AnneMarie and Andrew

Annemarie and Andrew – Trekking Asia

One month summary

We have now been travelling for one month and I thought it would be a good idea to look back over the last month and think about what we have experienced and if we have learnt anything.

First of all it doesn’t feel like we have been on the move for a month. I’m not sure how long it feels, but not very long, maybe a normal two week holiday kind of length. In addition, it doesn’t feel like the other side of the world. I was looking at our travel map on this blog and thinking about how far we have travelled and how far we are from home, but it really doesn’t feel like it. Since arriving in China and Vietnam I haven’t really felt like an outsider. Probably because most of the places in Yunnan were full of Westerners and since arriving in Vietnam all the menus and signs are in English, almost everyone in town in a westerner and all shopkeepers speak English.

In Warsaw and Kiev we really felt like outsiders. No-one spoke English. No signs were in English. Everything was confusing. That really felt like travelling, in fact so much so that we felt further from home in Poland and Ukraine than in China. It might have been because those were the first destinations right at the start of the trip and we were just getting used to travelling or it might have been because Eastern Europe felt very different. I don’t think it was the language barrier because we had it in China and didn’t have any real problems communicating what we wanted, Eastern Europe just had ‘other worldly’ feeling.

Neither of us liked Russia (it’s not just us been negative, everyone we have spoken to who has been to Russia also didn’t like it). It started from the moment we bordered the train from Kiev to Moscow. The train itself was awful, we had first class two person cabin, but it was by far the most basic cabin we have had on this whole trip. The train (supposedly as express train) was probably going as fast as possible on very old track. The noise it made was incredible and all night the banging and clanging, not to mention the corners (it felt like the train was coming of the track) meant we had no sleep all night.

Most of our disappointment in Russia came down to three things.

  • Lack of migration card
  • All attractions were closed
  • Everyone was unhelpful and unfriendly

On arrival to Russia everyone receives a migration card. You keep this with you and hand it back upon exit from Russia. You must carry it with you at all times and produce it if requested. Failure to do so can result in a fine, imprisonment (a day in a local jail) or deportation and blacklisted. And very annoyingly we had not been handed one of those forms, which meant for no fault of our own we were breaking the law in a country where you really don’t want to break the law. None of those threats really worried me, what worried me was stories about exploitation. Police officers taking foreigners to the local police station and threatening them with all sorts of nasties then demanding a huge fine (10 times what the law states). It’s hard to argue with police and say no in those situations. Because of that we were worried about wandering around Moscow.

When we did venture out (after catching up on sleep) we found we were missing nothing anyway. Red square, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral were all closed, blocked with metal barriers and hundreds of police officers. The next day was the same. Incredible that the main tourist attractions in Moscow were closed for two days. Most people on the train had the same complaint.

Everyone also complained about how unfriendly and unhelpful the Russians were. Our hotel staff were the exception, they were helpful.

China was a huge surprise. When we left the train station in Beijing I was expecting it to be difficult to get on the underground and somehow navigate to our hostel. Instead the Beijing underground is amazing. Chinese and English on almost all signs and announcements. Easy to read maps and stations which had clear and intuitive layouts. We were also surprised at how Western China was. Everyone wore branded clothing, most young followed fashions that wouldn’t be out of place in Europe. Beijing was OK, the Forbidden City was fine, but the audio guide could probably have been better (most English county homes have a more extensive audio guide than the Forbidden City). It also kept breaking. The audio guide was supposed to be automatic, beginning when you entered a place listed on the map. Many times it did not or it kept restarting. Only the oppressive police presence put me off Beijing.

The south of China was pretty good. We both really liked Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge. The food, scenery and things to do made this a good place. Lijiang had foods halls which we haven’t seen anywhere else. A massive open space, three walls filled with food of every variety, freshly cooked in front of you. Then the middle was filled with tables and benches. These places were usually packed.

Vietnam has been good so far. Very western. Western food, clothes, English spoken everywhere. The people are friendly and helpful. The downside is that food is costing a bit more, but the trade off is that the food is nicer, easier to order and actually has lots of meat (in China most meat dishes we had contained very little meat and mainly bones with a bit of flesh).

We have found that little things have annoyed us; things which a more seasoned backpacker would take in their stride. On the whole the trip has been pretty easy and interesting.

The only thing puzzling me now is backpacking as a concept. What do people on a tight budget actually do and see? We have a pretty reasonable budget and after eating we are finding even cheapish tours will push us to the very top of our budget. Maybe others skimp far more on accommodation and eat far less so they can do more, I don’t know. Most people we have met are travelling for a few months so probably have a bigger daily budget.

When we reach a town or city we can wander around and see a few places or we can go on organised tours. Going on tours drains cash, wandering and missing places often feels like a waste. Like life in general, travelling is a compromise in which you weigh up the fact you will most likely never visit the place again, versus the fact that money is finite. So far we think we are getting it about right but still need to make some adjustments. Then again it’s all about learning from the experience and that hindsight, whilst been a wonderful thing is something you have AFTER trying it.

Posted from Hanoi, Hanoi, Vietnam.

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