A Travellerspoint blog

Le Train

The Journey West

As a Gobi duststorm was just beginning to lick at the city, we said goodbye to Karyn and Victor on the platform at Ulaan Baatar Station, and boarded the Trans-Mongolian train; it was a Friday, and the next time we would step off was going to be Tuesday in Moscow.

The hundred-hour journey was smooth and steady, and turned out to be a real cinch actually. We have done a few trains together, including the 30-hour ride from Beijing to UB and a 60-hour choo from the southern tip of India to just shy of the Nepal border, so we were undaunted.


Lots of this...tonnes even.

Our cabin was a snuggly two-berther, and we whiled away most of the hours in it, reading and napping and snacking and playing yahtzee. When we did step out, though, we saw somes.

We met a Mongolian singing-dancing-acting troupe in the dining car, traveling into Russia for some shows. They were all really young, under twenty, and might have been fibbing about their skills, but that thought was dashed when we were treated to an impromptu throat-singing display by one of the guys, a professional throat-singer, and one of the most talented in Mongolia, he assured us. It's like a wee didgeridoo in the man's throat, if you've never heard it. We had missed seeing the famed throat-singing in Mongolia proper, so this little display was a trrrreat!

Another nice little part of the trip occurred whenever we had a sizable stop, (15 minutes or more), along the way in Russia. What happens is, as the train slows down coming into the stations, the faces along the platform begin to focus more, and you realize that they are rabid Russians ready for a flurry of shopping. The train stops and the Mongolians bounce off the train to flaunt their wares to these textile-obsessed Eurasians. There are furious circles of women grabbing the ugliest little tops, holding them up, stretching them across their bellies or their friend's boobs, and smearing grubby little bills of roubles into the merchant's hand, before slugging along to the next circle and infiltrating that mini-market. Ren and I usually watched the spectacle from the train, but a few times we were too excited and had to get closer. I wish we had the picture of me in the midst of that up on here...


Us, being pleased.

Honestly, with all this hustle, we made it to Moscow before we knew it. Our German neighbour on the train gave us a bottle of Mongolian vodka that he seemed really happy to be rid of, we swapped a few trinkets with a friend we made named Amika, and we alighted on to the platform. The train, that tide of steel and steam, that had carried us and countless Eastern dregs all the way to edge of Europe, was over. The way was open, towards Hajji and fête days.

Posted by rencous 11:32 Comments (1)

China Pt. 2

Time is dwindling down so fast - only 6 more days until we get to Rostock, where Benny and Tannis and Hajji will be waiting! This trip has been in the works since before we moved to Korea last May, so the fact that there is only a week left until we get her is super unreal. But first, the rest of China.

From the sacred mountain of Huangshan, we took an overnight bus to Wuhan - that got us in, not in the morning, but at 2am! - and spent the day in that wretched, defeated city of 10 million, before catching a flight to Xi'an.

Xi'an was the tops, really. The wall around the old city is, I guess like a lot of city walls, only Chinese, and for some reason this makes it really nice. We spent two days there, and did the typical stuff - well, the typical one thing there is to do in Xi'an: see the Terracotta Warriors. We took a city bus , helped along the way by a curious little angel of a man who was so happy to point us in the direction of the bus, (we saw him on the street the next day too and he wanted to help us again, told us where the bank was, and completely didn't recognize us from the day before), and got to the site, buzzing with tourists. We were told that the farmer who discovered the Warriors back in 1974 still works at the site, posing for pictures and signing autographs for people like Bill Clinton - I think he probably hates everything made out of terracotta.


...but not us - we love terracotta.

The area itself is divided into three really big and impressive pits, all with remnants of this massive clay army in them. Some parts even look like they've been in battle, having been smashed and toppled by the busty beams that were meant to protect them, but collapsed since they were interred over 2,200 years ago. The whole place is pretty amazing though, even with the masses of people with their digital cameras constantly snapping.

