Saturday, November 25, 2006

The End

You all may rest easy, for I have made it home safely, with only a minimum of delays and not a single crash. It is, to say the least, a surreal feeling to be back in Vancouver after a fifteen month sojourn to places elsewhere, and it's good to see that the weather hasn't changed a bit. My thanks to everyone who bothered to pay attention to my exploits, especially for the support, advice, and sometimes even criticism. Here's a few more final shoutouts:

Thanks to all the locals who went out of the way to make me feel welcome in their cities: Cheryl and Danial in Kuala Lumpur, Niew and Laila in Bangkok, Keri in Hanoi, Tammi in Bangkok, and especially Kareen in Singapore, for going above and beyond in the realm of hospitality.

To everyone who put me up; Thanh and Sven in Stockholm, Vivian for letting me housesit in Bangkok, Virginie in Paris, and Ashleigh in Nice, along with the host of colorful characters she lives with. Of course, to everyone at www.couchsurfing.com and my global hosts: Natalie and Andrew in Saigon, Vika and Deric in Moscow, Julia in Helsinki and Vanessa in Lyon.

To Mark, aka the Man in Seat 61, for his research and advice, along with his website www.seat61.com, an invaluable resource for anyone attempting any sort of rail-based travel. Furthermore, to Tania in Bangkok, for getting me a spot on the Trans-Siberian after weeks of frustration.

Finally, to my parents, my family and my friends for encouragement and support, especially anyone that played the role of my eyes and ears, when I needed info that I couldn't get access to myself.

With all that said, it is my sad duty to announce that this is the final (and, fittingly, also the 100th) post of the West Gone East blog, since, well, I'm no longer East by any standards, except perhaps Hawaii. It's been a great experience and I'm happy you've all enjoyed following it. If I set off again, I might try another of these bloggy things, but for now if anyone wants to know what I'm up to... Well, you know where I live! Swing on by.

THE END

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Homeward Bound

The last several days have been perfectly peaceful, spent meandering along the Mediterranean coast from Nice to Aix-en-Provence to Marseille. The weather has been warm, the food good, and I arrived just in time for the first wine of the season to come out. All in all, an excellent ending to a long trip.

Tomorrow morning I set out to fly to London, bunker down in the airport overnight, and then make for Vancouver. My full circle of the globe is nearly complete... And I'm very, very ready for it.

See you all soon...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Le Denoument Nicois

Bonjour, mes amies!

I'm finally here, in the final country of my trip. My third visit to France is a bit more crisp than the previous two, but no less enjoyable. In fact, the weather is significantly warmer than anything I've been dealing with in the past month, and the return to psuedo-tropical warmth is a distinct blessing and apt final note on my travels.

I had a pleasant, if short visit in Paris, enjoying the City of Light with Rob and Ashleigh. The Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph, and my personal favorite, the winding streets of Montmarte, straight out of films like Amelie and Moulin Rouge. Unfortunately, everything serves as a reminder that both my linguistic skills in French and my pallet for wine are woefully sub par. I've set the goals of using my final week to improve both.

After France I hopped on the train to head south, stopping briefly in Lyon to have lunch with Vanessa, a friend of mine from the Ivory Coast whom I met in Japan. Then it was straight on to Nice, to gaze happily at the sparkling blue waters of the C'ot D'azur (if not to go spashing about in them - it's not quite that warm). I'm staying in a high school where Ashleigh is teaching, and though I'm surrounded by international language teachers, the communal language used is French, so I'm quickly having to relearn as much as I can through trial and error (though mostly error).

Au revoir, ju suis allez a le plage! J'aime le soleil...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

West Gone North

Ahhh, a Swedish autumn - where the leaf colours are vivid and the sluggish sun never makes it too far above the horizon. Not to mention, most importantly, no snow! It may be crisp, but there's nary a spot of white in sight, and that's just fine by me. Alas, no Northern Lights as well, but I've gone about as far north as I'm willing to strike this time of year.

I'm currently staying in Stockholm with friends Thanh and Sven (she's a 4'10" Vietnamese Londoner, he's a 6'4" blonde haired Swede - what a combo!). I met Thanh in Barcelona during my original European foray in '02, and again in Bristol in '04 - she's become a European staple! They've been wonderful in introducing me to Swedish traditions, like rolling Swedish meatballs and gorging at a smorgasbord.

Stockholm has been quite pleasant, and represents the end of my true journey - that of going from Asia to Europe by land and sea only. Today I guiltily break my 'no flights' resolution and board a Ryan Air plane bound for Paris - it really is the cheapest way to get around Europe! Back to the City of Lights, where my entire Asian experience, and consequently this blog, cound arguably trace its roots to - to see how I ended up in Korea via France, you'll have to go all the way back to the first blog post ever made to investigate...

Off I go then, to meet former roommate Rob over visiting from Newcastle, as well as former birthmate (?) Ashleigh currently teaching English in Nice. Allez, allez! Vite vite!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Almost Finnish'd

"Hey, I'll go to Finland! That's a fun idea. Maybe I'll see some snow. Wouldn't that be neat?"

These are the words I bitterly repeated to myself while pushing head-bowed through a swirling snowstorm in Helsinki yesterday, seeking shelter. I huddled into the several layers of nearly every piece of clothing I have, casting forlorn looks at the choppy Baltic and wondering why I ever left the crystal blue waters of the Andaman behind. Woe, oh woe!

