Showing posts from October, 2006


In Shanghai, after a somewhat Kafkaesque flight from Lhasa via Xi'an. Shanghai is busy and bustling and neon and huge. The forest of skyscrapers I saw being sown ten years ago in Pudong has since grown into their towering, glittering adolescence, and the rivers of bicycles have dried into mere streams, replaced by mopeds and cars. The Bund is still cool. Expats are everywhere and practically everyone under thirty seems to speak a little English. Nanjing Road is a pedestrian mall thronging with stores and crowds, and if you're a Westerner, also full of hawkers offering knockoff watches and bags, and "students" eager for you to visit their "art galleries," and if you're a Western man past dusk, pimps and hookers galore. I haven't seen a single Internet cafe; there's been a government crackdown (can't remember if the pretext is "fire safety" or "they are depraving our young!") but the place I'm staying has a couple free t

seventy hours in tibet

Of course Tibet was never the idyllic Shangri-La of myth. Fourteen hundred years ago, its armies conquered half of China. Seven hundred years ago, when Tibetan Buddhism was the state religion of Kublai Khan, the monks were bitterly resented by the Chinese, who were forced to food, shelter and convey them at their own expense, and who were executed if they so much as raised a hand against a man in a saffron robe. And if you'd come here before the Chinese invasion seeking a land of spiritual bliss and meditative detachment from the material world, you'd have been barking a long way up the wrong mountain. In 1943, German mountaineers Heinrich Herrer and Peter Aufschnaiter escaped from a British POW camp in India and made an amazing journey across the Himalaya and into Tibet, where they stayed for seven years . Herrer describes a charming, friendly, welcoming country - but also one ruled by a corrupt theocracy that wasn't above using howitzers on rogue monasteries, and tha

top of the world, ma

New business model: I shall hire myself out as Official Expedition Recorder to extremely wealthy travellers embarking on challenging expeditions. I mean, hey, I'm young, I'm fit, I've been around the block, I'm an accomplished writer, I'm a sometimes-useful techie, I take the odd good picture - who else you gonna hire? All I need is a Rolodex of centamillionaires with a yen for adventure travel and an eye on posterity. And if you could all just get right on getting me that, that'd be great, thanks. So, yeah, I'm in Tibet. I'm going to described the train ride in rather excruciating detail, as there's not a whole lot of info available online for would-be passengers. But first of all, here are the pictures . Riding High on the Rails Preparations are pretty straightforward. I arrived in Beijing and headed straight to BTG Travel (recommended by Lonely Planet, right next to the Gloria Plaza Hotel) in the I-thought-forlorn hope of scoring both Tibet per

an especially tricky people

What a difference a decade makes. On the train from Ulaan Baatar, after we finally escaped the vast, blasted gravel-and-sand plain of the Gobi Desert, after bogies were changed and passports were stamped and we finally entered the Middle Kingdom - in my case, for the first time since March 1997 - we rolled to a 10-minute halt at some nameless station in Inner Mongolia, and I laced my boots up and wandered out onto the platform to stretch my legs - - and I stopped dead. Because I knew that smell, I remembered it in my bones, in my deep cortex, smell is the sense most strongly linked to memory. The platform smelled like China. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. And maybe it was just jasmine and cheap cigarettes. But for just a second I froze in my steps, remembering. You'll forgive me if I wax nostalgic a moment. (Heck, it's not like you have a choice.) The very first time I went seriously travelling, nine and a half years ago, I backpacked solo across China for a mo

in the footsteps of chinggis khan

Ulaan Baatar: a godforsaken outpost that time forgot in the middle of Mongolia's squalid, all-but-abandoned wasteland, right? Guess again. This is a thriving, humming hub of commerce, teeming with German breweries, Korean restaurants, French bakeries, Irish pubs, Hollywood movie theatres, American missionaries, billboards advertising mining equipment and Western cosmetics, horn-honking traffic jams of Hyundais and Mercedes and Land Cruisers, plentiful cheap Internet cafes (600 tögrög/US$.60/hr), new construction everywhere you look, and the Mongols themselves slouching about in laid-back Western-cool brand-name black and denim, tattoos and coloured hair - there's even a goth scene. There's money sloshing all over the place in today's UB. Looks a bit like an overheated bubble economy to me, but what do I know? the lost boys of ulaan baatar It's not a pretty city. In fact it's an impressively ugly one. Most of the buildings are still Stalinist blocks. The str

places you only know from Risk

I write to you from Irkutsk, Siberia. Yes, it's more than just a territory on the RISK board. (Though incidentally it's considerably further south than in the game. The Trans-Siberian, like the Trans-Canadian, stays fairly close to the country's southern border all along its route.) It's famous for ... er ... not a whole lot, other than being the place of exile for many of the Decemberists aristocrat-revolutionaries, back in the day. Krasnoyarsk is quite a cool city by Siberian standards, not least for its convenient location a mere 7km north of the Stolby Nature Reserve, a trip to which answered in part: why is the life expectancy of Russian men so low? (60 years - extremely low for a country so wealthy - compared to 74 years for Russian woman.) It's not just the rampant alcoholism, the vodka-drinking for breakfast, the continuing classification of beer as a soft drink. It has a lot to do with the fact that, so far as I can tell, Russian men disproportionately