From Xi'an, we took a bus to a tiny little city called Pingyao - Ren's favourite. Pingyao is the oldest, most well-maintained walled city in all of China, with the walls dating back to 1370. It was the financial centre of China in the Qing Dynasty, but ironically has no banks there today. We had two nights there in an amazing hostel with smelly toilets, and spent our days wandering through the old, old streets, lined with houses and storefronts that all retain their centuries-old appearance. The whole town feels like it must have done a few hundred years ago, (minus the tuktuks and souvenirs), and is probably the only urban or semi-urban place in the whole country that reminds visitors of what they thought they were going to see when they came to China.


A bicycle in the streets of Pingyao.

After a slow chugger train, and then a high-speed whizzer, we arrived in Beijing on the 3rd. Again, we did the touristy things - rode bikes, (like you see Chinese people doing on TV), saw the Forbidden City and climbed the Great Wall.


Beijing was really great though, and it was most pleasant doing it with Ren's folks, Karyn and Victor. But our time there was so short, only two nights and we had to hop another train, this one heading North to Ulaan Baatar.


Ren on the platform in Beijing.

The 30 hours on the train into Mongolia were a cinch, and before we knew it we were stepping off into the dusty, sunny streets of the capital. Whisked away to a guesthouse whose fame claim is that it has, on its roof, a few gers to stay in. A ger is the traditional Mongolian dwelling, like an elaborate circular teepee. I had fanciful dreams in the ger, two nights in a row...now I think that nomads are sexy pervs.

The city itself is a dustbowl with little going on...except we did see a daytime dustup in the streets from our elevated seat at a restaurant where we felt like safe little white people. We had been noticing a bunch of guys walking around the town with bandaged hands, and we were wondering what it was all about, when across the street a group of 25 Mongolians were getting their blood up. There were slaps, and kicks, and punches, and running kicks and running punches, and it lasted a real solid 15 minutes before the coppers showed and hauled away the main monster...in 10 minutes, he was back though and swinging again! It was a famous ending to our time in UB, and let us finally figure out what all those bandages were for.

The best part of Mongolia though, was the day we spent out in the countryside. We hired a guy to drive us out to a national park, and we had lunch at his friend's house, (goat yogourt and yak butter), and saw breathtaking landscapes and really great wildlife, like yaks and camels and hawks galore.



It was also in UB that Lauren and I picked up our Trans-Mongolian train tickets...but again, I'm late for a plane, and have to run away right now, so the next time I write, it'll be all about that magic train ride West.

Posted by rencous 05:44 Comments (1)

Our First Baby-Step

Foreign Devils Flee Asia

View The Pig's Tail on rencous's travel map.

Forgive me, I'm nervous blogging - it's my first time, so be extra gentle...like you were that balmy summer's night back in '98 on my parent's pull-out couch.

Well, it's about 9 o'clock here in St. Petersburg, and the sun is not even close to setting...sitting here at a couchsurfer's named Semeon, trying to spit up a little milky note before we catch our overnight bus to Tallinn.

First off, Korea was a smashing little gem - our year in Busan was unreal. After a stay in Seoul, Lauren, her folks, and myself, we boated to Qingdao, China. The ferry was nice and slow and masculine, filled with Asian cig smoke wafting around. And it even had a jimjilbang (Korean bath house) on board, so me and Lauren's dad, Victor, got to stepping and got real honest with each other. We saw each other nude.

China, for the short time we were there, was a beaut. From seaside Qingdao, and the famous brewery, we made it to Shanghai to stay with family friends of Lauren's, Erica and Rolf Knecht. Well, let me tell you, they took care of us, like we were mini babies that couldn't do anything. The most memorable part of Shanghai was our first full night there: Rolf is the executive chef at the Hyatt Shanghai, (in charge of 16 nice, nice restaurants), and so he knows all these super talented gastrofolk around town, and we made it on to the guest list at the opening of the rooftop terrace at "the best restaurant in Shanghai", Stiller's. Stefan Stiller, the owner/founder/head chef, is a Michelin Star-awarded chef, and fed me 30 glasses of Veuve Clicquot and mini foie gras burgers. In the midst, we met a shiny-headed American family man who got so razzed up and excited about our trip, that every second he would cut me off and start talking about leaving Val and the kids and trading in the Toyota for a share in Hajji. He was a darling.

Here's the view from his terrace:


The second-tallest building, with the lit-up top, is the Hyatt where Rolf works.

