicy Sichuan cuisine (I'm eating a hotpot as I write this and smoke is coming out my ears). It's near a panda reserve, the biggest Buddha in the world, and a particularly good holy mountain I've now failed to visit twice. Next time, Emei, I promise!

Chengdu takes very little energy and it's tempting to ditch my schedule and hang out for a few days. Very tempting. But onwards, upwards, chaoswards: I'm heading to the wild wild northwest. Urumqi!

My hostel in Urumqi doesn't seem to have internet. Or a ticket-booking desk. Or anyone who likes it. It has the worst reviews I've ever seen for a hostel... apart from the other hostels in Urumqi, which are much worse. Most reviews mention either mould or bad smells. Almost everyone comments on the ramshackle metal beds and the surly staff. One guy notes that he came out of the shower dirtier than he got in. It sounds so inviting! This may be a situation where I cut my losses and check into the Sheraton, but it's still worth buying a dorm bed for access to the hostel common room. Common rooms are where all the good information is.

I've a 49 hour train journey ahead of me. My train to here, the K146 from Kunming, was really nice, so I'm hoping that the smoke, crowds and blaring music on the train from Shanghai were all consequences of the holiday week. Not many people travel the week after the major holiday, so the Chengdu train was half empty and very calm. I got the bottom bunk. The guy opposite gave me a hard boiled egg. The views were good and I slept like a baby.

There's only one Chengdu-Urumqi train each day though and all of the hard sleeper (second class) seats were booked out for the next few days. I have to pay fifty quid extra for a "soft sleeper", a bunk in a comfy four-bed compartment with a door. I can probably live with that.

Kazakhstan very soon. Can I learn Russian in 49 hours?

Uploading photographs of Tiger Leaping Gorge in Chengdu

I'm at a fast computer with a mug of coffee, a modern browser and a proxy. After four days of everything interesting being blocked, the whole internet is available again! If someone could bring me a plate of cheese, I'd promise never to complain about China again.

Tiger Leaping Gorge was spectacular. The Lonely Planet was all "this is the hardest hike ever even for people who are really fit. You'll probably fall down and die, unless you're killed by bandits instead. We really don't recommend it" (I'm exaggerating. A bit.), so I almost didn't go, but of course it was completely wonderful, completely doable, completely safe. Stupid book. The first half day is all uphill, but there are only a couple of hours (the famous "28 bends" section) where you hate your life a bit. The altitude makes it a bit harder to get your breath back, but I took a lot of rests and it was mostly ok.

The various groups of us who kept passing each other out eventually made a party of eight and we reached the peak together. And stopped there, because the peak had a fantastic old woman who had set up a barricade and was charging hikers 8 yuan (somewhere between a dollar and a euro) to get to the best view. Very clever! A couple of guys in our party were inclined not to pay and there was an entertaining few minutes where she was waving a rock and shouting and they weren't sure what their options were. In the end they paid. She was half their height and she had two teeth and a rock. You'd have paid too.

The minority people who live around the gorge, the Naxi, are actually pretty enterprising about making money from hikers. Apart from the photograph extortion and good guesthouses dotted along the trail, there are old guys with mules offering a lift to the top and women selling fruit, water, chocolate and marijuana. The last of those grows in fields all over the gorge and is probably a pretty valuable cash crop. There are also little fields of corn anywhere they'll fit, and we saw occasional cattle and goats, pigs, geese, hens and (I don't know why) a monkey losing its mind in a small cage. It was not a good situation for the monkey and we were sad.

The second day was a pleasant, easy four hour stroll along a cliff edge. I'm looking at my photographs now and they don't even start to do it justice. It was so great :-) They've carved a little path into the cliff, maybe a couple of kilometres up, and you're walking along with a perfect clear view of the mountains from base to peak, tiny dots of other hikers on the path in the distance. It's absolutely stunning. From time to time you have to argue with mountain goats about who's going to pass on the outside, but other than that, the path is wide enough that it's never scary, just exciting. I mean, you could definitely die if you wanted to -- if you were looking at the trail through a camera, or walking along reading text messages on your phone, you would, no question about it, walk off the edge -- but so long as you pay attention, it's really not dangerous at all.

That said, I did start the first day by hilariously walking into a drainage ditch as I left the hostel and cutting open my shin. I'm calling this good luck: (a) it's useful to get a lesson about watching your feet when you're about to walk along a gorge, and (b) if I'm really lucky it'll scar and I can be vague about how I got my impressive Tiger Leaping Gorge injury.

Here are my pictures of Tiger Leaping Gorge. They are, to be honest, not as good as other pictures you'll find of Tiger Leaping Gorge, but these ones have me in them :->

At Lijiang (and gorges it is)

Lijiang is a really lovely old town with little stone lanes and lamps hanging everywhere. People at the last hostel were snotty about it in the way that backpackers often are about places tour buses go ("It's just not, you know, authentic any more. You should have seen it fifteen years ago..."), so I didn't expect much but wowee it's beautiful. I see why five million people cram in here every year.

We arrived after eleven last night and are leaving before nine, so that's everything I know about Lijiang for now. I'll be back in two days.

For now, it's Tiger Leaping Gorge day! I've teamed up with a friendly Vietnamese-Dutch bloke called Hoan and we're going to hike the gorge for the next two days.

And now I have nine minutes to eat scrambled eggs before the bus comes.