Wednesday, June 11, 2008

STUCK IN (the country formely known as) THE USSR

We left St Petersburg on Monday for Vilnius in Lithuaninia. Around 2.30am we were woken by customs and immigration guards, after some checks and smiles they noticed our Visa had expired. "Collect your bags please and get off the train". We thought we had 31 days from entry, we hadn't. "You have overstayed your visa, you were supposed to leave by 8th June", it was now 3.30 am on 10th June.

We explained, and hoped they would let us off with a fine, but they said sorry you've got to go to Migration Service at Pskov and get a new Visa. "We don't, want a new visa we're trying to leave", "sorry it's the law". We thought they might be searching for a bribe, we asked again, "can we pay a fine", "No, sorry, you must get a new visa". They were strict but pleasant, they wrote down directions in English, helped us get a ticket to Pskov and even escorted us on the train carrying some bags.

We were minutes from the border, leaving Russian and now they were sending us two and a half hours north east back into Russia.

To cut a long story short we had a fun day in Pskov, got our new visa (not too expensive), we escaped the (not so cheap) fine (we think), after we went white at the price. She suggested we could busk, and even offered to lend us her nice hat. We explained the mis-understanding again, which she added to our record. We gave our finger prints. Talked about football, Russia were playing Spain that night (they lost) and wished us a safe trip, asking "Do
you want to come to Russia again", "Yes" we replied. Back at the border the friendly migration guards from last night asked the same questions. And added "Next time pay attention to your visa, Happy travels and God Save the Queen!".

We are now in Warsaw, heading to Poznan to see our mate Shanny, then home via Koln, Brussels, London, Birmingham New Street. See you soon! :)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

St Petersburg

We are now in St Petersburg, after Jumping off The Great wall of China and catching the Trans Mongolian/ Trans Siberian Train. Nearly home, we'll be back in week!

It's lovely and sunny here. We hit the town last night, the plan was to explore the city during the 'white nights' , being as north as the orkney islands, in June they only have 45 mins of dark before the sun comes up again, we didn't get to see the bridge's open ... but we had a great night in a very Russian club

We've put some photos up on facebook and flickr I'll fill in the gaps on the blog later, I hope:)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tibetan Olympics

Lodup, our Tibetan friend in Dharamsala, India told us that The Tibetan Olympics started today, you can follow it here:

Friday, May 16, 2008

Journey to Mongolia

We left Beijing Wednesday morning at 7.45am. We brought the cheapest ticket, hard sleeper 148 RMB (11 pound), but got a 4 x bed cabin all to ourselves. We closed the door and got comfortable.

We'd brought some blue cheese, fresh breads, tomatoes, red onion and of course red wine. We started our journey out here from Brum with Champagne so we had to do the return leg in style too.

It was a beautiful train journey leaving Beijing sprawling city into countryside and then the mountains, the train went past and alongside The Great Wall. After the mountains was the flat plains of Inner Mongolia. Which looked stunning especially as the sun was setting.

There was a quite a few foreign travellers on the train, many on a group Trans Mongolian trip. Traveling with a guide everything arranged. I chatted to a few I met in the corridor, but we spent most of the trip snug in our own private cabin.

Read some of our books, I put aside Will Self's ‘Book of Dave’ for a bit and picked up Paul Theroux's Riding the Red Rooster. His account of his journeys through China in the late 80's. It starts with him taking the train to Mongolia with a group.

‘The people from the tour were still acquainted with each other. They asked me questions too. Where was I from What did I do? Was I married? Did I have Children? Why was I taking this trip? … First time in China?’

We were glad to be alone, for a while. We've met some great people on our trip but it can get tiring answering the same questions over and over.

“I was Paul, I was unemployed, I was evasive, and – how does Baudelaire put it? – ‘The real travellers are those who leave for the sake of leaving’ and something about not knowing why but always saying Allons!”

We got to Erlian near the border around 20.30 that night. We got off the trains and tried to get an onward ticket to Ulaanbaatar.

The train was there for 2 and 3/4 hours, whilst they sorted Immigration and changed the train bogie’s. Our Trans-Siberian Handbook explained ‘The Chinese railway system operates on standard guage (as do Europe and North America), which is 3 1/2 inches narrower than the five foot gauge in the former Soviet Union and Mongolia. Giant hydraulic lifts raise the carriages and the bogies are rolled out and replaced.’

We thought it would be easy to get our onwards tickets here but no, we was stuck, we had to stay another night in China. (We should have asked to upgrade our ticket on the train (a traveller writing on LP Thorntree said they did this for $33). We could have got a direct ticket in Beijing but that would be easy wouldn't it? (It was also much more expensive at 780 RMB)). The tour group, filed off the train, shopped at the 'duty free' then got back on the train. We didn't envy them?

We tried a few hotels near the station, "Mayo" - don't have, it was late and dark many places looked shut, but thankfully a taxi driver found us a nice hotel for 80 RMB. I had a Tsingtao Beer, 4 RMB from the 'duty free and watched Twin Peaks on DVD in the room before crashing.

