Tag Archives: Trans Mongolian Railway

Notes from a Journal…Arriving in China

Friday 18th October

“Waking up in China to a densely built up landscape. Gone are the forests of Siberia and the golden plains of Mongolia. It is autumn again, time goes backwards and we briefly travel through more familiar pine forests and woodland. Auburn leaves cling stubbornly to branches. It is rocky and flat alternately. There is evidence of agriculture with ploughed fields, the first since Siberia. The view is changing much more quickly now. Inhabited to wild, agriculture to city scape. House construction is different, older properties with tiled roofs. Evidence of man is more frequent here…”

It felt like I’d been cocooned by the train, my home for a full 7 days and nights of the three week journey. I have come to the end of my Trans Siberian/Trans Mongolian train journey. Nearly three weeks after leaving Moscow I am about to arrive in Beijing, leaving my new family behind as we all take our own paths onwards…

Bexhill to Bexhill

Last morning on the Trans Mongolian train, dawn slowly brings China into view, Louise Kenward (2013)

Bexhill to Bexhill

My view has been framed in this way for such a long time, I will miss the train. Louise Kenward (2013)

Bexhill to Bexhill

Arriving in China, Louise Kenward (2013)


Watched over by a black bird, my pebble left at the Ovoo was inspected. Stones are stacked as offerings to protect the community from bad spirits.

Bexhill to Bexhill

Trail of breadcrumbs, Mongolia (Leanne Vogler, 2013)

Bexhill to Bexhill

Ovoo, Terelj National Park Mongolia (Louise Kenward, 2013)

Bexhill to Bexhill

Trail of breadcrumbs, Mongolia (Louise Kenward, 2013)


First stop Omsk

Trail of breadcrumbs part one…

Stones, pebbles, rock. Universal objects and materials. Multitudes of uses, meanings and metaphor. A pebble beach, Bexhill coastline is filled with all shapes, sizes and colours of stones, with varied patterns, striations and markings. Collecting pebbles, skimming stones, picking them up and putting them down again, universal activities for so many beach visitors. The satisfying crunching sound they make under foot, albeit unstable, is one of the noises synonymous with time at the seafront. That and the inevitable caw of the seagulls cutting through the wild, calm and ever moving sea. I have tried to take sound footage of the seafront, trying to capture the atmosphere. Sounds are so evocative. The beating of the masts on the sailing boats. The sound of the sea whether crashing waves with frothy white tops of spray or barely there shoreline kisses and caresses, it is a constant. A reminder that the sea is a truly powerful beast, it holds me with such a strong connection. It is soothing, energising, frightening, exciting. It puts things in perspective. It is also at risk, our oceans are under enormous pressure. Something I will come back to, but for now my focus is the pebble. The humble, brown, blue, round, pebble.

Bexhill to Bexhill

Pebble collection, Louise Kenward (2014)

My intention for my journey was to make connections, make links. It was to see what unifies us and the things we share around the globe, irrespective of culture, creed, race or language. I have a small collection of stones and pebbles from times in my life and places I have been. I don’t remember the story of them all, and for that I am sad, but they are all important to me. So to collect pebbles along my route was an obvious intention. Travelling ‘light’ the idea of collecting stones in this way was was not very practical. I have picked up my back pack more than once to exclaim ‘what’s in this, rocks?’ only for it to gradually dawn on me that yes, there are certainly a number of stones in it. I have been careful of what I have collected, conscious of what a minefield collecting anything from the beach is in many places. So I hope, I have certainly tried, to be as conscious and aware of this all the time. What I have actually brought back is very little, but each object has been carefully labelled and stored, waiting to be sorted and accompanying stories told.

In addition, I learned to crochet last summer. I wanted to make something along the way. Crochet was an appealing medium. It was a new skill, it was portable, I could make a blanket en route to keep me warm in Canada. The practicality of this was short lived and my task was to find something that would be manageable. My friend bought me a gift from a charity shop and my project was formed…

from Nicole

from Nicole

A trail of breadcrumbs as I have since referred to it, is a trail of pebbles I have found and collected on the way between places called Bexhill and beyond. Crocheting a cover for each one was sufficient ‘intervention’ after which I would replace the now covered pebble where I found it, or would leave it at the next place I arrived. Or an alternative suitable spot. It became a challenge to find the ‘right’ place to leave each one. This became as important as selecting the pebble and making the crochet for it. A very ‘female’ act it felt a surprisingly rebellious thing to do. Crochet is an activity for firesides surely, I have an incredible woman in my family who I have fond memories of in association with crochet. The influence of women on this trip cannot go without comment. Annie (Brassey) is obviously a huge influence, who may or may not have crocheted (it was then considered a ‘poorer’ version of lace making from cursory research). Kate Marsden, another incredible woman from Bexhill. I tried to find trace of Kate through Siberia in her quest for a cure for leprosy but without success. She remains present in her connection with the museum and her adventures. And thus it seemed fitting to use an unapologetic ‘female’ ‘craft’ in my interventions around the world. Two words that can often draw negative connotations in themselves.

