100 ways to meet a million people – Part 1/2

Imagine the Mexican wave......

Imagine the Mexican wave……

With all the cycling, running and triathlon blogs in the last few weeks, I thought I would go back and touch on what exactly is ‘How to meet a million people’ – with 100 on how you could do this massive task. Perhaps one day a brand manager will take me up on the challenge, but if it takes cycling around the world – so be it!

This whole phrase/idea/obsession started 5 years ago, when I was lucky enough to be elected as to the SU in my uni through an intensive two weeks of student canvassing, which relies on 1. A very enthusiastic small group of friends; who worked their butts off for me (thanks lads) and 2. a keen interest in meeting new people. I soon realized the dramatic impact of just ‘meeting’ people and alongside the influence of posted videos on college humour & other sites, I thought  has anyone ever gone out & documented the goal of meeting a million people? Here is the first 50 ways I would go out to do it. Note quite a few videos here so give it a moment to load!

Share a comment with your ideas!

1, Inspirational from College Humour Prank Wars (x2)

I LOVE the fact that the crowd just gets absorbed by the whole concept of the prank – I think you could do the same thing on ‘How to meet a million people’ – want 40,000 tweets at one time, thats how you do it!

2. Be part of the largest gathering of people of Earth – held every 12 years, the Maha Kumbh Mela, a religious festival in India; over 100million visited the festival last year!

3. Playing striker in the Ashbourne Shrovetide Football match

4. Take the gold at RedNeck Olympics

5.Become a refugee at Sealand, the world’s smallest ‘nation’

6. Already planning the costume for RedBull Flugtag

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7. Join an isolated tribe festival; yes you can survive without an iPhone

8. Ice fishing with eskimo community, granted there might not be many of them but these are peoples that most of us will never meet in a lifetime!

9. Life model in a warm drawing room

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10. Might be a bit nippy after that so better make a jumper at Sheep shearing World Championship

11. Will also need some wellies……Swamp Soccer Finland

12. Try to avoid making an ass out of myself as TV News Anchor…..extra points for being a weatherman!

13. This is where I should make an ass of myself – Clown College

14. After the pressures of entertainment I may want to escape it all – Mongol Rally by the Adventurists, you drive in a rubbish, completely unpractical car from London to Mongolia……really is making life less boring!

15. It was this or Oktoberfest….but would be interested in seeing what all the excitement is about – A Dart international tournament

16. Now this is exciting/terrifying……Wing walking on a plane at a International Flying festival

17. My mum might prefer this….Conduct an orchestra

18. We should all do this – Volunteer at soup kitchen (not just at Christmas!)

19. Aim high…Graduation speech at your old school

20. Caddie for a pro golfer, perhaps in sunny Australia!

21. You have 48 hours to get as far away as possible…..with no money……College Jailbreak

22. This is just plain stupid and I love it….Cheese rolling championship, try not to break anything

23. We all know you did it last night at the club…….Air Guitar World Championships

24.Before there was rugby there was Buzkashi….like rugby but on horses and with a dead goat, oh and also Afghanistan’s national sport!

25. Could I even be the first in like 20 years to score a goal at the Eton Wall Game?

26. All this rough and tumble, time to get some peace – Summer Solistice at Stonehenge

27. I’ll bring my mum on this one – London to Brighton Veteran Car Run

28. Although she might not appreciate me getting hitched at a mass wedding……wish that mock wedding we had planned in college had turned out better!

29. Might need to learn the legal system for that divorce…become a member of a jury; apparently you can get a verdict ‘wrong’! See below:

30. I wonder what I wonder what skill I can offer as currency, I’m told there is no money at the Burning Man festival

31. Watching hours of reruns is allowed while planning costume for Star Trek Convention

32. They might even give you the costume at historical mock battle

33. Way too much excitement for one day……24 Hours on a rollercoaster

34. 2 hours of madness at the tomato fight at La Tomatino

35. Become the host at Gay Bingo! My Monday night is made!

36. Trust me, Google this – Improv Everywhere; so simple, so brilliant – the high five escalator to cheer everyone up!

You may remember these guys from the Flash Mob idea!

High five escalator is closely followed by standing around in Best Buy

37. Busking on the Tube/Underground

38. Being forever immortalized on DAVE by taking part in a game show – take your pick!

Bright yellow T-shirt I think

Bright yellow T-shirt I think

39. Wreck my dad’s old car at a Destruction Derby

40. Racing a horse, nah too normal – Camel racing at The Two Tims, Alice Springs, Australia

41. Rowing is particularly hard when you are hanging and bumping into each other deliberately – Oxford Bumps

42. A mixture of brain and brawn – Chess Boxing

43. My body is my canvass – World Body Painting festival

44. Needs to be a bit more original than race car driving……..Hovercraft racing

45. Although there is always room for caravans – British Caravan Grand Prix

46. A test of true ‘Manliness’……Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest

47. Though eating that was hard?…..UK Nettle Eating Championships

48. Need to burn off all that eating…..World Sauna Championships

49. And get into shape – Natural Bodybuilding contest – quite impressed by Jodie Marsh on this

50. Its not for the glory or the money……maybe the free lunch? Become a movie extra

Got any suggestions on what should be in Part 2? Let me know in the comments! Don’t worry underwater ice hockey is number 51 :p

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London to Singapore overland: Part 4 Hoi An, Vietnam to Singapore

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This is the final part of my overland trip from London to Singapore. If you want to check out the other 3 parts the links are below:

London to Thessaloniki by bike -http://howtomeetamillionpeople.com/2013/08/22/how-i-almost-made-it-to-istanbul/

Sofia to Moscow – http://howtomeetamillionpeople.com/2013/09/07/london-to-singapore-overland-part-2-sofia-to-moscow-see-how-i-almost-made-it-to-istanbul-for-part-1/

Moscow to Hoi An, Vietnam – http://howtomeetamillionpeople.com/2013/09/12/london-to-singapore-overland-part-3-moscow-to-hoi-an-vietnam/

The railway going south in Vietnam snakes its way between highlands and the coast, and as we passed by Hue station – in which 90% of the train departed including a very interesting semi retired Canadian who had been telling me about the ins & out of the Australian ballet industry, being theatre manager – you come across little untapped beaches, accessible only by thesea. Unlike the train journey from the China border to Hanoi, this driver seemed a bit more relaxed – so no continuously honking through the night – and my Spanish couple cabin mates were welcomed companion, even talked about the ongoing Vuelta. It was a pity I didn’t have my new favourite coffee – weasel, coffee beans passed through the rabbit munching small animal – to complete my Oreo dinner – serious addiction to those chocolate demons now!

From DaNang station you have to make a 50minute journey by bus/car to Hoi An town, and to save any confusion on buses + make a few more friends, I joined a group of young English lads for a nice, pricey taxi ride to the seaside town. Lonely planet recommended Hoa Binh hotel and for 9 bucks I got myself a 6 bed dorm – never met those roommates in the end…..Being a picturesque town I thought I would play wealthy tourist for the day and so commenced the mixture of French pastries and bartering with the local suit tailors. A team of mother and daughters – I was told the website was http://www.fiveseasonsilk.vn but it is drawing a blank! – spent the best part of the early afternoon searching out THE pin stripped material for my Singapore office ‘gear’ and it was also my first taste of being on the back of a moped in the country – the tiny Vietnamese tailor girl undoubtedly struggling to keep the moped straight with my big fat self on the back – as I was brought around every Cashmere shop in 2 square miles. 150 dollars was the final bill for two of the finest suits I have tried on – perhaps not the 100 dollar target, although my fancy material made that difficult – a marked improvement from the 180 quoted earlier in the day for 1 suit.

