Monday, June 29, 2009


Today is the day I make the first step of the journey.
As my flight doesn't leave until late in the day I have been taking in my last bit of sun to carry me through until my return. As always I hate to waste time, so while I was lying there I had images, words and phrases popping into my head as usual. As I sizzled and shortened my life, I wrote a short poem to sum up the day. It's called 'The Last Sunbathing'. A nice way to start the journey......


Looking up I survey the pock marked azure
Of a tie-dyed sky scarred by aeroplane trails
The sonic boom’s an intrusive roar
That catches the wind on it’s fixed metal sails

I blot out the sun with my thumb at a glance
While the heat beats down upon my worn skin
Squeezing each second from my last naked chance
And lying back sweating I breathe it’s rays in

Demarcation lines fading away
With each toasted minute under microwave glare
The zenith is mirrored in the heat of the day
Reflected in light of celestial flare

Sunday, June 28, 2009


A quick explanation of the title for those of you just here on a week’s holiday or only arrived back for the summer to your summer villa. You know it’s amazing how many people come out on holiday to their one bedroomed apartment or casita only to find it has become a villa by the time they get on the plane to go back to Blighty. It’s interesting how a bit of distance can change one’s perspective of things. Back to the explanation and a nice link to the distance and perspective. If you’re not aware, being a professional artist, I normally write the CoastRider’s weekly arts based article ‘A Splash Of Colour’ about up and coming events that may be of interest. Over the last few weeks I have been building up to the launch of my latest trip/adventure which I intend to write about in this article as an alternative subject for the next few weeks. While you are reading this I, hopefully, should be finishing the last leg of an epic character building journey across China, Mongolia and Russia via the Trans-Mongolian Railway. Sometimes called the Trans-Mongolian Express, I tend to think of that term very loosely as the average speed will be something like 50kph-60kph during the whole trip. Taking into consideration that the journey is almost 8000 km long, you can see that the word express is not to be taken literally.
The reason you will be reading these reports after the event so to speak, is simply because I cannot guarantee to have continued access to the internet en route to email my daily blog entries and weekly articles for the paper, especially considering - 1. the Chinese firewall restrictions, 2. the fact that while in Mongolia - and not sleeping on the train - I will have to sleep in a yurt (a felt circular tent that is used by the nomadic Mongolians - and potentially home to lime disease carrying ticks), and 3. while in Russia, the unhealthy interests of the state police throughout the journey. Therefore I have decided to while away many languorous hours on the train by writing longhand about my experiences and thoughts, and transferring them to my laptop on my return. In theory, by today I should be in St. Petersburg - if all has gone according to plan, and I haven’t been arrested. Although this and previous articles were written weeks in advance, knowing my luck I will get to travel back in the train from Moscow eastwards free of charge to spend the next five years in a Siberian gulag.
Next week’s article, the first of the journey, will briefly chronicle my journey from Spain to Beijing via Dublin, Belfast, Stansted, Heathrow and Vienna airports before the big hop across countries and cultures. A world away from everything most westerners, myself included, are used to. What it won’t record is the journey covered by my passport between courier’s hands from the Chinese, Mongolian and Russian embassies in Madrid, Barcelona and Paris. This process was a very rushed, hectic and expensive one as the issue of visas was left, partly my own fault, just a week or two too late. Be warned, the embassies require at least one week to ten days each or maybe more to process the documentation required. Yet it’s strange, they can fast track things by a couple of days each when they know you are desperate and will pay anything to get your passport back before flight day. A handy way to boost the coffers… Red tape was well named when travelling in communist and former communist countries! Combine this with inoculations for hepatitis A (two), hepatitis B (three), cholera, tetanus, typhoid, diphtheria and malaria, and I feel I have been in a love tussle with an over-amorous porcupine. Enough pricks to fill parliament. Well almost, but don’t quote me on that. Upon my return to Spain I hope to amalgamate all the sights and experiences into paintings, sketches, photographs and words for a major art exhibition later this year if possible.
If you have been reading the build up to the trip over the last few weeks, this is simply a final overview for anyone just joining us now. I hope I have got your interest up enough so I can bring you along on a journey of adventure and experiences outside our normal cultural understanding. This train journey begins at Beijing and travels westwards through China, to Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia. Onwards to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal in Russia before travelling through Russia to Moscow and St. Petersburg. I will cross 8 time zones over the trip as I return to Europe and would like you to join me. So sit back in your seats, strap yourselves in and enjoy!


