A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: askgudmundsen

Welcome to Asia Less Travelled

My way of sending postcards home


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If you have visited before you will know that I hope to tell you stories out of the ordinary. But then again, travel stories often are... Hopefully I'll be able to teach, entertain and inspire instead of just telling a few stories.
Central Asia's different from anywhere else; vast amounts of open land, strange (in the good way) nomadic cultures, subarctic temperatures, endless rail journeys combined with no clear idea of how to actually get home once I've reached Mongolia. It's gonna be an endless mirage of cool new experiences!

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I will, however, not magically appear in Central Asia since I'm not flying - at all - on this journey. The first few weeks are therefore reserved to the Trans-Siberian Railroad. I'll try to search out a few of the old Soviet horrors and other historic gems between the bottles of vodka...

This site, hence is going to be the place where you can learn about the blanks of the Asian map, stay updated on the newest on old Soviet trans, hunt with eagles and much more.
Or just read my stories or go through a few photos of roads less travelled.

To quote H. Jackson Brown, Jr.:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in you sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. (From P.S. I Love You, p. 13)

I bet you didn't know the last part :)

Planned (not fixed) route:
Up through Sweden and Finland,
north of the Baltic Sea and the Arctic Circle,
into Russia, and with the Trans-Siberian rail road to Mongolia,
back along the Silk Road across Central Asia, into Iran, Caucasus and Turkey...
And home, to Copenhagen, north through Eastern Europe.

Posted by askgudmundsen 07:33 Archived in Denmark Tagged travel central_asia less_travelled Comments (0)

Why we travel?

A little insight to a travellers thoughts before going out on one of his biggest trips...


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“I just wanted to get away from it all… Away from the people I was stationed with, away from all the questions, and away from the headlines.”
An article in The Guardian from 2010 could tell that we “broaden our mind by travelling”. Meeting new cultures, consisting of new people and new traditions – local as well as fellow travellers’ – will make the traveller smarter, more open-minded and more creative. The quote above is not from that article!
The quote came from a former Israeli soldier in his early twenties, which I met doing my dive master training in Honduras. I don’t remember his name, but I remember the answer, because I’d gotten one synonymous to it the day before, by an American who’d just gotten back from Afghanistan.

All my belongings for 7 months

All my belongings for 7 months

So which one is it? The mind-broadening experience, or just simple running away from the problems at home? Why do some of us leave our homes for months and months at the time?
The ex-soldiers travelled to places with loads of alcohol, lots of drugs, and a colossal lack of real world phenomena’s, such as co-workers, responsibilities, and seriousness. They were clearly running away.
Not that I blame them… And you don’t have to be a grenade-shock suffering soldier for running either. The World is filled with people like them and there are plenty of problems to run away from. Someone had a bad brake-up and decided to go travel. Another lost a job, and a third had problems with low self-esteem back home. A hostel manager I met said that most of his guests where running from something.
I’ll be the first to admit that I too am using these long trips to leave the same old, same old of eternal recurrence of daily life in the too well-known comfort zone called home. Running isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But most problems will, however, either creep down into you backpack and with you on your travels or wait for you to return home. So running away from your problems doesn’t really work.

Everything cramped into 28 liters

Everything cramped into 28 liters

It might sound like a cliché, but throwing yourself out there, into the unknown will make you grow as a person. Suddenly you have to trust strangers, eat whatever’s available, jump on a bus and hope for the best. And when your plan fails you have to improvise, rearrange and cope… It matures you. Sometimes the hard way, but what doesn’t seriously injure you will force you to learn about yourself, and open your eyes for new experiences impossible to gain at home. Or at least it should do.
For travelling to do its magic it must feel right – not just good, but right. Good is lying on the beach with a drink, drowning your sorrows or sitting in a nice comfy bus, while a young pretty guide tells you about what’s outside the window. One’s curiosity must be boiling over when travelling, by the share prospect of going somewhere new and unexplored – at least to you. A few set backs on the road must make you bounce back even more vigorous than before! The art of travelling must be done with a psychological surplus, not a shortage. Otherwise it will fail you miserably.
So the Guardian piece had a point. I have this: you need to plan your running away carefully. Not from problems, but from daily life towards the unknown and surprising.

Exited and ready

Exited and ready

Travelling for seven months – with only two sets of (dirty) clothes; crammed into overcrowded minibuses; unable to afford anything on the menu (places with menus are too expensive); and not able to stir up half a conversation in a compatible language for weeks at a time – is never worth it just for some nice scenery.
So if you, just like me, are looking for the parts of life that isn’t just focussed on the next semester or the next pay check and can’t be experienced back home in the nice familiar settings: Live a little. Go. Discover!

