Shaolin Town

Deng Feng, a small town by Chinese standards and a home to Shaolin Temple, makes an impression of a place from the Shaolin Soccer universe. There are numerous kung-fu and wushu schools in town and it seems that everyone is involved in some sort of a martial art here. Shaolin Temple itself is a very tourist oriented place which is reflected on a steep entrance fee (100Y). Upon arriving into the town I met this local kung-fu / tai chi practioner, whom I taught a couple of capoeira tricks. He, in return, told how to get to the mountain and temple for 2/3 of the price. You go to other side of the mountain and buy a ticket for only the mountain entrance (35Y, not advertised anywhere) and then at the temple pay only for the temple entrance free in form of donation (30Y). Voile, a little saving and great mood for the whole day! Anyways, Shaolin Temple is just another temple, nothing special about it except the hype and all the history. Kung-fu show demonstrated by Shaolin monks was ok, apart from the terrible music and poor coreography. Nice moves, though. On the other hand, supplemental sights as Pagoda Forest, 500 Buddhas Hall and Songshan mountain are magnificent. Songshan is the central mountain out of five Taoist mountains and plays an important role in China’s history for one reason or another. Joseph Campbell with his “every mountain is a central mountain” sprang to mind. No wilderness here, but the hiking infrastructure is impressive. The mountain looks like a civilized park, but on the other hand if not for infrastructure it would be rather difficult to climb the mountain. Had mixed feeling about that one. Shame though that even here up in the mountains you cannot escape the Great Air Pollution Wall of China.

I planned to spend some time to Keifeng the next day and leave to Shanghai by a night-train, but upon arriving there learned that there are tickets only for a day fast train. No Keifeng sightseeing for me, but on the other hand got another chance to feel myself immersed into the futuristic world of Chinese high-speed trains. This one is not as fast as previous one (top speed 200km/h vs 330km/s of the previous one), but I got a soft seat, which is essentially the first class, as China is theoretically a classless society.

No. 10 “Baikal”

The journey from St. Petersburg to Irkutsk took three and half days. Very manageable, but not without short periods of despair and tiredness. I took a direct train No. 10 “Baikal” from St. Petersburg to Irkutsk, skipping Moscow altogether. This is the only train from St. Petersburg to Irkutsk that does not pass through Moscow and this route has existed only since last spring (previously it went from Moscow to Irkutsk, as all the other trains). The fare is slightly higher, as this is a “branded” (firmennyi) train providing a better service than a regular one. The journey was rather uneventful, providing a lot of free time for reading, meditating, doing geeky stuff (thankfully the power socket in my cabin worked), writing this blog and socializing with car attendants, who were very friendly and helpful. Contrary to a popular myth, I saw no signs of binge drinking on the train. In fact, it is strictly forbidden and apparently the rule is even enforced. Who would have thought such a thing was possible in Russia. Strange days, indeed. One time a jolly old sea-man asked me to join to a vodka session with him and got very disappointed then I declined. I almost felt bad for turning down the offer. Anyways, a lot can be said about the train life, but I will concentrate on two eternal subjects: time and space.

Time runs quite differently on such a long journey. First of all, the official time of Russian Railways is always Hammer Moscow time, no matter if you are in St. Petersburg, Irkutsk or Vladivostok. It is always GMT+3. Moscow Time is almost like the Eye of Sauron – all-seeing and all-powerful. A subtle way to remind citizens who is running the show in the entire country. Eye Of Sauron Time also leads to an interesting phenomenon, when the train clock shows something like 1AM and sun is shining in full force outside. A bit like Lapland’s polar day, only in Siberia. Secondly, I experienced a “train-lag” for the first time. It is similar to a jet-lag, only more subtle. You just do not notice anything unusual, until you realize that the sun sets at 2PM and your sleep pattern is badly screwed. As for ways to pass time, I had no problems – meditation, laptop and books were more then enough. Comparing to a vipassana retreat, such a trip is actually a luxury in terms of entertainment.

As for space, officially each cabin car has got 36 beds, spread over 9 cabins with 4 beds each. Additionally there is an extra cabin next to the personnel cabin with only two beds (number 37 and 38), but these seats are not advertised anywhere. In fact, this cabin is not even marked on some car plans. Go figure. The cabin does not cost anything extra, so if you value your privacy go for it. Another benefit of such a cabin is that it has its own power sockets. I am not sure about the rest of the train, but the majority of people charged their phones in the hall (a protip: bring a cord extension with you). The downside is that this cabin is smaller and has a more claustrophobic feeling in it. Additionally the beds are a tad shorter, although I did not experience any discomfort. You can reserve this cabin on the official site of Russian railways at, by stating that you prefer seats 37-38. On the other hand, if you want to get a feeling of real Russian travelling and save some money, go for a плацкартный (platskartnyi) car (open plan compartment with no doors or no privacy whatsoever). I ventured into such a car once and the general vibe was a tad too much for me. Maybe one day, but not on such a long journey.

That is quite a wall of text (with the major part written on the train of course). More could be said about Russian Railways, but it would be better to stop here, as I am not even sure anyone made it this far.