Avoiding the Elephant

The elephant is the national symbol of Thailand, and as such it is virtually unavoidable. I have no idea what the UK’s national symbol is, although post-Brexit I would like to propose something along the lines of an ostrich. But Thailand seems to take its symbolism seriously, so you find elephants everywhere. Elephant lamps, statues, elephants on lighters, fridge magnets and almost every piece of clothing I saw, including the ubiquitous “elephant trousers”. These are colourful, billowy, patterned trousers sold in their thousands in the area around Khao San Road, and they’re the official uniform of backpackers of all genders. 

My suspicion is that, like those other crimes against fashion, Crocs, elephant trousers have flourished because they fill a comfortable niche. The loose, crotch-down-to-the-knees design makes them good for hot weather. The elephant-spattered patterns disguise travel stains and the cheap price and ubiquity means that it’s not a big deal if they vanish into the arbitrary abyss of hostel laundries.

But they just look horrible. Nothing short of a safari shirt and a pith helmet could mark a person out more as a tourist. I dislike them so much it has made it hard for me to take anyone seriously if they’re clad thus, which is ridiculous, because I’ve met and liked a dozen people on this trip who have turned out to possess a pair. My aversion to these trousers has now coloured my view of anything else decorated with elephants. I ended up going to great lengths to find an elephant-free sarong in the Night Market in Chiang Mai.

Hemingway said writers need a shock-proof shit detector. For better or worse, I was born with a hypersensitive cliché detector instead. I have such an overblown aversion to clichés that my detector tends to give me a lot of false positives. 

It’s not a good thing to have. For example, it put me off travelling to Southeast Asia for years. Rightly or wrongly, it puts me off Apple products, bicycles, tattoos, Moleskine notebooks, anything ‘artisan’, Jeremy Corbyn and music festivals. It’s made me a very late, reluctant adopter of some things I actually later enjoy. 

What is a cliché to me? Something which has become overburdened with stale meaning. Something that has become a box to tick, a personality accessory. Something so encrusted with common connotations it becomes impossible to know your own authentic response to it. Although, on the plus side, my dislike of cliché makes me immune to received opinions, I still know it’s unhelpful to have my behaviour dictated by avoiding rather than embracing certain things.

Even though I’ve been proved wrong on a number of occasions I still tend to make snap judgements about elephant-trouser-wearers. There’s a certain kind of traveller in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, who make me shudder just to look at them. They talk about ‘doing’ a place, a horrid construction which has unintended yet appropriate connotations of violation. They wear elephants on their trousers then go for rides on elephants’ backs, without educating themselves about what these poor creatures are subjected to for the sake of tourism. The hostels they patronise overflow with the sort of adolescent hedonism of freshers’ week at university. They seem to be travelling only in order to get drunk and ‘do’ one another. 

Luckily these sorts of people tend to cluster together, and can easily be avoided. The one advantage to elephant trousers is that you can see these people coming (and I’m sure the local con artists feel the same way). But my mistake lies in thinking all elephant-trouser-wearers are like that. All the arses I’ve met here have worn them, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who wears those trousers is an arse.

Nevertheless it has put me off decorative elephants completely. I spent ages that night back in Chiang Mai, roaming around the huge, kaleidoscopic night market looking for elephant-free sarongs. 

The night market is a fantastic place, though it’s virtually impossible to come away empty-handed. I bought far more than I intended, though as someone later pointed out I hardly spent any money in the process. 

On my way out I was scolding myself for my lack of restraint when I spotted yet another interesting shop. It was like a museum, heaving with handmade, fair trade things made by different hill tribes. Each item had a hefty description of the makers’ tribe and the symbolism of the patterns and objects they produced. It was fascinating. I could have spent an absolute fortune in there. In the end I succumbed to the temptation of a gold and bubblegum pink Ganesha amulet. On my last big trip I bought a tiny brass Ganesha and made it home safely, so I was hoping to renew my contract with this wonderfully lurid piece, which is about half the size of a pack of cards:

I absolutely love it. 

It wasn’t until I got back to my room that I realised I had, after all, bought myself an elephant. 


Theft at a Temple 

I left London with my usual feet at the end of my legs, but by the time I arrived in Thailand these had been mysteriously replaced by puffy great imposters that were significantly larger than my old ones, if not any longer, and they wouldn’t go away. This meant that my sandals, which fitted comfortably at home, now became a blistering exercise in Chinese foot binding. 

After hobbling around for a day and a half I gave up and bought a pair of ‘very genuine’ Havaianas for a couple of quid. My new feet spread out happily and I’ve been slopping around in them ever since, to the extent that when I moved on I didn’t bother packing the other sandals.

When I first arrived in Chiang Mai I went off for my usual walk to orientate myself, arbitrarily selecting Wat Phra Singh as a destination. The mountain air felt fresher than Bangkok, but I was still so hot by the time I reached the temple – distracted on the way first by a mango smoothie, then lunch – that all I could do was find a shady vantage point and slump into it.

The mango smoothie was fantastic, by the way. It came from a café called Fruiturday. They called it a smoothie but it was actually a slushie, made with finely ground ice and fresh ripe mango juice and pulp. I have been craving them ever since I left Chiang Mai.

Once I’d recovered a bit I explored the wat, then went off to inspect its facilities. The toilets were sparklingly clean and covered in intimidating signage. Before you entered there was a rack where you had to deposit your shoes and another rack where you slipped on spongey plastic pool sliders instead. Inside were signs in ordering you not to squat on the seats of the western-style loos, not to wash your feet in the toilet, and not to brush your teeth (it didn’t specify where). It took me a while inside the toilet block because I was fascinated by the signs and the diagrams that went with them. 