We got up early and headed to the bus station buying a ticket to the border town, Zamyn-Uud. We had a few hours to kill before the bus at 10.30am so had a wander round the pleasant enough town in Inner Mongolia and caught up with emails and news at a 'Wang ba', Internet Cafe.

On the bus we met Jaggi and Chandra, two Mongolian students returning home after a year studying in Alliabad, Utter Pradesh, India. The border was a mess of lorries, jeeps, busses and people, there was no order just a mangle of vehicles. After going through Immigration we got back on the bus, we sat there, it was quite hot and sunny. Their was no way we were going anywhere. After a while our driver got out and moved some of the jeeps with some help. We got through eventually. Back on the bus we got talking to two Mongolian girls who were also returning from study in India, the parents of one of the girls was also traveling with them. We all headed to the train station together and found a place to sit and put down our bags. Jaggi helped us get our tickets for the train to Ulaanbaatar later that night. We then took it in turns to get food or look after the bags.

We had rice, salad, coleslaw and a potato stew. Everyone else had the same but with meat, it looked like beef goulash. It was more East European than Mongolian but Jaggi and Chandra wolfed it down, ‘we miss this food’, you very rarely find beef in India.

We had been warned it was difficult to get Vegetarian food in Mongolia, the lonely planet guide said ‘Indeed, up until recently the Mongolian language only had one word to describe both grass and vegetables’.

We shared a carriage with Jaggi and Chandra. They had the bottom bunks and we had the top. There was no guard to stop you from falling out. Karen tied herself in with her shawl.

We passed many goods trains full of logs heading for China. Chandra shook his head ‘Our people are destroying our country, selling it for easy money, selling it to China’, ‘they don’t care about the country or future, they are not educated, they don’t understand, they just think money, money, money’.

Later, whilst staying in the countryside in Mongolia, we saw a brave report on Mongolia’s 9TV channel. Huge sways of forest were being cleared. The female reporter was being harassed by security guards, she continued her report anyway. A security guard stole the microphone. We then saw local Mongolians come to help her. They kept the security guards at bay, so her report could continue. The report was in Mongolian but we got the jist. The reporter went to a nearby factory, the logs were being made into chopsticks, which looked like the disposable sort. China's appetite for disposable chopsticks eats up 25 million trees each year*. In our short time in China we had used many, even though we tried to carry some with us.

It is not only exports that is fuelling Mongolia’s deforestation. As Mongolia becomes more Urbanised, over one third of Mongolia now lives in the capital Ulaanbaatar, there is an increased demand for wood to build houses as well as fuel for cooking and heating.

It was good travelling with these bright passionate students, they told us a lot about Mongolia, it’s proud long history, it’s customs and cultures. Their English was excellent, they had picked up a touch of the Indian English accent and even the Indian head wobble. ‘Mongolia is very friendly country, you’ll love it, we have a strong tradition of looking after travellers’. They told us about ‘Ger’s’ the traditional Mongolian home, (The word ‘yurt’ is a Turkic word introduced to the west by the Russians, Mongolians call them ‘ger’).

They spoke of Shamanism, Buddhism, horse riding ‘we invented Stirrups’ and of course Chinngis Khan. Named Temujin, (Ironsmith) at birth, in 1189 he was given the honorary name of Chinggis Khan, meaning ‘universal (or oceanic) king’. In 1206 he was proclaimed leader of ‘all the people who love in felt tents’.

Jaggi and Chandra both proudly told us that ‘Chinggis Khan was voted man of the Millennium’ and that he created ‘the largest empire the world has ever seen’. By the time of Chinggis Khan’s death in 1227, the Mongol empire extended from Beijing to the Caspian sea.

Jaggi and Chandra made some Instant pot noodles then went to bed. We soon fell asleep too.


Paul Theroux's - Riding The Iron Rooster - By Train through China. Penguin 1988.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Torch Relay in Hong Kong

The Olympic Torch Relay went through Hong Kong this Friday the 2nd of May. Friends of ours planned to distribute copies of His Holiness' recent public statements in both Chinese and English ( in the hope of increasing awareness of his stance.

They had banners with messages appealing for "The Middle-Way Approach" of Genuine Autonomy for Tibet, (avoiding any messages for a "free Tibet" or a boycott of the Olympics). They said, "It is frustrating to be so helpless in the face of the humanitarian matters which extend far further than the issues facing Tibet and its people, and however small these efforts are, please, if you have the time, any and all help will be greatly appreciated."

They met at the Central Government Pier at 2:30 pm.

See: The Middle-Way Approach; "Genuine Autonomy" for Tibet at:

The Guardian reported:

"Police removed human rights protesters from the streets of Hong Kong this morning as the anger of pro-China supporters flared on the first day of the Olympic torch's domestic journey."

We have not heard from them yet, we hope all went well and was peaceful.


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Violence in Tibet, Protests at Olympic torch relays

Langmusi, originally uploaded by Nice Logo.

