The picture is taken from the webpages of Vodkatrain who operate the tour
The Silk Road has its name from the trade of silk and other things between Asia and Europe, but the routes used were actually many. They all go through Central Asia, through changing landscape, countries and cultures. On my trip from North Korea to Turkey I made stops on the following places:
China: We made one stop at Urumqi, which is a city much different to East Coast China. People are friendlier, the food is like the ex-Soviet countries and most people are muslims. The city feels really Central Asian.
Khazakstan: We stayed in the capital Almaty, which had really good night life and some beautiful mountains lying next to it. The city feels quite like Moscow and more people speak Russian than Khazak.
Uzbekistan: This is the country we spent the most time in and for good reason. We visited Samarkand and Bukhara which have been capitols of one of the Worlds greatest empires where mosques, madrassas, tombs and minarets are built to be the most beautiful ever.
Turkmenistan: We visited Turkmenabat and traveled through the country to see that the capital Ashgabat had gotten all the oil money resulting in a white marble city with lots of fountains and Golden statues. The city has no soul as everything felt a bit fake/un natural, but it was so fascinating to see.
Iran: We stayed in Mashad, Isfahan and Teheran and it was a favorite even though we were tired of mosques and markets which was all there was to see in these cities. The reason being that Iran has the most warm hearted people who showed us that they welcome foreigners by inviting us to their homes, giving us small gifts and just showing genuine interest in us.
Turkey: We went to Ankara and Istanbul which both are cities with a lot of history and are good for cheap onwards flights. The food is also great and it is quite liberal making it a nice place to celebrate having completed the journey
Of the total 25 days we spent approximately 200 hours on the train, which I think was just as great as the stops made inbetween. The Silk Road is a trip everyone should have on their bucket list.
When getting off the train in Urumqi (pronounced Uru-Muchi), the capital of the Xinjang province, we felt that we were no longer in China, but in one of the Central Asian countries. This was muslim China and food, people, buildings etc were much different to what we had seen in Beijing.
When asking Chinese people about Urumqi people had been saying that it was beuatiful, had the best barbeque in China and was dangerous. There had been violent riots here in the past and the streets were full of military police making sure that nothing went on. It felt quiet and safe, and we walked around with our local guide to explore the Mosque, the Bazaar (market) and a park located on top of a hill.
When the evening came we sat down to have some shish kebabs, or Shashlyk as they are called here, and some beers that we just bought from the nearby store. Evening turned into night and people started heading back to the hotel, but as it was our last night in China we wanted to spend our last Chinese money (23rmb/3USD) on a couple of beers and kebabs, but then some Khazak people from the neighbour table invited us over and insisted that the rest of the evening would be their treat.
They kept buying kebabs and beers for us until the restaurant closed and then they asked us to come home to them for some more food and drinks. Again they insisted on paying for the taxi and we were on our way to a local home, with only a couple of dollars in our pockets and no understanding of the local language. It was the best decision ever. We ended up spending the whole night eating horse meat, drinking beer, singing (mostly Norwegian childrens songs) and dancing. It was all quite hillarious, with us speaking no Khazak or Chinese and they speaking no Norwegian or English, but we still managed to understand quite a bit, like that they thought we looked like Leonardo di Caprio and Charles Darwin and that they wanted us to join killing their sheep. We kindly declined and got on a bus back to the city in the morning.
Only fog, rain and wind when we were at the Great Wall
I had arrived with the night train from North Korea early in the morning and was looking forward to meeting my friend Robert who would join me on a month long trip along the Silk Road.
I had already seen the most important sights that the city had to offer on my last visit to Beijing, but agreed to go to the Great Wall if we could go on a quick trip to Badaling, one of the most touristy
and closest spots to Beijing, being just an hour drive away. We picked the cheapest tour of 180rmb, which was a horrible idea as the reason for beiing so cheap was that the driver would let us off at multiple souvenier shops to get paid from letting then try to push on us jade jewelery, tea and lots of other things that we had no interest in. The weather was also horrible with lots of rain and no sight at all so we drove back after having spent less than an hour at the Great Wall. What a bummer.
Things got a bit better in the evening when we went to a couchsurfing party in the Wudaokou area where most the foreign students live. A draft beer at “the Red House” was just five Yuan, so the students would usually sit there until midnight and then they would move on to the clubs close by. We went to a student bar called “Sugar Crush” which was absolutely crazy. They had beer pong tables lined up and several times throughout the evening they shouted free shots for everyone waking their shirt off. It more like the American college movies than anything else I have seen before. We spent more than two hours trying to find the way back to Dragon King hostel where we stayed, after several taxi drivers had given up and just asked us to get out. Having an adress to go after, preferably in Chinese would have been of great help.
We met up with our small group of two aussies and two kiwis who would join us on the 32 hour train ride to Urumqi and the rest of our Silk Road adventure with Vodkatrain.