When I came out my flip flops had gone.

For a few heart-stopping moments I stared in disbelief at the space on the rack where they had been, and then I started hunting round for them with mounting anger. Though I’d heard of these things happening, I couldn’t believe someone had stolen my shoes from within a temple. I’d just got them nicely moulded to the shape of my feet. I looked round for likely culprits, but there was only a middle aged Chinese man sitting on a wall, watching me sympathetically. 

Just as I was beginning to wonder how far I’d have to walk barefoot to the nearest flip flop shop, a middle aged Chinese lady sauntered out of the toilets. She was wearing my shoes.

I pointed at her feet. ‘Those are mine!’

She looked down, realised what she’d done and an expression of horrified mortification appeared on her face. The man who was waiting for her began to hoot with laughter. She shucked the shoes off and gave them to me, apologising abjectly. Then we both started laughing too. 

I slipped the flip flops back on and left, feeling lightheaded with relief but also rather affronted that my ‘very genuine’ Havaianas had been mistaken for public toilet shoes. As I walked away I could still hear the man barking with helpless laughter behind me.

A Falang Attempts Street Food

It took a while to get the hang of the street food stalls in Bangkok. Jet lag meant I wasn’t hungry when I was supposed to be, and carts appeared and disappeared depending on the time of day. I would pass a string of bustling stands full of mouthwatering dishes when I didn’t want to eat, then see nothing but stall holders dozing by empty stands when I did. 

Everything I ate I liked. I stuck to simple meals like fried rice and pad thai, the backpacker staples; noodle soup and little chicken skewers. It was all incredibly cheap, around 60p-£1 per meal. Because of the language barrier I often had to rely on pointing at things as a method of ordering.

One night I was walking down a road near my hotel when I saw an interesting-looking noodle place. I stopped and someone asked if I wanted to eat, naming a dish I hadn’t heard of and gesturing towards the stand. I said yes, pointed at what looked like a bowl of noodles, then marched off and accidentally chose a seat that belonged to the next stall along. I realised my mistake when everyone started laughing, but when I got up to move they waved me back down with a smile. 

The cook came up and repeated the name of the dish, which sounded vaguely familiar, like something I’d had in a Thai restaurant at home, though I still wasn’t sure what it was. He made what looked like an obscene gesture to illustrate his words. I nodded uncertainly and he went away. 

My order provoked a bit of discussion. At one point the cook held up a chilli and several people voiced their disagreement. I heard the word falang (foreigner) a few times, and then the cook sorted through his chillis and found another one, which was approved. Then he started work with his pestle and mortar, which threw new light on his mime. 

While I waited a girl of about twelve came over and, after encouragement from her mother, asked to sit with me. It was evident that she had been sent to practise her English. We chatted for a few minutes while she quite literally squirmed with embarrassment and her mother beamed at us from a distance. Then she fled.

Soon my dinner was served. I took a bite and nearly choked with surprise. 

In my own defence, it was quite dark on the street. The things I thought were noodles were actually strips of shredded unripe papaya, a completely different taste, texture and temperature to that which I was expecting. It was a bowl of som tam, spicy papaya salad. 

When I got over the shock I enjoyed it. The papaya was incredibly fresh and crunchy, and the dressing was sharp, sweet and garlicky, though it was still fiery enough to make my lips sting despite the specially chosen falang-strength chilli. I must have had a rather startled expression at my first bite because the cook kept hovering to see if I was enjoying it, looking doubtful; but I left a clean plate, so in the end I think we were both satisfied.

Soon after this my menu ordering problems were solved. I met a Thai graphic designer who was at a bit of a loose end. He had been evicted from his girlfriend’s house because her parents were staying, and he wasn’t supposed to exist. He wrote out a short selection of menu items for me in Thai and English, so I could just point at a phrase to order. It’s effective, although it does rather take the mystery out of things.

The Boat Trip

When I manage to give this rather ramshackle, ten-week holiday of mine a name, I tend to think of it as the Boat Trip. I’m travelling around some of the mainland countries of Southeast Asia without intending to cross the sea to those island-bedecked nations such as Indonesia or Malaysia, yet I still don’t seem to travel far without encountering a boat.

I have just come from one of the greatest of all possible boat trips, a two-day voyage down the Mekong from the Thailand-Laos border to Luang Prabang. That was a boat trip on a grand, symphonic scale, which I’ll attempt to describe later. My first boat was much more ordinary: the express ferry service in Bangkok.

It took me a while to latch on to this. Bangkok was my first stop, and I spent much of it in a state of confusion. How had I managed to take two six-hour flights, starting on Tuesday morning and separated by a two-hour wait in Muscat Airport in Oman, only to arrive at 6 am on Wednesday morning? Where was the sense in that? How was I meant to get around in this wet heat? And what were those things on kebab sticks in the night market?

Then as I began to adjust – leaving the curtains open to let the sunrise reset my body clock – I started to think that beneath the surface difference, the heat, the tangerine-cloaked monks, the sizzling street food, Bangkok was a big city like any other, with its own clockwork running to its own rhythm. As soon as I realised this I began to get an idea of how things worked, which led me to the express boat. 

The first time I thought of using it I walked down from my lovely, homely hotel, past the flower market to the pier, where a dozen or so people were waiting. After looking in vain for any information in English I joined them. Every so often someone would buy a bag of crusts and chuck them into the river, and the surface would boil with large fish the size and colouring of pigeons. After a short while a boat arrived and I ventured towards it to enquire, only to be shooed off by a dozen hands before I’d even said where I wanted to go. 

