Sunday, 10 August 2008


Distance traveled: 19.038 km

When I walked through the tickets gates of the station in Nikko, I was infuriated - not that there was any thing in particular at the station to justify this infuriated state that I was in. But the train ride had been a source of great frustration - not that there was anything wrong with the train ride, as always, Japan Railways was running like clockwork. No. Rather the source of my frustration was a book. A book called Dogs and Daemons, written by an American, grown up in Japan, known by the name; Alex Kerr, a man that is somewhat of an institution on Japanese affairs.

I had ridden through the scared Japanese landscape, of countless ugly cities, dammed rivers, and ravaged mountain sides - as so often before - but this time I was treated to an insightful explanation of how it came to be like this. And this, my dear readers, was why I was walking through the ticket gate with a thick black thunder cloud hanging above my head.

A walk through the central area of the small town, had lightened the cloud, but it still had a black tint when i entered the Youth Hostel. It stayed outside, cause I was welcomed by one of those kind grand mother types, or Obasan in Japanese, that you can help but to love, even though the hostel itself looked somewhat like it predated her. Its people like her that makes this country worth loving.

Nikko is famous for its temple area, which is a world heritage site, and as i walked around - I was enchanted by the surroundings. The area was set in an ancient forest of tall cedar trees, with the canopy towering far above my head, the light filtered through the leafs, leaving an amazing light for us puny humans at their roots. As I walked deeper into the forest, a Tori, or gate for the unenlightened, proclaimed my arrival to the realm of the divine. An ancient warlord inhabits the mountain, guarding his clan, in return for being buried like a god. I clapped my hands 3 times and gave a light bow for good measure, and entered the temple grounds unscarred.

The temples were indeed fit for a god, everywhere i looked there were elaborate wood carvings, painted in bright colors, creating an amazing contrast to the forest towering above and around. Even the swarm of tourists couldn't quite destroy the atmosphere of the place. And as i entered the final temple, the gate to the shogun's mountain tomb, the crowds had thinned out, so that i could truly breath in the atmosphere of the place.
Next morning i got up early, and boarded a bus away from the crowds, and hiked through a pretty forest along a river, unscarred by concrete. The peace did not last long, as soon a legion of Japanese school children descended on the place, I can not even give an estimate as to how many times i returned their inquisitive hello's, but it had it's charm. And by the end my patience was rewarded with an amazing waterfall, with a 50 meter drop and a thunderous roar. According to local beliefs i am now a fertile man apparently.

Next morning my time of leisure was running out, and i had to replace the magic of the cedar forest with the madness of Tokyo's urban jungle. So i graped my machete along with my best khaki outfit, and boarded a train bound for Azakusa with a discrete Tarzan call.

- Stefan

Friday, 8 August 2008


Distance traveled: 18.782 km

Talk to any resident gaijin (foreigner), and you will sooner or later here some unbelievable stories about how awful hosts, the Japanese society can be. Media routinely blame everything from crime rates, to the Japanese' poor English skills!?!, on the small foreign community. Hot springs and expensive restaurants hang up signs proclaiming "sorry, no foreigners allowed", without the the slightest sense of shame, hostess bars and brothels of course, are strictly of limits since HIV is an unjapanese disease brought in by foreigners (i suspect middle aged Japanese men visiting Thailand and Russia is to blame, they are pigs more often than not)

The irony is though, that the gaijins here assimilate better than everywhere else I've seen in the world, Walk into a bar with foreigners and everyone who's not native English speakers will be speaking Japanese to each other, since almost everyone has made the effort to learn the language, which is more than can be said of expats and immigrants in most other corners of the planet. more often than not they will have married a local, and dutifully send their children of to be stigmatised in the local schools. Still most will, despite the odds, have a profound love for the country.

I suspect the reason for this is another case of the contrast i have been talking about. When your surroundings include the most racist and xenophobic society in the world, as well as some of the kindest most hospitable individuals anywhere on the planet, it cant help but to fascinate and spark your curiosity - and make the frequent acts of extraordinary kindness you experience, seem that more profound. Not that I'm condoning the stupidity of brainwashing an entire population into thinking they are somehow unique, the outside world somehow lesser beings, and the Japanese long suffering victims of circumstance. Not only is it utterly unsympathetic - its also hurting the Japanese themselves, as foreign investments are turning towards the much more internationally minded Taiwanese and Koreans.

In Sendai, I ran into Earnie, a local expat of the sort that really stands out, a tall black guy, wearing a big infectious smile, and massive dreads. Naturally he was employed in one of the 3 sectors, virtually anyone not stationed here, is working in; English teaching, PR or in the entertainment sector. Earnie was in the latter, running a small gaijin bar in Sendai's nightlife district, Ichibancho, an oasis of local expats, friendly Japanese people, and Russians hostesses letting loose after work. Well of the infamous tourist trail, the Japanese were blissfully inquisitive, open and welcoming, which all made for some fun nights out in Sendai.

One day i made a side trip to Matsushima, apparently one of the 3 great sights of Japan, made famous by the great haiku poet Basho, who unusually was at so at loss of words over the beauty of the bay that he simply proclaimed; Matsushima, ah Matsushima, Matsushima, Matsushima - not exactly inspired words, and these days loud Japanese tour groups, and concrete resort hotels, have done their part at leaving the place largely, well, uninspiring, there were some nice spots hidden around though...


Judge for yourselves.

Safely back at Earnies bar in Sendai, or so I thought, for not long had i sat down, before my chair apparently had enough, and started rocking about on an admirable effort to get me to stand up. Standing up however, did not help much, as soon the floor joined in on the action, and so did the walls, and more worryingly, the shelves with all the booze, people was quite, listening to the deep rumbling, and deciding with themselves whether to panic was an appropriate course of action. The general consensus was against this, and soon the rumbling ended, and a toast was made.

Next stop was Nikko (I know, I'm waaaaay behind in the blogging! :) )

- Stefan

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Haguro san

Distance travelled: 18.600 km


For those of you not familiar with the writing system of the Japanese, its a rewriting of the title of a song I learned together with the wondrous crowd on Rebun island, and it means I love this country.

I have developed a set answer to the inevitable inquires as to why exactly I love this county; the contrast i tell people, which obviously is as incomprehensible to people who has not experienced Japan as if i had said The blue whales. One of many contrasts you find in this country is aesthetical. Japanese cities, which are quite numerous since they have more or less squeezed 120 million people onto something that bears much resemblance to Norway in terms of size and flat land, the effect is only enchanted by the fact that outside Tokyo, people have come to a collective conclusion, that tall buildings are overrated - This more or less means that anything resembling flat land is either occupied by a city or a rice paddy.

Now, calling Japanese cities pretty, would be much like calling the queen pretty, small patches of exquisite jewelry, on a rather bland mass - gray, concrete - block after block, is the norm, broken up by some of the pretties restaurants, warm springs, temples and gardens in the world. And then there is places like Hagurusan, that will punch out all the air in your stomach, and then proceed to gently caress your senses while you regain consciousness.

I got of the bus, and stretched my weary muscles. An otherwise short journey by what have become my standards, had been made awfully tiring by getting up late, and missing the express train, left with a Futsu, i had stopped at anything anyone considered a town, even a few rice paddies had been considered worthy of a stop. I looked around to get my bearings, souvenir shops and Ramen shacks - nothing out of the ordinary Japanese tourist spot, the amount of people wearing white was though, they were swarming the place like some mongol horde. Worshippers, they were, setting out on the first leg of their pilgrimage to the 3 holy mountains of Daizetsusan, and i was going to follow on this first endurance test of 2446 stone steps.

Haguru san

As i entered the mountain through a wooden gate, i went speechless, not that i had anyone to say anything in particular too, but i was non the less speechless - the place was magical, like taken out of a Miyazaki movie. In an instant i suddenly realized what Shinto - japans ancient religion - is, you could not quite help but to feel the place had a soul. Tall, ancient, majestic trees was reaching for the sky above, their presence so massive you could hardly see it, the canopy dimmed the daylight, twilight almost, and scattered around lay ancient wooden temples - and a tall wooden pagoda stood silently, like a monolith... Hey Hey... Hey! "Snap out of it mate!" Okay, it was a fantastic place, a short glimpse of another world, and my bloody camera ran out if battery! As i reached a tea house half way up the stairs, i was pondering - 3 times by now,I had felt something akin magic in this country.