Very French inspired Hoi An, galleries & bakeries!

Very French inspired Hoi An, galleries & bakeries!

Now which one us the ferry to the Cham islands....

Now which one us the ferry to the Cham islands….

Local markets were great in Hoi An - shrimps anyone?

Local markets were great in Hoi An – shrimps anyone?

In an effort to get away from the constant cycle of tourist hostels and souvenir shops, I had read about the Cham islands off Hoi An and its undeveloped villages, and the next morning set out to make the 20mile roundtrip from the coast before my bus to Nha Trang that evening. I caught the local boat over – being charged even with my protests, 120k dong rather than the local price of 35k, sometimes you have to accept when you are beaten. Plus I wasn’t wasting the 6am start! Mind you I had got a lift off a local guy a minutes before when he couldn’t explain the directions, of which he had refused payment – so I suppose it swings in roundabouts.

The boat was rocky, fragile – this isn’t the sturdy channel ferries you get but was much the same sea conditions – and along with the ‘other’ few tourists on the vessel, wondered whether we would come up as a ferry accident on Sky News the next morning! At least there was other vessels and amongst the jealousy of the tourist speed boats lapping us, it was intriguing to witness the fisherman braving the sea – something they must do, day in, day out. Our ‘ship’ was obviously bringing the daily supplies and following the other tourists who had picked up a hostess/guide we slipped off the side of the boat onto a water taxi – complete with chickens, baguettes and bundles of bananas.

The lawnmower engine took us painstakingly slowly around the bays on the island until we reached the next village. On the shoreline there was a small market, with live fish in pots and not a hint of souvenir shops. This was real, fishing Vietnam. Unfortunately with a bus to catch in the evening, and I obviously was now not on the main boat terminal back to the mainland, I talked my way on to a speedboat containing a group of middle aged Chinese tourists. Gladly this ‘taxi’ didn’t take me straight back to the mainland and I spent the best part of the afternoon laughing at – along with their Chinese colleagues – the futile attempts of a number of the group at swimming/snorkeling off the boat as well as getting the finest plate of seafood fried rice I had ever had off the island restaurant.

Chinese tourists - it wasn't my idea to do the peace sign!

Chinese tourists – it wasn’t my idea to do the peace sign!

Via the wet speed boat ride back and friendly conversation with a motorbike taxi man, I made it just back to hotel; from which a minivan brought us up to the local bus terminal for my trip to Nha Trang. After my day on varying degrees of transport, I sat on my fancy tourist bus and couldn’t help but get the impression that to really ‘see’ Real Vietman that you have to travel by scooter and avoid the luxury booking services of a hotel, maybe next time with a less demanding travel timetable at hand I will plot this!

That night’s addition of ‘friend of the bus’ was a group of Durham University girls, one of which I hoped we had concluded that the best course of action for her thesis in 3 years was the potential for economic reform in Cuba upon the conclusion of Castro’s rule (i.e. his brother now) and it’s sociological impact of the population; aka Cuba won’t have 50s style cars in a few years so do a thesis that will give you an excuse to get out to the country now. Much like the following bus journey friend – Nha Trang to Saigon – a crew member of Australia reality TV including Next Top Model (and come to think of it I think I have mixed the two groups and buses up),  these encounters always added spark to a day when you had particularly been talking to yourself in planning the day’s activities.

Bunk bed buses in Vietnam

Bunk bed buses in Vietnam

I knew at this stage of the trip that if I didn’t proactively plan and with regimental discipline seek out the activities which I had highlighted in my destination schedule I would ultimately spend the short amount of time I had in each stop aimlessly walking around. From the Lonely Planet MeKong Delta guidebook  Nha Trang was probably the only place on my trip in SE Asia to have white-water rafting listed at the tour offices (you feel like such a tourist every time you walk into those, but it is quick and easy!). Well the activity wasn’t exactly white water, the Woman river, as it is known in Vietnamese, is pretty calm (at least in dry season) but the guys from the tour group  were good fun (we had alot of common ground when the topic of football came up – even with no English, the Vietnamese know the word ‘Manchester’) and cooked up courses & courses at a riverside meal next to a banana farm. Unfortunately only a Russian couple was on the trip with me but I got some good distracting stories of the North Korea border as a Red Army conscript.

Nha Trang seafront - could be Spain!

Nha Trang seafront – could be Spain!

I'll include this because it just felt like a small element of my 'resort part' on the trip. Great breakfast at Louisiana brewhouse at Nha Trang beachfront

I’ll include this because it just felt like a small element of my ‘resort part’ on the trip. Great breakfast at Louisiana brewhouse at Nha Trang beachfront

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Lunchtime at the banana farm

Lunchtime at the banana farm

Locals harvesting sand from the river

Locals harvesting sand from the river

I spent the rest of the afternoon strolling down Nha Trang promenade and of course getting a sense of the city’s culture – watching Aussie rules in a bar called Booze Cruise being part of this experience. It was only when I got down to Saigon/Ho Chin Minh via my first flavor of sleeper buses that a good old history lesson was really on the cards. With a former, very animated Vietnamese vet (this guy was from ‘our’ side – and subsequently spent 4 years in prison in the 70s for it) the best part of the day one in the Vietnam capital was spent crawling on hands & knees through Vietcong Chu Chi tunnels. The traps on show were also particularly gruesome – made for some interesting debate in the tour group; would you rather a spike through the thigh (and its artery) or the jewels? Throughout the tour we had the roar of machine gun from within the forest and as hoped we got the chance to fire some automatic weapons before we headed back into town.The war remnants museum was once again striking in its perspective from the side of American aggression but the Agent Orange wall – complete with some pretty shocking photos of disfigurement – will be particularly memorable in this era of Syrian chemical weapons. I think it should be noted that it highlight America as one of the worse agents of chemical weaponization – well at least up to the 80s. Alongside my cultural enlightenment I snub Slyvester Sallone’s truck driving, arm-wrestling film ‘Over the top’ for a massage off a blind guy at the blind association, which was kind of like creepy old high school at night – it was in the guidebook I swear!

Tight squeeze into the hidden tunnels at Chu Chi

Tight squeeze into the hidden tunnels at Chu Chi

This is the expanded tunnels, the first was a muddy ground and even more hands and knees!

This is the expanded tunnels, the first was a muddy ground and even more hands and knees!

Nasty boobie traps on display

Nasty boobie traps on display

It was a toss up between the AK47 and A80 - about 20 quid for 10 bullets

It was a toss up between the AK47 and A80 – about 20 quid for 10 bullets

Quite a few motorbikes in Vietnam had puppies or kittens on the back......I don't think they were for being pets

Quite a few motorbikes in Vietnam had puppies or kittens on the back……I don’t think they were for being pets

Some awful images, particularly of Agent Orange. Enlightening to get a balanced view on a dirty war

Some awful images, particularly of Agent Orange. Enlightening to get a balanced view on a dirty war

Preparing for my blind massage in Ho Chin Minh - like a hospital right?

Preparing for my blind massage in Ho Chin Minh – like a hospital right?

On the bus to the Chu Chi tunnels I meet 2 irish nurses (who along with an Italian lad) were my companions for an evening of street drinking and deep-fried chicken feet (the last one being unsurprisingly disappointing).

London needs to take a look at SE Asia, I think it is the ridiculously small plastic chairs which calm any potential trouble!

London needs to take a look at SE Asia, I think it is the ridiculously small plastic chairs which calm any potential trouble!

