Saturday, June 16, 2012

Thailand, China, and Mongolia

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Well, once again I'm behind on my updates. I'm currently sitting on a ferry going from Helsinki, Finland to Stockholm Sweden. Obviously, both of those places are a long way from Indonesia, which is where I last left off. Sorry. 

A lot has happened since then, but in the interest of time and (hopefully) getting you all up to present-day in my story as soon as possible, I'm going to make this more a of a bullet-point summary of Southern and Eastern Asia. I feel bad about doing this because these were very interesting places and I have lots of stories to share – I just don't have time (or energy) to write about them right now. You'll just have to get the rest of the stories next time you see me :-) 

I think I've said before that I'm constantly trying to figure out the optimal balance for my time. It's always split between three things: enjoying and experiencing the current moment, writing about and digesting what happened in the past weeks, and planning/logistics for the coming weeks. All three are equally important, and somewhat mutually interdependent, but since I've been changing locations so frequently and covering so much ground so fast, my writing has been loosing in the tug-of-war. Alright, enough with the excuses.  

I knew before I started on it, that this section of my trip would be a bit different in that I would spend most of my time in transit, only stopping for layover and rest days, rather than taking time to actually get acquainted with places. This was a necessary evil in order to maximize the time I had to spend with friends. As I've said before, I know that I have much more fun visiting people I know rather than sightseeing by myself,  skipping out on some things along the way, for example, the Great Wall of China. 


  • A short flight from Jakarta, Indonesia to Kulua Lumpur, Malaysia, and then an overnight train on into Thailand. This was my first experience with sleeper trains. I enjoyed it. Way better than buses. It's a good thing that I liked it because there were many more nights on trains to come. 
  • I stayed 2 nights at Railay Beach near Krabi, Thailand. A wonderful picturesque beach, with warm water, white sand, and lush jungle on all sides. Combine those with relatively cheap prices and great climbable limestone cliffs all over and you can understand why it's a favorite destination for climbers. 
  • Overnight van/bus combo to Bangkok. The price was too good – I should have known something was fishy. We only stopped at places where the only food, water, and toilets in sight were owned by friends of the drivers. During the night, the luggage we had placed under the bus was searched for valuables. Unfortunately, this is something that is fairly common in Thailand (the bus drivers are in on it), so most of us kept our valuables in our carry-on bags. I slept with my small carry-on in my arms or with my feet in the straps in such a way that I would feel it if it were moved. The girl behind me had her backpack at her feet, but someone still stole her iPad. There is a lot that could be said about this, but worst part for me the is feeling that you and your stuff aren't really safe while you're sleeping. 
  • Spent half a day in Bangkok waiting for the train headed for Laos. I visited Bangkok during my last trip to Thailand/Laos, so there wasn't much that I wanted to see, but I did enjoy getting out and seeing some new sections of the city. 

  • The night train was uneventful. It felt very restful and secure compared to the night before. When we arrived in Laos the next morning, I was talking with some other travelers about my plans to continue on to Vietnam via bus later that day. They asked if it had been easy to get my visa for Vietnam. What visa?!? I had read that there was a visa-on-arrival option for Vietnam, but apparently even that option requires some kind of letter in advance. Quick research on the train (thankfully I had saved the info to my computer) revealed that getting the visa in Laos would take at least 3 days – days I would have to sacrifice from somewhere later in my schedule. I started looking for alternatives. Was there a way to get into China without going through Vietnam? Answer: Yes! The guy at the hostel said the bus was leaving for Kunming, China in less than 2 hours, so I had to make a decision fast. It wasn't an easy decision. First because it was a 50 hour bus trip on bumpy roads through a part of Laos and China that doesn't get tons of visitors. And second because it would put me on a completely unplanned route for at least the next 4 or 5 days. I would be back on on schedule by the time I got to Beijing, but I didn't know anything about the places or route in between. Also, keep in mind that I had spent the last night/day on a train and the night before that on a sketchy bus.   Contrary to what might seem like an obvious decision, I quickly bought some more food and drinking water and hopped on the bus.
  • This was my first (and maybe last) trip on a sleeper bus. Instead of seats, they have narrow bunkbeds stacked 2 or 3 high. Apparently very common in China for long trips, and probably the most comfortable way you can spend a 50 hour bus ride. It's still a bus, and the roads are still bumpy, but it could have been worse. I slept a lot, looked out the window, listened to all of my podcasts and read travel guides. No one else on the bus spoke English, so the purpose of our stops was always a surprise – I had to watch everyone else to figure out if it was a food-, bathroom-, gas-, water-, or smoke-break. Not that we needed the smoke-breaks; everyone seemed perfectly happy to just smoke on the bus. :(