Posted by askgudmundsen 06:46 Archived in Sweden Tagged travel backpacking discover running_away Comments (1)

The Wonderland of Couchsurfing

Staying with those who know best!

snow -7 °C
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Ever thought about having travelers sleeping on your couch? If you already know what couchsurfing is, you probably have. Then do feel free to jump down a few paragraphs to the stories from the road, while I enlighten the unlearned.
Couchsurfing is a simple, but effective, idea about how we should visit a foreign country; how best to learn about it and share ideas, stories and knowledge. The idea goes like this: Get a profile on couchsurfing.org, fill it and start to either offer your couch to travelers visiting your town or surf and sleep on couches when you travel yourself.

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It might sound complicated and as a sure way to invite thieves and troublemakers in to your home. But it’s a little more sophisticated than just that. First off, you can indicate if you’re taking surfers in: yes/no/maybe. And most (good) surfers will have an extensive profile with background stories and photos;they will have been vouches for by either other surfers or their friends.

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And once someone have either surfed or hosted they will leave a reference. These can be good, negative or neutral, so you will be able to get an idea about who to take in and who not to. It’s of cause more difficult if you want to start surfing without references, so it’s a good idea to begin by hosting a few people who can give you a few good references. I will promise you that you’ll get hooked on the idea after that!

Couchsurfing the North
Both given the prices of accommodation and that I wanted to ease myself into this solitude of travel, I’ve been couchsurfing on my first few stops.
First off was a weekend in Swedish capital Stockholm. Here two Turk-Swedish friends, Dogan and Can, had been nice enough to welcome me into their apartment. And that even though they had a Russian girl, which name I’ve forgot because it wasn’t very Russian, staying there too. Obviously the first few hours of conversation will be about travelling. The girl, around her early twenties, had no intentions to believe me when I talked about travelling for seven months. To her it was simply lunacy. She herself wasn’t much travelled and rather young – at least she acted like that – so maybe that had a say too about it.

Swedish/Turkish hangover

Swedish/Turkish hangover

I think we finally manage to convince. Not about the idea of travelling for seven months was a good one, but that some people actually lived like that and is indeed was possible. And so, in the late hours of that Friday night the conversation could finally turn to other subjects. I when to sleep, not on a couch but an air mattress surprised that the Russian girl was actually a university student on exchange in Berlin. I’m suddenly very happy for my break years before starting university.

Fixed with rum-brunch

Fixed with rum-brunch

The Russian girl left late Saturday evening, but was replaced by a friend of Dogan and Can’s, an Estonian girl who spend most of the rest of my stay hanging out, procrastinating from her studies.
Most of my days, nevertheless, were spend out in Stockholm, trying to get in to museums for free and eating strange fish burgers, which Swedes apparently think for good fast food. Two days of walking the streets of Stockholm I suddenly realized just how bad my stamina has gotten. It’s a catastrophe!All the working and hauling my backpack around on this trip will luckily restore it to some of its former glory. I was bombed out! So I had to decline all three of the party invitations I got from my two hosts and they house friend. Interestingly enough they all went to a separate party.

and Turkish coffee

and Turkish coffee

We were all four in the apartment the next morning – more about noon –in various conditions. Treating ourselves to an improvised brunch Can and I figured it would be a good idea to serve some nice rum on the side. And so rum-brunch was born. The rest of that Sunday was spend in slow pace with movies and fast food, conversations about my trip (what to see in Turkey, what to see in Estonia, and what they should see in Stockholm) and them mocking my Danish languish.Even though they all were born outside Sweden they’ve done a good job picking up the Swedish/Norwegian humor making fun of Danish.

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All in all it was very fun and easy to couchsurf in Stockholm. Then again couchsurfing isn’t always that easy. I wasn’t really sure that I had a host in Rovaniemi, Finland. So just before my overnight train, I did a few more panicked requests to hosts hoping someone could save me, if the first arrangement fell through.

Movie theater made of snow and ice

Movie theater made of snow and ice

After a night in a train up through Sweden, a bus to the Finnish border and yet another bus in Finland the last few hundred kilometers to Rovaniemi, I finally got a call from my initial host, who had worked out all the details.Nice to get that worked out after 24 hours of uncertainty. Even so, while I was sitting in a café waiting to be picked up another host actually replies to my try for help and offer me a spot at his place – even though he is technically full.At that point I can happy decline the offer, but promises to get him a beer if he and his couchsurfers join me at the café. Half hour later we all – including my host – shake hands, before I buy the guy a beer and leave with my car towing host.
All in all, the entire couchsurfing concept is amazing – even though it sometimes bring uncertainty, some key swooping and some very awkward times with people you can’t connect with. At just three places, the last one in Ivalo,Finland, I got a close look on how people live in Stockholm’s suburbs, provisional Finland and a little peek into life in a Finnish derelict farm.
I’ve already talked too much about the Stockholm experience, but just to sum up a few at the highlights of couchsurfing in Sweden and Finland:

At the Arctic Circle!!