After Shanghai, we scooted to Hangzhou, for a darling little bikeride around the West Lake. Hangzhou is a bit of a daytrip for Shanghainese, (it's not racist, it's what you call them...), and it was delightful...but too short - we left the next morning for Tangkou.

Tangkou is the closest town to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), and the first morning we were there, we climbed that craggy old wiener. It was a misty, rainy 6am wakeup, and a misty, rainy 2-hours of stone stepping, but we topped her, and passed like 40 sherpas on the way, carrying massive loads of linens and other supplies up to the hotels on the peak - they had good and nice calves they did. After making the top, we ate a banana and watched a million Chinese people smoke cigarettes, and then started the walk down the opposite side....the LONG side! I always thought that climbing up was the hardest way to negotiate stairs...I no longer feel that way. It took us 2 hours to get up, and over 4 to get down. There were bouts of madness where we felt like the stairs would never end, and the mist blocked them so there was no way to see past about the next 40 or so, so it honestly felt like you were walking downward forever. Near the end, we started warning, begging, people on their way up to reconsider...I hope they're okay.


Yellow Mountain

Okay, gotta run and catch the bus. Have to stop here, but I'll hopefully have some time in Tallinn or Helsinki to keep on about our way so far.

12 more days till we meet Hajji...and though I've never ever laid eyes on her, I know exactly how I feel about her. She's a moist little darling, and I love her.

Like Keith Sweat said, "Ooh, you're the best thing in my world, The only thing in the world, I love you so."

Posted by rencous 10:44 Comments (3)

Where in the World Are Ren and Cous?

So far so far so far away

Having finished their teaching contracts, Ren and Cous have now left South Korea (good timing!) and have begun their journey towards Europe and the Hajji.

Choose and Rain Stunning Some Striking Proses

Hopefully they will have internet/time to make a post of their adventures sometime soon.

Here is a map of their itinerary for the next month. Me and Tannis will pick them up in Rostock, Germany on June 24th!

Wild, eh?

Posted by rencous 05:07 Comments (0)

Friends of the Hajji - Clive Hammond and the Nuthing Wong

Getting My North On

"God Created the World but the Dutch Created the Netherlands"

The past month I've been running away from Utrecht every weekend in the womb of the Hajji to check out some places up north, as my time is rapidly dwindling here. Here where she has been going....

To start...last year in Maastricht I was biking across the bridge one day and I noticed a very dangerous looking ship docked near the Mississippi Coffeeshop. To my delight there was a Canadian flag hanging on the back of this boat! Oh my delight! I was naturally curious and affectionate, and over a year later I am thankful I was. Clive Hammond, born in South Africa but holding a Canadian passport, built a Chinese Junk named the Nuthin Wong in Victoria B.C. over 20 years ago.
Clive doing repairs on the mast

Nuthin Wong anchored in Enkhuizen

Since then he has been sailing the world non-stop. Awesome right? Here is his blog, although very out of date

When I met him we cruised up the canals of the Netherlands towards Amsterdam, where he has spent the last winter doing repairs, selling his book (which is a good read!) and spreading the word about his next journey. Now the repairs are finished and they are putting the last touches on the Nuthin Wong before setting out on a 3-year journey that will take them north through Scandinavia, Scotland and the U.K., eventually across the ocean, through the Panama canal, and up back to Victoria. Given my northern location now, its a perfect spot to hop up to the Nuthin Wong. I've done so twice in the last month to help with repairs and revel in revelry.
Sexy New Canadian Flag Painted on the Deck

The first time the boat was anchored in the historic port town of Hoorn, just north of Amsterdam. We drank and sang. Its a side of Netherlands you will never see in the major cities, and given the long nautical history which surrounds the Dutch I am happy to have tapped into it. Hoorn is definately one of the coolest towns I've seen in Holland. The ship was anchored off the harbor (it costs money to stay in the harbor) which meant we had to row into the town for any shopping, drinking, or dancing we wanted to do. I was happy to help
Ben rowing into Hoorn
Here is a link to a full album of photos from this journey

The second time I brought my Kiwi friend Brett with me. This time the boat was further north in the town of Enkhuizen, which was cool but not as nice as Hoorn I thought. Driving to Enkhuizen you get to drive over a 30km dam. If you ever have time to sit down with a map of Holland and see how much of the country was created by damming off massive areas of water, its really remarkable. Driving over the dam you are on a two lane road and have water on both sides. At night its windy and kind of scary to drive, but Brett whispered calm reassurances in my ear.
Dam from Lelystad to Enkhuizen

Arrival in Enkhuizen!