Then another boat came from the other direction, whistling frantically as it approached, as though it was the last boat out of town before an invading force arrived. The same dozen hands now beckoned me towards it. The boat seemed barely to stop at all, but more to slow down just enough to allow passengers to leap on and off. I jumped on, paid a negligible sum for a ticket and we zoomed off, zigzagging from one bank to the other. 

After that trip I used the boat whenever I could. Once the skipper was in such a rush he managed to shoot past almost every stop, so that the crowded ferry jolted into reverse before anyone could get off; another time we roared away before the man whose job it was to blow the whistle was back on board, leaving him whistling with peevish force on the pier before we lurched back to pick him up.

Between trips I saw a massive reclining Buddha and a massive standing Buddha, hip cafés, rickety street food carts and shady, quiet back alleys, the sois. I got about in disco-lit tuk-tuks, sky trains and freezing air-conditioned taxis, but it was the express boat that helped me stitch it all together, and to leap in to the hectic, crowded, colourful flow of the city. 

Flight UK23616: A Brexit Fable


Flight UK 23616 is cruising several thousand feet above a stormy ocean. It’s dark outside, and no one can really tell what’s going on in the world below.  The plane has four hundred passengers, fifty of whom are in business class.

The business class area, with its cocktail bar, fully reclining seats and dedicated crew, takes up more than half the space on the plane. The other three hundred and fifty passengers are crammed into economy, where space is so tight no one is allowed to recline their seats, and dozens of people are left standing in the aisle.

In fact some of the passengers in economy are getting quite angry. Quarrels are breaking out whenever someone tries to recline their seat and the people standing in the aisle are shoving each other to make room.

Even though the curtain between the classes is closed, some of the people in business class begin to hear the grumbling from the back of the plane and it makes them nervous. They think it’s perfectly natural that they have better seats and more room – they paid for it, after all. Then one of them has a brilliant idea. He gets hold of the intercom and tells the passengers in economy that the reason they don’t have much space is because some of them have foreign passports.

The foreign travellers begin to get a little nervous. A rumour starts circulating that a quarter of the people in economy are foreign, though really it’s half that number. Some people start glaring round at everyone else in economy, demanding to see their passports.

Jeremy peeks through a gap in the curtain and tells the others that he can see empty seats in business class. It turns out that this is because some of the passengers have wandered into the cockpit to have a chat with the pilot, who’s a friend of theirs.

“Shut up, Jeremy,” says Nigel, who seems a little tipsy. “We wouldn’t need any more seats if it wasn’t for all these foreigners.”

Shortly afterwards someone notices that a large blue backpack in one of the overhead lockers appears to be ticking. Some people can hear the ticking and some can’t. No one is claiming ownership of the backpack. A few of the passengers vaguely remember helping to carry it on board but they don’t know what’s inside, and it looks a lot bigger now.

“It’s a bomb!” shouts Nigel, who’s had another couple of drinks. “One of the foreigners must have put it there.”

People begin to back away from the backpack, looking scared, but economy is so crowded there’s nowhere for them to go; everyone just gets even more crushed. Meanwhile Jeremy takes another peek into business class. “They’re eating steak!” he says. “And lobster! And drinking cocktails!”

The people in his row hear this and cry out in anger. While business class travellers have a free lunch, all they got was peanuts.  They start to shout at the cabin crew, asking for better food. Boris, one of the business class travellers, hears this and shoves his way through the curtain.

“What’s all this fuss about, then?” he says. His friend Michael hurries after him, frantically pulling the curtain closed so that no one can see the cabin crew handing out chocolate soufflés to the business class travellers.

Michael points at the backpack. “Look! It’s a bomb!”

“I keep telling them,” Nigel says. He’s very drunk now as his friends in business class keep sending him more to drink. “We need to break a window and get rid of it.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Boris says. He grabs the emergency hammer and waves it around, trying to look important.

“No, that’s a stupid idea,” says Mark, another business class traveller. “The cabin will depressurize, and we’ll crash.”

“Well, someone needs to take charge, and I think it should be me,” says Boris.

Suddenly a voice crackles over the intercom. “Wait a minute,” says David, the pilot. “I’m the pilot here, and I say we should vote on it. We’re all in this plane together.”

David, locked away in his cockpit, has no idea how overcrowded everyone is in economy, or how many people are listening to Nigel. He thinks he may as well let everyone vote if it will shut them up and let him get on with flying the plane.

Suddenly everyone in both classes starts talking about the blue backpack which may or may not be a bomb. Some people start to panic; others say they can’t hear any ticking at all, or that they think it’s just an alarm clock. Mark says he is an expert on aeronautics and he knows that breaking the window is a really bad idea. Another man, Nick, says he is a bomb disposal expert and the best thing would be to diffuse the bomb, if there is one.

“Boring!” yells Boris. “That sounds hard. It would take too long.” He’s keen to get back to business class before they serve the cheese and port.

“We’ve had enough of experts,” Michael says. “Anyway, I promise that if we throw the bomb out of the window we can all have ice cream.”

“And we can chuck these bloody foreigners out after it,” says Nigel. “Then everyone in economy will have more room.”

They hold the vote, and to everyone’s surprise 52% of people on board want to throw the backpack out of the window.

Michael immediately says there isn’t any ice cream, after all.

Boris looks at the hammer in his hand, suddenly nervous. He goes into the cockpit and hands it to David. “You’re the pilot,” he says. “You break the window.”

“Fuxit,” David says, strapping on a parachute. “Why should I have to do the hard shit? I’m not flying anymore.”