In the morning I was met with a nasty surprise of dodgy hotel tactics – as Thai Nhi hotel  owner (and NOW I see it is 282 out of 300 hotels in TripAdvisor; I was duped by a deal of $10 rooms) claimed I had paid only for the Chu Chi tunnels the day before and not the bill (it was the other way round) and minus a gun I got some stern shouting like something out of the deer hunter. Unfortunately my saving grace, the receipt, had been written out to indicate this (always check the print!) and with a lot of shouting back (he was half my size after all) I reluctantly paid the extra $5 – amazing how much being conned winds you up, even over $5!

Frog porridge for breakfast in Saigon

Frog porridge for breakfast in Saigon

I don’t know if you just get better at it as the trip carries on but you manage to meet characters that always seem better than the last. Whilst waiting for the bus to Phomh Penh, got chatting to a Welsh lad, who had previously been a brick layer but had thrown caution to the wind and set up a hostel in Cambodia. His second franchise, a North Face business in the capital was an envy of any world traveller & the whole tale of entrepreneurship reminded me of Lord of War film with Nicholas Cage – starting small but if the guy isn’t driving a porsche in a few years I will be surprised (of course the whole venture wasn’t about guns!).

Landing in Chau Doc in the bleak hours of the morning – it was like 3.30am or something – I was ambushed by motorbike drivers (‘Motorbike friend’ followed by ‘Where you from?’) but was subsequently ‘rescued’ when one of the drivers pulled out his friend who spoke a bit of English – and I could explain the need to just get my bearings and perhaps a morning coffee! The new motorbike driver lead me here & there to the early morning (or shall I say all night) stalls drinking coffee or some funky Cambodian pop which ‘makes you strong’. Chau Doc revolves around a scared temple of one of the Buddhist figures – some lady I believe – complete with a collection of Gods of good rain, strong wind and one with 36 heads – no where to hide the driver told me. I grew quite attached to my new driver as he showed me the view from the town’s mountain (all of this tackled on the back of quite a durable moped) and told me about the village he lived in 30km away with his family and no power. Truthful or not, I tipped the guy well – it came to like $10 dollars for 3 hours work – and wished him the best of luck.

View from the mountain top of the road to Cambodia

View from the mountain top of the road to Cambodia

As always strange faces meet me at the ferry terminal – people who were once again soon to be my friends, as goes the travellers mantra. The speed boat journey up to Cambodia was once again not the local experience I had been looking for – I swear I booked the ‘slow boat’ to seek this out – and decided to stop at a fishing farm on the river and a local village – as western tourists excel out we replied with taking pictures at the ‘poor’ but ‘fascinating’ locals.

For some reason, which I never got to the bottom of, once the boat had briefly stopped at a ‘visa production’ pier we continued our boat journey on a mini-bus via a ‘sleeping guard’/third world checkpoint (if you know what I mean). Our first impressions of Cambodia was also that of a young kid – father overlooking – dragging this poor dog on his hind legs to ‘play’ with him. I don’t think my shaking on the finger, as we walked by, got my disapproval across.  Sitting on the mini-bus (the vision of the back of a seat seems to have imprinted itself in my head over the course of the 4 days worth of bus journeys) you really see that Cambodia is less developed than it’s MeKong Delta neighbours.

On the Cambodian side of the border. Boat to Phnom Penh was made to stop but gave us a chance to see life on the floodplains

On the Cambodian side of the border. Boat to Phnom Penh was made to stop but gave us a chance to see life on the floodplains

Japanese fighting fish on the Cambodian border

Japanese fighting fish on the Cambodian border

The now formed ‘gang’ – 2 Irish, 2 Americans and I – arrived in Phnom Penh and soon set about finding our £3 cuisine lunch in the bar strip – it’s great, the food really is that cheap. There was the usual exchange of the best stories we had, our Irish friends recalled the highlight of the lot about the time when the bf to ‘pickup’ communion because the girl was sick and the when the priest subsequently said that a ‘take away’ wasn’t possible (apparently there was accounts of witchcraft in parts of Perth) but would drop by their house. And so with a very large, fat priest in a small fiesta the bf returned with the church representative to their unwed bedroom……it was all very funny, particularly with rounds of 50c local beer!

The rest of the evening was spent in the fine companion of a local Irish bar, with the enthuastic Texan owner setting up some makeshift karaoke on his laptop as the night went on (I had to sing Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ for my sins of suggesting karaoke). This all made the group ricks haw tour in the morning all the more painful, as we set out in the early hours to fire guns and have the sobering experience of the killing field.

Irish bars are literally everywhere

Irish bars are literally everywhere

Before we reached the killing fields we stopped off at a firing range which resembled something out of a fortified rebel camp in the jungle. A moment of moral judgement and with the fact that $350/250 (when negiotated) was the budget for the rest of the trip, meant I didn’t fire a rocket at a cow……if you are so inclined it is very easy to find it. If you want to get kicks out of the explosion of livestock, give it a YouTube! I must also admit that I didn’t like the idea of holding a Soviet 70s surplus explosive!

Unfortunately my camera cut out for most of the day but I couldn’t possibly represent the miserable, depressing atmosphere that surrounds the killing fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide museum. It was list and lists of atrocities which were represented visually by vivid images of liberated torture cells or mugshots of genocide victims. 1.7million killed over 2 years through murder and starvation…..reinforced the arguments made in the book I had sitting in my bag – ‘The new killing fields: A case for international intervention’.

Smog was pretty unbearable for all our group

Smog was pretty unbearable for all our group

Haunting experience at the killing fields. Camera died halfway through but do google the killing tree - particularly awful scene of a tree which was used to bash babies heads against

Haunting experience at the killing fields. Camera died halfway through but do google the killing tree – particularly awful scene of a tree which was used to bash babies heads against

Further reflection of what we had seen at the Killing Fields

Further reflection of what we had seen at the Killing Fields

Monument to victims of the genocide. Building is filled with skulls and bones of some of the 16000 victims at the site

Monument to victims of the genocide. Building is filled with skulls and bones of some of the 16000 victims at the site

DIY razor wire fencing

DIY razor wire fencing

The 2 days in Phnom Penh was this mix of history and cheap booze & pool games, but it was soon time to set out again as time was pressing; as was the threat of protests which had occurred down the road from our hostel in the days before. The election had just been finalised and from the look of the new razor wire barricades & the news of a few protestors deaths, the opposition was happy!

On checkout the Happy house (our hostel) wasn’t so happy which was really sides appointing because the hola e to that point had been really friendly. We had got a triple room and had hoped that the night that I left that an English guy would take my place. Unfortunately he had a bus so it didn’t happen but instead of just letting it slide and let me checkout at 3.30pm (as we arrived back) – particularly as the others were staying another night, booking travel and eating at the place – they charged me another night. Bit disappointing and lead to all future money being spent next door. Just felt that, along with the tuk tuk drivers who moments before tried to get a days tour to finish 2 hours early, it was a little short-sighted and ultimately they lost out.

