Beijing To Baikal

Long before we ventured overseas, Byron and I had often discussed our shared desire to include train travel in our time abroad. Although the leading candidate at the time was India (we were still planning on going to Nepal at this point), the idea was quickly left on the table when our plans left us touring around Southeast Asia instead. While we were enjoying the light and fluffy in Japan though, Powder magazine published a story titled “The Great Siberian Traverse”; a full length feature that follows three prominent skiers as they trained across the vast expanse of Siberia, skiing wherever possible along the way. That was all the incentive we needed; if they could do it, why the heck couldn’t we? The plan was made and visas were secured; our route would take us by train from Beijing to Russia (via Mongolia), where our first stop would be the city of Irkutsk. With ten days in Beijing to kill before our train left for Russia, we had just enough time to explore one last corner of Asia before heading north into Siberia.
Our first day in Beijing was beautiful; the air was crisp and the skies were blue, while a chilly wind kept the skies clear of both cloud and Beijing’s infamous pollution. As the wind died off over the next day or two though and the smog began to settle back into the city, we quickly developed a desire to leave the city. By night cars illuminated the all-encompassing pollution which shone like fog in the headlights, and by day you could count those which had remained parked for the night as they became covered by a distinctive film by the next morning. If inanimate objects bore this coating of pollution on the outside after only a day, what on earth did the inside of our lungs look like after two?
Our escape came on the China Highspeed Railway. After a little research we set our sights on the Huangshan mountains, which sit 1300km south of Beijing, only a mere 6 hours away when transported by one of the country’s newest rail lines traveling at speeds of up to 300km/hr. Onboard the train the next day, we were afforded a unique (albeit quick) view of life in China’s rapidly expanding countryside. Much of it simply resembled one construction site after the other; although there were breaks in between where flocks of sheep and farmers still roamed through their rapidly shrinking pastures, everywhere we looked a new rail line, highway, or high rise was being built. The economic growth the country is experiencing thanks to its adoption of quasi-capitalist principles coupled with a commanding one party government has resulted in rapid expansion with little to no consultation; zipping through rural farming villages cut in half by a high speed rail, it was painfully obvious that this growth has come fast, and the rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats.
We arrived at our destination in time to catch the last bus of the day, and were delivered to our hotel in the small town of Tangkou under the cover of darkness. The next day we woke to clear skies (hooray!), surrounded by towering granite peaks. Excited to explore these peaks, we boarded the bus which would deliver us into the park and the start of the trails. Although still quite commercially developed (think paved stairs and garbage cans all the way up), it was wonderful to be outside experiencing another face of China. Quite similar to the landscape of California’s Yosemite National Park, Byron and I slowly made our way up the mountain where we would spend the night in one of the hotels perched on the side of the jagged peaks.
Due to cultural differences in dormitory and shared bathroom etiquette, what happened that night will unfortunately go down as the worst night in the history of our entire trip. Sleep deprived and disgusted, we threw on our clothes the next morning and set out to explore the remaining trails before making our way back down into the valley. The sun greeted us along with the weekend crowds as we descended the mountain, and I chuckled as Byron was stopped again and again for photos along the way with awe struck Chinese. I don’t know if it was his blue eyes, blonde hair or blue pants that won them over, but either way it was a photo op they weren’t going to miss. After a short tram ride down the mountain we were soon back on the bullet to Beijing, ready for the start of our next adventure. Skis and gear in tow we boarded the train a few days later, ready to see what Siberia had in store for us.

 

The true Trans-Siberian starts in Valadvostock On Russia’s far east coast, traversing 9000km across the word’s largest country to arrive in Moscow one week later. Rated as a more popular option however is the Trans-Mongolian route, which heads north through Mongolia from China before connecting with the Trans-Siberian rail line 50 hours later in Irkutsk, Russia. Once we had firmly wedged our skis and oversized bags into our sleeper berth we excitedly settled in to watch Beijing fade away. As we jostled and bumped through the countryside China soon faded away into the cold wilds of Inner Mongolia. We reached the border late that evening and took the stop as an opportunity to grab a breath of fresh air and stretch our legs. We laughed as a Malaysian couple whom we had made friends with earlier that day experienced their first breaths of cold air; newly married they had chosen the train trip to Russia’s capital for their honeymoon. We repeatedly assured them that even for seasoned Canadians, -20C is cold for anyone. Still sceptical they grabbed a few quick breathless photos and smartly retired to the warmth of the waiting train. The next day was spent comfortably traversing the Gobi desert, still deep in the grasp of winter. That evening we made one last midnight border crossing and sleepily smiled as the border official checked our visas and stamped our passports; we had just entered the Russian Federation.
Our first glimpse of Siberia was exciting; we awoke in the morning to beautiful sunshine and Lake Baikal on one side of the train, and spectacular snow capped mountains on the other. As we pulled into Irkutsk that afternoon and grabbed a taxi to our hostel, all we could think about were the chilly peaks we had passed by that morning and wondering just how the heck we were going to get back there to ski them.