Continuing on from my last few weeks report about expectations on travelling on the Trans-Mongolian /Trans-Siberian Railway I wanted to round up with a brief overview of Russia, which is the country I should be travelling through by the time you read this. Totally inadequate of course, as I will be covering seven time zones in Russia alone during the trip. While stopping for a couple of days around Irkutsk, I will be going to Lake Baikal - the largest unfrozen fresh water lake in the world. A little known fact is that Baikal has been created from the slow splitting of the continent apart from north to south. In a few million years, if we haven’t destroyed the place ourselves first, it will become a new ocean.
Before the Trans-Siberian railway, it was quicker to travel from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok by crossing the Atlantic, North America and the Pacific than by going overland. Coasting along on a wave of petrodollar profits, Russia is in far better economic shape than at any time in recent memory. Inflation is under control and three quarters of state run enterprises have now been fully or partly privatised. Despite these improvements, Russia’s economy has a long way to go before fully capitalising on its astonishing natural resources. The boom and bust period of the late 1990’s as well as the abandonment of the social safety net provided by communism, has left many people worse off. The way of life of a Nenets reindeer herder in Siberia is radically different from that of a marketing executive in Moscow or an Islamic factory worker in Kazan. As Russia grows more prosperous, the gap between rich and poor becomes larger. That said, there are common features to life across Russia. For the majority of urban Russians, home is within a drab, ugly housing complex of Soviet vintage. These apartments are typically cramped and have no attached garden, however a large percentage of Russian families have a ‘dacha’, a small country house. Moscow and the like can be seen to empty out at the weekend as people head to the country. Around Irkutsk, it is possible to see the dacha along the sides of the railway tracks.
Railway stations, especially in Russia, are said to be an interesting experience where you can purchase all your food from babushkas (grandmothers) who sell on the platform and through the windows of the train. This is less obvious in China and Mongolia apparently because they have enough supplies on bard to suffice for the journey. The difference is that although there is supposed to be a reasonable selection of food to choose from on the menu in the Russian trains, in reality many items are not available, so the babushka then becomes the most important person in the travellers life, if he or she is to survive the long run up to Moscow. Finally - some etiquette in case you ever find yourself there and don’t know how to behave.

Russian Etiquette
If you are invited to a Russian home, always bring a gift, such as wine or a cake.
Shaking hands across the threshold is considered unlucky. Wait until you are fully inside.
If you give anyone flowers, make sure there’s an odd number as even numbers are for funerals.
Remove your shoes and coat on entering a house.
Once the festivities begin, refusing offered food or drink can cause grave offence.
Vodka is for toasting, not for casual sipping. Wait for the cue.
When you are in any setting with other people, even strangers such as those in a train compartment, it’s polite to share anything you have to eat, drink or smoke.
Traditional gentlemanly behaviour is not just appreciated but expected, as you will notice when you see women standing in front of closed doors waiting for something to happen.


If you remember, I should currently be somewhere between Mongolia and Russia on my train journey, so this week to keep up to speed, I am going straight into the brief overview for Mongolia. In stark contrast to China and Russia, Mongolia has developed into a paragon of democracy since the end of communism in 1990. Free and fair elections have become the norm here, with voters overturning the ruling party three times in succession since 1996 - a fact that has made Mongolia a darling among international lenders and the donor community. Mongolia’s reversal of fortune is most evident on the streets of Ulaanbaatar, where Korean taxis and Land Cruisers have all but erased the Russian Lada, and where fashion boutiques and elegant restaurants have made ’dollar shops’ a distant memory. Despite this only half of Mongolians have access to clean drinking water and one-third still live under the poverty line. Infrastructure across the country is rudimentary and important economic sectors such as livestock husbandry have proven susceptible to natural disasters. 11 million heads of livestock were killed between 1999 and 2002 in the wake of bad winter storms. Increasingly Mongolia has turned to countries such as Japan, Germany, the US and the UK for assistance in redevelopment. Whilst in Mongolia I hope to experience the changes as the society becomes, if not westernised, at least more open to world influences, and also experience the traditional side if life for Mongolians both in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, and by living in a Ger (yurt) camp for a number of days.
I must explain that although I am travelling on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, the main track leads across Siberia and is known as the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Mongolian section is one of a variation of offshoots that takes the traveller into a realm of unknown possibilities and cultures. However, most of these countries are so strictly controlled, you cannot move around as freely as you would in Spain or the UK for example. Plans have to be made in advance and invitations to stay in hotels must be purchased otherwise you can’t move anywhere legally.
Starting in either St. Petersburg or Beijing, the whole Trans-Mongolian Railway journey takes 7 days non-stop and covers a distance of 7,865km. I will be travelling east to west against the normal trend (and therefore losing an hour on average every three days as each time zone is re-crossed back towards GMT). I have scheduled stops planned in each country to break up the journey, in an attempt to understand the myriad of countries, landscapes, peoples and cultures of such a vast area of the world. I hope to include images, photographs, colours and views taken in along the way, and even touch on the culinary experiences at out-of-the-way stations, with the possibility of menus and cookery tips for readers interested in trying something new. Finally - some etiquette in case you ever find yourself there and don’t know how to behave.