Snubbing the $3 coffees at the local Costa, I decided to crash out at the bus station in Phmon Penh for an hour – also distracted by the Giant bike store which was situated next door (the first ‘professional’ bike store I had seen since Italy; which unfortunately doesn’t ship its cheap stock to Singapore) – and was the subject of curiosity for the locals; so much more interesting getting amongst the real people in a country! Additionally a iced coffee and a pack of Oreos cost $2 :p The bus that pulled up was a throw back to 70s Ireland (I suppose) and on the crammed top deck we had a nice bit of Cambodian karaoke film footage bluring out. Fortunately the stereo that was also pulled out by the girls next to meet got rendered useless by a fall from the armrest and soon I meet the ‘other’ foreigner on the bus – a french guy who reared horses in the Australian outback. He was travelling back down to Kao Thao island (a destination coming up on the list) and made the absurdly long bus journey – 12hours for like 400km – a little more bearable with tips of my planned diving course (he was looking to qualify for an instructor in the near future). His missus on the island was also a Muay Thai instructor – I noted that on my ‘to-do’ list. Although with dawn we saw the hopeful signs of the Thailand border – casino signs from the Cambodian businesses on our side – the bus just decided to stop 1km before the border we shared a tuk tuk the rest of the way and shared the misery of border queues (only opened an hour later at 8am) on the Cambodian side. Much to my disgust my camera had ran out of battery since about the bus station so I hope I am painting a good picture here – notes of the night’s activities consist of some very rough notes on scrap paper/receipts! Fortunately the french guys camera hadn’t, and I have a new found inspiration for trekking in the Cambodian jungle, staying with the local families and riding elephants from a set of fairly impressive photos.

As with much of the trip the local bus journeys always seem to conclude, at least in part,with the inevitable ‘tourist minibus’. Not really authentic local travel but I suppose that is what you get for travelling at pace through SE Asia and consequently using one of millions of street side tour operators as you plan for the next stage of the journey. On the Thailand side of the border we rocketed through the last 250km by mini bus to the great city of Bangkok. I headed for the tourist capital of Khaosen Road upon the advice of my French bus buddy  and managed to find a suitably grotty & cheap hostel – Marco Polo – within spitting distance of the market stalls & cocktail bucket distributors.

Khaosen Road....I was guilty of two helpings of KFC during my time in Bangkok!

Khaosen Road….I was guilty of two helpings of KFC during my time in Bangkok!

With the intention of spending only 24hours in the Thai capital, I made a whirlwind visit – lots of aimless walking and casual references to a street map really – coming across the old temples, protest sites in the parks capital and even taking a peek in the local bikes stores. The one important goal on my list was a Muay Thai of which I had heard being Thursday was ladies night – ladies fighters that is. Alas that day was the Full Moon festival and the fighters had a day off. In an effort to squeeze the most out of the capital I jumped into a Tuk Tuk and told the driver ‘ I have one night, take me where a tourist needs to go’. As punishment the driver took me to some dodgy bar with lady dancers and a celebration box audience of drinkers including young couples & sleepy old men. At the bar I meet an Aussie miner and his Scottish missus, who adopted me for the night and ordered whiskey by the bottle……..………the next morning I missed the early morning bus to the islands.

Nice bit of organized protesting and public speaking in Bangkok

Nice bit of organized protesting and public speaking in Bangkok

Pretty much sums up my memories of a boozy night in Bangkok

Pretty much sums up my memories of a boozy night in Bangkok

On Koh Tao, we searched for the dive site recommended by my French bus mate from Cambodia, but eventually went with one of the top providers listed in Lonely Planet – Big Blue Diving – and we weren’t disappointed. For 9000 baht, about 180 pounds sterling – we got a 3 day SSI open water course plus free accommodation (all the details of the course can be found on this great blog http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/the-complete-guide-to-diving-in-koh-tao/ (it also has some pictures of the actual diving which I placed in the blog below and which through lack of a underwater camera unfortunately I can’t put my ugly mug up). Contrasting the professionalism at the dive school was the notable absence at the local clinic – which I had been sent for a brief checkup and clearance before diving because of a previous head injury from cycling. Apparently all doctors need to do is check your ears and listen to your breathing – and seemingly from the other divers feedback, any injuries!

Unfortunately my roommate James couldn’t join me on the course – apparently any form of asthma and diving is a no no because of the cold, dry hair – but it was funny to point out whilst we had classroom lessons and struggled with the new equipment in a deep swimming pool, the guy was diving to 20m on a rope (all on day one!).

Dorm rooms at Big Blue

Dorm rooms at Big Blue

On our doorstep at Koh Tao

On our doorstep at Koh Tao

Interesting shop fronts and lane alongside the beach

Interesting shop fronts and lane alongside the beach

In the midst of this diving course for 3 days there was also the banter of island night life, including a memorable 4:1 defeat for Utd at the local Aussie bar. On the last night we got to witness the trial by fire of newly qualified dive masters which included lots of spanking, nudity, public announcements of shame, and many bottles of cold water and pee. All of which was alcohol fueled and ended in bar dancing, as you can see below. Unfortunately I didn’t get to witness the lady boy show as the underwater pressure from diving played havoc on my ear drums and lead to a very sickly night on day one of ocean diving – the world was literally spinning – boring right? I can also assure you that there is an awesome, compact local stadium for Muay Thai on the island – although yet again I missed this as fight date was on on the night of departure. However not to sound to boring, drinking out on the beach with fire jugglers sure made  Koh Tao memorable not just for the diving but also the ‘craic’ with the other divers. I certainly got a new found interest for diving – and hope to take on free-diving (one breath to the same depths as scuba, if not further) – including lining up an advanced course with night diving and ship wrecks. All this to come in Bali in October!

Thriller concluded the public spanking

Thriller concluded the public spanking

Investigating the professional diving video of the trip as we speak!

Investigating the professional diving video of the trip as we speak!

The lady bar inn

The lady bar inn

This is why you come to Thailand right?

This is why you come to Thailand right?

With the final morning dives completed and open water certification gained, I prepared myself for the 29 hour trip down to Kuala Lumpar – much of which involved a gathering of the days divers to check out the film which had been made over the course of underwater submersions and sea sickness. I will try to pull it up the diving video but for those underwater buffs out there the final dives had included Chumpion, a legendary sight in the islands which had teasingly witnessed some whale shark visitors a few days before.

After refusing Koh Tao islands cowboy taxi drivers a quick days wages by driving the whole of 2km down a beach front, I stubbornly lugged by rucksack down the coastline and I climbed on to the coffin/sleeper boat to the mainline. In the cattle ship, there was two rows of leather mats with 30 number tags on the head rests – it was a bit like the song ‘there was 60 in the bed and the little one said roll over’. So along with about 50-60 tourist straight out of the full moon party, we embarked into the night on a rickety old boat, each calling dibs on just a handful of lifejackets on board.

Awakening with some relief that we had reach Surathi port alive, I was packed onto a crammed, tiny truck for delivery to the local bus terminal/large marble living room (complete with a staircase of children toys behind the counter) as these commercial places always tend to be – multi purpose, make sense! A fellow course diver and his wife happened to be at the terminal and it was good to share stories, as well passing on a few tips for the Mekong delta, nice people.

Thai bus terminals or at least the tourist ones

Thai bus terminals or at least the tourist ones

For the journey down to Hat Yai in southern Thailand we were loaded on to a mini bus filled with Spanish tourists as well as a French father & son who were based in the islands. The French mans tales of colonial America and Europe interfering with the affairs of SE Asia made for a welcomed distraction for this stage of the trans-thailand journey.

GUN MEN. 140km from Hat Yai (this was meant to be the safe area right? I mean the other tourists were off to Krabie, that’s like a Thomas cook-esque resort, not off the beaten track!) 2 gunman had pulled a tree trunk across the dual carriage way and our driver calmly went down the intended detour. All of this was done in an uncomfortably comfortable fashion and I began to wonder what I had missed as I dozed for the last air. Whether the masked men on the road were armed is subject to memory recall but what was clear was the second point and it’s revolver on a pole, pointed into the passenger cabin. Granted this was no UN mission and we were quickly waved through (they don’t bother tourists I’m told) but it certainly gave some deep thought on getting a plane the rest of the way from Hat Yai. I was reassured by an Aussie at the next rest stop that indeed as I had read, the trouble was really flaring up in the 3 most southern states – Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat – and a quick trip north of these were fine. All this didn’t stop me feeling a little bit annoyed at the spainards behind me who had no idea about trouble in the region and seemed pretty care free soon after our roadblock.