Brett up the Mast

Front Flipping In the Ijsselmeer

Another great weekend full of adventure!

Posted by rencous 04:43 Comments (4)

Hajji Plans pt. 2 - A Balkan Bonanza

July 13th to September 1st Drive Dance Drink Eat

July 13th to August 1st – After Exit festival, our plans aren’t not entirely parched in wine yet, and we expect to slip and slide around any plans which we try to entangle ourselves in. Given the pizz and pazz of our bunch, we hope to line up a number of ex-Yugo homestead invitations. We do know where a couple of pieces of treasure are hiding however. Shortly after Exit Festival the plan is to head south to the newly founded (debated) country of Kosovo, and settle in Prishtina for a couple of days. A close friend of mine from my Swedish days is a girl named Safete, who lucky for us will be summering with her family there. Wine and song wine and song.

Me and Safete and Svea Picking Blueberries Oh So Many Years Ago in Sweden

Around June 17th we will have to break up with Paul Walker in a drunken rage, as he must fly back to the real world in Canada. We hope to fill his place with a chicken or a young child. After Kosovo we will continue south into Macedonia and further onto Greece where we will finally use our steering wheel and turn left to head east. No word on the quality of roads around these parts, but we thrive on slandergurus spouting skeptic speculation and have no doubts about our safety. We hope to do things as ridiculous as this...

There will be many stops along the way, and our next date is at the end of the month in the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. Here we must sadly say goodbye to Tannis and Adam as they shimmy back to a life of hygiene and certainty. Lucky for us, on his way home from a brief stint in Beirut, a true madman and our first non-Canadian co-habitant will join on to try to ease our lonliness August 2nd, Morgan from Scotland.

Morgan Blowing Fire In His Kitchen In Delhi

After Istanbul (August 2nd) the plan is to coast up the coast of Bulgaria, and with a stop in Burgas where a Dutch/Bulgarian friend named Maria has a summer-home on the beach. Yes. We have just over a week to make our way through Bulgaria and up through Romania (Transylvania!) before our biggest and wildest festival of the summer: Sziget. Speaking with people who have been to this festival is really the only way to encompass the mania it entails, and its described as Europes version of Burning Man. Wild. This is from the website…”Amongst countless other venues and programmes there will be a jazz and blues pub, an Afro-Latin stage, Balkan stage, folk-dance venues, classical music concerts, literary nights, comedy and stand-up, circus and jugglers, art exhibitions, film screenings, theatre and dance performances, an adventure park, and a nightly performance from the world-famous and breathtaking Catalan street circus La Fura Dels Baus. Every night multiple dance parties will ferry tireless partygoers’ right through the night and into the next day.” Which is on top of an annual lineup of around 1000 artists. Wowowowowowowow. Here is the website: http://www.sziget.hu/festival_english/programs

Crowd at Sziget

August 17th and onwards – After Sziget the plan is to head up to Vienna which we callously brushed through at the start of this journey. Following Vienna we will head to Slovenia and then start heading down the coast through Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and the Hajji will eventually ferry across to Italy. Somewhere around here I need to head-off to Australia, and Cous and Ren can spin this yarn further. I can't wait to do this!

Me, Ren and Cous - The Lifegivers Of This Voyage

Posted by rencous 14:01 Comments (1)

Hajji Plans pt. 1 - A Summer of Celebration

June 24th to July 12th Past Tense Future Proche

Since coming into our possession a little over a month ago the Hajji has been a busy woman. This machine, a construct of steel and glass and an assortment of fluids, has the ability to bring people together, move them somewhere, and sit responsibly where she is left until needed again. Its really something. This blog has been a little stagnant lately because of my business (busy-ness), but I thought it would be good to fingerbang out some ideas surrounding her main purpose, a massive Balkan roadtrip with as many people we can carry, as many music festivals as we can find, and as many moment of absurdity we can conjure.