At the Arctic Circle!!

Getting tips about local sights and hideouts visitors normally doesn’t see, rum-brunch, road-trip to the Arctic Circle(!), visiting a sled-dog farm (sorry for the missing photos), getting tips on the best hiking grounds, hits to the best bars and cafés, home cooked meals and reindeer meat.

The last few days have been spend in Murmansk, on the Russian coast of the Arctic Sea. I know I’m a little behind, but I’ll update you on that once I’ve completed a 28 hours train ride south to Sankt Petersburg.

Posted by askgudmundsen 11:54 Archived in Finland Tagged couchsurfing arctic_circle rum_brunch Comments (1)

Glimpse from the North Russian rail

28 hours on a off-the-beaten-track part of the Russian Railway

overcast -12 °C
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The scenery outside the window shifts between snow covered pine forest and a landscape of small hills dotted with much lower and more widespread trees – also covered in snow. Overall snow and trees are the norm here in Northern Russia. Only the ground they cover changes.
Now and then we’re passing over a river running out into a large lake on the west side of the tracks. The lake is dressed in a layer of ice, while the rivers– because of the waters movement, I guess – is ice free.

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Once in a while, maybe a few times every hour, a small village passes by. If it wasn’t for the people standing next to the rail road, waiting to cross the tracks, you’d think they were abandoned. So decrepit are the house, so little snow has been cleared from the roads. Those villages are the clear sign that rural Russia is a lot poorer than the palace ridden, cosmopolitan Sankt Petersburg were I’m going. Even the suburbs of the grey, rough, working class harbour-city of Murmansk seems like a paradise of wealth compared to those small villages.
I’m sitting at a window seat in a plastkash – 3rd class – carriage on a typical Russian train. It’s not really a seat, just the part of a lower bunk bed, closest to the window. I’m sharing the wagon with 53 other passengers.

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The bunks are arranged like normal compartments. Down though the carriage,there’s nine “rooms” each with two lower and two upper bunks. Each “room” are divided by a thin partition. There is open access from the bunks to the corridor running through the carriage and down alongside the wall are set up another nine lower and upper bunks.
Most of my new travel companions are napping, and they have been doing it ever since we left Murmansk at 09.12. Not that there is much else to do abroad. Napping, snacking, sleeping and eating…And looking out the window, where Russia, at the relaxed pace of approximately 60 km/h, rolls by.

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Two old men are playing an old, Russian version of backgammon and a few places have lunch been replaces by beers at a time a day where there would normally have been served tea. No one have yet broad out the heavy stuff –I actually fail to come by a vodka bottle on the entire trip. So that is either a myth or something that doesn’t go on, on this rail road stretch. Or maybe it’s just confined to the second class – where it’s easier to hide your escapades behind closed doors.

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But in most cases people are in their beds sleeping. Some tried reading a book, but it seems that the sleep-inducing sound of the train running over its tracks have forced most into sleep as well.
We’ve been going at this for seven hours so far. That means we have 21 left before we’d finished the 1400 km trip. It’s a long haul and most Russians don’t really see it as the journey I do. For most of them, it’s simply a point of getting from A to B. As a foreigner I have one trump on wasting time (which I’ve already used): Walking the length of the train in order to have a look around and find the restaurant car. I found it after passing through eight plastkashs like the one I’m in. Behind the restaurant is just as many second class and a few first class carries.

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My roommates – the people in the bunk beneath mine and on the two across the table – are a Russian family going home to Sankt Petersburg. They don’t speak any English, but we get by with sign- and body languish.Even though it isn’t absolutely clear to me, it seems they’d been visiting the mother’s parents. And the dad seems pleased to be leaving. The normal way to introduce yourselves is by offering a little of the food you broad along for the ride. I offer some biscuits and they overbid me with chocolate. Damn Russians, they win again!
But the conversation doesn’t really get a lot further when you can’t communicate with words. The solution, at least one I discovered on this trip where to start practicing my Russian. Just the basics like hello (zdravst-vuy-tye), goodbye (da sve-da-niye), thank you (spa-si-ba),you’re welcome/please (po-zha-lus-ta) and the numbers 1-10.

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I was definitely the laughing stock of the carriage, but I got points for trying, and the family was happy – both for the entertainment and the new time-consuming activity. I might even have improved a little bit.
When we finally stopped the lesson in Russian a group of six or seven teenagers have begun playing some kind of card game in the both next to ours. The girls were drinking ice tea and the guys beer. They are actually less laud, in the beginning, that I’d expect. They’re having fun though and turned up the volume as they got further into the game. A game I didn’t recognize. Actually I didn’t even recognize the cards they were playing with. Purple with big numbers on them. Maybe some kind of Russian Uno.