  

  


  
  
  

Huangshan Mountains

  
  
Huangshan Mountains
  Huangshan Mountains 

Huangshan Mountains



Beijing metro on route to Siberia.



  Goodbye China

China Mongolia Border
  

Gobi desert
 Home on the rails

Leg stretch.  Ulaanbaatar, Monoglia

New locomotive. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
  Mongolia

Mongolia
  Mongolia

Mongolia


Lake Baikal

Hokkaido Deep

 

     As we wound our way North from Sapporo on Japan’s largest northern island, Byron and I quickly began to understand what all of the hype was about; Hokkaido meant snow, and a lot of it. Cold dry Siberian air collects moisture as it crosses the Sea of Japan heading south, depositing it in the form of the lightest, driest powder snow on earth. On average Hokkaido and its surrounding mountains receive seven meters of average snowfall, which rarely sees the freeze/thaw cycles we are used to in North America, meaning that that seven meters is there to stay for the winter. We arrived in the small town of Furano mid-February, eager to experience what we would quickly start to term ‘Japow’. 
     Furano is a small town right in the middle of the Hokkaido island; not quite as developed as the Niseko resort area made famous in recent years through various ski movies and magazine articles, it was a great place to get our ski legs back, make some new ski buddies and enjoy our first real taste of winter. After enjoying a couple of rare sunny days exploring the resort area and its backcountry, we had our legs back and were ready for some steep and deep. Our prayers were soon answered, and the snow began to fall. And fall it did. Throughout our stay in Japan, the weather patterns and snowfall would be a constant learning experience. Everything we knew about snowfall and snow conditions changed; snow fell at -5C but also -30C, and it was always dry, always light, and always bonded quickly and well to existing snow to create a stong, stable snowpack (ie a backcountry skiers dream).  

   After our few introductory days at the local resort, we began to explore the surrounding backcountry terrain with new friends we made at the local hostel we were camped out at in town. Seeing our lust for snow and the desire to explore more of the region, they put us onto a backcountry area accessible from a few small onsens (locally developed hot springs with attached accomodations) located only a short bus ride away across the valley in Hokkaido’s largest mountain range, Ishikari. Surrounded by the Daisetsuzan National Park, these onsens were open year round via a narrowly plowed mountain road, and guaranteed fresh tracks for days. If the weather happened to clear while we were there we would also be afforded views of Ishikari’s highest peak, Ashahi-Dake; an active volcano topping out at 2200m.

     With the promise of fresh, deep tracks and hot springs at the end of each day, we bade goodbye to our new friends and the little town of Furano. After many rounds of “sumimasen” (excuse me/sorry in japanese) we wedged our over sized load onto the mini bus loaded with Japanese elders heading for their daily mountain onsen (it’s hard to remember who ‘sumimasen’ed’ more, us or the bus driver. As we quickly learned the Japanese are ten times more polite than your average Canadian, and will apologize for even the slightest inconvenience, even if it’s clearly us that should be apologizing). Our lodge for the next five nights was perfect; a spotlessly clean dorm room (the Japanese are also fastidiously clean, another welcome trait), kitchen for cooking, and an expansive network of hot spring baths to spend hours in after a day out playing in the snow. At the end of each day everyone gathered in the kitchen regardless of language or age and ate, laughed and drank together.

       During our stay at the onsen we met a pair of adventurous and hilarious friends from Colorado also out in search of deep snow in Japan. The four of us hit it off immediately, and after bidding the Ishikari range goodbye we spent the next 5 days together road-tripping through Hokkaido skiing powder, eating sushi and sharing new adventures and a lot of laughs. When me met Phillip and Jeremy we’d been on the road for over 6 months; their energy and enthusiasm for adventure was, for us, a needed recharge. They lived and travelled with an infectiously calm but fierce love for adventure and life; they traveled and started each day with little expectation other than to enjoy and live in the experience, a motto that Byron and I wholeheartedly embraced and still try to carry forward with us each day still. Their thoughtful yet carefree attitude toward adventure made us all fast friends, and we were very sad to say goodbye when it was time for their flight home. 