Ok I didn't get the camera out, but you get the point

Ok I didn’t get the camera out, but you get the point

After the sardine can minibus journey for the last 6 hours the coach from Hat Yai was luxury and before I knew it I was drinking an iced horlicks in an Malaysian hawker, complete will public displays of karaoke. On the islands I had asked the gf to help me book a capsule hotel in KL – really had to get some unique stories right?

I LOVE these cheap hawkers

I LOVE these cheap hawkers

Capsule hotel - why would you need anything more?

Capsule hotel – why would you need anything more?

£9 per night for my luxury ‘room’ in the UFO capsule hotel and with that I had a firm base for a blitz of KL before the last hurdle to Singapore the next afternoon. It was very much like a beginners introduction to Singapore, my new permanent home in the next 24 hours. Malls, malls and more malls and oh yes the Petronas towers.

I can call KL covered now right?

I can call KL covered now right?

Now fully equipped with business attire for ‘real life’ I jumped on my final bus for the 7 hour journey to Singapore. Much like a modern Boeing the bus for equipped with a personal entertainment system and apart from my casual networking with the neighboring Australian and Singapore passengers that was little ‘adventure ‘ in the final stages as I watched film after film like a 10 year old boy!

And with that I had made it. London to Singapore overland. Even got a spot of wake boarding on arrival.

Could barely stand up, this is the missus showing me how it's done

Could barely stand up, this is the missus showing me how it’s done

And what of the next adventure…..well I’ve already got a new bike…..

image

London to Singapore overland – Part 3; Moscow to Hoi An, Vietnam

 

Old and boring

Before we tackle the world’s longest single train journey – aka the Transsiberian – lets have a look back at Moscow itself.

I had a few days to spare in the Russian capital and was luckily joined on my travels, by my good friend Byron, who was subsequently with me right up to the point I left Beijing 2 weeks later (thanks for the patience….). Luckily Byron had a friend Paddy who put us both up for a few days in the Dynamo area of the city – thanks Paddy – and it was finally a chance to refuel after the Transcontinental Bike Race & a mad dash across Eastern Europe. Of course the Kremlin is THE sight for Moscow – complete with Red Square (which for us was getting ready for the Russian Tattoo, who knew), Lenin’s Tomb and some stunning museums but you also won’t be disappointed by the stunning statues and mosaics in the underground/metro. Revolution Square station (or Ploshchad Revolutsii station) is particularly stunning with dozens & dozens of bronze statues – rubbing the dogs nose is apparently good luck & from the lack of polish left on the end of it, it seems this is a charm a lot of people follow! Of course we also had a good mosey around the GUM shopping district – a converted grain depository – opposite the Kremlin, complete with its 800 pound sterling cavier; Gorky park, which is complete with a US Space Shuttle replica; and tasted the wonders of the Russian chain Moo-Moo – a place decorated exclusively with cows and food which was pretty much priced as a mid-ranged London restaurant but they weighed each portion, so in the end you may be craving more!

Sight-seeing at the Kremlin

Famous red walls of the Kremlin

Grandeur of the Moscow subway - click picture for link to more pictures from a Business Insider article

Grandeur of the Moscow subway – click picture for link to more pictures from a Business Insider article

A quick note on the Kremlin – make sure you get a pass to the Armoury, it is absolutely packed with everything from grand gold dining plates, to suits of armour, royal robes to my personal favourite the simply massive house drawn carriages of the late Tsars. Pictures weren’t allowed – you can get a pass I believe though – and not to sound too much like a Moscow guide, it cost us about 450 rupees/9 pound sterling. Unfortunately Byron and I stupidly didn’t get a general pass to the greater Kremlin area so we sat out inside the walls & the Grove Gate for a good hour!

After a two days visiting Moscow city centre; and lets not dwell on the individual attractions & merits of Russia because this is about the adventure! We headed to the Transiberian train for our 6 day journey. Byron and I were armed with all the noodles we could carry, as well as sausage,bread and bananas (there may have been some meat jerky and coke there but it wasn’t exactly exciting cuisine!) we loaded up into our 4 man cabin. We were joined by a Finnish lawyer, on route to North Korea (these are the kinds of interesting people you come to meet on that train) and its turns out the train is pretty much filled with westerners – right up until the final carriage past the dinner car which was Russian. Looks like Aeroflot have really stated a claim on trans-Russian transport! As we were heading to Beijing,in turns out we were on the dedicated Chinese train with Chinese train guards – all very keen to help but quite rightly enjoyed any misfortune that we endured (as you will see)!

As always Seat61 is THE resource for direct planning on this journey – http://www.seat61.com/Trans-Siberian-moscow-beijing.htm#.UjGwpNKmilU – and as stated the typical scenery for the first 3 days was Birch Tree! I was very glad that Byron had brought a cycling book in the ‘Pursuit of Lance Armstrong’ to be honest! However I suppose it is about the journey, whose rhythm was shaken up by Byron losing his phone down through a small slit in the window; as he attempted this frame-by-frame shooting (a technique he thought he had perfected by Day 5, only to delete the files by mistake….), the mad dashes out onto the Siberian platforms as soon as we stopped at a station to restock on salted cheese to go down with our small bottle of cognac (the Chinese guards eventually took the whole window frame apart for a good half an hour and were paid with our 1 bottle of vodka); exploring the Russian dining car complete with grumpy couple who slept and work there – the man in a wife-beater was particularly memorable. There was also the game of Poker in which our Finnish cabin mate bled us dry – luckily it was just for chips!

Attempting frame by frame shooting.....

Attempting frame by frame shooting…..

Siberian station

Quick snaps at Siberian train stations along the way

Russian dining car on Transsiberian train

Russian dining car on Transsiberian train

Things picked up a little bit as we approached Ulan-Ude and Lake Baikhal – impressively the train was running on time, by the minute; all stations on the full timetable were reached on time – beat that National Rail!

Transsiberian/TransMongolian Timetable

As you can see from the pictures below, sunrise at Lake Baikal started to make up for any regrets that may have built up over the last three days (perhaps not quite our exclusive diet of noodles) and we were even joined by some new carriage mates – A Russian girl learning Mongolian in Ulaan Bator, a French girl heading down to Beijing (with some stopovers in Mongolia) and a Singapore girl – complete with the greatest collection of border stamps in any passport I had every seen – I think the count was 120 countries she had been to;the last stop being Turkmenistan and the Afghan border. As you can clearly see from my detailed inclusion of some of our fellow travel companions we were grateful to have fresh faces on the train by this stage, particularly with the departure of our Swedish and Swiss neighbours in UB!

Deepest freshwater lake in the world - Lake Baikal, great alarm clock!

Deepest freshwater lake in the world – Lake Baikal, great alarm clock!

