Two continents. Four countries. 40 days. Over 9.000km of air travel. Over 13.000km of train travel. Endless possibilities.
01.08.2013 29 °C
Earlier today, I picked up the last of my travel documents at my local STA Travel office.
I got the idea for this trip last September, and I've been looking forward to it basically that long. That's ten months of reading blogs, looking at pictures and deciding what's actually worth my money.
I realised pretty early on that I'd be alone in this, because my friends either weren't interested in spending days on end on a train or didn't have the money or time to tag along. I have some experience travelling alone - last summer I went to the US for about four weeks, meeting my family in NYC for eleven days in the middle, and after studying abroad in the UK for a year, I'm used to a certain amount of solo travel. But this particular trip wasn't something I wanted to do on my own.
Asia is completely new territory for me. In fact, the last five to ten years of my life I've only travelled to places where either I could speak the language well or enough to get by (France, Canada, USA, UK, Spain) or people spoke English or German as a second language well enough to communicate (basically, all of Europe). This, apparently, is going to be a problem this time, not to mention that aside from Greece, I've never really gone somewhere I couldn't read the language. And then there's the security aspect, a girl travelling alone into terra incognita. My Mum is uncomfortable enough with my plans as they are, though personally, I don't believe stories about sleeping gas pumped into train compartments in order to rob tourists blind.
That is where Vodkatrain comes in. I don't remember exactly when I came across this company, but it must have been relatively early on, and quite possibly on the STA website, since I remembered their sort of student-y feel and went to check out their tours in Russia. Their concept of loosely organised group tours for 18- to 35-year-olds seemed pretty appealing to me, despite the potential for binge-drinking English hooligans. (Sorry, English people! I love you! But let's admit it, you guys tend to go a little crazy when it comes to drinking.) There's a fixed itinerary in terms of actual travel (trains) and accommodation, but other than that, there's no fixed programme. Plus, I'm pretty sure the honcho concept - having someone available at every stop who speaks English, is a local, and probably the same general age group as the travellers - will turn out to be invaluable (at least to me) in Russia, Mongolia and China.
I read up a lot about Vodkatrain before making the decision to book. This article, which is a sort of summary of a few longer blog entries by the author which are not online anymore, was one of those that convinced me, and they're rated well enough on TourRadar as well. We'll see what my experience with them will be!
The second part of my trip was a little harder to figure out. A little google research revealed that it's actually possible to visit Tibet, though tourists are required to hire a tour guide for the duration of their stay. Obviously that made me feel a bit weird. My first "experience" with Tibet, meaning I realised it existed, was actually Seven Years in Tibet, not exactly a pro-Chinese film.
The question I found myself asking, is it actually okay to travel to Tibet? Isn't Tibetan tourism a Chinese invention? Does participating in it support the Chinese regime more than I'm comfortable with?
(See, before I sort-of titled this trip Transsib to Tibet, I kept thinking of it as That Epic and Ethically Ambiguous Train Ride.)
There's no clear-cut answer to this, but I did my best to do some research. A pretty good resource is Interpreting Tibet: A Political Guide to Traveling in Tibet. (It's a little out of date, but 2008 was the most recent low point, so it's still relevant enough.) The gist of it is that travellers have to decide for themselves if they want to go, and if they do, they should keep in mind to be respectful, be conscious of the propaganda and the risks, and try to support Tibetans above Chinese wherever possible. The Dalai Lama himself said on the topic, "I think you must go [to Tibet] yourself, and spend some time, not only in towns but in the countryside. Go to the countryside, and with a translator, if possible one who speaks Tibetan [...] the best answer is that you should go there, and study."
Most of the tourism in Tibet, by a large margin, comes from the Chinese mainland itself. Westerners, such as myself, are almost guaranteed to go there with a different attitude than Chinese. Seeing propaganda in action is probably gonna be a fascinating experience, and I really do want to go.
Choosing a travel agency was the next task, because even though I'm not sure how big of a difference it actually makes, I did want to use a Tibetan and not a Chinese agency. There's not that much information out there, but a good start is Can You Really Trust Your "Tibetan" Travel Agent? and Meet The Locals. Based on this, I ended up on ExploreTibet. Their website is very good, with tons of information, with a section on Responsible Travel that sounds convincing enough to me. (I'm ALL for their No Plastic Bottles project, in any case - it's gonna be weird for me to not be able to drink tap water for basically all of this trip.) Also very important to me is that they offer not just private tours, but fixed-departure join-in group tours, which is exactly what I need given that I am without a group.
When I started out planning the Tibet leg of my trip, I was thinking of taking the train in (an absolute must as far as I'm concerned - I wasn't gonna cross the Asian continent eastwards by train, and then China too, and not go on the highest railway on Earth), spending a few days in Lhasa, and taking a plane out again. Then I realised that a) that's sort of stupid, and b) waitasec, I can go to fucking Mount Everest?! So a couple of months ago I booked their 8 Days Overland to Nepal tour. So far our "group" seems to consist of me and someone I only know as Ben, 25. There's still a month to go, so we'll see - anyone want to join our tour across Tibet?
The September 2nd start of the Tibet tour gives me a free week after the end of the Vodkatrain. I'll probably stay in Beijing for a couple more days before taking the bullet train down to Shanghai. I want to then take a sleeper train to Xian to check out the Terracotta warriors, but that place didn't tickle my interest enough to warrant an overnight stay, so my plan is to arrive around 9am, preferably put my bag into luggage storage (there seem to be a few places close to the train station), spend the day there and then take a midnight sleeper train to Xining, which will give me four or five hours to check out that city before my train to Tibet.
And after being dropped from my tour at the Nepalese border, I have three days left in Nepal before my flight home.
tl;dr - I'm somehow travelling alone without actually travelling alone. :D
My flight to St. Petersburg should be fun, because I have a seven-hour layover in Moscow. Same story with my flight home, where I'll be stopping in Qatar. (I'm still considering getting a visa at the airport just to check out to Doha in the middle of the night - would LOVE some input!)