       To most, Japan seems like a daunting and expensive travel destination, and they’re not wrong; unfortunately, south east Asia this is not. We knew that our time in Japan would quickly deplete our resources the longer we stayed, so we did everything we could to find ways to minimize the blow to our budget.  

       As it turns out (and not surprisingly), this is a common conundrum for travellers everywhere, and several networks have been set up to accommodate those looking for a live/work exchange. After completing our profile we were bonafied jobseekers according to workaway.com, and after a few emails we were set to swing hammers and help out with some renovation work while our host put us up in a shared house with others in the same boat; the deal seemed pretty reasonable, and there was a network of local hills in the area to ski at during our time off. After six months of total freedom this would be the first time we would be required to answer to someone and return to a semblance of responsibilities. All we could think was it was a good thing there was a ski resort in town.

        Our communal house was located in Kutchan, a small town about ten minutes from the resort center of Nesiko. The Aussie whom we were working for had lived in the area for twenty-odd somewhat years, and had grown accustomed to using ‘workaway-ers’ to staff most of his commercial operations, which included a few restaurants, a hotel and a small ski school. Although we didn’t agree with all of his business practices, the situation did allow us to prolong our departure from the endless snowfall of Japan. We committied to a month of hard labour before we moved on; and just as with most of our other experiences in the country thus far, it turned out to be a worthwhile one. For one month we found a place to call home, and were able to share it with others from around the world, adding to a long list of friends whom we’ll forever be grateful to have met. For one month we skied together, “worked” together, cooked together and partied together. It was an awesome family of travellers who for a short time made a home away from home that much better.

      The area around Niseko is blessed with some of the highest snowfall in Hokkaido, and even on this reported ‘low snowfall year’ it didn’t dissapoint. One morning we woke up to almost a meter of fresh snow; it took us nearly fifteen minutes to shovel a short path for the van to the street but everyone knew we weren’t going to work until it was skied; there was so much powder that we enjoyed fresh tracks all day that day and even the next. At one point when we had to do a short boot-pack Byron volunteered to cut the trail; I was shocked into giggles as he plowed into the snow; waist-deep on his 6’5″ figure. The longer we stayed in the region the more secret pockets of fresh snow we found, a few quick minutes from any of the resort trails would often lead to soft, fluffy turns undiscovered by those skiing the groomers only a hundred meters away. 

     Dominating the Niseko area is the dormant volcano Mt Yotei. This massive 1900m beast dominates the local vista on the rare days when the clouds part, and with constant snowfall throughout the winter her flanks are constantly filled with deep snow just waiting to be skied. With a clear day in the forecast coinciding with our day off Byron and I along with two others from our house made plans to get an early start on the next day and summit the volcano. After an early start we were already cutting our track up the side of the mountain when the sun came up, giving light to the birch above us and sparkle to the snow crunching below our skis, promising a day that wouldn’t soon be forgotten. After six hours and 1600 vertical meters of breaking trail we crested the peak and got our first glimpse down into the crater; it was perfect. After a lap down into the belly of the beast we cheered and screamed every exclamation and explicative we knew (at least I did); we had just skied into a volcano! I was beyond giddy to say the least; if the volcano decided that was the moment to come back to life and blow her top I would have died a happy girl. 

     Our luck with the weather held and we descended into the crater one more time before we headed for home, enjoying the vertical mile of powder skiing we had worked so hard to gain that morning down the other side towards home. We owe the weather and volcano gods a huge arigato gozaimos for our day on Yotei, as it will be one that will live in our hearts and memory forever. 

      Unfortunately our love and pursuit of snow in Niseko didn’t always coincide with our work responsibilities and we usually neglected the latter. Our volunteer boss eventually felt that we were no longer holding up our end work/live deal, and so it was on this note that we were unceremoniously fired from our ski bum jobs. This was a first for both of us, and one we did in the end, take very lightly, and with a large dose of humour. We spent a few more nights in our Kutchan house as refugees, and after a large farewell party with our adopted workaway family left the Japow behind and boarded a short flight to Beijing. Little did we know our ski adventures were only getting started.