Our 'dining' table in the cabin, next to Lake Baikal, complete with Chinese beer; sold to us by the train guards

Our ‘dining’ table in the cabin, next to Lake Baikal, complete with Chinese beer; sold to us by the train guards

After the lake the landscape got really interesting – well a bit surreal. This was Mongolia, the place I had been staring at on my work computer for the last 3 years and in some places it was like being on the moon. Take a look for yourselves below. After all the excitement of the Mongolian capital, including a quick exploration of the station which was complete with Wi-fi and a dedicated Karaoke room, we set out to explore the new restaurant car which was next placed beside our carriage. The food and surroundings were cheaper and more intriguing (in equal measures – although we are guilty of choosing the omelette after 4 days on noodles!); and Byron proceeded to spank me at chess for the next few hours…..even the fact that the landscape had turned into one giant flat grass field for 3-4hours didn’t help me concentrate at the cold war tactics of my opponent! Somewhere in the catalogue of photos I have one of a stature of Mongolia’s first Cosmonaut from one of the stops – but I will leave you wiki that!

Traditional Yurts in the suburbs of UB

Traditional Yurts in the suburbs of UB

Mongolian dining car on transsiberian train

Mongolian dining car on transsiberian train

Contrast between the sprawling town of UB - which was also gripped by construction of multi-storey buildings, and the northern Mongolian hills behind

Contrast between the sprawling town of UB – which was also gripped by construction of multi-storey buildings, and the northern Mongolian hills behind

I was lying about flat Mongolia............

I was lying about flat Mongolia…………

After all the excitement of Mongolia – and as our Canadian friend the next morning pointed out you can spend days in Yurts drinking fermented horse milk and driving/horse riding in straight lines across the horizon – you thought it would be possible to get some sleep. Unfortunately entering China comes at a price – and I dont mean the stern looks of the border patrol women – but the train having its wheels changed for the non-Soviet tracks – lots of banging and violent rocking on the border!

Lifting the train begins - changing train wheels on the Mongolian-Russia border

Lifting the train begins – changing train wheels on the Mongolian-Russia border

It seems however that the Chinese were quick to make up for the nuisance of the previous night and we were treated to a free breakfast (or shall I say egg and frozen butter) and quite a good lunch (meatballs and rice) in the new Chinese dining car. As much as it felt like some war food vouchers or some sort of propaganda tool, I have no doubt every member of the train appreciated the little pieces of paper – it certainly allowed us to plan a group activity (which are some what limited on the transsiberian to tea/coffee and crowding around a laptop for a movie)!

The hotel.....sorry, the modern looking Chinese restaurant car on the Trans-Chinese train

The hotel…..sorry, the modern looking Chinese restaurant car on the Trans-Chinese train

And if we were disappointed that there was no movie in the restaurant car, it didn’t matter because THE scenery of the trip (or so had been said in the guidebooks) didn’t disappoint as we snaked our way through the Chinese mountains towards Beijing [Note to self, must look the name of these mountains up!]

Some nifty camera work to catch the mountains before we disappeared back into the tunnels

Some nifty camera work to catch the mountains before we disappeared back into the tunnels

Not to mention the long valleys, with mountains that seemed to have mountains

Not to mention the long valleys, with mountains that seemed to have mountains

And then, with our mouths open for the last 1 1/2 hours gulping at the mountains above, we had reached Beijing. Nothing was complete without a ‘victory’ photo on completing the Moscow-Beijing train journey non-stop, even amongst the mayhem that we believed the city would bring just around the corner.

Our 'victory' photo from completing the Moscow-Beijing train non-stop

Our ‘victory’ photo from completing the Moscow-Beijing train non-stop

And so after the distraction of our 6 day train, the ‘tourism’ could begin again. First we landed at 365 hostel (our residence for our stay there, it was great, get on it) and our base camp for $1.50 beer & further venturing out into the mist of cosmopolitan Beijing. It was within a couple minutes walk of Tiananmen Sq (its really just a big square but leads on to the entrance of the Forbidden city, which everything in Beijing is focused around, including the Chinese version of the circle Tube line) and some of the best street food I have ever had; the whole shopping district as you move south from Qianmen station is very interesting – both remarkably western but also with pedestirianised and very Chinese shops.  Unfortunately it was also within this area that we investigated the Chinese take on McDonalds – a yin & yang burger (2 black & white burgers) and Christmas music playing…..hmmmmmm

365 Inn was number 24 if I remember correctly!

365 Inn was number 24 if I remember correctly!

Western shopping district around Qianmen; note tram line and building marking the edge of Tiananmen Sq on the left

Western shopping district around Qianmen; note tram line and building marking the edge of Tiananmen Sq on the left

We ‘did’ the Forbidden city – about 4 sq kilometres of endless palaces; a description which doesn’t really do thousands of years of history justice but anything over sightseeing in there for 3 hours gets very heavy :p! The Beihai Park, with pedal boats on the lake, gave us some relief from some ruthless sight-seeing, and our slow progress around the lake on what can only be described as a lawn-mover engine, seemed to encourage talk on Premiership football……the Autumn rugby internationals can’t come soon enough! At the 11th hour we made it into the Bird’s Nest (2012 Olympic Stadium); and I am told our famous Lightning Bolt-MoBot photo is on route by my companion (my camera had died at this point!); to witness the construction of a very large tree stage – which we concluded was the scene for a Kung-Fu Monks show, whose participants were wandering around in tracksuits in the stadium. There seemed to also be the makings of a Chinese Madame Tussauds in the stadium, with wax works of past & present Olympic presidents…..we moved on quickly as you can imagine……

Entrance to the Inner Forbidden City - which had been exclusive to royalty, concubines, top officials & enuachs. I suppose the phrase 'turning in their graves' can be used with the tourist invasion; mind you mostly Chinese tourists

Entrance to the Inner Forbidden City – which had been exclusive to royalty, concubines, top officials & enuachs. I suppose the phrase ‘turning in their graves’ can be used with the tourist invasion; mind you mostly Chinese tourists

The 365 Inn proved to be a fantastic escape from this routine that us tourist seemed to conform to in big cities – and I am now glad to say that on our final ‘sightseeing’ day we missed the bus to the Great Wall because of late night drinking with some fellow travellers (plus Jono, a present & future friend from Singapore – careful mention there!) including an Irish girl, who was also on route to North Korea (and indeed from the next town from me in Ireland & writing for the local newspaper) and my travelling companion got chatting to while I slumped in my bed (loser right!). I, like alot of people, eagerly await her N Korea entry: http://tptravels.wordpress.com/

Apparently my home town was the only one to make the grade (apart from Dublin) on the Irish map on the hostel wall

Apparently my home town was the only one to make the grade (apart from Dublin) on the Irish map on the hostel wall

Lots of admin took up a large chunk of the final full day – HSBC we will discuss matters and your global bank title – but we did get a chance to stroll down to the ‘Western’ shopping district – Wangfujing Street – under the guise of looking for a foreign bookstore. Fortunately we did get to witness some local delicacies on a side street –

Scorpion anyone?

Scorpion anyone?

For our final evening we even classed it up and smuggled ourselves into the best Peking Duck Restaurant in Beijing – complete with flip-flops and cycling top – and landed in Sanlitun bar road (which had been highlighted on a hostel map & turned out to be the embassy hangout in the city; as well as some very interesting characters such as New Zealand importers/exporters and S Korea businessmen). We even started to splash out on London priced beer (a shock from the $1.50 we had grown accustomed to) and discussed the merits of fighters in Muay Thai boxing on the TV (hoping to catch the real thing in Bangkok, stay tuned!).