  • Border crossing into China went over without a hitch. Hooray, my visa worked!
  • I spent 3 nights in Kunming. I didn't do much sightseeing there, but I needed a couple days to recover after spending the last 4 nights in buses and trains in 3 different countries. In Kunming I stayed a very comfortable hostel and spent a lot of my time on my laptop figuring out train schedules to Beijing, Mongolia, and Russia, making couchsurfer connections in those places, and refining my schedule for parts of the trip further down the road (and double checking that I wasn't making any more silly mistakes like that visa for Vietnam). I did do a little sightseeing in Kunming. Check out the photos. 
  • The train from Kunming to Beijing took 2 nights. I had a really good time on that train ride. It was clean and comfortable, and the 5 other people sharing my compartment/berth area were really friendly. One girl spoke pretty good English so she helped translate. The views out the windows during the day were pretty nice too. Small talk via translation and hand signs got old after a while, so I decided to see if they wanted to learn some knots. I had some rope (useful for many purposes when traveling), and knots are easy to share even without words. They loved it! Especially the grandma in the group – she kept calling me teacher and wanted to learn every knot I could show her. They kept practicing over and over until they got them all – bowline, square, figure eight, double fisherman's. I loved it too. [Yes, Chris Swift, I can hear you laughing already]. 

  • I spent 2 nights in Beijing. Just enough time to have dinner with a couchsurfer, figure out how to book my train ticket to Mongolia (not as easy as you would expect), and see some of the main sights.  It might have been the weather or just the timing, but Beijing wasn't my favorite place. There were some nice things to see, and I'm sure even more nice things I didn't see, but I'm happy I didn't schedule a long stop there. 
  • The train from Beijing to UlaanBaatar, the capital of Mongolia) worked out perfectly in the end, but but there was a lot of uncertainty initially. There are three options for getting to UB: 

    1. Since this is the first leg of the Transmongolian Railway (one of the Transiberian routes), so you can buy a ticket on one of those trains. It will cost of about 200$US, takes 1 night, and departs twice a week. 
    2. They attach an extra carriage to the back of the Transmonglian trains. The extra carriage stops at the border when the rest of the train continues into Mongolia. It's a lot cheaper since it's not international, but you have to get out at the border town, spend the night, and then cross the border the next day by jeep and catch a Mongolian train on the other side. Total cost around 60$US and takes 1 or 2 nights depending on the mongolian trains. 
    3. The third option in a combo of 1 and 2. You buy a ticket for the cheap, non-international train carriage and then while you're en route, if there are extra beds in the international train you can pay the conductor for an upgrade at a highly discounted rate. But, if there aren't any extra beds, you have to fall back to option 2 and spend the night in the town in the middle of nowhere. Total cost of about 100$US and only 1 night. 

  • I was lucky and option 3 worked for me! Upgrading to the international train also meant that I was, for the first time in about a week, traveling with other Westerners again. I enjoy traveling with locals and getting the immersion experience, but on those long trips sometimes it's nice to be able to speak English. 
This is where the track widths change from the standard size to the Russia size. The bogies have already been switched in this photo. 


  • I only spent 2 nights in UlaanBaatar, and since Mongolia is such a huge place with relatively poor transportation infrastructure, most of what I saw for Mongolia was from the train on the way to UB and from UB to Russia. What I saw from the windows was really beautiful, especially in the north: rolling hills covered in grass, semi-nomadic families living yurts (locally called “gers”), some of the cleanest looking water, and pretty rives. The southern part I didn't see as much of since we went through at night, but it's a lot of really big desert. 

  • UB itself was interesting. It's a big city, but not very dense. They have a lot of room to spread out. Half of the country's population lives there, but the low density leads to a certain feeling of disorganization. There are some nice sights in town (see the photos) and the people were nice. I tried some traditional food, which as you would expect coming from a nomadic culture is largely based on animal products – meats and cheeses. I did like some of the foods (eg buuz ), but others (eg milk tea) I did not. 
  • From UB, I took a train straight into Russia, all the way to Irkutsk, near Lake Baikal (oldest, deepest and most voluminous freshwater lake in the world), but you'll have to wait until the next post to hear about Russia. 
--- I updated the map, photos, and itinerary sections, so go check out the new additions in the links above --- 


  1. How nice to have my evening, armchair reading available again - missed it!! Aunt K

  2. "sometimes it's nice to be able to speak English"... interesting, I think you were the last person I spoke English to in person.