   

     
   
    
   
   
    
   
   
    
  

   

  

  

  

  

   
    
    
 
   
    
 

Tokyo, Welcome to Japan

  As our flight slowly banked toward the final approach to Haneda we got our first glimpse of the sprawling Megapolis of Tokyo. The forest of high-rises and endless sea of city that spread out beneath us was spectacular. Stepping off the aircraft into the chilly January evening was confirmation that we’d left the tropics behind. After collecting our ski gear which had been shipped from Canada, we marched onto the Tokyo subway skis in tow. This was a fairly awkward affair, public transit and skis don’t mix all that well. We extracted ourselves and our gear from the subway at the correct station, and promptly got lost looking for our AirBNB rental. With our ridiculous amount of gear, and stunned looks, a older Japanese couple noticed our situation and kindly walked us to our house.

  

     I think I’d describe Tokyo not as one large mega city, but as a collection of cities within a city. Take the metro to any of the major stops and when you reach street level you’re in the middle of a new city. We stashed our stuff, grabbed some saké and set out to Shinjuku. Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s major commercial centers, the municipal government buildings are also located there. It’s a bustling mix of old and new. Gleaming corporate high-rises and the Golden Gai, its narrow streets packed with tiny bars and restraunts, lay side by side. The 47th floor observation deck of municipal building provides a stunning (free) view of Tokyo and its surrounding areas, complete with Mt Fuji in the background. To the south of Shinjuku we explored the shopping streets of Kabukichō and walked into Shibuya crossing. Where every 90 seconds the traffic lights turn red and 100s of people make there way across the intersection, an endless sea of people. And while the traffic flows, the sidewalks fill up anew with people waiting to cross. There is a unique energy to Tokyo, millions of people going about their daily business. But horns don’t honk in frustration, sirens don’t wail in panic, people don’t even walk against the signal. It’s a quiet, dignified order. It’s not Asian, It’s Japanese. The unfaltering politeness of the Japanese, their fastidious attention to cleanliness and order makes Tokyo peaceful yet bustling. 
      With more restaurants than any city on earth, great food was always easy to find. It was always nice to step in from the cold and enjoy a bowl of ramen or pull up to a Sushi bar. Most of the popular ramen spots would have vending machine at the door where you’d select your meal of choice, pay for it, and receive a chit with which you’d then present to the staff. A very efficient procedure, and very Japanese. Vending machines are everywhere, over 5.5 million of them across the country, selling everything. Our favourite choice soon became the “Fire” brand coffee, the cans came adorned with characters from the Star Was rebel alliance. If you found the good machines, there’d be a red button under the can of Fire. Pressing the button would produce a smoking hot can of coffee, perfect for January in Japan. 
    Seafood is a huge part of the Japanese diet, and nowhere is this more evident than at the Tsukiji fish market. The largest seafood market in the world, almost 6 billion USD worth of seafood passes through the market annually. It’s home to the world famous tuna auction which gets underway at 5am. We slept in and showed up for the wholesale market at 9am. You can meander up and down isles stocked with basically everything the ocean holds, for now. It’s a carnival of sights and sounds. Thankfully in the chill of January the smell was absent. It’s really an accidental tourist attraction, we can’t buy anything, we just get in the way and make photos. The merchants tolerate the gaijins getting in the way, but you’re wise to look out for the forklifts buzzing around. This is, afterall, a place of business. Feeding the people is very serious business. The Market is scheduled to be relocated later on this year as Tokyo will be redeveloping the downtown site in preparation for the 2020 summer games. 
   Our Air BNB pad was located in the Akihabara hood, it’s basically a huge arcade. We spent our final Tokyo night drinking saké and playing video games. Byron was pretty good with the claw and scored us some very plush stuffed animals, which soon replaced our less than adequate pillows. Our time in Tokyo had been short, We really only scratched the surface. But it was time to fly north to Hokkaido and see what the snow in Japan is really like.  
 

   
  

Our Tokyo Home

  


  
   
    
    
   
   
    
    
    
    
 
   
    
   

Tuk Tuks and Trains

We landed in Bangkok Saturday morning around 11am. Having managed to convince our bodies to sleep in an only mildly reclined position for 9 hours on the plane over from Los Angeles, we were both determined to make the best of the day and fight off any jet lag until later that evening. After making our way to the end of the skytrain line we jumped aboard a tuk-tuk, the equivalent of a gas-powered rickshaw so colourfully decorated you would think it had just come from the disco.