Kinkakuji, the golden pavilion of Kyoto had been the first, I had turned a corner and walked into a post card, hard to explain to the someone who has not seen it, the garden where the pavilion sits, has been perfected through centuries, to a point where the setting seems to perfect to be real, if you are fortunate enough to avoid the crowds, it too feels like stepping into another world.

Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, was another - while even a Russian would be stretching it to call the place pretty, it is however a truly humbling experience emerging from the underground, and being smacked in the face, by your own insignificance as you walk onto the station square. The sheer number of people pausing, passing, crisscrossing through the myriad of the other 2 million people passing through the place every day, has an uncanny ability to make one feel like an ant.
The fact that the every building in the vicinity has been outfitted with an insane number of flashing lights, giant TV screens and loudspeakers, in a heartfelt effort to short circut your senses, doesn't exactly help on the feeling of being lost in Japan.

And now this place. This is why I travel, apart from being fun and enjoyable, it has the ability to make leave you a wiser man, about the ways of the world.

- Stefan


Distance travelled: 18.115 km

The landscape outside the windows of yet another train, had changed. The crop fields of Hokkaido, was replaced by low slung mountains and endless green rice paddies, it looked distinctively more Japanese than across the straight. What was passing by the windows, the Japanese call Tohoku, a less polite sample, would call it the back lands of Japan - although it bore little resemblance to Western Jutland. I had overnighted in Aomori, hoping to pay a visit to a secluded peninsula on the northern reaches of Honshu - my credit cards would have it otherwise as it turned out - after a tour of a dozen post offices, I had given up and decided to go to the nearest major city, In case my woes continued - it did, and as I bowed to an old lady entering the ATM booth next to me, I was secretly hoping to find a cute puppy to strangle, in front of my feet.

It turned out the situation was not quite so bad as I feared, Visa International, as it turned out, for some reason has a withdrawal limit of 40.000¥ as opposed to MasterCard's fifty, so i could probably have gotten money in the first ATM i tried, well we all have our bad days.

As I left the post office, with a crisp bunch of banknotes, a rain shower that had been lurking in an eerie sky above, suddenly let loose, and I was treated with a display of physics that have left many a scientist sleepless. Take a medium sized Japanese town of say a million people, and subject it to a rain shower, and faster than the eye can comprehend - which may I remind you- is counted in milliseconds, the entire population located outdoors, will somehow have produced an umbrella, its quite startling.


Being a foreigner I settled with seeking shelter in a cozy looking pub by the river. And had a interesting night with the owner and a brazilophile Japanese samba player. Not all fun and games, you learn a lot about Japanese and the Japanese people, in situations like these. Pubs and Izekayas are the only places you really meet the locals with their guards down. A lot like home when you think about it.

- Stefan

Friday, 18 July 2008


Distance traveled: 17.466 km

Dusk was setting in as the lean express train pulled into the massive
station complex of Hokkaidos capital. A police woman and her K9 dog
was watching me intensely as I exited the station, and made my way
into the sea of neon that was proclaiming my arrival to urban japan. I
looked up between the soaring towers, to connect the loud background
noise with something tangible - to find two police choppers circling
above the station, with random vigilance shining their searchlights
along the station complex. I lowered my eyes to refocus my attention
on the neon forest in front of me, and ordered my senses on a wild
goosechase for a subway sign among the incomprehensible characters,
naturally this was in vain, instead I was left pondering about the
police officers guarding every street corner as far as the eye could
see, and rather more perplexing - why they were all carrying red
light sabers. Blade runner sprang into mind, as I argued with myself
weater this place had managed to pack more cops than the Red Square in
Moscow. Certainly the scenes of Genova or Gothenburg had put a scare
in the prefectural government, and in a country obsessed with safety,
they quite obviously would have none of it on Sapporo's neatly combed
streets. Oh yes, there were certainly a G8 meeting going on, the whole
town was bubbling with it - the subway it turned out, was a mere look
to my left, and in an instant I was whooshing below the streets of
Sapporo towards my hostel.

Japan has a marvelous, well developed grid of youth hostels, covering
almost the entire country, down to the tiniest islands, allowing one
to overnight for a mere 3000¥ (150 kroner) they do come with a bunch
of drawbacks though - strict rules and early curfews seems to be the
norm, Sapporo though, was blessed with a backpacker style hostel -
Ino's place - which i thoroughly enjoyed. Sapporo has a reputation,
fueled by a score of breweries, each with their own massive, and
cheap, beer gardens - and the notoriously famous Susukino nightlife
district - a peculiar mix of Soaplands (ill concealed brothels) and
more reputable establishments to fit any taste, and pocket. Hence the
lack of a curfew, was most welcome news, especially, after a week with
a car.

Sucking in the atmosphere, and people people watching, was quelled by
a sudden downpour, i dodged the rain by jumping in the door of a cozy
looking place, and suddenly found my self downing Carlsbergs,
entertaining a lovely crowd with travel tails, and getting fried about
what i liked and didn't like (the omnipresent seafood!) about this
corner of the planet - and pondered what wonder of chemistry made my
Japanese improve with each successive drink, or maybe it was the
confidence improving.

This was basically how my days waiting for a new credit card to arrive
from Denmark was spent. And when i walked through the door of Miccis
on my last day, and had a whole bar shouting お帰りなさい!
(welcome back), I had a big lump in my throat, and by the time I
stumbled through the doors of my hostel at 6 o clock in the morning, I
was 3 friends, and a place that would always welcome me back richer -
i will surely be on the lookout for a way to return here!

To little sleep later, I was checked out and on the train to Honshu
(the main island) Train buffs (even though I don't recall having any
friends who are) will be interrested to know I passed through the
Seikan tunnel, at 56 km, the longest in the world - between Hokkaido
and Honshu

- Stefan



Driving in Japan, as with most things in this country has some curious
quirks, the most obvious is being a member of the unholy alliance of
stubborn island nations along with the ""we are not European".
Britons and the "its just not worth the effort mate" Australians. who
all insist left hand drive is a jolly good idea, try doing a gear
shift from 1st to 3rd with your left hand and tell me once again that

And once again, like with most things, they've tried ridiculously hard
removing any possible risk of the endeavour of driving, this means at
the slightest sight of anything remotely resembling a house, or - god
orbit - a sharp corner, there will be a speed limit of 40 kmh, and
just in case you miss the signposting, they will print it with big
yellow letters across the road too! Overtaking is definantly not the
norm, but the ridiculously low speed limits have made even the Japanese
- or rather the Hokkaidians - guilty of speeding, by a good 30-40%
that is. Officials are quick to point out this has made Hokkaido the
most dangerous place in japan to drive, I'll bet you that the numbers
are still ridiculously low compared to the outside the world. And I
don't blame them one bit, the roads are so fun to drive its
ridiculous - thinly trafficked, in ludicrous good condition, and
jam packed with turns in just the right angle. This all contributed to
making the 400 km drive from Kushiro to Biei an all the more enjoyable
experience, especially driving through the southern reaches of the
Daisetsuzan national park was stunning.

Darkness had set in by the the time I pulled onto the parking lot of
the Biei potato inn, set among pretty farmlands in a valley tract with
a view over the Daisetsuzan Mountains, the whole area seemed to double
as Japans food chamber and a North European imitation for busy Japanese
people with too little time for the real thing - complete with
tractors whisking busloads of tour groups on carriages in between the
wheat fields towards touristy lavender farms. The hostel though was far
enough from the valleys main drag, to only attract a rather pleasant
crowd. My old teacher's advise that one knows that you speak a decent
Japanese when people stop telling you it's good, was ringing in my
ears, as the owner was doing just that.

