(Nic) Although the significant and most time consuming outcome of our so called Blue Sky Walkabout is to ride horses across Mongolia, the more understated but no less personal achievement for us is to travel overland from London to Beijing this year.
It goes without saying that in 2015 air travel has its place (though in its current form potentially limited days). For us however, the best way to immerse ourselves in foreign culture and language or the sights and sounds of far off places is to go by the various forms of overland travel, "By any means" as it was once penned by Charlie Boorman, of Long Way Round fame. More than just a means to the end, overland transport represents opportunity to better appreciate geography, time and distance as well as the daily ebb and flow of the many distant parts that makes us, us. In many ways cheap air travel has contributed to opening up the world to those either nil pre-disposed or without the financial means to expand their horizons. The flip side being that apart from the obvious and now widely understood negative environmental effects of mass air-travel is that at 30,000 feet there is much to be missed. Parachuting into a foreign destination leaves us with little to comment nigh quality of the airline food. Perhaps I was born into the wrong era, post Amundsen, Shackleton and the many great wanderings characterised by the "Great Game" played out over Central Asia. Despite the golden age of overland adventure travel and expedition having lived its useful years, I think that there does however exists a resurgence. Certainly Donna and I have crossed tracks with many a vagabond traveller living the counter culture. For us, we hope that in our lifetime we will be fortunate enough to journey in one way or another over what I consider to be the four pillars of world overland legs. Singapore to London, London to Beijing, Anchorage to Cape Horn and London to the Cape of Good Hope. What better way to cap it all off than by sailing around the world?
And so it were that on Wednesday 6 May 2015, Donna and I arrived in London...by aircraft. And not just any bird but the biggest of them all, an Airbus A380. Bursting through the arrival gates at Heathrow and welcomed into a flash Jag by a chauffeur, a surprise organised by one of Donna's mates, we brimmed with that nervous excitement yet soul contentment only travel can dish up. More than just a stopping off point, London is Donna's childhood home and it provided a quick breather for what had at any rate been a hectic prior three weeks. A short period by any measure but time in which we had not only made final preparations for extended travels abroad but had also taken a large family group on a 5,500km jaunt by road up the WA coast and get married. Standing on a beach up WA's remote north Kimberley coast, the sand between our toes and the receding tide bringing new beginnings we shared the start of a new life together with our closest family and friends. This was no small feat and feeling enormously privileged for them to be there it was perhaps fitting that our small number of guests had travelled a collective 320,000 km to witness our vows and celebrate our future as a married couple.
Our short stay in London was punctuated with visits to family and friends but also necessitated by final arrangements such as obtaining a Belarussian transit visa. This is a task made easy in a place where almost every country on the planet is represented by embassy within walking distance of each other, that appeals to me. That, and Stanfords. That last stand in the world of Amazon and ebay, Stanfords in Covent Garden and visited by me every time I return to London is a bookshop where every one of its many maps, every book and every travel diary has one huge question mark behind it. Before long however we were standing on the platform of the Eurostar, this being an achievement in itself having already missed our scheduled train to Brussels. Although having lugged them all the way to London through various international airports, the local staff took issue with our "very large knives" and the words "I could have you arrested right here and now" were mentioned. Our smiles and cooperation with the otherwise friendly staff prevailed and later that same afternoon we were steaming under the English Channel before emerging out to an overcast France.
Crossing through France, Belgium, Germany, Poland and Belarus and heading into Russia by various trains we soon enough found ourselves standing in Moscow's famed Red Square, the excitement palpable as we stared across to St Basil's Cathedral under the watchful shadow of the Kremlin. How to describe a city born of a collective desire to go one up on the rest of the world? Even yet to be crashed by the intensity of Euro style tourism and besides its many imposing statues, public parks, museums, war memorials and public art Moscow seemed to have a staggering new "must see" at every turn. Even the subway stations feature epic murals, exquisite stained glass depictions and prized sculptures and on at least one evening we simply stood in subway stations staring at the impressive décor, as you do. Moscow is also the centre of that oft gilded trophy of imperialistic dreams, an expansive rail network and more specifically the departure point of our next ride, the famous Trans-Siberian Railway.
Spanning all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok and the Pacific Ocean (or Beijing if you take the southern route), the Trans- Siberian is the world's longest railway line and we spent 49 hours, just over half of its full 9,259km length on our way through to Novosibirsk in Siberia. As we swept past innumerable subsistence farms, rolling green hills and conifer forests, conditions on board although tight in our third class birth were fairly comfortable and we enjoyed the regular reshuffle of passengers as people got on and off sometimes for hours, some for days, none of whom were westerners. Although fairly mundane, light relief came at times. Like the Nurse Ratchedess conductress who sternly reprimanded me for whistling every time she or I walked past each other, even though I had stopped the first time on the fear of losing my two front teeth to the woman. Or the smiling Babushka who amongst a platform busy with sellers of vases, cups, trinkets and snacks strolled purposefully among the malaise with two stuffed ferrets on offer for which I reluctantly declined to purchase. Or Ivan. Ivan was well over 6 foot, built like a brick outhouse and with that stern Russian look both Donna and I had failed to get more than "No" in English out of him in the first 9 hours he sat opposite us, noses almost touching. Ivan surprised us both when he suddenly started to lip sync overenthusiastically to what could clearly be overheard as being 1990's Aqua hit Barbie Girl.
Days later and a few more buses, trains, couch surfs and vodka shots forward it was just the two of us in our tent for the first time on this trip. We were camped a mere 100 metres from a closed Russian border checkpoint high in the north western end of the Altai Mountain range where we had arrived after dark. Although kept alert by howling town dogs, stray cattle and nearby army movements we eventually drifted off but not before woken by thundering hooves metres from our tent, no doubt a Kazakh herder come to inspect the strange sight. We woke the next day to snow capped mountains as far as the eye could see and just over the horizon, Mongolia. Adventure beckoned.