Beijing has proven to be a worthy finishing point for our 7000 kilometer long train ride, much so because it has been so different than any of the other stops along the way. The first thing we did when getting off was to go out and literally get a taste of what the city had to offer with Peking duck at a Chinese restaurant first, and then a trip to the Dong Hua Menh night market for after meal snacks and desserts. A long street with plenty of food stalls offered all imaginable insects on sticks like spiders, snakes, worms and scorpions (the small ones were really good, tasting like popcorn) and good desserts like caramelized fruits and deep fried ice-cream.
On our second day we got to do the two things I would most reccomend when visiting Beijing which is to get the compulsory photo on the Great Wall and try haggle like a local on the Silk Market. For the wall we let our Honcho organize transport from our hotel (150CNY pp) for the two hours drive to MuTianYu part of the wall which cost 40 Yuan (/20 for students) to get into. The wall was pretty well filled up by tourists and had a chairlift and a tobogan at one end and a gondola on the other, with about two kilometres between the two. There was even a Subway restaurant at the bottom of the wall, with the worst subs everyone at the group had tasted. Once being in the critical mode I would also say that even though it was really interesting having been there, the Tianmen Square had way too long waiting time to be worth the trip to it and I also wish there was some kind of warning before going into the Forbidden City saying that it would require hours of walking. Once you entered on the south side, you would would not be let out anywhere else than the exit on the north side, having to walk through the whole Forbidden City, which is huge!
The best part of Beijing I think was renting a bike for our last day and then just bicycling around to join in on the tae chi or other excercises with the locals at the parks, and going through narrow streets to see how people live in the city of nearly 20 million. The locals were also easy to get in contact with at the restaurants right before closing time, as even though they could not speak a single work of English, they would all know the universal meaning of clinching our beers together with a smilinging , laughing or shouting Gambaii! /Cheers! China is also dirt cheap and will for sure leave some cultural impressions on you, or teach you new things like using a squatter with no toilet paper, using sign language for every little thing you want to say or haggling down prices to a tenth of the initial asking prices.
If I would have had more time I would have wanted to spend another two nights in the shopping district or around Tianamen Square in addition to the two nights we had in the Xicheng District where our hotel Beijing Huguosi Hotel was located. The street that it was on was full of great restaurants, good sights around the neaby lake and best of all there were no other foreigners to see. Beijing is a great mix of both ancient cultural sights and fancy new skyscrapers and it can be worth trying to experience a good amount of both.
Using a proxy server like www.proxy-center.com is the absolutely easiest alternative but it is slow and usually only works for a short time at a time. The service lets you type in a webaddress and then an external server redirects you to the page you want to visit. This would be the best alternative if all you need is a quick check like for email and social media pages.
If you are surfing from a tablet or smartphone, it is possible to download an app that will set up a VPN server for you. I tried several ones while being in China, but VPN Express was the only free (trial that will work for just a few days) one I got to work. I have heard that there are a few other good alternatives out there like ibVPN and Faceless VPN but these seem like they have to be launched before going into China. Are you willing to pay a little for it, it is also possible to buy apps that will let you get through these firewalls without any restrictions so that you can surf these pages as long as you want. Just as if you were sitting in your favorite couch back at home.
|Our fantastic group on the Vodkatrain tour Ruski Huski|
Getting up at 5 AM, just two hours after we came home from the clubs was tough. The minibus that was going to take us to the train station was waiting at the agreed time and the people already awake had to run around knocking on the other peoples doors to get them up in time for our train departure. Once on the train, everyone were knocked out for most of the first day, half the time it would take us to reach Beijing from the Mongolian capital.
Once again the trains and the landscape outside had changed. The Chinese trains had blue carpets throughout the whole train, switches for fans in the compartment instead of switches for music and the landscape at first was the boring Gobi desert and then it changed into the most impressing landscape we had seen on the trip with beutiful mountain valleys and big Chinese cities. The dining cart and its menues was different, people smoked in compartments and hallways and the toilets were much less looked after (no toilet paper). Except for that it was the old familiar trans Mongolian train that we were already used to.
The border crossing between Mongolia and China took much shorter time than the one between Russia and Mongolia, with a total of five hours for the crossing: about an hour and a half on the Mongolian side and about three hours and a half on the Chinese side. The Mongolian- Chinese border was also the place where the train bogies were changed, as the tracks in China are different than the ones in Russia and Mongolia. Being lifted up to watch it all happen underneath us was an interesting experience, with the only downside being that we had five hours straight with no chance of getting to a bathroom.
Looking out the windows from our compartment it looks like China is going to be very different to Mongolia, just like Mongolia was very different to Russia. It will be nice getting off to experience it all from the ground, but I must say that it is also sad leaving the Trans Mongolian trains for good.