- Stefan

Friday, 11 July 2008

Kushiro Shitsugen National Park


Kushiro Shitsugen is a national park on the south eastern coast of Hokkaido, unlike the rest of the parks on the island, Kushiro Shitsugen is flat - due to the expansive marshlands it covers, and as the surroundings - like the rest of Japan - is mountainous, it makes for some quite remarkable scenery. Access into the park though, is strictly restricted, so visitors are limited to some observation post and short hikes on the mountain ridges, at the outskirts of the park.

Which left me cruising around to the different areas with public access, in the car - with sunshine and a clear blue sky above, TV2 blasting out the speakers, and beautiful scenery all around me. I'm sure you're not supposed to see a national park like that, but I was thoroughly enjoying myself, and if any of the demonstrators of the Toyako G8 summit demonstrators flocking to island at this time, had moralized me on this fact, i would have proceeded to punch him in the face, with a big smile on mine. Besides after using public transportation all the way from Copenhagen to Sapporo, them extremist nutcases who all flew here, ain't got nothing on me! :-)

The youth hostel in Toro where i stayed was a homely affair, with a very nice lady doing her best to keep me, and the only other guest, happy during our stay - in particular she whipped off a fantastic dinner, which we enjoyed with dusk settings over the marshes, and beautiful cranes dotting the lake shore.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Akan National Park

Akan National Park

Farmland was wushing by the windows, but it was sometimes hard to
tell, since occasionally St Peter opened up the floodgates somewhere
high in the sky above Hokkaido, as i closed in on Akan dake, i seemed
to be getting closer to the source as i soon reached the clouds, and a
mist closed in on the road, in symphony with the dense forest now
surrounding my vehicle, and the twilight setting in, it felt like I
had entered another world. As i got deeper into the forest, deers
appeared out of nowhere, flew past the headlights, and disappeared as
quickly as they they had shown themselves. The magic dissolved when i
reached an intersection to a busier road, the mist cleared, and the
truckers had woken up from their slumber, and set of into the night.
As i switched on the indicator lights and turned onto the empty dark
and winding mountain road leading up to the Youth Hostel, a little
devil got hold of me, i turned on the long lights, gave an evil smile
to no one in particular, and pressed down the accelerator - and with
prodigy banging out the speakers, i cut every corner i could get near.

As the sun was battling the mist next morning, in a heartfelt effort
to start the day, i finished my breakfast and set out for some
sightseeing, hiking hadn't really taken of in this area, so i was
happy to have four wheels to take me around. The lake was beautiful,
and when i arrived there, the sun had been victorious! :-)

Look for yourself...

Unfortunately as i went for the heart of the National park, the
weather turned against me, and i in turn, turned around back to my
temporary residence and entered a nice warm Ofuro instead. Ofuro? You
may wonder, well it's a something in the way of a complicated bath;

Basically an Ofuro is an oversize bathtub, the Japanese it seems, are
more comfortable splashing around at least a couple of people in the
same bath, and have increased the tubs size to accommodate this
peculiar desire. In time this seems to have created some hygienic
concerns, and after chopping of gross peoples heads for a while,
someone who forgot his samurai sword at home, had the brainwave that
it might be a jolly good idea to have people wash before they entered
the bath, so that the number of farmers without heads, didn't start to
cause a food shortage - and so it was that little chairs and buckets
of water was provided for people to wash themselves before they
entered the bath. Another problem was the lack of laundry machines,
this was due to the fact that in feudal japan, electricity was limited
to tying frogs to metal wires during thunderstorms. This created a lot
of dirty towels that again created hygienic problems in the very same
baths that were supposed to keep the Japanese clean. The solution, now
that people had heads, someone thought, was simply placing the towels
on top of these, out of the water. A while later, a Japanese guy had
been splashing around his Ofuro for a while, quite disenchanted with
his rather dull bathing companions, and decided the the few
gaikokujins (outside country persons) was an untapped source of such -
so he decided to import and adapt the shower head, for washing ones
hair, only in the name of the aforementioned entertainment, the hose
was made so short you still had to sit on your chair, this both kept
the guy entertained as westerners tried to shower, and as an added
bonus this also happened to solve the problems of towels getting dirty
from unwashed hair (another side effect of leaving peoples head on).
This ongoing evolution of the bath has left taken a bath in Japan a
rather complicated affair for foreigners, and to this day, remains a
source of much entertainment to the splashing locals.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Daisetzusan National Park

Distance travelled: 16.358 km

First stop on my ''Tour de National park Hokkaido'' was the National park Daisetzusan, meaning the Great snowy mountains, Japans largest national park - where I installed myself in a local youth hostel in the small onsen (hot spring) town of Sounkyo, a rather touristy spot - Japanese style, complete with ropeways (cable cars) and towering hotel blocks, but the location was impeccable, nestled in between towering mountains in a narrow river gorge.

Naturally since I only have the car for 6 days, good old Murphy decided it to play his tricks, and current weather forecast for the next 6 days is saying rain - and only on Hokkaido that is! Not to despair, i set out on an 8 hour hike the next day, which took me over 3 mountain peaks, the highest being 2115 meters. For the first 5 hours, just as the weather forecast had predicted, I was being pounded by rain, gail force winds, and thick heavy clouds that only left a few meters of visibility. But on the last 2 hours the clouds suddenly cleared - and I realized the beauty of the scenery i had been going through. It was a faunal extravaganza extraordinaire, complete with pretty butterflies, crystal clear mountain streams and soaring rivers, I hope I've been able to capture some of it on the pictures.

Daizetsusan National Park

When i got back to the cable car i was absolutely spent, but I still had a 5 hour drive to the next stop, Akan National park. However when i return the car in Asahikawa, ill try to return to Daisetzusan, at another onsen town further west closer to Asahikawa, if the weather is better - it was mind blowing!

- Stefan

Friday, 4 July 2008


Distance traveled: 16.307 km

I arrived in Asahikawa by the Soya line, Japans northern most railway, from Wakkanai - it was an interesting train ride, as the landscape outside the windows looked nothing like the Japan i know, rolling hills with farms and expansive fields, that even didn't grow rice! at times i looked like it was Switzerland whooshing by the windows.

I had decided to rent a car in Asahikawa, to really be able to get around Hokkaido, and this was no easy feat as i turned out - high season - In the warm summer months the Japanese flock to Hokkaido, to escape the rainy season which bypasses Hokkaido, and more importantly to escape the smouldering heat of the southern cities, as Hokkaidos climate are much more temperate than the rest of Japan. Everywhere i tried on the Internet the message was clear, all sold out!

So while I was waiting for something to come up, I was absorbing the first large City of Japan, and getting into the Rhythm and mindset of the bustling metropolises to come, a compact city center made, and Aarhus size population, makes Asahikawa an easy city to get into tune with, although there is not much in the way of sights around. There was a famous zoo though, so i went there to pass some time, didn't find it particularly interesting, but an outstandingly cute baby Orangutan, and a Chimpanzee who spend his whole day posing (I mean really, seriously, it posed for the cameras!) made it all worth while :-)

Next day i had a car coming up, so i went there in the Morning and sorted out the paperwork - and tried to set of into the National parks of Hokkaido, but this was a bit more complicated as such, the car was an automatic which Ive never tried before, and on top of that, it was left hand drive - meaning brakes and accelerator was reversed, so was the indicator lights and windscreen wiper controls. So after figuring out how to get the damn thing started, I was so preoccupied with working the damn thing, that I proceeded to drive out in the wrong lane of a busy street - amazingly not a single driver honked their horn! And I got to my destination in one piece. :)

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Rebun Tō

Distance travelled: 16.047 km

The idea go to Rebun island, was much a matter of "well, I`m up here anyway". Part of a national park, the island is a two hour ferry ride west of Wakkanai. In port, the ferry was greeted by a barefoot Japanese hippie type, frantically waving the Youth Hostels banner, and screaming Okaerinasai! (Welcome home) - pretty much exactly how Lonely Planet described it would be. It hadnt quite prepared me for what was to come though!