The Hajji chilling behind the Landbouwbelang in Maastricht

There has been a lot of collective thinking about the Hajji, and thus there is a lot which could be written about it. To start a rough itinerary is certainly in order. Where we will we go? There is so much I'll break our plans into a couple posts, to start we'll introduce the team and our journey to Serbia....

On June 24th at 10:30am my space inside the Hajji becomes a fraction of what it used to be, a half to be exact. Tannis Macdonald, a dear friend we found through Daniel during his criminal Guelph-days, flies into Amsterdam from Ottawa to spend just over a month with us. We'll take her big bag and tie it to our brand-new roof-rock (work in progress), fill our little beast with diesel and putter along the Autobahn to the harbor in Rostock, Germany where we pick up Marcus and Lauren (fresh of their 8 week Asia-Russia-Scandinavia journey) and everything begins.

Me, Tannis and Lauren partying at the legendary Loft in Guelph, 2007

June 25th - 28th - We will be attending (and hopefully working at cooks for the artists) a festival called Fusion Festival (http://www.fusion-festival.de/en/2009/home/). This festival is described as "holiday communism" and is attended each year by a large group of people from the Landbouwbelang (a squatted factory in Maastricht I have been involved with in various capacities during my time here). The music is broad from gypsy ska, to world music, to electronic, and is enthusiastically described as a special place by people who know special places.

June 28th - After the festival we will bugger over to Berlin and pick up the 5th addition to the team, Paul Walker. A friend from our Western days, Paul is an accomplished photographer (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pwalks) who will be with us for 3 weeks and will undergo a genesis of duality as both a participant and observer of our insanity. We'll spend a few days in Berlin (under the careful guidance of one of the softest men I've ever met - Arne a.k.a. Etto Kun)

Paul Walker and his Massive Unit

July 1st - Following the brief Berlin binge we cruise back to Holland where we can sign on Marcus and Lauren as official owners and insuree's on the Hajji. Here we pick up our 6th adventurer, Adam Ambrozy, a close-friend of mine from high school who joined on for some Indian adventures a couple Christmases ago.

Me, Lauren, Marcus and Adam at the Taj Mahal, Christmas 2007

Like the fully formed defender of the universe Voltron, we will be complete with 6. It promises to be a cozy berth, but we've done capacity test runs and had 12 people in the Hajji comfortably so things should be well. A couple days in Holland, a little Utrecht, Amsterdam, and definitely a stop in at the Landbouwbelang and then the journey begins

Testing the capacity of the Hajji - 12 gets a greenlight

July 4th - Our first stop is the magical city of Prague. My Spanish father, a giant man from Cordoba named Alvaro will be doing an internship here so we'll stop and spend a couple of days. There also just happens to be a rock festival called Rock for People (http://www.rockforpeople.com/) just east of the Prague, although given the wealth of gems in Prague we may only pop in for a day (to see the incredible Gogol Bordello play perhaps).

July 7th - The southern pilgrimage begins with a brief visit to Vienna where a number of friends live, and we will make final preparation for heading into the Balkans.

July 9th to 12th - Exit Festival (http://www.exitfest.org/). "Held in the picturesque setting of an eighteenth century fortress by the Danube" we've heard that this festival is a rocking good time. With many diverse and famous artists (Patti Smith, Kraftwerk, Arctic Monkeys, The Prodigy). With our van full of spirit and 6 bold Canadian adventurers, we'll find our favorite people and go crazy with them.
Picture of Exit Festival (from Google Image)

After this? More adventure! Descriptions to come, but for now I'll sink into a morphine-laden sleep and dream of sunny days on the road to come....

The Hajji quivering in anticipation with the Maas flowing behind

Posted by rencous 13:34 Comments (1)

Danish Easter - The Hajji's Maiden Voyage

Heading North in Search of Nina

sunny 25 °C
View Easter Trip To Denmark on rencous's travel map.

The Hajji waiting for us in Utrecht

Last weekend was the first voyage of the Hajji, a teariffic vehicle which entered into our lives just a few weeks ago. The history and future of the Hajji will be covered later, and for now we'll just explore the north.