So, I launched on my quest from Bexhill (itself a place where crochet is not out of place). A town often known for it’s older population and being slightly old fashioned in many respects, this is one of the reasons I have such affection for the place. Armed with crochet hook and yarn and a book of patterns to follow I headed off to crochet my way around the world. The first week or so was a bit of a whirl of train timetables and deadlines, with little time for dawdling or pondering. Until I reached the Trans Mongolian Train. Here I had five days to do little else but ponder and dawdle, interrupted only by the routine of making tea and noodles, watching for wisps of smoke from the houses in the distance, and an occasional game of ‘Dobble’. Train travel is perfect for pondering, wandering and crochet.

To start with it felt a little clumsy, finding a way of introducing my new found friends and companions to my crochet exploits. I was a little sheepish, it took a while to get used to. It draws attention. Crochet is indeed an act of rebellion, perhaps. My later meeting with the Knitting Nanas was wonderful, a truly incredible bunch of ladies doing wonderful work while also making fabulous woollen items.

And so, the first place we stopped, where I had enough confidence to get off the train and know it would not leave without me, was Omsk. Here I collected my first stone, from the railway tracks…

Bexhill to Bexhill

The big apple – last stop New York

New York was all that was promised. A perfectly formed island of towering buildings overhead and neat straight sidewalks under foot, with everything in between a bundle of energy and life. Manhattan is just as it looks in the films. A home to the icons, The Chrysler Building; The Empire State Building; Staten Island; Grand Central; Bloomingdales; Tiffany’s; the Statue of Liberty, few places herald a greater list of famous inhabitants. Even the streets are ‘household names’ here, Wall Street; 42nd Street; Broadway; Fifth Avenue. It makes this new and unfamiliar city appear more familiar than it really is, leaving me with a peculiar sense of the uncanny. I expect to see Carrie Bradshaw or Gordon Gekko appear out of a building and jump into a yellow cab at any minute. I feel a little wrong footed and a teensy bit star struck with this city.

Bexhill to Bexhill

Manhattan streets, New York City (Louise Kenward, 2014)

A few days to explore on my own before I meet Sabrina, I walk for miles and miles. Just hopping out to catch an early evening walk gets me back at the YMCA for 10.30pm. I had no idea. Time disappears as everything seems so close, ‘it’s all in walking distance’ I am told. This is true. They tend to be very long walks. There is also much to distract. Visiting the Empire State Building gave a more honest sense of scale. Views spread across the whole city, creating a vision of 3-D Tetris. Reaching the edges of Manhattan and looking across from Central Park, you get a greater sense of the city. The Staten Island Ferry takes regular trips past the Statue of Liberty for the classic Manhattan skyline. 

Bexhill to Bexhill

Manhattan skyline from Central Park, New York (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Bexhill to Bexhill

View of Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry, Louise Kenward (2014)

Bexhill to Bexhill

3-D Tetris – view from The Empire State Building, Louise Kenward (2014)

Another must see was the High Line Park. A converted rail track which was used to deliver supplies to the Meatpacking District. Now an oasis of calm and greenery it is a welcome contrast to the hectic streets below. The elevated walkway hovers 30 feet above the west side streets. Converted from a disused space, work began in 1999, with the first section opening ten years later. The park as it is today opened in 2011. A long narrow space, it is surprisingly easy to forget you are in the centre of such a built up city. Cast your gaze across and the skyline of concrete is always in sight. For me, this made it all the more special. You know you are in Manhattan, a few feet from West Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and the Meatpacking District. Yet surrounded by grasses, climbers and stretches of lawn, elevated above the ground, you feel as if you are in another place entirely. It is a little pocket within the city and outside of it.

Bexhill to Bexhill

High Line Park, Manhattan (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Seeing my ‘old’ friend Sabrina (we met in Russia last October) it feels like I have almost come full circle (which I suppose I have). Arriving in the city a few days earlier, New York felt a little lonely. A familiar and friendly face, so happy to hear about my journey since we’d parted in Beijing, was a true tonic for the soul. Any travel weariness was quickly abandoned. It also meant I could enjoy reliving that early part of my journey with someone who had been there.

Bexhill to Bexhill

On our way to pizza at DUMBO – Brooklyn Bridge with Sabrina, Louise Kenward (2014)

We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset and had pizza at Grimaldi’s. We visited Queen’s to watch a baseball game and took a road trip to Philadelphia. Stopping at a diner on the way home for pancakes I wondered where Bruce Willis was and if Uma Thurman would soon emerge out of the loos. My own inner world, I would have been disappointed if they had appeared as they would not be in the characters I cast (on this occasion I am in Pulp Fiction). 