Inside the minibus, i was told to forget about my intelligence, culture and shame, before i ever sat foot on the Youth Hostels property, rather odd request i thought. But when they rolled out the Pink carpet (rather than a red one), and i was told to scream Tadaima! when i opened the door, I realized I was up for something out of the ordinary - when my scream was returned by the whole Youth Hostel screaming Okaerinasai! while banging a odd variety of musical instruments, and giving a deep bow on all four, I was sure this was going to be an interesting experience!

I barely had time to eat, and chat with the 4 (lovely! :-) girls, I would be doing the "infamous" 8 hour trek with, before the 4 crazy crazy staff members, came shouting through the hostel, with a guitar, singing "MEETINGU! MEETINGU!" on so it was on to the first meeting! The meeting generally consisted of ALOT of singing, dancing, practical jokes about the neighboring island, and a bit of information about the Island, once i got over my shyness it was loads of fun! and i was so exhausted by 22 that I didn't mind the early lights out one bit.

Next morning, at 4.30!!! me and "my flowers" as they referred to themselves, set out on the locally world famous hachijikankoosu or The Eight hour course, for a 30 km hiking from the Northern tip of the island back to the Youth Hostel in the southern end, and after an hour or so of cold crap weather, the rest of the hike was absolutely stunning! cool people, beautiful sea and a wonderful scenery, not to mention the explosion of Alpine flowers covering whole island - but look at the pictures, instead of me yapping!

Rebun-to National Park

When we returned at 6 in the afternoon, rather exhausted, the staff had climbed the roof, and was frantically waiving a Japanese flag, while screaming their lungs out with welcome home song, and next morning when we walked for the ferry, the goodbye song and screams could be heard long after we lost sight of the Hostel.

I had a little lump on my throat, as the ferry departed, and the rest of staff, held a goodbye ceremony at the port, again singing and dancing their (and our) hearts out, to the great bewilderment of the rest of the passengers.

I can not stress this enough, if you're ever in Hokkaido, or even Japan, you quite simply have to go there! it was one of the best travel experiences I've ever had! And hopefully ill meet up with some of the girls in Sapporo and Nikko respectively, to revisit the feeling, and maybe some of the songs!


- Stefan


Distance travelled: 16.047 km

We arrived in the Terminal right on time, curiously even though i had headed straight south, the clock was set two hours back, I noticed this as i was standing behind a Russian shouting something in Russian to the immigration officer, who proceeded by giving him a vacant look and saying something in Japanese, fortunately I (and the Ambassador of Luxembourg!?) had suspected this would be the case - and raced for a front spot in the Que, and while the Ambassador was busy explaining there was indeed a country called Luxembourg, and that he as ambassador, of this independent European country, did not need to provide fingerprints, I had my entry visa stamped in my passport!

On my way out Wakkanai International Ferry Terminal, I was stopped by two Japanese police officers, who began questioning me of my plans for Japan, with questions printed in English over cute little cartoons. I was a little bit guttered by the fact that they kept pointing to the English questions, despite my best efforts to answer all the questions in Japanese. It wasn't until i saw the cover, that i realized that there is a G8 meeting, coming up here in Hokkaido, and Naturally the Japanese cant have any trouble makers coming in, they let me pass after a while though - so much for Stefan the terrorister :-)

Next point was to head for the Post office to get some Yen, and that didn't go quite as planned! You see the magnetic stripe on my Visa card had started to peel off, I blame the Gobi's damn sand for that one, and being Japanese, the ATM would have absolutely none of it! So it was onto my Mastercard, which i had raped to get money for the ferry ticket after my Rubles was stolen, naturally after such an horrendous experience, it did not cooperate, and suddenly i found myself in a situation much like the one in Kagoshima back in 2005! (everyone that knows me, should remember that story, since they have probably heard it a dozen times over late night beers!) I didn't like it one bit, as i knew my reserve cash was gone as well. Fortunately i had a small stock of Yen from my last visit here, and i was able to a crisp 10.000 Yen note out of the Machine after some convincing. So after some hunting around for some free wireless Internet, so I could have someone contact my bank. I bought my tickets for the Rebun ferry, and decided to wait till the weekend was over there, where the Youth Hostel was cheaper.


Turned out to be a splendid weekend, but more on that later.

- Stefan

Monday, 30 June 2008

Details Russia - Sakhalin - Japan route

Train Khabarovsk -> Vanino

From Khabarovsk to Port Vanino, where the ferry departs for Khomlsk on Sakhalin, there is a daily train #351 (23 hrs) departing Khabarovsk at 8.30 (01.30 Moscow time) and arriving at 7.37 local time, price was 1697 RUB for kupe, if you are not up for buying tickets yourself, Dalgeo tours close to the big church by the river park, has helpfull English speaking staff that can both issue train tickets and make reservations for the ferry (700 RUB)

Ferry Vanino -> Kholmsk

Ferry is operated by SASCO, ticket sales by SANES. You buy tickets inside the train station, the ticket office is right in front of you if you enter the station from the train platform. Be prepared for a LONG wait, it seems to take an average of 20 minuttes per passenger to issue tickets, probably a good idea to run there as soon as the train halts. It took 5 hours to issue tickets for all the passengers there. After the que is emptied, a bus leaves to the ferry, from the parking lot in the nothern end of the train platform. The ferry is old and rusty, but otherwise alright. Keep your ticket, as it's required to disembark! Ferry departure time is probably around noon and it arrives next early morning, price was 2300 RUB for a 2 room deluxe with private shower and toilet, shared economy cabins are between 600-1100 RUB.

Bus Kholmsk -> Korsakov

When you exit the ferry there is a passport control (along with the ticket control). As a foreigner you'll be required to register, so the customs officer will keep your passport, they will probably lead you to the terminal building to wait once all passengers have gotten off. Once they return with your passport you'll be required to state your exit point, exit date and accomodation, might be a good idea to have someone writing these details in Russian as no English is spoken. When you get your passport back, buses and minibusses departs for Yuzhno Sakhalinsk at the parking lot right outside the the ferry terminal, rate was 200 RUB, it's a 1-1,5 hour drive to Yuzhno, where busses stop at the station/post office
Busses and minibusses departs for Korsakov, from the Vokzal (the same place you arrive from Kholmsk), ask around and they will point you to the right bus, rate was 100 RUB, and it is a half hour drive to Korsakov.

Ferry Korsakov -> Wakkanai

It seems to change fairly often where you can buy tickets, but at June 2008, you bought tickets at:
Inflot Reidovyi 2, 1. etage Korsakov, Sakhalin
Its in the first floor of the big 3 storey building next to the MORVOKZAL (Sea terminal), there is a sign above the entrance that reads UPRAVLENIE, it's by the southern pier (Yuzhno port) head left after the park if you come from Lenin square. I had a fair share of problems with the security guard, who insisted i couldn't buy tickets in there, and wouldnt let me in - it took one of the ladies from the MORVOKZAL shouting at him to let me pass. Once you get in, climb one flight of stairs and go through the door on your right hand side, in the corridor there is a door with a sign that reads INFLOT in latin letters on your left hand side.
Tickets was 6000 rubles for a one way economy class trip. The staff (Anna) there was blessfully helpfull by Russian standards, however you are required to provide a hotel/hostel name, address and phone number in Japan, before they will issue you a ticket. I also had a little bit of problems explaining that Danes don't need a visa for Japan, but it worked out allright.
There is a hotel in Korsakov called Hotel Alpha, right at the northern end of Lenin square, the owner speaks alright English, and i got a 50% discount without even asking for it, so i paid 2300 rubles per night, rooms are large and the whole Hotel was recently renovated, there is even an English menu in the hotels restaurant. It might be worth going for and see if you can get a discount too, as hotels in Yuzhno are between 5000 and 7000 for a single.
When you arrive at the port before departure, the waiting area is inside the MOZVOKZAL, the small white building adjoining where you bought your tickets. Here you also pay a 400 RUB departure tax, at the cashier window (KASSA) on your right hand side when you enter. After which you enter the customs area, the officers here seemed fairly relaxed, put your baggage through the x-ray, and you're ready for immigration. When the waiting hall is full you'll be taken to a bus to the ferry, NOTE! You part with your luggage at this point, and won't get it back before the ferry terminal in Wakkanai, so pack anything you need on the ferry in a daypack. On the ferry you'll have a culture chock, everyone is smiling, profesional and helpfull.
In Wakkanai, hurry to be first in line when you disembark, so you won't have to wait behind Russians during immigration procedures - it's not pretty! Don't worry about your luggage, it's handed out after immigration. When you've given your fingerprints, had your picture taken, and had a customs interview, you're in Japan - yukoso!
If you're looking for the youth hostel, head for the ANA hotel (the tallest building in town) in the opposite end of the park to the entrance to the hotel, there is a small alleyway, head up this alley, which ends in the hostels entrance. Remember in Japan only the postoffices (yubinkyoku) ATMs take foreign issued creditcards, it's 5 minuttes from the Youth Hostel, they can hand you a map.
Now you're on your own, but if you delt with Russia, Japan should be a walk in the park :-) and by the way, the Youth hostel in particular, and Rebun island in general, comes with my highest recomendations! Now you're here anyway you'd really miss out not going there!!