Brett (Kiwi), Simone (Dutch), Elles (Dutch) and Tatiana (German/Russian) took the train up from Maastricht to meet me in Utrecht last Thursday evening and the voyage began. We stocked up with supplies and got on our way, extremely late, and ended up arriving at our first stop, Hamburg, at around 2am instead of the planned 11pm. We were welcomed warmly none-the-less, with our host Kerstin having many hours to indulge and treat herself like the queen she was. A couple things we learnt about the Hajji:
1. The Hajji takes longer than you think it will to get places
2. When driving at night the driver gets to watch/enjoy his passengers sink into silly states of drunken stupor

Upon arriving in Hamburg only me and Tatiana had the energy to go on (drinking while riding for extended periods of time is extremely draining it seems) and scurried off to Kubix club with Kerstin and her friend Tiny for some super-chilled out electromusik. The club was a giant warehouse with loads of giant plastic cubes filled with water and fluorescent green lights. These fluoro-cubes pulsed with the music and were cool to say the least

Fluorocube at Kubix Club

Here is a video of the Kubix Club

Friday we split off quite early and soaked in the sun all the way to Denmark. Some more things we learnt about the Hajji
3. The Hajji is the greatest

We arrived in Espergaerde at Nina's parents home at around 8pm and were again warmly received with food, drink and song by Nina, her dad Tom, and her dog Mr. James . They had an Easter party the night before, so were rich with leftovers which we quickly devoured. After listening to some Irish music and exploring their house, we set out for Austa's (sp??) house for a Good Friday party. There we sat, played drinking games, sang, dance, etc etc. Wonderful
Good Friday Party

Saturday began our real Danish experiance. After sending Dad off to work and breakfast with Mom, we drove down to the sea for an icy dip. Explored the coast, saw the family's summerhome, played with Mr. James.
Swimming at the coast

We then packed our stuff and headed north 10 minutes to Kronborg Castle, which is the setting for Shakespeare play Hamlet. Nina's dad works as a guide there so was able to give us an exclusive tour to parts of the castle which arn't open to regular tourists (we are super tourists).
Kronborg Castle

Two Things we love about Denmark - Nina and Lego

To continue our wholesome high we hopped on a ferry and shuffled over to Helsingorborg, Sweden which is just a 20minute ferry ride across the water. The sun was shining, the weather was sweet, made us want to move our dancing feet. After returning from Nina took us on an absolutely beautiful country-rode down the coast about 50km to Copenhagen. We saw a number of kite-surfers blasting down the coast.
Castle in Helsingorborg

We arrived in CPH, unpacked the Hajji, drank some cold brews, and then headed off in search of Martin, Nina's brother, who was performing with his band (one of three he is in) at a house-warming party. The party was extremely small but full of very happy people who made us feel welcome. After the party we wandered the streets creating adventure and excitement wherever we landed. This included a late-night strip/floor-mopping show from Martin in a kebab shop.
Nina at Housewarming Party in Espergaerde

Here is a video of the crazy subway in CPH

Sunday we awoke to an incredible Easter Brunch (prepared by Nina and Brett while we slept!)
Easter Sunday Brunch Panoramic (Nina is making a bunnyface as requested)

We headed to one of my favorite places in the world which I visited exactly 4 years ago, Christiania. You can find some information about it here:
Photos arn't allowed inside so the memories are ours to keep. We sat in the sun, met some crazy Danish girls, got cool clothes from the Leave/Take stand, ate vege food, and saw a creepy Kiwi movie about incest and rape (Brett's country is strange). Christiania certainly remains one of the coolest places in Europe. After a short drive around the city, we retired to Nina's place to relive the weekend, drink more cold beer and prepare for our voyage home.

Monday involved a 13 hour drive home. I dropped the kids off at the station, parked the Hajji in her home, and came home to my bed. More posts to come on the Hajji and her exploits...this is only a beginning.....

Here is a link to my Facebook album of all the photos:

Posted by rencous 04:31 Comments (0)

The Trials


Here is a photo
Look at the photo
Love the photo

Posted by rencous 04:24 Comments (0)

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