Wednesday, March 31, 2010


The trip requires a certain amount of research to be carried out before setting off.

You can download free cityguides in pdf format from in your pocket. Since they are for free, there are obviously lots of advertisements included but otherwise they are not bad at all, in particular if its a city you just pass through and don't want to spend money on a guide book. Also, when you left the place you can simply recycle them and don't need to carry them along. I always have a hard time letting go of real guidebooks. Inyourpocket guides are available for Minsk and Moscow (and many other cities).

For the Trans-Siberian Railway:
IMHO the two best guidebooks covering the railway are Bryan Thomas and the LP edition of the track.

City guides:
Moscow and Beijing mar the beginning and the end and deserve some more days and more extensive coverage.

For Shanghai I trust my personal city guide Shanghai-Sändi to lead me to the darkest alleyways and seediest etablissements.

The LP Mongolian country guide was purchased to do some pre-trip research but given the time I will get to spend there and the meetings with local vs. the weight to carry it, it will most likely stay home. sorry...

The small world atlas is a little book I tend to have in my bag which comes in handy if you meet someone and you want to show them which part of the world you're from, where you've been to, where you're going and to plan future trips.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

There's an аппаратчик for that! Part II - getting around, getting by, getting what you want

Some more travelling аппаратчикs I installed on my iPhone before setting off:

Metro plans:
Metro Minsk (iTuneslink): Not the most sophisticated tube app, but it should do the job for a day. Also contains some POIs, restaurants and a map.

Moscow: Metropolitan (iTuneslink) and Moscow Metro (iTuneslink) are two apps I tried out to navigate the Russian capital.

Beijing: Beijing Metro (iTuneslink)

Currencies (iTuneslink) tells you how much your hotel room, bus ticket, souvenir, blini or beer is. Make sure to update exchange rates once in a while (done automatically when the app is started, but you're not always connected to wifi, are you?). Easy to use, good interface:

Mandarin phrasebook (iTuneslink): When I traveled China about 8 years ago the LP Mandarin phrasebook came in very handy, in particular when it comes to buying train tickets etc. It was also very well organized in sections and had some background information on all topics. Unfortunately I can't say the same about its electronic cousin. While it has the big advantage that you can quickly access the relevant topics and can actually play the matching mandarin voice, it lacks much of the background information the book comes with and seems to be less complete. Well, as long as it helps you finding the right party and a female doctor, I guess it does the job...

some food apps: On my first time in China I met some volunteers working for an NGO who gave me a "generic menu for Chinese restaurants". Basically a list of typical dishes written in Chinese with the corresponding English translation. The waiter had always great fun indicating what they could serve up from the list, called their colleagues and we all had a laugh until my gong bao jiding arrived. Now there are some apps that do the same, some better, some worse. I'll see how it works. I have not found one yet, that lets you take a picture of the Chinese writing on the menu and looks up the dish. That would be something, wouldn't it? Check these here out: China Menu (iTuneslink) easy to navigate lots of pics, cnMenu read (iTuneslink) reads the dishes in Chinese for you, but no pics, Chinese Food Menu (iTuneslink) good selection, but requires data connection.

some other useful аппаратчикs:

shazam (iTuneslink) works surprisingly well to identify music that is being played if there is not too much background noise. So if you plan to take the soundtrack home, play the song to the app and have it analyzed. Needs a data connection, so watch your roaming costs.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Electricity matters

Plugs can be different. And who travels nowadays without a camera, an mp3 player, a phone (or a laptop, an e-book reader etc.) If you want to know if your device from Djibouti would work in Mongolia (it should actually, can anyone confirm?) you should check out this site. Or that one here. Or this one. Namibian phones should have no issues with charging in Nepal accordingly. These two are the plugs that will join me on my trip:

and they should fit all the long way from the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Land of Dschingis Khan without an adapter.  Also, they accept voltages from 100 - 240V and 50 - 60 Hz. Chinese outlets are different, but I suppose in China an adapter can be found or it can be fixed some other way. The good thing is that the iPhone charger doubles as a USB adapter, so any PC should do the job. The Canon battery charger can switch cables, so maybe I can get hold of one there... If it doesn't fit I'll make it fit!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

18.7 cm of Russian classics

Or 2.4 kg. Not exactly travelling light, is it? O.K., I'll admit it. ebook readers do make sense.