- Stefan


Distance traveled: 15664

I departed Khabarovsk at 8, on a sunny morning, for my last trainride
in Russia, the train would take me north along the Amur river, well of
the transsiberian line - the effect was obvious, Russia isn't exactly
crammed with tourists, but on this train my presense was such a a
novelty that everyone on the adjoining carriages ended up knowing
there was a Daniya on board, and even though the combined english
vacabulary of the train was probably a 100 words or so, i ended up
chatting broken English all night. When we arrived in Vanino on the
coast early next morning i was exhausted. This was no good as it
turned out, as buying tickets for the ferry was no easy feat, dear
audience i kid you not, it took 20 minuttes to issue each ticket, and
with 60-70 people lining up, it was well into the day when somebidy
realized i was Danish, and had a reservation, as it turned out this
was the keywords into a land of milk and honey, as soon a Russian girl
shouted something and everyone made way for me to bypass the whole
que, curriously my ticket took only a few minuttes to issue. The
waiting time for the que to finish was infinitely more comfortable
with a book, a chair and my trusty iPod , after which 200 people
boaded a bus for 70, with luggage too, we practically was in layers. A
bumpy ride later we were by a rusting old ferry in the port, it turned
out the reservation from Khabarovsk, was for a deluxe cabin, with two
rooms, private shower and ocean view - with the aid of my saviours
from the ticket que and my portable speakers this turned into
something of a party pad :-) a 150 kr extra, but well spent. When i
woke up the next morning, we had stopped sailing, i looked out the
window and connected the lack of movement with a 2 meter visibility
outside, due to a thick heavy fog. It was 7 o'clock and we were
anchored just outside Kholmsk, but it was 11 before we made the final
kilometer into port.

At disembarkation we had our passports checked for some unknown
reason, and suddenly i found myself without a passport, it took a good
20 mins wait and a "interview" with an angry Russian lady who only
spoke Russian to get it back, quite perplexing as Sakhalin is laden
with foreign expats working in the booming oilfields.

We made our way to the island's primary city Yuzhno Sakhalinsk where
Antoni & Anja lent me a sofa in their quite nice 1 room flat downtown,
it was a bit akward as they didnt speak more than a few phrases of
English, it turned out to be a great deal more akward when he was
showing me around town in the evening, as it turned out he was a small
time gangster type, we drove around in a taxi, to one shady looking
shack after another, at one of them this guy disappears for half an
hour, and comes back so high as a kite, so much so that he couldnt
stand up straight! Made me quite pissed as half an hour earlier I had
lend him 300 kroner to buy food for their empty fridge, so we could
have some dinner, it was quite obvious that the money had gone to his
addictions instead! We wen't out to some clubs, and came home alot
poorer and late to their appartment. Next morning I made my escape for
a Hotel as soon as I woke up, I decided to get my ass to Korsakov, as
Yuzhno Sakhalin was really getting on my nerves, as it turned out my
feeling was justified as my "gracious" hosts had relieved me of my
reserve stock of Euroes, and the 10.000 rubles I had withdrawn for the
ferry ticket and hidden away in my backpack, but since this was
Russia, and you just don't deal with police here voulenteerly, there
was not a darn thing to be done about it, it was not like they would
have understood me anyway. So it was quite simply a question of
getting over it (rather hard considering the amount) and see it as
another late night travel tale.

My days in Korsakov, was spent preoccupied with buying ferry tickets,
which was no easy feat! After walking around town for a full day
asking around to no avail, everyone unanimously gave me the same
confused look when I mentioned Wakkanai and Japan, so much so that I
began wondering if service had been withdrawn? Next day I shifted
strategies, and was fortunate enough to find some Internet in the
postoffice, after a great deal of research I found a place down in the
port, that was supposed to sell tickets, but as I went there, and
asked around, All I got was a Njet and the same confused look. That
was until an old grandfather type worker from the port in Kansas
outfit, took me under his wings, and pumped some old ladies in an
official looking office for information. They agreed on the Mozvokzal
(sea terminal) which I found rather useless, as my visit there the day
before, had resulted in a Njet and a shake on the head. However,
undettered the old man showed me in his truck, and drove me there. At
first the equation, ended in much of the same result, until the lady
suddenly she conferred with a colleague, and pointed to the adjoining
office building along with some fast incomprehensible Russian.
Reinvigorated I went there, but soon came tumbling back to earth, as
my road to the land of milk and honey was blocked by a security
officer who's vocabulary only seemed to extend as far as 'Njet!', when
even 'open sesame, open' failed, I gave up, and decided to wait until
the Mozvokal ladies 1,5 hour lunch break was over.

After a bit of convincing, I got her to come along, the reason she
only needed a bit of convincing, was probably due to fact that she got
to yell at the security officer! ;-) I got in at last, only to find
the office closed!! I went up to a vantage point overlooking the
harbour and desperately scouted for the ferry, which I was sure was
certain was supposed to arrive at this time, but no ferry was in
sight, and I began contemplating on my options getting out of this
mess, none of them seemed particulary attractive.

However when I returned, the office was open, and Anna in there, gave
a confused look at my hands folded in prayer, as she answered that
they Indeed sold tickets for the Wakkanai ferry. Half an hour late a
walked past the security guard with a triumphant smile on my face?
Tickets for tomorrows ferry at hand! My smile was even broader, next
morning when I with a fresh exit stamp in my passport, walked over the
ferry ramp, and the staff gave a bow and a 'irreshaimase' as welcome,
beneath a Japanese flag lightly swaying in the seabrease. Ferry was
Modern, clean - not a speck of rust, and the staff friendly and
smiling, I could even understand them, it was culture chock

- Stefan

Friday, 20 June 2008


Distance travelled: 14.425 km

Khabarovsk, oh Khabarovsk how i love thee - jewel of the Amur...

I was getting wearier with Russia on the train by the minute, fortunantly I was lucky enough to have the compartment by myself, but every time i peaked out the door to get some fresh air from the open windows, eyes, suspicious eyes from bare breasted beer bellied men with bad hairdoes and tatoos, followed my every move - I was not very comfortable to say the least.

Nervously i walked through the train station, Had Russia really been this bad all along? As i entered the station square, i drew a sigh of relief, no it hadn't - two boys were playing in the fountain, couples were promenading, youngsters chatting away on the mobile phones, mothers watching their children playing around - no it hadn't - this was the normal everyday Russia i've grown to know and like.

Khabarovsk was much more though, as it turned out, out here in the far eastern corner, long away from Moscow, I had found a paradise city, well maybe paradise might be pushing it, but the gras was green, and the girls indeed pretty - suspiciously so, this was Russian girls Saint Peterburg style. As I looked around with a smile on my face, I also noticed that humidity was in the air again, I was closing in on the pacific, and out of the dirt dry air of the Siberian and Mongolian plains, it felt somewhat like landing in the tropics.