Muay Thai and beer; excellent combination

Muay Thai and beer; excellent combination

Soon it was time to jump back on the train for the next installment; an episode which eclipsed all other train boardings. After a quick loop around the Temple of Heaven site, we headed to the grandest Railway station I had ever seen – apart from it was like a Chinese Wall Street in disguise. With some frantic ticket waving, running up & down flights of stairs (including a very rushed goodbye to my 2 week travel buddy Byron) and the sheer relief of actually stepping on the right train, I was off; direct to Hanoi, Vietnam. Beijing Railway station Train down to Vietnam was 24hours but nothing to crazy. A brief stopover in Nanning and a private escort to & from the waiting room (as it seems I had the honour of being the only westerner on the train) was about the height of it! Still maybe my eye for excitement had changed over the last 6 weeks, we did have the constant blowing of the hour; which seemed to signal impending doom approaching us on the railway track.

Hanoi is a great place. Really vibrant. Quite crazy, but nothing overwhelming like New Dehli; and at least this time, was the place that I met up with my girlfriend, Carly, who had flew out 3 months earlier to Singapore. Very special. Our Hanoi experiences, which straddled our trip to Halong Bay for a day either side, mainly consisted of finding the best food & drink that we could flavour in the city. And where would you be in a new city without the all important people watching; which I think we excelled at, as these pictures from the balcony of Finnegans Irish Bar prove I think. In addition there was also the famous karaoke bars which spilled out on the street and had outrageously small plastic chairs – everything more comfortable with a few beers of course.

The buzz of Hanoi

The buzz of Hanoi

After HaLong Bay (which I thought would make a suitable and striking conclusion to this part of the blog below) I joined a UK lad from the hostel for a bit of historical reference of Hanoi City. First of all – Ho Chi Minh is not just the new name for Saigon but the name of the North Vietnamese Communist leader since the 1930s and right through the Vietnam war. I suppose the ‘American/Western imperalist’ education we received didn’t highlight that! Alongside the Ho Chin Mih mausoleum, we took in the National Museum and a fine collection of American & Vietnamese war relics. For those interested in a bit of history and stuff, these few pictures are for you:

US Vietnam War massacres

US Vietnam War massacres

US fighter

If Hanoi was a rich, changing cocktail of scooters, succulent street food and international visitors……..Halong Bay was this still, protected but incredibly beautiful oasis……………………….ok well my descriptions need work but just look at this landscape, no wonder it is a world heritage site.

Fishing villages in the Halong Bay landscape

Fishing villages in the Halong Bay landscape

I can’t take the credit for the planning – the gf had planned everything, right from the pick-up at the hotel – but this organized 2 night tour on the junk boat was a wonderful way to embrace a bit of SE Asia, away from the turblent cities and from behind the glass on my collection of trains. After a 3 1/2 hour minibus journey, complete with your half expected stop at a dedicated store on route (this time it was an art & sculpture center with work down by disabled people; so I really didn’t mind) we arrived at Halong City, awaiting our transfer onto the junk. Our boat consisted of 19 travellers, a collection from Australia, South Africa, Canada & France, and as the days progressed a wonderful bunch to hang out with. The whole trip was organised by IndoChina Junk and credit, when credit due, they did a great job at it. With an itinerary that mixed 11-12 course meals, kayaking amongst the towering cliff faces, exploring floating villages – I have never wanted to volunteer in a local school so much – , food scultpuring demonstrations, swimming off the junk, sunbathing on island beaches and evening dinners in hidden caves; I couldn’t really fault it. I suppose the only grey mark – although traditional etc – was the ‘unique’ water puppet show on the way back; I think after 3-4 hours on the road alot of people were keen to just get out for a last night’s dinner in Hanoi! Anyway, I think these pictures below soak up the experience much better than my ranting, so enjoy!

HaLong Bay cave dinner on the final night

HaLong Bay cave dinner on the final night

Beats 5 star dining everytime

Beats 5 star dining everytime

Not a bad setting for kayaking right?

Not a bad setting for kayaking right?

Living life, one blue barrel at a time

Living life, one blue barrel at a time

The world famous Vietnamese water puppet show

The world famous Vietnamese water puppet show

Hanoi Beach sunset

Hanoi Beach sunset

Wonderful day with Carly

Wonderful day with Carly

Next time…….so from Hanoi I travelled down to Ho Ani (which I am currently in). On route to Nha Thrang-Saigon-Phomh Phen-Bangkok and down through Thailand. Hopefully next time I will have pictures and tales from some of the following:

Muay Thai match

Stroking some kind of large beast – Elephant/Tiger will do!

Quite a bit of diving…………………

London to Singapore overland – Part 2, Sofia to Moscow (see ‘How I almost made it to Istanbul’ for Part 1)

And the train journey begins.......

And the train journey begins…….

After the madness of the transcontinental bike race, this was the easy bit right?….mmmmm, well it was certainly more sitting around but the ‘logistics’ was still a matter of concern! Particularly ATM cards.

Anyway this is how you get from London (well let’s start from Thessaloniki in Greece – you can see the entry on how you get there by bike here) to Hanoi, Vietnam.

After ‘escaping’ hospital in Greece (it took literally 4 hours of paper work/admin, before I basically put my clothes on and said ‘I am leaving now’, to get them in gear) I dropped my bike off at a family friends’ friend in a pharmacy in the city and headed to the train station. So apparently they stopped international trains from Greece 3 years ago – something about an EU bailout – and after searching every ATM in the city, I finally managed to get the funds to jump on a bus to Sofia, Bulgaria at 2.30pm (25euro tour bus). 7/8hours later, threw some very investigative border guards (in fairness my passport is a bit battered!) and quite frankly sick of cycling clothes – the guy next to me was chatty though and understood my lack of hygiene! – I landed in Sofia railway station.

The hostel at the railway station was flexible and I negiotated a room for 20 US dollars – somehow I was in the mood to be in a shared dorm with my stinking cycling appearance. The next morning the hunt continued for some cash and I headed down to the city centre with a ‘to-do list’ – 1. clothes, 2. internet 3. cash. I wont bore you with the details but after some traditional paperwork in some random Bulgarian bank branch (you never realise how hard it is to get money out until your bankcard’s chip seemingly breaks!) I could enjoy some of the city. Sofia is strikingly different to the rural landscape of the country, as you would expect, with rolling boulevards and trendy cafes in the city centre but also the rows & rows of tower blocks that start (baam!) as you hit the outskirts. Soviet-era efficiency I suppose. Certainly you very quickly see how 5% of the population has 90% of the wealth – or so my bus buddy described.

Fancy shopping area in Sofia city centre

Fancy shopping area in Sofia city centre

In a bid to avoid visa bureaucracy in Moldova (to this day I don’t know the exact rules for visa requirements) and also to ‘tick’ more countries, that evening I got the train towards Belgrade (Serbia) with a connection in the early hours to Budapest (Hungary). As you come to expect in eastern Europe the international ticket booths were manned by some quite grumpy middle age women (it is apparently commonly joked that they run the country, much like the gate-keepers or switchboard operators at major multi-nationals) but there was some light relief from meeting some European travelers (lots of Swedes) in the queues. Train left at 8:30pm but I stuck around the busy station for an hour or two to people watch & get stuck into my newly acquired Game of Thrones book. Turned out this was a good move, as I got quite a memorable incident where the Bulgarian, middle aged man I got talking to (beer keg belly, you can picture the scene) was visibly disgusted by the gay couple kissing in front of us. Fair play lads!

The train journey to Budapest was difficult. Lack of money and a resurgence of my food poisoning meant that by the time I got into Budapest at 8pm the following day, I was pretty weak and dehydrated. However on the Belgrade ‘leg’ I had a Swiss phd student who was studying Eastern Europe linguistics and now have assembled a new found knowledge of the extensive Turkish languages across Asia (did you know there is a population deep in Siberia which is related to Turkish?? – I am your man for the next pub quiz :p). On part 2 from Belgrade to Budapest I also got the chance to sample the frantic planning of a return journey across Europe of one Belgian traveller – you always meet an Interrailer on these trains!