Long railway journeys are the perfect occasion to read all (or at least the one or the other of) those classics that one always had the intention to read, but never found the right moment. And what would suit better a trip through the Russian hinterland seen through the window of a slowly rattling train than a Russian classic. What helps better understand the psyche of your fellow Russian travelers than a book written by one of their compatriots (and the occasional shot of vodka of course)?

on my pile of books are:

Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov - The Master and Margarita
Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Crime and Punishment
Nikolai Gogol - Dead souls, Diary of a madman
Wladimir Kaminer - Russendisko
Vladimir Nabokov - Lolita
Leo Tolstoy - Anna Karenina

other titles worth considering:

Fyodor Dostoyevsky - The Idiot
Maxim Gorky - The lower depths
Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky - The Bedbug
Boris Pasternak - Doktor Zhivago
Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov - And quiet flows the Don
Leo Tolstoy - War and Peace

more contemporary:

Jonathan Safran Foer - Everything is Illuminated
Marina Lewycka - A short history of tractors in Ukrainian

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Mongolia, the missing link

The Consular service of Mongolia offers a section where you can fill in your visa application form online. When you finalize the form it generates a PDF document that you can print, sign and include in your visa application documents. The section on what is required for a visa is rather empty here, but the Embassy of Mongolia in Belgium has more information. It is advisable to call before sending off your documents to check what exactly is required and how exactly to apply.

I have also read that you can get visas on the spot at the Chinggis Khaan International airport in UB (check before you set off). Cool Airport name by the way, right up there with the John Lennon Airport of Liverpool and the Indira Ghandi International Airport of Delhi.

Note to self: When I grow up I want to work as an airport namer. I will start with Seattle and rename the airport to the Kurt Cobain International Airport (Your gate to Nirvana).

adding it up:

applied February 4, 2010, received February 11, 2010, tourist visa for the price of € 35.00
applied February 12, 2010, received February 19, 2010, transit visa for the price of € 20.00
applied February 22, 2010, received February 25, 2010, tourist visa for the price of € 33.00
applied February 26, 2010, received March 3, 2010, tourist visa for the price of € 60.00 + € 10.00 for post

That makes 4 visas in 28 days for € 158.00

worth knowing: The embassies of Russia, Belarus and China are conveniently located in the town I live (The Hague, Netherlands), so I could drop by in the morning on the way to work and bring or pick up my passport. Count in additional days if you need to send your document by mail. That said, I did not opt for express service in any of these embassies, which is offered by all of them, so if you are in a hurry and willing to pay the price: Go for it. The Mongolian embassy that deals with visa applications from the Netherlands is in Bruxelles and I sent my passport by registered mail. I was very impressed by how fast I got my document with the visa back, considering that I did not pay for express service. They do offer express service, but I doubt that it can be much faster.

to be sure, to be sure, to be sure... in advance to be really, really sure that you have all the documents required. up early! I have seen impressive queues at some embassies and people were sent home as the embassy could not handle all requests on that day. A bummer if you traveled from far away.
...get your things in order! Don't expect an employee from, say,  the Russian embassy to accept a statement from your Egyptian health insurance (no offense to the Egyptian health system intended here). They won't understand what it says and hence not accept it. It's civil servants your dealing with after all and they have their rules. Understand them.
...consider hiring someone. Visa support agencies can do the job for you, they know exactly what is required, have priority treatment. It can well be worth the additional money.
...when sending your passport by mail to an embassy in another city or country make sure to send it by registered mail and also make sure that the embassy sends it back to you using registered mail as well. Also, supply them with an envelope or address stickers of the place your passport shall be returned to.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Ni Hao, my Chinese Visa!

The queues outside the Chinese embassy are impressive. It becomes apparent that this country is considered a destination by far more people than Belarus. You queue outside, get a ticket with a number and then you queue inside and wait your turn. Application for a tourist visa is pretty much straightforward: A filled in and signed visa application form, a pretty picture of yourself and a valid passport is all it takes. The visa was issued within 4 days (I applied on a Monday and could pick up the visa on Thursday). Express visas are possible at an additional fee (but those applications are according to a sign only accepted until 10 in the morning - which may be difficult if the queues are long and it's not your turn until after 10 am). Pick up is quicker, you do not have to queue but the guys let the people with a pink pick-up form in and straight to the counter where you pay (€33 in my case, but depending on your nationality this may vary) and get your passport back.

so here it is:

what a beauty, eh?