I found a Hotel, which again is eating money out of my wallet faster than i can get them out of the ATM (2150 RUB / 456 DKK per night), I had a much needed shower after 3 days on a train, and went for a walk around town, and was in awe by the lack of Soviet concrete, the massive parks, newly laid sidewalks, posh stores, and again - the pretty girls :o) As i got to the banks of the Amur i was further impressed by a beautiful promonade, stralleded with party tents full of young Russians laughing and drinking, and colourful lanterns in the trees. Yes, many a Russian city could learn from Khabarovsk. 3 days i've spend here, hanging out at the beach, drinking beer while peoplewatching. without being bored, every other Siberian town i've been through, you could see in a day.

Tomorrow it's of to Sakhalin island, and then it's just a short ferry ride away from Japan.

Might or might not get Internet for a long time to come, so if you don't hear from me the next 2 weeks, there shouldn't be anything to worry about.


- Stefan


Distance Travelled: 11.541 km

It was misty, or maybe it was smoggy, but it was early morning my eyelids were telling me that much. There was shouting, there was pushing - I was among Russians again, maybe the bus was overbooked, who knows, but the Mongolian driver seemed to have some sympathy towards the perplexed look in my eyes, and singled me out, showed my bag on the bus, and sent me to my seat - I was heading back to Russia. After hours of driving, on a surprisingly and pleasantly good road we broke for lunch, and i was showed into a little dining room, I ordered, glanced around, Russians all around me, and my eyes returned to the open Vodka bottle, i gave it a nervous stare - I knew all to well what was going to happen - the good old game of 'let's get the foreigner smackfaced in the middle of the day', that i by now knew all to well from the train rides through Russia - 10 cl and a meal later, I demonstratively empited my glass, which earned my an approving nod on the head from a fat Russian guy - "Where did you learn to drink Vodka?" his wife translated, "In Russia" i honestly replied, much to the satisfaction of everyone around the table.

Surprisingly unaffected (I dare any of you motherfuckers to drink me under the table when i get home!!) i boarded the bus, and soon we were at the border. It was mayhem - imagine a busload of speedtalking retirees returning from a new years sale in Flensburg, and you get the idea. Only instead of the beer cans, the tons heavy backs were filled with cheap chinese goods, and they had to carry it all through customs and immigration by themselves, UGH! I would have shrugged my shoulders about the whole scene 2 weeks ago, but by now i had been spoiled by the Mongolians. However, my reentry to Russia went surprisingly smooth, so I was all smiles after that.

It was raining by the time we reached Ulan-Ude, I looked around to try and find my bearings, a Lenin head the size of a mansion, left a clue, Ulan-Ude's main claim to fame, the worlds largest Lenin head. I was getting wet, so I scrambled for the first and best Hotel i could find, considering this was Russia, the punishment weren't to bad, 2000 Rubles (600 DKK) for a nice renovated single room, but a world away from the 4 USD a night in UB. It was late, I was hungry, but couldn't find anywhere to eat, instead i was followed around for 5 blocks by a dodgy looking type, Skinhead most likely, who didn't seem to take it lighty that couldn't reply to his questions in Russian. Lost him by going into a Cafe and ordering a coffee.

Next morning I had filled up my stomach, and looked around, quite attractive city by Siberian standards, many old wooden houses, and the people seemed quite pleasant, probably due to the many (majority it seemed) Buratyas (a Russian-Mongolian people) living there. In the afternoon i boarded the train for Khabarovsk, 51 hours, in a carriage filled solely with soldier type men. The scenery though, was gorgeous, Rivers, streams, mountains, wild flowers in full bloom in an explosion of colors, and then ofcourse the birch trees, allways competing with the stars about who outnumbers who. Time falling apart, days flowing together, back on the train.


Saturday, 14 June 2008


Distance traveled: 10884 km

Next morning, after too little sleep, I woke up about 20 minutes late for my trip, fortunately the friendly Mongolians we're still waiting for me, and drove me to the rest of the group. Swiss the lot turned out to be, topped of with a Japanese house wife, they we're all alright though.

The bus was one of those 4 wheel drive soviet minibuses that you see everywhere in Russia, wonderful piece of machinery, if it brakes it will rarely be anything not fixed with a good knock of a hammer! The driver was a Russian educated veterinarian and the guide a fresh university grad, money obviously is in the Tourism industry, which i found somehow saddening - it tourism industry does however bring a lot of much needed foreign currency into the country.

The Mongolian countryside was a world away from UB, and the people a world away from Russia, smiling, helpful, and generous to the extreme - just the smiles is enough to warm anyones frozen heart, especially after dealing with the Russians who (are very nice people, but) wouldn't bring up a smile on their face if their life depended on it.

We stayed with Nomadic families almost every day, they were however all camps that rented out an extra Ger (or yurt) to tourist tours, still, the hospitality was extraordinary and it was a fantastic experience brushing my teeth before bed time, with goats, camels, cows, dogs and sheep running around my legs. Our guide whipped up one great dish after another, in the most primitive of circumstances - Often the lack of electricity and running water, can somehow make you fell like you've traveled back in time, even the "roads" are nothing but bumpy dirt tracks (my rear quarters are still hurting from them) apart from being the exact distance of two wheels, might as well have been made by horses or camels. In the course of a few day our day rhythm changed to that of our Nomadic hosts, up by dawn and in bed my sunset, mainly due to the lack of electricity, and hence any form of lightning other than our flashlights.

The Gobi itself it not a dessert as we think of it back home, but rather dry barren land of sand and gravel, with a thin layer of grass on top - just enough to give the livestock something to graze on - it was all mind blowingly beautiful. And there was some extraordinary sights along our route, Especially the sand dunes seem to have left a lasting impression.

I leave UB on Sunday with a bus to Ulan Ude in Russia, enchanted by this far flung lands, and with a strong feeling that I some day will return here, with enough time and means to really explore this wonderful nation!

- Stefan

Friday, 13 June 2008

Last night in UB

Улаан баатар
Distance traveled: 9128 km

After waiting countless days, actually only 3, but being stuck somewhere, and especially in UB, makes it feels that much longer, I was finally set for going to the Gobi the next morning - that was until i ran into a speed talking obnoxious Brit, and he's two much more likable companieros, who offered me some Vodka, which following ancient Mongolian traditions, I - naturally - was unable to refuse. The events that followed this one glass of Vodka, felt - and still feels - rather surreal.

Having been rather bored in a couple of days, I had a hard time refusing going out with this lot, and so it was, that in the course of an hour, I found myself in a closed restaurant, at a Mongolians birthday party, and here I was in all honesty - force fed with Chingiis Vodka, which I must say is rather good, it is still Vodka however, and Vodka can only taste that good. But wait, the observant reader might go to wonder how exactly one is force fed Vodka?

In reality it's a rather simple procedure; you simply take one Englishman (preferably to drunk to speak coherent sentences) holding the subjects hands, add to that a Mongolian (preferably hell bent on getting the - often Caucasian subject - in the same condition as the aforementioned Englishman) pouring Vodka in a pint glass, and top off it off with a whole ensemble screaming drink! drink! drink! once step 1 & 2 have been completed - you'll get the gist of it.