He leaves the cockpit and the plane plunges down into the darkness. Everyone screams. Michael snatches the hammer out of Boris’s hand and whacks him over the head with it, knocking him out. “Boris is my friend, but I’ve just remembered he doesn’t know how to fly,” he says. “I’d better have a go.” While everyone is staring at Michael in disgust, Theresa slips her kitten heels on and sidles towards the cockpit door.

Nigel slides back into business class, where, it turns out, he had a seat all along. “My work here is done,” he says, and passes out.

Back in economy, everyone in Jeremy’s row thinks he should be the pilot, because that way they’ll all get more space and better food. Other people are angry that Jeremy didn’t have much to say about the backpack. Jeremy’s friends grab him and lock him in the toilet to protect him from the people who say he doesn’t know how to fly the plane either.

No one is flying the plane.

George, who has been very quiet up to now, pops his head through the curtain and says he’s done the sums and there aren’t enough parachutes to go round. “In view of this, I’ve given them all to the business class travellers,” he explains. “I don’t want to put them off flying with us again.”

The plane is still spiralling out of control towards the earth, even though no one has actually broken the window yet. Some of the economy travellers are trying to push the foreign travellers into the hold, thinking that will save them. Some are weeping, or getting angry with the people who voted to break the window. Some are wishing they hadn’t voted to break it. Others are curling up into the brace position, silently wondering where and how hard the flight will come down.

The plane tips further, roaring and howling as it falls out of the sky.

The Last Stop


So there I was: Berlin. The sixth and final country of my trip. Part of me just wanted to get home. Like Mole in The Wind and the Willows, I was close enough now to be able to smell my home, and Berlin seemed like a not-quite-London in comparison to all the other cities I’d been in, making me long for the real thing. It was the first place I’d visited that had a completely familiar alphabet on its street signs, for example. I could tell I was nearly there.

But I had two final days of exploring to do before I got back. I arrived too early to be able to check into my room at the Circus – a hostel I would highly recommend to anyone visiting the city. Instead I dropped The Beast in their luggage lockers and headed back out. One of the best things about the Circus is it’s just over the road from Mein Haus am See, a marvellous cafe/bar/club that never closes. I went there for breakfast, and ended up popping back several times for coffee. In fact when I was in Berlin again in 2014 I spent an afternoon at Mein Haus am See with Chris’s sister Maddy, who was living in the city at the time. The Edis family seem to pop up in cities all over the world.

Despite having had a disturbed night’s sleep due to the raid on the train I was feeling very energetic, so I belted around a load of sights. The Brandenburg Gate, Alexanderplatz, the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie and various bits of the Wall all whizzed past. I wandered around Museuminsel, though I didn’t actually visit any of the museums. I saw the Holocaust memorial, too. Years later I’m still not quite sure what I think about it. Great grey concrete blocks rise up around you like gravestones. I like the fact that the memorial is placed right in the middle of the city, where you can’t miss it, and I like the sobering, isolating feeling you get walking through it, when the blocks rise above you, hemming you in. But the whole effect is strange, especially with crowds of happy tourists milling about, their kids playing around on the shorter blocks. I found the little brass plaques scattered about the city streets had more impact on me: little tales of individual lives lost.




The next day was my Berlin Wall day. I only visited the one spot, so the rest of the day was left for a gentle wander around. In the afternoon I found myself back in the Tiergarten, and sat on a bench for a minute to rest. The overnight train to Paris didn’t leave until around ten at night, so I had plenty of time.


A man was sitting on the same bench, reading a book. After a while he turned and asked if I was Russian, by any chance.

“No, but I’ve just come from there,” I said, astounded. We got talking. The man’s name was Franck. He was from somewhere near Paris, and he loved Russian literature. He was reading some Chekhov in Russian and came across a letter he’d never seen before; hence the question. I don’t know what made him think I might be Russian. We studied the Chekhov together, but I was no help there, of course. It soon emerged that he had also been on the Trans-Siberian and had stayed in Nikita’s Homestead on Olkhon Island. We compared notes on our routes. I could barely concentrate on the conversation as I was overwhelmed by the staggering unlikeliness of it all: finding a fellow Russophile there on a bench in the Tiergarten in Berlin, just as my trip was drawing to a close. After a while Franck’s family came to collect him so we exchanged emails and said goodbye, still shaking our heads at the coincidence of the meeting. It was a lovely bookending moment for the trip.

The rest of the day soon slipped by, and then it was time for my final sleeper train. Sadly, the City Nightline sleeper train from Berlin to Paris has now been cancelled. Quite a lot of sleeper trains have been phased out all over Europe in the last few years, as they struggle to compete with budget airlines. For me, there’s no competition. The train wins every time. It’s far more environmentally friendly, and it’s a far more civilised way to travel than by air. Airlines and airports seem to have made a concerted effort to eradicate any trace of glamour or excitement from air travel, and to make it as irritating, punishing and demeaning as possible. Airports are designed for shopping rather than to ease mass transportation, and the planes themselves seem designed for people with extra joints in their legs and neck. I hate them.

In contrast, I boarded the train in the centre of Berlin and was ushered into a private en-suite compartment where a small bottle of cold sparkling wine lay waiting for me. The train ticket was expensive, but if you factor in the cost of transport to and from airports, the air fare itself, and the baggage fines budget airlines charge if you want to bring more than a pocket handkerchief with you – let alone the cost of a night’s accommodation in central Europe – even a first class sleeper fare starts to look extremely competitive. I lay back on my bunk, sipped my wine and watched the night time world speed by, reluctant to go to sleep on this final night of travel.


I fell asleep sometime after Hannover. Early the next morning the carriage attendant woke me up in time for breakfast, served in the compartment, with a view out over the French countryside.