Mongolian Etiquette
When meeting Mongolians or visiting a ger (yurt), note the following customs and habits:
Avoid walking in front of an older person, or turning your back to the altar or religious objects (except when leaving).
If someone offers you their snuff bottle, accept it with your right hand. If you don’t take the snuff, at least sniff the top part of the bottle.
Try to keep ger visits to less than two hours to avoid interrupting the family’s work.
Don’t point a knife in any way at anyone, when passing a knife to someone ensure that the handle is facing the recipient, and use the knife to cut towards you, not away.
Don’t point your feet at the hearth, at the altar or at another person. Sleep with your feet pointing towards the door.
If you have stepped on anyone, or kicked their feet, immediately shake their hand.
Don’t stand on, or lean over, the threshold, or lean against a support column.
Don’t touch another person’s hat.


Now back to my travel build up. If you remember I was telling you about where I hoped to travel, God (and authorities) willing, when I get to the other side of the world. This week I thought I would begin to give a very brief overview of each country to compare and contrast each week. As I am starting with China, obviously it makes sense to start there. In China, the communist party remains solidly entrenched and unchallenged. In 2003 a new president and Premier took charge, but any illusions that this would herald a move towards political liberalisation were dashed when the National Peoples Congress denied Hong Kong the hope of choosing its next leader, flying in the face of the Chinese-British deal. State censorship of everything from Shakespeare to Rolling Stones lyrics continues and Internet access remains rigorously monitored, with a firewall ‘protecting China’s citizens from BBC news in Chinese and other foreign pollutants. In Beijing a heavy police presence saw the 15th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre pass with little incident. There are still other problems for the authorities to contend with - China has the largest disparity between urban rich and rural poor in the world. Considering the 750-million-strong peasantry it is no surprise that so many illegal Chinese immigrants still turn up on European shores. Nonetheless, big changes are afoot. You can rocket from shanghai’s Pudong airport into town at 430km/hr on China’s first Maglev train (though your hair can turn grey waiting for your rush hour bus to move on Beijing’s congested streets). The Bejing Olympics in 2008 was the culmination of a move towards acceptance of the regime into the world outside (albeit tentatively). China is a vast country with a culture still shrouded in mystery to most Westerners, and the differences are what I hope to experience and record in both written word and artworks in the coming weeks. Finally - some etiquette in case you ever find yourself there and don’t know how to behave.

Chinese Etiquette

When beckoning to someone, wave them over to you with your palm down, motioning to yourself.
If someone gives you a gift, put it aside to open later to avoid appearing greedy.
Always take off your shoes when entering a Chinese home.
When meeting a Chinese family, greet the eldest person first, as a sign of respect.
Always present things to people with both hands, showing that what you are offering is the fullest extent of yourself.


I thought I would take the opportunity to release some excerpts of the future articles for the newspaper while I still have access to the internet. I may not have access in a few days so I will include overviews of each country in a few quick blog entries now. Here is the first...... but no photographs yet of course.

Over the last few months I have been planning an extended train journey that will shortly see me fly to Beijing and take the Trans-Mongolian Express through China and on to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. My journey continues onwards to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal in Russia and right across the vastness of the Russian Steppes to Moscow and St. Petersburg before ending in Copenhagen in Denmark in August. The trip shall take approximately five to six weeks and cover eight time zones, and I have agreed with the CoastRider to publish a weekly article on my experiences while making the journey for you all to read about. The first leg of the journey will have already started by now with a trip back to Ireland initially, but in the coming weeks I hope to give you an insight into countries and cultures quite alien to most westerners. Sometime towards the end of the year, in conjunction with fellow artist and travelling companion Rita Hee, we intend to put all our experiences together to create an exhibition of images, words and sketches based on the trip, so watch this space.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Hello to all

This is the first entry I have made in a long time on this blog. Mainly because I have been writing a weekly blog for an expat magazine in Spain about, strangely enough, the expat life in Spain. I have also been writing a weekly arts based article for a leading English expat newspaper on the Costa Blanca. With all these things going on as well as my normal work of painting and more recently, teaching art to adult students, coupled with the fact that I have been involved with international exhibitions in different countries, my life has been a bit hectic to say the least.

My next project is a major one. I am off to China, Mongolia and Russia in a few days and travelling by train with the Trans-Mongolian Railway across all three countries over the period of around 5 to 6 weeks to do a bit of research for an art exhibition around the end of the year. During the trip I shall be hand writing a daily blog which I shall upload whenever I have an opportunity en route, and have agreed with the newspaper to write a weekly article about the trip on my experiences and adventures.

So please keep an eye on this blog address for more entries in the following weeks.
Here is a link to my weekly article in the newspaper for you to keep up to date with my progress as well.
The CoastRider Newspaper