This all seemed to be rather strange by itself, but the circumstances i found myself in, got even more surreal by the minute at this point. The birthday child turned out to be a cook-in-training at this closed restaurant, which i guess makes sense somehow. But apart from being a cook-in-training, I was here dealing with a Mongolian with broken English, who was a satanist, loved Norwegian Black metal and all things evil and had a heartfelt desire to join the Waffen SS, and even seemed to make a big deal out of the latter, in front of his (female) boss. Fortunately, battle hardened by Russia, I had a few defenses to the onslaught up in my sleeve, one of which was to leave 1/3 of the glass full each time (which is almost never commented on). This torture of all things sensible, continued at a Mongolian Techno club, where I was attacked (or rather given a light slap to my back head) by Buddhas fat Mongolian cousin (dunno maybe he had a bad experience with foreigners or whatever) not to worry, I was immediately defended by an armada of Mongolian guys (I told you they were a friendly lot) who promptly carried the attacker to the stairs, and in a rather impressive show of coordination threw this guy far down the aforementioned staircase. I needs to be noted that I at this point was far from the drunken state of my companions, which made the whole experience all the more odd.
To top of a very disorientating night, the birthday celebrant insisted on following us home to the hotel (cause: "I am waffen SS, I will protect you") after circling rather doggy neighborhoods for a very long time, and a great deal of asking when we would arrive at our much needed beds, we found out he was not at all protecting us, rather the opposite - since he went "I find great Mongolian slut women for you" - we got back to the Hotel rather quickly after that one!!!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Stuck in Ulaan Bataar

Улаан баатар
Distance traveled: 9128 km

I seem to be stuck in Ulaan Bataar (UB) for the moment, which is somewhat of a pity, since UB isn't exactly the most exciting of cities, rather drab concrete buildings and horrible traffic conditions makes this capital city a place you really only want to spend a day or two. However it does seem very exotic compared to Russia, and I'm staying in an excellent guest house in Ger's (traditional Mongolian tents) on an airy porch, at the top of a building, overlooking downtown UB. They have the cutest old Saint Bernard hanging around the driveway, and the owners daughter, the most adorable little thing ever, is in charge of the roadside store.

I've apparently arrived very early in the season, I've had a bit of a struggle finding a tour out in the countryside, which really is the reason to come to Mongolia in the first place. Prices have gone so much up that hiring a guide on your own in UB, really isn't much of an option anymore (unless you're lucky and find some English speaking person from the country side lingering here) .

So I've had to wait for a group to assemble somewhere at one of the many guesthouses, which finaly seem to be working out, so i should be leaving on Thursday, on a 10 day tour around the central and Gobi areas on Thursday. Which puts me in Mongolia way longer than planned, but from the pictures I've seen, and what I’ve heard from people coming back into UB - it's pretty damn amazing out there.

And except for their capital city, I really like Mongolia so far, while Mongolians didn't exactly have the most lucky draw at the gene pool - with their very round faces and long narrow eyes, the often reminds me of little Buddhas. However, to compensate, their maker instead made them into one of the most likable peoples on earth, they’re very very friendly and agreeable, even in hectic UB. Well - That is - until they get behind the wheel, and suddenly all the little Buddhas, turn into insane devils – hunking their horn every other minute, and make crossing the street seem somehow like a leap of faith. Being nice Mongolians, as they are, they will do their best to steer around you and avoid you any way they can - the drivers will even make skillful maneuvers into lanes with opposing traffic, but forced into a choice between pressing the brakes ever so lightly or running you down, they will not hesitate for a second, before mowing down any pedestrians in their way – It’s complete and absolute insanity! Oh, and in a last cruel sense of bad humor, who ever molded this bunch back in prehistory, made the language sound like a Greenlander who is speaking Chinese with a very thick accent.

Maybe the bad driving has something to do, with how long people have had cars. When communism fell here in 1992, Mongolia was a world away from western consumerism, as opposed to eastern Europe, who had it right at their doorstep – it seem to have cached on much slower here, but these days the winds of capitalism seem to be hitting with full force, and the old State Department Store, is now burgeoning with western goods from Gucci sunglasses to the first 100 different brands of shampoo. (and nothing resembling sunscreen grrr!!!)

Anyway, I’ll give you an update of my impressions of this far flung nation, when i return here in 11 days.

Ulaan Bataar


Buying train tickets in Russia

By popular demand here is some info about buying train tickets for the Russian railways...

Buying tickets
Let me start by saying that many of the websites that claim to have some authority in the issue, are full of rubbish, they just want to sell you tickets! It is indeed both possible and feasible buying the tickets yourself inside Russia, even if you - like me - don't speak a word of Russian.

Basically I've found the best way to do it is to write all the information down on a paper in Cyrillic, and hand it to the ticket lady, I've found something like this works just fine...

No 002
Train No 2
22.05.2008 23:45
Departure date & time

Свердловск -> Иркутск
Route - you can find the city names in Cyrillic in the Lonely Planet
1 человек, Купе
1 Person (find this in lonely planet) and traveling on kupe (2nd class)

Sometimes the ticket lady will ask if you want upper or lower bunk, just point up or down. If the train is full, she will usually just wave her hands in front of her, in any case it always seem to work out just fine in the end - Although it can take up to a good 45 minutes to get your tickets, including the omnipresent Russian queuing. I've been traveling in May and June, and haven't had a single sold out train, even the infamous No 4 (Moscow - Beijing train) went smoothly, even if i bought it 2 days before departure.

If you are not that adventurous - The German Railways (DB) - sells ticket to all Russian trains. And the Finnish railways (VR) sells tickets to most destinations in European Russia. Also there is a Russian only page that enables you to book your tickets online, often the hostel will be able to book ahead for you, so you only have to hand in a reservation number at the station.

Platzkart or Kupe?
Lonely planet makes Platzkart much much worse than it is, if you've ever been on hard sleeper class in China, they are basically the same thing, I would even dare to say platzkart is a bit better.

Kupe is more or less the same standard as a western sleeper train, just with all the Russian nips that goes with it.

The more stops you do, the more expensive it gets, however, the money you save by buying the tickets inside Russia, will usually make you able to do at least 4-5 stops for the same price.

Here are my tickets so far
Saint Petersburg - Moscow, Kupe, Train 005, 54.60 Euro / 405 DKK (bought in Finland)
Vladimir - Nizhny Novgorod, First class, Train 062, 1296 RUB / 267 DKK
Nizhny Novgorod - Kazan, Platzkart, Train 041, 534 RUB / 110 DKK
Kazan - Ekaterinburg, Kupe, Train 378, 1640 RUB / 338 DKK
Ekaterinburg - Irkutsk, Kupe, Train 002, 8495 RUB / 1752 DKK
Irkutsk - Ulaan Bataar, Kupe, Train 004, 2594 RUB / 535 DKK

Total: Saint Petersburg - Ulaan Bataar 3407 DKK / 16516 RUB

- The lower the train number, the fewer stops (faster), the higher the price.
- Platzkart is usually half the price of kupe
- 1 st class is usually 2-3 times the price of kupe

If you go with trains in the 300-399 range where you don't pay premium for speed, and go platzkart all the way, you are looking at a altogether different budget. However the stretches are already really long, and if you go on a slow train, on platzkart, they will feel even longer!

Two sites have schedules in a comprehensible language

- German Railways (just type departure and arrival station in the normal schedule)

- YourTrain (has a funny transliteration of some roman letters)

Also, they have touch screen computers on all the major stations, with schedule and reservation info - it's in Russian/Cyrillic only, but if you play around with it for a bit, it’s pretty easy to figure out. All the menu's have icons that are pretty self explanatory. Just type in the destination in Cyrillic, and you can get information on when the trains are going (the icon with the clock and arrows) , and how many seats/beds that are available on the departure (the icon with the clock and seats - you'll need to type in the train number)

Hope that helps :)

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Irkutsk & Mongolia by train

Иркутск & Монголия поездом
Distance traveled: 8015 km

One of the interesting thing about traveling over land is the gradual transformation you get to see, the further east I'm heading, the more Asians on the streets. And there certainly was quite a few Asians on the dusty sidewalks of Irkutsk. A run down city, that certainly doesn't seem to have a great deal of things going for it. Another thing I've noticed, is that on the other side of the dusty sidewalks - out on the street things are getting profoundly more Asian too - the Buses running in Irkutsk all seem to come from Korea - which is pretty easy to tell since they still have Korean advertisements on the side, and the prices on the side of the door is quoted in Korean Won. Also, half of the carpool seems to have been imported from Japan, since just about half the carpool in Irkutsk are with left hand drive - weird stuff! And all the fruits and vegetables here are Chinese.