All of a sudden we were in Paris. I shouldered The Beast and made my way through the metro to Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar. Everything felt like it was happening really fast, but it was strange to think I’d soon be back in London. In the Eurostar part of the station I found myself surrounded by English people for the first time in two months; it was weird to see them. They seemed almost foreign. I boarded the Eurostar without difficulty and dozed for the rest of France, only waking up when we were in the tunnel, when my heart began to thunder in anticipation. Then we popped back up on the other side and I saw the small familiar fields of England zip past outside the window.

I found myself grinning broadly and idiotically out of the window, almost overwhelmed with relief and triumph. I’d done it! I couldn’t believe I’d made it all the way home from Beijing overland – and all the way from Kathmandu in one piece. A trip of over 13,500 kilometres (8500 miles) in total, of which 10,500 km was made overland, by train, bus, horse, ferry and taxi, in the company of old friends, family, bossy Siberian grandmothers, knife-wielding taxi drivers, and French Russophiles. I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the journey. There’s a certain background tension whenever you’re travelling that just comes from being in unfamiliar territory and having to concentrate harder on finding your way round, working out the currency and communicating with people. Now this tension was gone.

We pulled into St Pancras station and I found my boyfriend David waiting for me. It was brilliant to see him again. We both had so much to talk about we barely knew where to begin. We stopped for a quick coffee at the British Library and then I embarked on the very last stage of my journey: the 91 bus back home.


A Raid on The Kiev-Berlin Train


I spent the first hour or so on the train from Kiev to Berlin marvelling at its conveniences. A light in the compartment to show whether the toilet was occupied! A sink (non-functioning, but still) hidden under the table! I had the compartment to myself at first. It was a tall, thin compartment, with three bunks on one wall and a tiny table wedged in front of them. Not enough room inside for another set of bunks opposite. The carriage attendant was the sort of person who thinks you might understand their language better if they shout it at you, but she was very nice. A couple of times she barged into my compartment and bellowed “CHAI! CHAI!” at me until I said yes, and then she would bring me a plastic cup of sweet tea.

After a couple of hours we pulled into a station and my solitude was broken. A tall, fortysomething man called Oleg joined me. At first I was disappointed not to have the place to myself, but meeting Oleg turned out to be the highlight of the train trip. His wife had packed him copious amounts of food for the train, all of which he insisted on sharing with me – potato salad, delicious roast pork and homemade cake. Oleg also came bearing a smallish unlabelled vat of cold beer.

It’s well known that different types of alcohol have different effects. This beer was the kind that makes you a soporific, mellow, stupefied sort of drunk, and as such it was perfect for a long train ride. We drank and ate and went through the photos on my camera and the pages in each other’s passports. I spoke in Russian and mime and Oleg answered in soft Ukrainian – they are mutually comprehensible. At a later stop Oleg vanished onto the platform and came back with another few litres of beer. Oleg worked as something to do with cars and often commuted back and forth between Germany and Ukraine.


In the evening we reached the border with Poland. When Chris and I passed from China to Mongolia the train was cranked up so they could change the bogies to the Russian gauge; now it was time to switch back. Once again we stayed on board as the carriages were slowly levered up and the wheels detached and replaced. Afterwards we sat in a siding for ages while the border guards made their rounds.

When my passport was inspected, the guard noticed that I didn’t have an entry stamp for Ukraine.

“Oh, should I have one?” I said.

I should. This was a bit of a problem. I thought back to the train from Moscow to Kiev and realised that the young guard who checked our passports must have assumed I was part of the Russian family in that compartment, and he hadn’t stamped my passport as a result.

“This is very bad,” Oleg said when the guard went off with my passport. “You might have to leave the train, and go for an interview.” I wasn’t that worried, probably because of the beer, but also because I couldn’t really see what the problem was. I was leaving the country, after all. It wasn’t as though I was missing a whole visa: UK citizens don’t need one to visit Ukraine. It was one tiny stamp.

The guard came back and quizzed me about my journey and how I had entered the country, and it struck me that I still had my ticket from the Moscow-Kiev train. I dug it out of my bag and he took it away to examine it. After a while he came back and grudgingly handed over my passport, telling me to be more careful in the future. I checked, and he had given me an exit stamp. Oleg and I toasted this with another glass of beer.


The beer and the general anaesthetic of the train knocked us both out, so we decided to have an early night. Both of us were asleep by ten o’clock at the latest, I would estimate. However, in the middle of the night there was a rattling at the door and the shouty carriage attendant burst back in.

“Girl! Come with me!” she bellowed, ignoring Oleg. I grabbed my handbag and followed her out of the compartment, down the corridor and into her tiny little compartment at the end.

“Sit there!” she ordered. I did so. She left, then came back a couple of minutes later with two tiny apples, thrust them at me and went away again.

The train stopped. I couldn’t see much from my position, sitting on the carriage attendant’s bunk. She had made some effort to make her compartment a bit more homely, with her own blanket on the bed, a lace-edged tablecloth and a few photos and postcards of the Virgin Mary and various saints taped up on the wall. I ate one of the tiny apples. There was a lot of shouting, banging and drilling sounds coming from the rest of the train, and I saw a gang of large serious men in black leather jackets thumping up and down the corridor, sometimes bearing heavy rubbish bags. Thick dust billowed through the open door of the compartment.

Oddly enough I wasn’t the least bit worried by all this. I was quite tipsy, and all the beer had made me feel very mellow and sleepy. In fact I nodded off for a bit, and woke up when two of the leather jacketed men came into the compartment.

“Excuse me,” one of them said in English, and they sat down by the table.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Well, we’re writing a report. The carriage attendant has been extremely helpful to us so we wanted to make sure we thanked her properly.”