Unfortunately, there are moments when you look as fresh off the boat as you truly are. After quite a few city blocks I attracted the keen eyes of a motorcycle-mounted pair of purse thieves who clearly saw the weight of my burden and decided to relieve me of some of it. One close pass from behind and a snatch from my chest and they were off into oncoming traffic. Good-bye $15 Bently purse….
After tears, a bout of fuming silence, many choice curse words and some time to cool off, we confirmed that there was nothing I couldn’t live without that was in that cheap little sucker of a purse, and that the most the thieves got away with were my debit, visa and nexus cards, hand sanitizer and lotion, and a pair of ear buds I was rather attached to. So if you happen to be in Bangkok reading this and you run into a set of Thai men on a motorcycle with suspiciously clean, soft hands, punch them for me would you? While the city redeemed itself in the following days, there is nothing more violating or infuriating than having something stolen from you, and it certainly left a bad taste in my mouth having only just arrived in the country. On the bright side though, I got to go purse shopping that night.  

After changing out of the clothes we had been occupying for far too long we headed off into the streets, hungry for some food and beers in the streets of Bangkok. Our hotel was situated in the Banglamphu district, not far from Khao San road where backpackers and vendors crowd the streets and you can find everything from pad-thai to knock-off designer purses and the latest trend in Thai tourist tshirts. We wandered for hours, making our way eventually to a little hole-in-the-wall soup joint that seemed quite popular with the locals. As with everything we ate over the next few days, it did not dissapoint. From red curry to meat-on-a-stick to padthai, we tried whatever we could find. We made it until about 9 o’clock that night, then promptly crashed, excited to do it all over again the next day.

The next day we made for the Chatuchak weekend market, an open-air market that boasts to be the largest in the world (250,000 people and counting attend each weekend). From puppies to vintage clothing to art, you can bet you’ll find it at the weekend market.

For hours we wandered, in awe of everything you could buy. Byron noted that a traveller really didn’t need to pack a bag when heading for Bangkok. One just has to be sure to arrive on the weekend and head straight for the market; within a few hours you’ll have everything you could possibly need.

From the market we made our way back into the heart of the city and headed to Wat Pho, one of the city’s many temples which showcases and displays the Buddha idol. Wat Pho itself houses the longest reclining Buddha, which measures at a stunning 50m long and 15 meters high. Although not well versed in the Buddhist religion, I have always enjoyed the idol and couldn’t help but feel a warm and peaceful glow standing in admiration of this massive form. With intricately decorated and adorned stupas lining the grounds as well (commemorating the first four Chakri kings), it is easy to understand why architecture is held as one of the highest forms of art in the country.

From the temple we made our way over to Bangkok’s Chinatown in search of further stimulus for our culture-hungry minds (and possibly a bite to eat while we were at it). Whether it was a special occasion or a nightly occurrence we never found out, but as we entered the streets we were greeted with fireworks and a parade, complete with dancing dragons and crashing symbols. We sat down to dinner at one of the many crowded street food vendor gatherings, and were soon sweating profusely as our dinner was cooked in a pile of searing flames only meters from our table. Again, the food did not disappoint, and we ended the night with happy bellies and full minds at all the city had shown us.

Knowing we would be leaving the city the next day, the following morning we made way for the train station to purchase our tickets, and then on to the Tropical Disease hospital, where on the good advice of our Canadian doctor we skipped getting the Japanese Encephalitis shot until we made it here, where the vaccine was a tenth of the price of what we would have paid back home. Two sore arms later, we were back out on the streets, taking in our last day of sights in the city.

And now, four days later, we have made our way north on the train, heading for Chiang Mai where the mountains, temples and elephants (!!!) await us. After we have our fill of the region we’ll head east into Laos and Cambodia, and who knows where from there. We’re only just getting started! 

xo Alison & Byron
   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
 

The Coles Notes:

Here’s to those of you who may be heading to, or are currently in Bangkok

1. Try and take tuk-tuks with netting or webbing on the side to protect your stuff from theives. Be diligent; It’s a big city and a small bag or purse can be ripped right off your chest if you’re not careful and it’s got cheap straps

2. Bring an unlocked cell phone from home. You can pick up a cheap sim card right at the airport (ours was 30days, talk and text, 4G of data for $20CAD)

3. Negotiate or confirm price of transportation before you go

4. Go to the Chatuchak weekend market if you can; you won’t be dissapointed

5. Eat street meat at the busy stalls, and try as much as you’re brave enough to

6. Banglamphu has the cheapest beers we could find (60baht for a tall Chang); anywhere along the river had the most expensive (130baht for a small Chang)

7. Head to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases for a cheap ($25 CAD) Japanese Encephalitis shot if you need it

8. Dried sardines are not that good. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.

9. Buy tickets at the train station (at least one day in advance) for any trips; don’t buy them from an agent or side-street shop

10. The A/C cabs on the train can be ridiculously cold; get ready to wear all of your warm clothes on the trip.