Anyway, it is a pretty drab city as i said, so not much to tell... we cooked a lovely dinner ourselves at the hostels kitchen, after buying fresh groceries at the market, and then we had a party in the rather small kitchen, we all got pretty drunk - and Ben & Emma (whom i met on Olkhon) almost missed their train the next morning :-)

Anyway, following night i had a train at 5.13 in the morning to Ulaan Bataar in Mongolia, which was a real pain, but I got on it alright. Train turned out to be Chinese so the conductor (or Provodnitza as i seem to have adapted in my language) of my carriage was Chinese, this fact alone, made him infinitely more polite and service minded than his Russian counterparts. He even spoke a few words of English.

The border crossing between Russia and Mongolia, turned out to be something like the worst experience of the trip, not so much because of the border formalities themselves, which went surprisingly smooth, 5 hours at the Russian checkpoint (a full five hours quicker than Ben & Emma's border crossing into Russia) and half an hour at the Mongolian counterpart.

No, the thing was that I'd been having a few beers at the platform, when we were all suddenly asked to board the train, i really needed a toilet, but the toilet was closed and there was not a darn thing to be done about it! Imagine you're at a party, and are chatting to this really nice girl or guy, it's going really well, so you hold of going to the toilet, until the last possible minute, and you end up in a queue for 10 minutes - right? hold that feeling...

And add another 3 full hours!!!!!

Argh, that was a bad one, anyway my bladder held up for the challenge, and now i'm in Ganas Ger in UB!

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Olkhon Island

Distance traveled: 7775 km

It was a misty morning at the train station in Irkutsk, when I hit the northern outskirts of the Asian backpacker trails - It was quite easy to tell since the number of backpackers at the station outnumbered the 1 or 2 odd travelers I'd seen at other station, by quite a substantial factor.

Behind me was a 58 hour train ride of 3 nights and 2 days, which is long enough in itself, but was made even longer by the fact that my cabin mates turned out to be to elderly Russian women (I'd jokingly asked for 3 Russian chicks when i was in Ekaterinburg, so I guess God has a sense of humour anyway) Not only were they not terribly attractive, they also seemed to be terribly worried about my health and size, so they were constantly feeding me with bread, tomatoes, cucumbers and god knows what else. Anyway I survived, and I can testify that Russian hospitality is indeed legendary.

Anyway, battle hardened from almost 3 weeks in Russia, I decided 58 hours wasn't quite enough of a challenge, and decided to head straight for the bus station for my bus to Olkhon island in lake Baikal (another 5 hours on a terrible road). But knocked by head to a big "Njet" from the Babushka at the ticket window - Road was closed apparently - or as i found out, the road wasn't exactly closed, but the rules and regulations demanded it to be so, and so it was.

Hostel was sold out, arranged a home stay, and just as i was settling, the hostel suddenly called at said a minibus was leaving in 10 minutes - Naturally yours truly was on it :-)

Ran into a great group of people, 3 couples - a British, a Canadian/English and a Icelandic/Danish on the minibus - and safely there and quite exhausted, we ended up having something of party in the sunshine on the balcony of our Bungalow anyway. Late that night, and a bit tipsy, and in search of a cigarette, I banged my head against a really large Russian dude. Who gave me a grave look, and in a very deep voice uttered "ВOДKA!" - and so, Vodka it was - everything after that seems to quite blurry! :)

The Island was beautiful, unfortunately we had the worst weather they had seen this time of year, in many many years. Which made it all that more fortunate that the guest house we stayed in, was so lovable!

3 traditional meals a day was included in the ridiculously low price - which basically meant you went to the restaurant, and in a matter of minutes, you'd be eating the most wonderful warm Russian stew, with cabbage and bread. It was sooooo nice! The rest of the 3 COLD! days on the island went with playing cards, sitting in the Banja (sauna)

... And lastly, we went on a grand tour to the north Cape of the island, with this wonderful Russian grandfather type, in his old army truck - the dark gray sky made the whole scenery look so dramatic - sometimes you'd look around and imagine you were on Greenland. And sometime it would look like lush Steppe. Our granddad for the day even made wonderful soup in a bowl under the open fire.

I'm back in Irkutsk now, and even though it's only a 5 hour (which is basically like 1 stop with the s-train, by Siberian standards - which I'm getting all used too) and we were riding though huge piles of snow in the mountains, here in Irkutsk you can wear T-Shirt and shots , pretty crazy!

Anyway, have 2 days here, and then I'm of with a train to Ulaan Bataar - The capital of Mongolia - on Saturday.


- Stefan

Monday, 26 May 2008


Distance traveled: 4160 km

We'd gotten of the train, and was trying to figure out a way to get to this Hotel - The Bolshoi (meaning large) when we bumped into a Swiss girl, escorted by to men in rather fancy uniforms. Turns out this was the case of two Russian gentlemen who had met our new friend on the train, and during their 5 hour layover, had insisted on escorting this "lost" woman to her hotel - In reality, they didn't have the faintest clue where this Hotel was, or how to get there - what they did have though, was the ability to speak Russian :-) and they did get us there, it has to be said.

Russia being the horribly expensive country it is, we opted for rooms without private showers, much to the bewilderment of our two captains, who was fighting a loosing battle trying to translate for us, add the confusion of 3 westeners on one hotel, going in two different directions, on three different days, to the registration paperwork - and we had a rather hillarious situation on our hands :-)

Anyway, we got our hard fought rooms, and we were all rather impressed with the place, until we arrived at our corridor, in the unrenovated section - and in a flash we were back so Soviet times!

Unpacked the girls had their comrade captains waiting, so we all went for drink, which very appropriately, since they were navy officers, hapenned on the Yellow submarine bar. Turns out that even though they were both 28 years old, we were the first foreigners they had ever met, seemed like we were making a rather good impression, since they had a 2nd beer with us before their train - and they weren't allowed to drink alcohol in the first place :)

We followed them back to the station, turned out they had been on the train for 3 days, going from Vladivostok, had another 8 hours, before they reached their destination, where they only had 3 days of recruitment to do, before they were going all the way back! crazy! Anyway we wen't back to the Hotel and a some beers and wine before going to bed.

Next morning we all went to the border between Europe and Asia, and had a foot on each continent, apparently it's very scientific, and the real deal, even though it didn't look all that impressive.

In the evening we were listening to music and drinking beers in the sun, at a bar in the park by the Hotel, sitting there enjoying myself, I had to admit that Russia is really growing on me!

Anyway goodbye to the girls, as i had a very late train to catch 1:45 at night, it even turned out to be an hour late, for a 3 nights and 2 days, train journey all the way across Siberia to Irkutsk. A journey of almost 3000 km

Monday, 19 May 2008



Well it took some convincing to get Phillipa here, but glad i did
since Kazan was an awfully civilized place, compared to what i've seen
of the rest of provincial Russia or even Moscow.

We arrived horribly early in the morning, possibly since we an a
heartfelt effort to fit in with the locals, drank some balticas before
bedtime. But the fact we were woken up a full hour before arrival, did
feel a bit like she was giving us a light taste of her migthy
powers! :-)

Safely at the station we were joined by one of those rare English
speaking locals, who offered to give us the grand tour. Which we did,
after a fair bit of dificulty getting our onwards tickets - Phillipas
name on the ticket had been past a russian numeraligist and was now
"Nationality Australian" in Mongolian. Not really useful neither for
boarding the train, or as proof of stay!

Anyway after all the fun, we joined our local, for a guided tour of
the city; the beautiful Kremlin and the old city. Before going on a
rampage in search of Bliny's for breakfast, all in vain, and rather
tragic our search ended on the local McDonalds - the only place open
this early. Next stop was an enjoyable wet picnic by the fountain in
the local park, featuring some very good local brews - and
fortunantly, this being Russia, no one found it the sljghtest bit odd,
to be drinking beers 11 in the morning on a weekday.

Out guide left to attend some Buisness, so we went in search of some
internet on the local university - guys im telling you, even CBS had
nothing on this place in terms of chicks :-)

Day ended hanging out in the sun, on the local beach, with view to the
lovely Kremlin.