I nodded and ate the other apple. In my drunken brain this seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation for all the banging, shouting, and the black bin bags. The carriage attendant came in, took my apple cores and consulted with the men over their report for a bit while I dozed in the corner. After a long while she roused me and led me back down to my compartment, apologising.

The corridor was thick with dust and floating fibres. Big lumps of woolly insulation lay everywhere. Oleg was sitting drowsily on his bunk, and as soon as we saw each other we both started giggling.

“What’s happening?” I asked him.

“Contraband,” he said, and made a smoking gesture, then pointed to the ceiling, where the tiles had been pulled down to expose the insulation within. Oleg told me that the ceiling of the whole carriage had been stuffed with smuggled goods. The leather jacketed men were customs officers. Oleg was in the compartment throughout the customs bust, but because I was a foreigner the carriage attendant made sure I was safely out of harm’s way.

Oleg got off the train early the next morning, just before Berlin. I’m so glad he was in my compartment on that train. If he hadn’t been there to ply me with beer I probably would have been a lot more anxious over the missing passport stamp, and certainly over the customs bust. I wouldn’t have found out what was going on without his explanations. Considering we were stuck together in a tiny little compartment, drinking, I never once felt unsafe with him around, and our conversation flowed despite being hamstrung by a lack of a common language.

I arrived in Berlin early in the day and went straight to my hostel. To my relief I found a letter waiting for me from David, containing my Berlin-Paris train ticket. Between the lost ticket, the customs bust and the kerfuffle with my passport I’d had a few close shaves over the last few days, but I was nearly home now, and everything was back on track.

A Heatwave in Kiev


Moscow was warm, and the overnight train to Kiev was stifling. I shared my compartment with a family of three Russians: Mum, Dad and teenage son. We had a choice between leaving the window open all night and trying to sleep through the noisy clanking and screeching of the railway, or closing the window and suffering the close heat. Neither was a good option, and no one slept particularly well that night. Even if we had managed to sleep the border control dance took place in the early hours, keeping us awake anyway.

I was dozing on my top bunk as we crossed the border, and sleepily passed my passport to the Russian Dad in the bunk below for him to hand to the border guard. A very young and rather bewildered guard did the honours, glancing over our papers in the most perfunctory of ways and handed them all back to the Russian Dad. I thought nothing of it at the time, but this caused me quite a headache a few days later.

We arrived in Kiev in the morning, and I heaved my backpack, The Beast, back up and headed out of the station. The Beast weighed a tonne by this stage of the trip. It was heavy to begin with, and I’d picked up quite a few things along the way. I had an overflow bag of the stuff I needed to access on the train – washbag, pyjamas, etc – in a plastic bag, and just as I left the station in Kiev it split open, spilling its contents over the pavement right in front of two taxi drivers who were having a row. I crouched down to pick it all up and found, to my great embarrassment,  that I couldn’t stand up again. The Beast was still on my back, and I didn’t have enough power left in my legs to get both of us upright. I waved frantically at one of the arguing taxi drivers and he hauled me up, snorting with laughter. I’ve learned my lesson. Ever since then I’ve packed as light as possible.

I found my way to the hotel and immediately settled down for a nap. A while later I woke to the sound of someone coming into the room: my Mum had arrived! It was lovely to see her, if slightly surreal to meet up in this way, in a rather anonymous hotel room in the middle of a foreign city. We had an awful lot of catching up to do, so the rest of the day was lost to a marathon gossip that moved from hotel to restaurant to bar and back.

The next day we embarked upon some serious sightseeing. It was searingly hot but Kiev is a beautiful city, and amply repaid the effort it took to get around it in the heat. That day we saw a lot of churches: St Volodymyr’s Cathedral, St Sophia’s and St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. We also went to Independence Square, site of the Orange Revolution in 2004 and of more recent events since our visit in 2012. Even when we were there a camp of protesters was evident on the main road, Kreshchatik Street.



I followed the Orange Revolution quite closely when it took place and have read up about it since then, so it was exciting to see where it all happened. Apart from anything else, the events of 2004 gave rise to one of my favourite political stories, the case of Viktor Yanukovich apparently being assassinated by an egg.

Briefly, the Orange Revolution kicked off after the presidential election, in which Yanukovich managed to beat his opponent Yushchenko in a massive and blatant case of election fraud. During the electoral race someone (ahem) attempted to assassinate Yushchenko, who was proving to be far more popular than his opponent. The plot backfired as they didn’t manage to kill him and support for Yushchenko grew considerably as a result. Seeing this, Yanukovich decided that his campaign would be boosted by a similar assassination attempt. He visited a part of Ukraine known to hate him and arranged with his minders for one of them to shoot at him at a rally (presumably firing blanks). However, before the shot was fired, a protester threw an egg at him.  Mistaking this for the ‘assassination’, Yanukovich swooned spectacularly and was hurried away by his minders. You can see hilarious footage of this if you follow the link above.

This story makes me giggle whenever I think of it; you can see where Andrei Kurkov gets the inspiration for his  novels. However, the rest of Ukraine’s recent history is far more sobering. Back in 2012 there was a moment of relative calm, and we were lucky to see it then.

The next day we visited the Bulgakov museum on St Andrew’s Descent, a viciously steep but rather picturesque road in the centre of Kiev. Unfortunately we came at the street from the wrong direction so it was St Andrew’s Cruel Ascent for us. On top of this (so to speak) the Bulgakov Museum was closed when we first got there, so we had to go away and climb back up a couple of times before we actually made it through the door.