Alright, enough kvetching. Despite some 'inconveniences', I do have to admit that Finland has a certain storybook beauty when it's buried under a couple feet of snow, especially when the storm lets up. The apartment in which I'm staying has a great forest view, and there's a rascally marten that lives just outside, providing endless amusement as he chases birds and squirrels through the trees.

Now I set off on the ferry to Sweden, and the allegedly milder climes to be found there...

Friday, November 03, 2006

From Russia With Love

It snowed again today. This unto itself is hard to wrap my head around, given that this voyage began with palm trees and sandy beaches. Although regular dumps of white gold present obvious complications for a man trudging around with a 50 pound bag on his back, it does combine with the pre-revolutionary Russian architecture for some amazing visuals!

Moscow was wonderful, as were all the people I met there. My days were spent cruising Red Square and the Kremlin, and my nights exploring the hippest Moscovite cafes and bars. Big thanks go to Deric, Vika, Sacha, Faizal, Marina, Rennie and all the other colorful characters who helped brighten an already glowing city. And oh, the food! Borscht, beef strogonov, chicken kiev, and all the other wonderful, hearty fare I've been delighting in overindulging in.

The particular highlight thus far was a visit to a traditional Russian banya, a sort of hot stone sauna. I was invited on a visit to the Sanduny, one of Moscow's more opulent hotspots. Like most saunas, it involves sweating away in a steamy room, but includes the added 'pleasure' of regularly running outside to leap into wooden barrels full of ice-cold water (or, in the country, to roll in the snow). Furthermore, it is custom to regularly thrash yourself and others with bushels of dried birch branches, allegedly to free the skin of toxins. You just haven't lived till you've had an enormous, hairy Russian man beat the living stuffing out of you with handfuls of tree limbs!

Currently I'm in Saint Petersburg (remember the good ol' days when it was called Leningrad?) brushing up on my spotty Russian history and marvelling at the 'all fur, all the time' approach to fashion. I finally buckled and registered as a tourist after two weeks of successfully dodging the infamous band of extortionists known as the Russian Police. Staying mute and donning a dour expression let me blend in with the crowd - something I haven't been able to do in over a year!

Tomorrow I foolishly set out even further north to cross into Finland, bound for Helsinki. Time to get in touch with the tricksy Scandenavian roots of my e-namesake, Loki...

Sunday, October 29, 2006

My Trans-Siberian Odyssey

Six days, 9000 kilometers, seven timezones, five novels and one whole industrial-size box of horribly stale Chinese choco-cakes later, and I'm in Europe! It's quite a shock, after fourteen months in Asia - suddenly I'm surrounded by all these funny looking white folk...

As for the train, it was simultaneously an exhilarating and harrowing experience. I was a bit surprised to climb aboard and find that I was, in fact, the only 'foreigner' (re: non-Chinese, non-Russian) passenger on the whole train. Train cars were divvied up by nationality, but fitting into neither category, I was shuffled into a Chinese segment. My first order of business was to get used to a complete lack of private space, as I discovered the first morning I awoke to find a pair of Manchurians sitting on my bed to play cards... while I slept in it.

Nobody knew quite how to react to the scruffy Canadian invader, but I was generally treated with a combination of amusement and bemusement. My companions grew steadily more friendly, though interaction was limited, as I couldn't learn their games or join in on the banter. Eventually I could tell a meeting had been called to figure out what to do with me, as there were several looks cast in my direction and my name muttered repeatedly (my name, in this case, being 'Janada', a loose Mandarin translation for 'the Canadian'). I was a little nervous when they all disbanded with a look of resolution and disappeared for a half hour.

Soon after, the plan was revealed when a confused Chinese youth was hustled into my carriage and urged to introduce himself. I realized that my carriage-mates had scoured the train looking for a student who had studied English and thus could both converse with me, and translate for them. I was suitably touched - and could finally get my fortune told by the Hunannese oracle in cabin 4!

By the second day I had hidden my watch at the bottom of my bag, to prevent obsessing over the passage of time, and confusion over which timezone I was in. When not reading, hours could be spent watching the landscape melt from plains to mountains to birch forests to frozen lakescapes, and beyond. Ramshackle wooden villages and monolithic concrete power stations occasionally dotten the horizon. Occasionally ten-minute stops allowed me to hop off and stretch my legs, even if it was -10 and in the middle of a snowstorm.

Just as cabin fever was about to take over, the train steamed into Moscow Station (leaving me plenty confused, as I was just climbing into bed at the time - blasted timezones!). I was practically giddy, not just to get on solid ground, but to find myself back in the 'western world' after all this time. Of course, excitement slowly melted away as the realization sunk in that I had no guidebook, no map, no money, no comprehension of the Cyrillic alphabet and only a tiny vocabulary of Russian phrases, mostly gleamed from old James Bond movies.

Luckily, my Couchsurfing.com contact Viktoria was ready to curtail my flailing, even though she hadn't been warned to expect me for another day. I was immediately hustled off, complete with backpack and six days of train-stink, to a vodka bar to join in TGIF celebrations with a group of pan-European hipster architects. As if that weren't random enough, the next night I found myself discussing the finer points of Cossack kick-dancing at a dinner party with the staff of the Indonesian Embassy!

Now that I've got my bearings and have had one of the most blissful showers of my life, I'm ready to tackle Russia head-on! I speak, of course, figuratively, as Russia is daunting and powerful, and would block a literal tackle like a 400 pound defenseman. Das vydanya, comrades!