We are now back in Kunming, China. Happy to be back in China but sad to leave Laos. Since we were last here there has been lots of international protest against China in the run up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and scenes of terrible violence in Tibet.

The first protests in Lhasa and other Tibetan communities around the world occurred on the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule which forced Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to flee into exile in India
. These were the biggest Tibet protests in 20 years. It's terribly sad to hear that these protests turned violent and according to eye witnesses in Lhasa "Chinese and Hui Muslim places were targeted" . Tibetan sources say over 80 Tibetans were killed by the Military.

China is a great country, which should not be (as always) viewed solely by the actions of its government.

From our experience the Tibetans we met were not 'anti Chinese' but simply wanted more autonomy and freedom in their homeland. The Chinese Media is so heavily controlled it's hard for Chinese people to have a true debate on Tibet or indeed human rights in China as a whole.

We should also not forget that Tibet is not the only Chinese province to suffer barbaric treatment from its Beijing masters, as Charles Cumming highlights in a recent Guardian comment, 'Quiet death in Xinjiang'.

The Chinese government claims that the Dalai Lama is behind the violence and has even gone as far accusing
'the Dalai Lama and his supporters yesterday of plotting suicide attacks in the wake of last month's violent protests in Lhasa.'

But, Could the violence have been sparked by Chinese agent provocateurs?

There have been Military crackdowns in Tibet and around China / Tibet. The beautiful peaceful town of Langmusi (Hezuo), a small mostly Tibetan town we visited in November last year has been the site of a military crackdown after protests there. As has Labrung (Xiahe) and Lhasa. Not that much of it is reported openly/ fairly here in the heavily controlled Chinese Media. CCTV the Chinese state broadcaster has been running footage from the Lhasa riots on loop, blaming the 'Dalai Clique' and splitists for the violence, whilst avoiding the issues.

CCTV9 China's 'International', English language channel aired this 'documentary'.

Part One above, Click here for Part Two

Below is one of the reports from Channel 4 (UK) which gives some perspective from Tibetans including their allegations that over 80 Tibetans were killed by the Military.

The Dalai Lama, has said that he does not support an Olympics boycott.

Protests have followed the Olympic torch relay from Olympia to Beijing. I've been reading about some of these protests (Olympia, Athens, France, London, San Fransisco, Tibet, China) on The Guardian site, which doesn't seem to be censored or blocked here. The English language version of the BBC website is not blocked anymore in China as it was last time we were here, although the Chinese language version of the BBC site is still blocked. Most of YouTube is blocked again in China, The China Post (From Taiwan) reported that access was denied to the site 'after footage of recent deadly protests in Tibet appeared on the video posting site.'

Tourists and Journalists are being denied or given restricted access in Tibet and China.

Our site is still blocked in China and I can't find a working proxy yet. We can write, but not read it here?!

What's really sad is that whilst the activism across the world has grabbed a lot of Media attention, it doesn't seem to be having a positive effect within China. Many Chinese see it as "Anti Chinese" and may miss the pro-humanitarian concerns of many of the campaigners.

A comment on my Team Tibet film, by someone mocking the Chinese Communist Party, CCP, said "thank you "Free Tibet" Activist, thank you for taken the minds of Chinese people off of the corruption and the problems of the CCP. thank you for inciting their nationalism against all foreigners trying to sabotage the olympics. They support us now, and we've never felt more secure in power. thanks again. CCP"

The Campaigning website is launching a campaign: SAVE THE OLYMPICS, asking China 'to save the Olympics for all of us, by making specific, reasonable progress in dialogue with the Dalai Lama, securing release of Burmese and Tibetan political prisoners, and supporting peacekeeping in Darfur.' ... They explain 'our campaign aims to reach out to China and Chinese people to show that we're not anti-China but pro-humanitarian'


Our Photos from Tibet and China
Our Team Tibet film
Reports of Troubles in Tibet on: BBC, Guardian, Times
Channel 4 news reports on Youtube:
Biggest Tibet protests in 20 years, Tibet deadline passes: death toll disputed, China denies using force in Tibet
Accounts from Lhasa and beyond - BBC
The Olympic torch's shadowy past
Tensions in Tibet - BBC
Olympic Games 2008 - Guardian

The challenges of reporting in China - BBC
Tense Time at Tibetan Monastery - BBC
Tibetan Monk Speaks out
China's quandary over Tibet's future
Stories China's media could not write - BBC
Joanna Lumley talking in the Guardian about her support for Tibet
YouTube access blocked in China after Tibet clips appear - The China Post
Lonely Planet - Thorntree Travel Forum - Tibet
I predict a riot -
Björk upset the Chinese authorities by shouting 'Tibet, Tibet' during a recent concert. But can music really bring down governments? - Jeremy Kuper - The Guardian.
Brit spies confirm Dalai Lama's report of staged violence
Quiet death in XinjiangChina struggles to quell Tibet rebels
Save the Olympics - Avaaz Campaign

(Note: I have since edited this post, whilst in Hong Kong, where there are less restrictions, and added a few more links when I got back in the UK).

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Luang Prabang, Laos

Team Tibet Film