It was well worth the effort. The museum, housed in Bulgakov’s childhood home, is a really good attempt at reproducing his fantastical worldWe poked about by ourselves for a bit, then an eccentric woman appeared and started to give us a whirlwind tour of the place delivered in high-speed Russian. I tried to translate for Mum but my descriptions were extremely limited. Our guide would reel off a lot of information and I’d turn to Mum and mutter “This has something to do with his sister,” or “I think this stuff belonged to his father,” or “I have no idea what she just said.” Mum, with a perfectly deadpan expression, would nod and say “Yes, interesting,” as though I had actually told her something useful. Then the woman would beam at us and blast out more Russian.

At one point we had to access another room by climbing through a wardrobe. The guide herself seemed to have escaped from a Bulgakov novel: as Mum said, we wouldn’t have been surprised if, at the end of the tour, she opened a window and flew away.

In the afternoon we went to the Hydropark and collapsed on some sun loungers in the shade. It was cooler down by the river, and the whole of Kiev seemed to have descended on the park. The next day was even hotter – forty degrees at noon – but luckily we had planned to escape the city to visit an outdoor museum of folk architecture. Somehow we ended up in a different park to the one we had intended to visit, much further away and less well equipped. It was a beautiful, peaceful place though, especially at that time of year, when everything was smothered in flowers.


The day after that was our last full day in the city. We decided to visit the Pechersk Lavra, the deeply weird monastery of the caves, an important place of pilgrimage for the Orthodox Church. Several ornate monastery buildings sit above an ancient system of tunnels and caves lined with various dead monks and saints resting in glass coffins. In real life, it was exactly as creepy as that sounds. We shuffled through the caves clutching our candles, which struck me as a fantastically dangerous way of lighting overcrowded underground spaces. Old ladies wept and kissed the glass tombs, polishing them with their handkerchiefs after every kiss. I grew more and more freaked out as we progressed – I don’t even like to step on the gravestones in churches and here we were, traipsing through dark twisting catacombs stuffed with mummified corpses. It was a relief to escape back up to ground level.

The next day we were off. I was heading onwards to Berlin by train, and Mum was going back to rush up to Edinburgh for the festival.

I only had two legs of the trip left: Kiev-Berlin and Berlin-Paris. Mum bought me a first class ticket for the overnight train from Berlin to Paris as my birthday present. For some reason I thought it was a good idea for her to bring it to Kiev, rather than for me to take it with me via Nepal, China and Russia. Naturally, by the time it came to pack for Kiev, Mum had completely forgotten about the ticket and I didn’t think to remind her. When we discovered this we made a frantic phone call to my boyfriend David in London, who was charged with locating and sending the ticket – he FedExed it to the hostel I had booked in Berlin as there wasn’t enough time for it to get to Kiev. It was nervewracking because I was only in Berlin for one night and by then I would be lucky to even find a seat on the Berlin-Paris train, let alone a sleeper berth, if I didn’t have my ticket. Plus the ticket was expensive, a really generous birthday treat, and we didn’t want it to go to waste.

I boarded the train more worried about the next stage than the one directly ahead of me, though it turned out that the Kiev-Berlin train was by far the more eventful journey. You’ll see what I mean in my next post.

Happy Moscow


The train to Moscow was pleasantly uneventful. The highlight of it was meeting our carriage mate, Larissa, a middle-aged lady from high up at the top of Siberia who force-fed us gooseberries and raspberries and marched me out into the corridor first thing the following morning for a glimpse of Vladimir.

Chris was itching for the train trip to be over, as most of his family was due to meet us in Moscow. He hadn’t seen them for nine months. I was really looking forward to seeing them too: our families are really close, so it was like knowing an aunt and uncle and cousin were all waiting on the platform.

The train pulled into Moscow mid-morning. Chris was fizzing with excitement by then. We packed up and got ready and he peered out of the window as we pulled into the platform.

“I see them! I see them!” he squeaked suddenly. We said goodbye to Larissa and belted off the train, weaving our way through the crowd up the platform, and there they were: Cathy and Steve, Chris’s Mum and Dad, and Maddy, his sister. Only Chris’s brother Jonny was missing. It was brilliant to see them all. We had a broadly-grinning and moist-eyed reunion and launched ourselves straight into the splendour of the Moscow metro.


The strange thing was, as Cathy pointed out, mere minutes after we met up everything felt perfectly normal, as though we all went gallivanting round Moscow together every day. We were renting a flat in a brilliant location near the Arbat, so we dropped off our backpacks and had a quick shower before we ventured out again. It was Tuesday. The Edis family, including Chris, were heading off to St Petersburg on Thursday, so we didn’t have much time to spare and there were a lot of sights to see.

Luckily most of the museums we wanted to see were closed, so we were able to tick a whole heap of them off our list in less than an hour. Herzen’s and Lermontov’s houses were both closed; so was Scriabin’s, but the doors were open as it was being renovated so we were able to wander in anyway and see his piano. The Melnikov House was closed so we peered at it through the fence. Congratulating ourselves on our excellent sightseeing progress, we headed off towards Red Square, stopping to pick up some food from a supermarket along the way.

Round Red Square I had that strange feeling you get when seeing a very familiar place for the first time in real life. St Basil’s, for example, is much smaller than I thought it was. The walls of the Kremlin are much less severe than they seem on the television; in fact Moscow is a much more colourful and happier place than I was expecting it to be.


The next day was the first of August. We headed straight back to the Kremlin after breakfast, arriving more or less as it opened. It’s a strange mix of the business end of a government and the ultra-touristy, crammed with cathedrals, tombs and stern ministerial buildings. Onion domes aplenty. The weather was perfect: warm but not so hot it was unpleasant to move around, and the brilliant sunlight made all the golden domes shine.