Train to Belgrade - quite comfortable actually!

Train to Belgrade – quite comfortable actually!

Budapest is a real world city – sadly the first flavour of which was a KFC as I left the station (they accept Euros in quite a few places, take note!) – and I just enjoyed walking quite aimlessly towards the city centre from the station. Thats a lie really. After the struggles of the 24hour train journey (wont get much pity there I am sure) and the lack of enthusaism to hunt for a good hostel, I headed towards the Irish bar on some city map I acquired, informing a few Aussies on route (who I had seen on the train, any excuse to get chatting) the pros and cons of this venture. Apparently the weekend before (it was now Tuesday) the city had had is biggest national celebrations so the irish bar was deserted apart from a few expats. A friendly Texan at the bar (now a resident in Budapest for the last decade), gave me a few pointers on hostels as well as warning me of the sex trade in Kiev (my next point of call – no doubt he had experienced a little too much of that in his youth). Although I didn’t share is enthusiasm for the dirty underworld of Kiev, I thanked him for his tips of the best bars (the main strip being down Liszt Ferenc) and went on a wander for a hostel. Luckily after an hour’s search I went past an old street house which had a sign for Yolo hostel …..great find! Friendly lady on the desk, and a free bed for 16euros, job done I thought. I must admit I collapsed into bed for the evening (I must have dropped 2 stone since I set out from London) unable to face the Budapest night life after my single pint of Guinness in the Irish bar.

The next morning I did the tourist routes down the river, etc and took some snaps (as you can see),

Bit of cathedral architecture in Budapest!

 

Riverfront Budapest

‘That’ famous waterfront in Budapest

But the success of the day was the 3hours of blog work in the city centre Mecure hotel (have to work sometime right?) on the previous London to Greece cycle. Attention now focused on the next stage of the journey and I headed back to the station to purchase the next bundle of tickets – Budapest to Kiev. This journey started to reflect how we were now moving away from spoken English among train guards and border patrol, with some very interesting characters along the way. The bare-chested train guard (who quickly threw his shirt on as we entered the stations) being one.

Another 24hours on the train done and I arrived in Kiev. With yet again the lack of forward planning or should I say the open travelling schedule I have put in place, I just jumped into a taxi at the station and said ‘hostel’. 10euros later (not that bad really) and after some very cheesy 80s English music, I was dropped off at a youth hostel/dance studio. You really must check this place out if you are in Kiev – Root Hostel – great cast of people who each seem to be just ‘living’ in an old town house, complete with balcony.  It bugs me that I can’t remember some of their names, but the hostel rep on duty was very energetic, welcoming, absolute pleasure to meet. It was kind of one of those hostels that you leave the last half of your cereal pack in the cupboard and then the next traveller has something to supplement them after a long journey. A real community – complete with some very potent Ukraine vodka!

Root Hostel - Kiev

Kiev strikes you as a very happening, young city – ok there was posters for the band Tatu but we will ignore that – and it was great being there was the ‘National Day’. Rather than some military parade, which to be honest with the propaganda you get in the west I had expected, the city square (at metro station – Maiden Nezalezhnosti) and accompanying street (Khreshchatyk St) was packed with Basketball matches, skateboarders and the entertaining family groups which had been competing in ball games, much like our old PE classes (complete with commentator). The husband giving out to the wives for missing shots was certainly a highlight!

The stage was set for Kiev National Day

The stage was set for Kiev National Day

Next up was the train journey to Moscow and my meeting with a friendly face, Bryon Thomas. A little bit of drama in the railway station as they changed the platform but I made it – and of course this was only a warm up to the Transsiberian to Beijing that was coming up!

Ok til they change the train platform then a little panic. Just wait for Beijing train station though - thats what you call lost!

Ok til they change the train platform then a little panic. Just wait for Beijing train station though – thats what you call lost!

This is the tourist picture for Moscow right?

This is the tourist picture for Moscow right?

 

Making an old idea real………

bike-tour-alps-30

We hear everyday about big ideas, plans, projects. All of us in our own way thing of them to escape the boredom on routine or perhaps leave a message to the next generation. Unfortunately life – and all its demands – has a way of pausing these plans.

I have not been boring the last few months – I have travelled across India, ran marathons, cycled across Scotland & much more – and yet I havent remained focused on this ‘mission’. 1 week ago, I think that all changed.

Last week I signed up to the transcontinental race by the Adventurists. The longest, unsupported, solo, stageless bike race I could find and will bring its riders from London all the way to Istanbul. See http://www.transcontinentalrace.com/

Its starts August 2nd. Maybe with some random outings over the next few months -bit of participation as the model for life drawing I think – & this exciting adventure, we can finally get this puppy off the ground.

[And as it has been so long, check out the first post -‘And lets begin’ – to see the mission statement]

Its been a while and what a lesson learnt – Bee-keeping in North London

Yep thats right I am still here. Just had some time out planning and a lovely trip with the gf to Croatia, dont worry there was some adventures, a bit of seakayaking etc – and with that I will post a picture!

Anyway upon my return, I set up a meeting with the Harrow Beekeeping Association. After reading all these articles on the growth of urban beekeeping (with all the bees getting hit by mites or weather or both) I wanted to see what the buzz was all about. Unfortunately due to my own stupidity I rocked up on the Sat rather than the Sunday fair……lesson learnt.However thankfully the founder was extremely pleasant and after a random phonecall from a nearby library agreed to show me around! I think I will have to go on bee-keeping part II to bring in a full blog entry, and yes be absolutely, pathetically scared and put the full beekeeping suit on (I dont really think the head dress I put on really cut it!). Still some pictures of the place are below and I made up for it by booking a pretty scary 50 mile mountain run in Switzerland in August……man I have to get down to this blog, lots of happenings outside the virtual world!

Bike polo in Dalston

Thanks to a tip off from a very helpful President of the UK bike polo association, I turned up on Tuesday night at a hard-court football ground to have my shot at the little known spot of Bike Polo.

Cycle polo was started in Co. Wicklow, Ireland in 1891 and the hardcourt variation has seen a sharp increase in popularity since 2007. As a very friendly frenchman called Matthew, who meet me when I arrived, mentioned the sport gives the opportunity to travel around Europe in a tight knit community (well I suppose there isnt dozens of players, in fact I remember someone quoting me the figure of 60 active players in France…..but that could be just a made up flashback!) and always getting a place to crash! I suppose like ultimate frishbee (although much smaller) people start quite late in the sport and everyone is a friend of a friend. Importantly there is only 3 players on a team, not bad for a tour around Europe!

And so started a bit of hit-around….I was quite frankly useless. If you touch the floor with either foot you have to travel back to the halfway line, balance is a must I am afraid! However I was very interested to see these lads dribbling in and around the bike and no fear of getting a ball out of a corner! In the end only a couple of lads arrived, apparently the girls were at a all-girl tournament in the US……I of course mentioned why the hell they were in wet London, but apparently ‘supporting’ the girls would be a little pervey/predatorial…..probably a good point! If anyone is fascinated by this sport, the lads had a blog at – cosmicbikepolo.wordpress.com, enjoy!

Word from today is that I will be attempting a world record marathon in a fireman suit in the Cork City marathon in June. Stay tuned for that and Man vs Horse, World Naked Bike Ride etc!!!