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But out of the blue, someone slams their hand on the pile of cards on the table,and everyone else follow suit. Last hand on the pile of cards (under the pile of hands) apparently loses something, even though I’m unsure what. Just as I still don’t have a clue about when, or why, they were slamming their hands down on the cards.
But I have time enough to figure it out, before reading an additional chapter in my books or maybe take another nap…
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Posted by askgudmundsen 12:07 Archived in Russia Tagged train railway russia plastkash murmansk Comments (0)

Worlds apart in Northwest Russia

The difference between rough working class and high culture

all seasons in one day -5 °C
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Murmansk: A grey, concrete, working class, mining city and Russia’s most important port.It’s a rough city, with a rough population. Free time from the mining and port work are spent equally between vodka sipping and outdoor recreation.

Murmansk Ploshchad (main square)

Murmansk Ploshchad (main square)

It didn’t matter much whether it was the three star naval general who emptying a bottle of vodka with two comrades over a lunch or the three teenagers who heavily intoxicated had driven their car up on a hill top overlooking the city while blasting Russian techno. Murmansk likes vodka. While the naval officers greeted me with a polite knot, one of the teenage boys insisted that we should have a little fun wrestling match – until he figured I was foreign, gave me a big hug and send me on my way.

Ice swimmers preparing

Ice swimmers preparing

The sober people of Murmansk use their free weekends on cross country skiing on a frozen lake. Apparently are a few laps around the 5.5 km lake pretty normal before lunch. That is if you’re not part of the Murmansk Walruses – Murmansk’s local ice swimming club. They confessed that they’d stay in if the temperature was below -20 Celsius, but otherwise did they jump in for a swim at least a few times a week. They did offer me a chance to prove myself, but the minus 12 on that Sunday was a little more that I was looking for. Something I bitterly regret not doing after leaving the city.

Rough Murmansk seen from above

Rough Murmansk seen from above

Not only are the people of Murmansk a tough bunch. I was actually – several times –forced to go long detour because of stray dogs blocked my way. Once one actually fallowed me for a few hundred meters while barking and snarling. Not that I’m usually nervous around dogs, but these ones were big, aggressive and very determined to stand their ground.

Nuclear(!) icebreaker Lenin

Nuclear(!) icebreaker Lenin

Even the industry in Murmansk is bad ass! Murmansk is home to the world’s only fleet of nuclear (!) powered ships. Since 1959 have a fleet of nuclear icebreakers have made sure that the shipping routes to the northern parts of Siberia have been kept open year round. Each of these monster ships has two or three rectors aboard giving them about 55,000 horse powers (c. 500 cars). That makes them so powerful that they can penetrate any ice on Earth. One of the retired icebreakers is now used as a cruise ship. So if you fancy a Christmas cruise to the North Pole (and can pay the price tag at 22.000$), come to Murmansk.

Opposite this leviathan of a city, 1.400 km (spitting distance in Russia) to the south lays a peaceful, sophisticated, cultural gem. The most European of Russia’s cities and by far the most beautiful, Sankt Petersburg. I’ve rarely been so impressed by arriving at city center before. The entire historic hearth of Piter (as it’s known to locals) is a UNESCO heritage site – but walking around a corner to gaze up upon the Winter Palace covered in sunlight is up there with the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China in my book.

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The Winter Palace itself is home to the Hermitage Museum – more than 350 rooms of splendid wonder. Most impressive were the restored rooms of the tsars,thereafter the collection on medieval armor and jewelry. Art lovers might instead be amazed over the two rooms full of Picasso’s, the two rooms of Van Gogh’s and one of Rembrandt’s and Da Vinci’s. Now, I don’t really care for art,and there were many more rooms with pictures from artist which names I don’t know. But you don’t need to be an art expert to know this place is impressive!
Sankt Petersburg tops itself off by having numerous of channels running through the city. As well as the Neva River were old three masts lying at jetty and the city’s original fort stand still intact. In an attempt to rival Murmansk in bad ass attitude doesn’t Piter mark noon with the normal bell strokes – it fires a cannon! Just to mark that Sankt Petersburg have been founded on conquered land (from the Swedes – which is always a bonus).

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But it doesn’t change attention away from a city full of beautiful landmarks,countless theaters and museums, it’s highly educated population (and that the city in general prefers beer over vodka).

I would study more with a library like this

I would study more with a library like this

I don’t know which of the two I prefer. I’m definitely more fascinated with Murmansk and more impressed with its people. I’d rather live in Piter, but that doesn’t say much, because of the resemblance to European cities. Both a definitely worth a visit, and this has been a great introduction to Russia before I’m leaving to go visit the Baltic states, but I’m not at all sure this was an introduction to the real Russia, the part east of the Urals or the rural towns. I’ll have to wait with that part of the adventure till later on.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 12:17 Archived in Russia Tagged saint_petersburg murmansk winter_palace Comments (0)

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