September 15th, 2010
Berlin, Germany

Despite being fairly well-travelled for my age, I’ve only ever flown north/south – to Bali, Japan, Korea and Singapore – never east/west. So today is my first experience with jet lag. It’s tiring, especially given that I got three hours of sleep last night and had an early start to begin with.

Our plane left Chinggis Khan International at 7.35 am, so we organised a car for 5.00 am and I got out of bed at 4.30, after going to bed aroound 1.00. Chris hadn’t slept at all, and it was still pitch black outside.

“Zaya’s going to think we trashed this place,” Chris said, as I finished the last of my packing. When I’d tried to shut the curtains the previous night, a screw had popped out of the rack and and the whole thing had half fallen out of the ceiling. Combined with this was the missing pieces of wood from the door, which had flown off when Chris had to force it open with his shoulder after it jammed.

“Whatever,” I said. “It’s all the apartment’s fault. I can’t wait to get to Berlin and have things just work.” (I remember an ad where people would build elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions and the voiceover guy would say “Isn’t it nice when things just work?” but I don’t recall what it was selling. Clearly advertising is ineffective.)

We went downstairs to find the driver waiting for us, and had an uneventful twenty-minute drive through deserted streets. When we got out of the car at the airport, a hideous stench of faeces assaulted our nostrils. “Urgggh,” I said. “Why did they think it was a good idea to build a sewage treatment plant next to the airport? Where they welcome people to their country?”

Questionable zoning aside, I’m bummed that we missed out on Mongolia. I don’t know about Chris, but I plan to return sometime in the future – just not on a horse.

Both of us fell asleep for an hour or two on the plane, although it was something like a six hour flight. Turns out SU is Aeroflot, the Russian national carrier. Our flight attendent looked like Chloe from 24 – in fact all the flight attendents were surly and dour, and when we arrived in Moscow the ground crew were no different. The majority of the Russian staff we interacted with while passing through customs were gloomy, surly and generally looked like they wished they were dead. Also still planning to do the Trans-Siberian someday, so if that’s true of Russians in general it should be a hoot.

There was a thick cloud layer over nearly all of Eastern Europe, but as we approached Berlin the plane descended below it, and Chris and I peered out the window at the patchwork of fields and villages below.

“The air is clean.”

“I can see below the water in that lake, because it’s clear.”

“These buildings look good.”

At immigration I got to crack out my Irish passport for the first time, and was quickly processed through the EU line. The woman at the desk scrutinised it for a while and then waved me through without stamping it or anything. That feels kind of weird. As far as international migration authorities know, I’ve left Mongolia and then… disappeared. It also feels weird that I can stay in Germany for the rest of my life if I so choose – or, like, 30 other countries. A lucky bit of ancestry (and a lot of paperwork and money in 2008, I guess) is all that separates me from Chris, who had to spend twenty extra minutes in the foreigner queue for a three month Schengen visa.

We grabbed our bags and left the airport (add Berlin to the list of airports that just let you waltz out without checking your baggage claim tickets – actually Sapporo is the only airport I have ever been to that does) and then began the arduous process of catching a train into the city. For a moment, though, I want to note what we saw as we were walking from the airport to its attached train station: a stretch of lush green grass. Just a little patch of land that wasn’t being used, but instead of dirt and rubble, which is what you’d see in Ulaan Baatar or Vietnam, or concrete, which is what you’d see in China, it was cultivated and green and lovely. It was a reverse culture shock moment, and a good one.

We spent some time trying to puzzle the train lines out, since unlike Korea and Japan and China, Germany doesn’t write everything on its metro line in English as well. Which is fine – it was very courteous of East Asia to do that, but we have no right to expect it. Eventually we managed to get the ticket machines to work, and Chris received about 10 euros worth of change in coins. “Come on, I think it’s in a few minutes,” I said.

“Yeah, hang on,” he said, scooping coins out of the machine. “I just got to collect my treasure chest.”

The train was double-decker, which was groovy. We looked out the windows as we rolled into the city, drinking up the picturesque splendour of Europe. It felt very, very weird to be surrounded by nothing but white people again. And I don’t know if it makes me racist that I’m not particularly attracted to Asian women, but seeing beautiful women everywhere was marvellous. “I think that girl caught me staring at her,” Chris said. “I’m sorry, but… you don’t know what I’ve been through.”

We slid past crazy modernist architecture, and canals with cruise boats chugging up and down, before being deposited at a station called Zoologischer Garten Station, which my superb linguistics skills enabled me to translate into Zoological Garden Station. German is going to be a breeze after Chinese and Mongolian, since half the words are similar. Ah, Europe!

It’s hard to articulate how good it feels to be back in a first-world Western country after five months of foreign third-world countries. Even though it’s a different language and all that, coming to Germany feels like coming home. So I can’t even imagine how much like home the UK will feel. “I fucking love the first world and I never want to leave it again,” I said, as we stood on a subway platform. “I’m going to spend the rest of my life in Europe, North America, Australia and new Zealand. And Japan. Those are the countries for me.” I don’t really mean that, but at the same time I am gloriously happy to be back. It’s certainly possible to live a first-world life in a third-world country (many people subconsciously hold the notion that it’s not), but I have no intention of ever doing so. A visit of a few months – maybe a year, tops – and then back to the cleanliness and comfort and beauty of the first world.

When I was craving the first world, I was only thinking of comfort and cleanliness. I’d completely forgotten about beauty – simple things like the grass at the airport. Cities like Hanoi and Beijing and Ulaan Baatar don’t give a flying fuck about aesthetics, and fair enough in the case of Hanoi and UB, since they have more important issues to deal with. But I know which part of the world I prefer, and it isn’t Asia. It’s also quite nice that I can walk down the street in Europe without constantly looking down to avoid stepping in spit, shit or piss.

