30.01.2009 - 06.02.2009
Long time no write, apologies for the blog being MIA for a few weeks. We have arrived in Russia! We are writing this from Irkutsk, a sleepy but nice city in Siberia, near Lake Baikal which is the deepest lake in the world (frozen over at the moment). We have been here for 2 nights, and are about to leave for Moscow, a 3 night trip on the train. Oh, it is currently about -10 degrees outside, but that is actually quite warm compared to the temperatures we experienced in Mongolia, where it was pushing -30!
Lots has happened since our last entry. Our last days in Vietnam were fantastic. We took a trip up to Sapa in the north-west of the country, which is famed for it's moutain scenery and population of Hill Tribe ethnic minority people (the Vietnamese refer to them as just minority people). Sapa was our first experience on a train this trip - it was an overnight trip there and back. It was suprisingly comfortable, and much better that dreaded sleeper busses. We were also very lucky to somehow be given a deluxe, two person compartment for the trip back, which was very nice. Sapa itself was fantastic, although the weather was a little on the cold and rainy side. We were part of a tour group, so felt a bit like sheep at times, but we were able to do some great walks (they call them 'treks') through the mountains to visit various Hill Tribe villages. The scenery was amazing, and meeting the villagers was great - they are very nice people talking to us and just generally keeping us company while we walked. We felt like famous people with our own entourage.
Back in Hanoi, we enjoyed our last days in Vietnam wandering, eating and drinking, especially getting in as much 30c beer as possible. The bakery's in Hanoi are also amazing - it is a legacy from the French colonial times, and you can get amazing baked goods of all descriptions for extremely cheap. We also stayed in the best hotel of our Vietnam adventure, it was only US$20 a night for both of us, but was decked out with a plasma, the most comfortable pillows in Vietnam and brand new bathrooms. We only stayed for 2 nights but it was a little sad to leave, especially knowing we won't be finding a room like that for the price anywhere in Europe. We managed to see a lot of Hanoi, including Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, where we filed very respectfully and quietly past his preserved body (there are 'shusher' guards on duty to shhh us if we dared to make noise). It was quite a weird experience. Hanoi also has great markets, including this street stall noodle lady who served up the best street food we have had. We sat on tiny little plastic chairs on the sidewalk next to her to eat, which I (Mark) couldn't quite handle and ended up with half a bowl of noodles on my pants. Rocking!
On the 6th of February we said goodbye to Vietnam (sadly) and got on the train to Nanning in China. It was a nice, new train; we were in the cheapest class which had six bunks per compartment, but the compartments has no doors so it was a little noisy and hard to sleep. We shared our compartment with an American and Russian couple and their 1 year old daughter who was having the time of her life. This was our first experience with border crossings on trains. The procedure goes a little like this - arrive at the border town of the country you are leaving, guards get on and take your passport (or sometimes you have to get off), then some time later they bring your passport back. This is all repeated at the border town of the country you are entering, and the whole thing takes anywhere from 2 - 4 hours, with the toilets locked on the train for the whole time. Luckily we have been able to get off the train and wait in the stations a few times, which makes it easy and more pleasant. I also had a bit more trouble than Nicola getting through - each immigration guard has given me a thorough stare down and mini-interrogation because of my beard (which I shaved off to get into Russia...).