The baseball game was good fun. It really is like the movies, with ‘kiss cam’ (and some less than excited participants willed on by the crowd), burgers and milkshakes and loud pumping music gearing the players up. A great end to my time in New York and (at least temporarily) to my travels. This adventure is now returning full circle as my next destination is Bexhill, UK, where the project will continue…

Bexhill to Bexhill

Mets vs Atlanta Braves, Louise Kenward (2014)

Bexhill to Beijing by train

This was one of the discoveries to inspire my trip, being able to get from Bexhill, UK to Beijing, China entirely by train. I have not left land at all, starting with the local train to Ashford the Eurostar took me to Brussels where the Thalys connected me to Cologne and a sleeper train left Cologne and arrived in Minsk for midnight. Another sleeper train travelled from Minsk to St Petersburg, and another from St Petersburg to Moscow, where the Trans Siberian (Mongolian branch) Rail journey started.
Travelling through Europe, Russia, Mongolia and now into China, the landscape has altered markedly. The language, currency, culinary delights (or otherwise) and people have changed at each stage. On board the train there is only chance to see a small snapshot of this, although the train carriages and station platforms offer a unique view point. The train attendants, platform offerings from locals and fellow passengers are distinctive between each country, and probably region if I was to pay enough attention and time. With the landscape providing a backdrop for all this, the ten nights spent on board trains so far, has been as varied as much as it has been similar. The minutiae of life on board circles around your basic needs of eating, drinking, sleeping, washing (or not) and using the toilet (or not). These vary in their priorities depending on what is most lacking at any particular time. At another level, the fascination of watching out of the window does not lose interest, all the while the train is moving there is something to see. Only during lengthy periods of being stationery does frustration and boredom set in. Prolonged border crossings remain tiresome and illogical while each country has its own style and process of paperwork, passport checks, baggage checks, routines of locking toilets for hours at a time and switching off lights so you are sat in darkness. You might suspect tactics of intimidation or think they wish to make the process as uncomfortable as possible.
So far I have spent 10 nights on board a train, crossed 9 countries, altered my watch 10 times, sat at border crossings for 17 hours and been asked for my photograph once because I am so odd looking. It was with great amusement that a Chinese gentleman spotted me and wanted his photograph taken while climbing another 5 steps of the Great Wall to stand level with me.
It has been a fast paced start to the trip so I am not so worried that the next few hours will be spent at Beijing West Railway Station waiting for my next train to Xi’an.
The Great Wall at Mutianyu has to be a highlight. Largely restored you are able to gain a sense of the expanse and distance the wall travels. Arriving early also gives opportunity to explore in more quiet contemplation, coming back down some 4 hours later you emerge in a different place to the one you left, with vibrant bustling market stalls and enthusiastic saleswomen offering souvenirs and food, rising from a near deserted landscape.
Watching the monks in prayers at Ulan Bataar is another memorable experience, the highly decorated and colourful monasteries adorned in silk hangings and ornaments with offerings. The hypnotic sound of the chanting resonated around the space, with younger monks shuffling in their seats or arriving late, bringing a more human aspect to the spiritual environment.
In stark contrast, the high speed train has just departed Beijing, flying at a 297km/h. It has got dark earlier here so I wont have a chance to see the countryside. I am surrounded by screens and information, variably in Chinese and English. I am hoping to be able to upload some more photographs soon.




Reflections on ‘five days on a train’

After a good meal, shower and Banya, I can be a little more reflective and am feeling somewhat more poetic about this marathon train journey. Only when it isn’t there can I recall the ‘clickety clackety’ of the train which became a soothing constant for the duration, and which I found I missed last night, along with the gentle rocking motion of the carriage. It took most of the day and last night before my sense of balance and internal systems settled into a more stable world.
The journey felt almost a journey through time, with a repetitive landscape, a sense of the surreal could be had, while also a notion of the changing seasons. We started the week in the early stages of autumn, with leaves yellowing, by mid week they were shades of amber and at the end were spartan, with a fitting smattering of snow this morning to complete the transition from autumn to winter.
Along the way, I can recall the excitement of spotting the intermittent tumble down wooden cottages that sat against the backdrop of forest and wilderness alternately. They could have come directly from a fairy tale with wisps of smoke dancing from the chimney, suggesting a cosy comforting interior filled with baking and colourful blankets (or a wicked witch depending on the story book). We imagined what it would be like inside, fantasising of warmth and comfort, set against the hardship of living in such harsh and unforgiving landscape. I remember the enormous woodpiles and occasional glimpse of someone tending to their garden, of the impressive allotments (mostly growing cabbages) and the self sufficient contentment of life that might be possible somewhere so remote. Inside the train itself we became our own little community, of bartering and sharing goods, trading information about timetables and platform stops and sharing in the delight at discovering there was toilet roll and hand towels in the toilet. A liminal space, a cocoon between stations and destinations, crossing paths with some and joining in unity with others, a shared connection of a world within a world, seeing things in miniature and dwelling on the minutiae as you pass through landscapes of incomprehensible scale.