We eventually arrived at our hostel, after walking down some leafy side streets lined with six or seven storey buildings. We got lucky with our room – I’d thought from our Hostelworld booking that we were sleeping in a four bed dorm, but it’s actually just two beds, so it’s effectively a private room, for 11 euros each. Chris flopped down onto the bottom bunk and yelled “Yes! That is how you make a bed, Europe!”

“Fuck yeah!” I said. “Out of soft things! Not out of wood, Mongolia! And China! And every other Asian country, because you think it’s good for your back!”

“Which it totally isn’t,” Chris said. “I have back problems now. I’m 21 years old, and my back hurts when I get up in the morning.”

I had to buy some soap, so I went to a supermarket. I couldn’t find any on the shelves, so I asked one of the workers, who didn’t understand a thing I was saying. I’d sort of subconsciously assumed that all mainland Europeans could speak enough English for basic communication (and indeed, many of them can) but this was of course not the case. I’m not indignant about that – it’s their country – but it was a bizarre feeling to talk to a white person who couldn’t understand me. I’m completely accustomed to miming and drawing and pointing when communicating with Asians, but when I do it with Caucasians it feels like I’m belittling them. Which is silly (come to think of it, I felt the same way when I first went to Japan) but unavoidable. It passes in time but it’s an odd feeling while it lasts.

On the way out to the supermarket, by the way, I passed a group of young Germans who were energetically dancing in the corridor to loud techno music. And now – maybe it’s the same group, maybe not – loud techno music is being blasted through the hostel from one of the upper levels. “It’s hilarious that this is actually happening,” Chris said.

We went out for a walk to get dinner (which cost a reasonable eight euros each… at least I think that’s reasonable… I should probably check the exchange rate) and noticed, as we had all day, a number of men wearing Mario plumber overalls. And we saw our third accordion busker of the day, which is also the total number of accordion buskers I have seen in my entire life.

And there are motorcycles here. Gorgeous motorcycles everywhere, a good number of them BMWs. Chris is in heaven. We bought some fruit from a Persian street vendor on the way home, as the belltower in the church across the street started chiming. It was a perfect temperature and the sun was setting over old tiled rooftops. “I love Europe,” I said. “Fucking love it.”

“Yeah,” Chris said. “Those bells were a nice touch.”

The bells kept chiming as we walked down the street, and didn’t stop. “Okay, seriously,” Chris said. “That’s enough. Are they commemorating every year that has ever passed?”

It’s just all the little things. I can flush toilet paper here, and the doors work, and everything is pretty, and the beds are soft, and IF THOSE FUCKING GERMANS WOULD SHUT THEIR TECHNO SHIT OFF IT WOULD BE GREAT.

I feel like this is a pretty rambling and disjointed entry, but I am pretty exhausted. It’s still light out but back in Ulaan Baatar it’s 1.30 in the morning, and I got up at 4 am, so that’s nearly 22 hours without sleep. And only 3 the previous night. But that’s okay, because I can go to sleep on this soft bed anytime I want. I LOVE THIS CONTINENT AND I NEVER WANT TO LEAVE! ONTO CHRIS!

Chris

The streets are clean, even cobbled in some parts; trees line the sidewalks, traffic lights command respect, the people are orderly, busy, each invested in their own particular tasks. A church breaches above the treeline in the distance, sounding it’s bells. We’re back. We’re back in the first world and it is fan-fucking-tastic.

After becoming diagnosed with pneumonia, I became further disillusioned with the idea of the two weeks camping. As Mitch stated previously, I was frustrated that horse riding had turned out to be rather dull. You just sit there and turn the horse when you need it to change direction, calling ‘Choo’ every so often to try to convince yourself that you have some control over the stupid farting eating machine on legs. But essentially, the horse does it all and I got bored just after three days. Hell, I was bored after the first six hour ride.

As the pneumonia worsened I had to take a new set of antibiotics along with the first batch. These did not sit well with my body. I slept poorly enough as it was without those damned pills. Things were looking grim trek-wise and eventually lead to our largest trip decision yet: cut it short and head to Europe. Four days later here we are. Fantasmic Germany. I was happy to see the back of Mongolia. It was one of the only countries on the list that I was actually dreaming about before we left home. Although I’d wisened up to potential let-downs and expectations being dashed in a heartbeat, I still foolishly held high hopes for Mongolia. Surprise, surprise, yet another monumental misjudgment. But hey, if you don’t try you don’t know right?

I left with Mongolia with a serious chest infection and a large kink in my pride, but with a new home so close around the corner, it has been hard not to get excited. I am literally dreaming of our new apartment: our two bikes out the front, my piano by the window, a TV and Xbox hooked up infront of an old couch in the living room, and our own bedrooms.

The time zone here in Berlin is six hours behind Ulaanbaatar. Unlike Mitch, I didn’t end up going to sleep the night before our depature yesterday because the taxi was picking us up at 5am and I had only been getting to sleep at this time the previous nights. This leaves me now with roughly fourty hours on no sleep. It is currently 7:40pm Berlin time. That is 1:40am tomorrow morning back in UB. We spent seventeen hours travelling today, from Mongolia to Russia to Germany, and yet we only seem to have seven hours to show for it. It has really thrown us both off. We only really realised it when we stumbled into a resteraunt at 4:30pm asking for dinner.

We like it here very much already. Even peering out from the train, this city is beautiful. Maybe to others it may not seem this way, but after what we’ve seen, it is like peering through the gates of heaven. It is also the same with the women. Oh the glorious, beautiful women.

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