We met up with some of Chris’s friends, who live in Moscow, and went for a leisurely lunch with them. It grew hotter, but luckily we had decided to visit for the air-conditioned Tretyakov Museum in the afternoon. Inside the museum it was beautifully cool.

The contents of the Tretyakov are just overwhelming. Room after room of incredible works by Russia’s greatest painters and portraits of loads of artists and writers. At one point, exhausted, we collapsed on a bench for a bit then decided to leave – only to discover another floor of landscapes that refused to be ignored. That’s the only trouble with museums: you almost need to set aside a full day just to do each one justice, and more than that if it’s somewhere like the Hermitage or the Louvre.

One of the paintings in these final rooms was Levitan’s Vladimirka Road. Cathy has given me a postcard of this work just before I embarked on my Russian Culture MA, and I pinned it above my desk while I was knee-deep in Gulag literature and Dostoevsky and the Russian philosophers. I’d glance up at the long road in the painting with weary recognition as I slogged away at some essay or other. It was lovely to see it in the flesh, with Cathy there beside me.

The colours are terribly off, but you get the idea.

Afterwards we went off to Gorky Park. Chris’s friend Bella told us about how the park had undergone a bit of a renaissance in the last year or so, and it was the perfect place to be that summer afternoon. We sat on the grass, drinking ice tea and watching the skateboarders, rollerbladers, courting couples, lemonade stands, the lost helium balloons escaping up into the warm evening air: everything a park should be.

We had dinner in the park then wandered down to the embankment of the Moskva. Even by ten in the evening it was still light out, and the riverside was crowded with happy people, filling out the bars and salsa dancing in an open air ballroom. It was a magical night. None of us wanted it to end.

The next morning we got up early as the others needed to catch the train to St Petersburg. Though we left the timing rather tight, they walked me to my next Moscow home, the Petrovka Loft hotel. I took Chris up on his long-standing offer to carry my backpack, which was known as The Beast: he hauled it all the way up several flights of stairs for me, and we said goodbye.

It was sad and strange to part from Chris after all we had been through along the Trans-Siberian. I couldn’t have asked for a more easygoing travelling companion. But I’d been to St Petersburg before, and I wanted to continue my journey by train, having got so far without flying.

The Petrovka Loft is what passed for a budget Moscow hotel in 2012. For an eye-watering sum I got a room with a double bed squeezed against one wall and a narrow gutter of floor around it. God knows how two people would manage to fit into it; the second would just have to throw themselves on to the bed from the door. The bathroom was down the hall. But the loft has a brilliant location, right next to the Bolshoi theatre, and that’s what you pay for. Moscow could do with a lot more budget hotels and hostels. I would have liked to have stayed longer, but I could only afford one night at the Petrovka Loft.

For my first solo adventure in Moscow I went to the Mayakovsky Museum. Russian museums tend not to spare their foreign visitors: all the descriptive labels were written in Russian, so I came out of there knowing little more about Mayakovsky’s life and works than I had when I arrived. However, that’s hardly the point. The museum is amazing. It’s a three-dimensional, building-sized collage of stuff from the man’s life, with things on the walls, floors, and dangling from the ceiling in a disorientating explosion of imagery. I loved it, though I had no idea what  was going on most of the time.



After the Mayakovsky Museum I navigated my way to Patriarch’s Ponds. I can’t describe how nerdily excited I was to go there; I was practically trembling. It’s a small ordinary-looking park with a pond in it that happens to be the location of the opening chapter of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, one of my all-time favourite books. I went and sat on a bright yellow bench and imagined the opening scene unfolding around me, in all its comic horror:  “One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch’s Ponds…” 


Somehow the sites of literary scenes are more resonant to me than the sites of historic events. I stood in Red Square, remembering all that had occurred round there, and thought “hmm… yes,” whereas in Patriarch’s Ponds I couldn’t stop grinning. Perhaps because imaginary characters feel terribly real when you’re walking in their footsteps, whereas historical figures and places always have that heavy sense of reality; or maybe it’s because a literary work allows you access to these places in a deeper, more immediate way than learning about them in history does. Well, who knows. I was very happy on my yellow bench.

The rest of my time in Moscow was spent in a similarly literary-nerdy way. I went to Pushkin Square, and the next day, my last day in Moscow, I visited Tolstoy’s house and the Andrei Bely museum. I wanted to go to Yasnaya Polyana but it would have involved more nights in Moscow than I could afford, so I made do with the Moscow house.

I found Tolstoy’s house quite moving. There are lots of photos of him and his family on the walls, and you look around to see the same chair he’s sitting in in the photo right next to you, almost haunted by his presence.  It was also good to see the waste paper basket parked under his desk. An accessible bin is a vital tool of writing.

Tolstoy’s house

The Bely museum suffered from the same lack of translated information as the Mayakovsky, though I enjoyed looking at his sketches. I also had fun with the attendant, who refused to believe I didn’t have enough change for my ticket until she snatched my purse, up-ended it on the counter and went through the coins herself.

That evening I caught the train onwards to Ukraine. I was sad to leave Russia. For all its rather terrifying reputation, and despite the brandished knives and fistfights encountered along the way, I loved my time there. I was used to responding to a peremptory yell of ‘Devushka!’ (Girl!), and had grown to appreciate the brusque, unsought assistance so often thrust my way. Moscow had cast a particularly powerful spell over me, and I wished I could stay a little longer. But Kiev beckoned, and I was looking forward to seeing my Mum, who was flying out to join me there. So I heaved The Beast on my back and staggered off under its mounting weight towards another train station.