Thursday, 2 October 2008

Voyage to the Hermit Kindom

Although the departure area at Qingdao International Ferry Port is somewhat less bustling and Orwellian than its counterparts in The West, we were still subjected to various searches and scans before being allowed onto the New Golden Bridge V, our vessel to Korea.

The main reason for the searches was not to deter terrorists but smugglers. With the prices of electronics and traditional medicine so cheap in China, many Koreans gladly pay the lowest possible fare (about £46) to sleep on the floor of a room with 48 other people in order to smuggle some Chinese produce back home.

It is not surprising then that my backpack would arouse some degree of suspicion at the customs point. As my 25kg bag was hauled onto a metal table by a pair of undersized Chinese border officials, small rabbles began to gather in anticipation. 'What could this unusual creature be carrying in his mysterious sack of wonder' they potentially asked themselves. The answer, as it turns out, was that I was carrying a number of containers of fish oil, ZMA and BCAAs, enough to somewhat avert the horrendous effects of my previous blood sausage and noodles diet. As the guards probed curiously through the containers I had to try and explain to them that what they were holding was not medicine, but sports supplements. Legal, sports supplements devoid of any traces of tiger penis, gazelle bladder or otter venom. This was achieved in the traditional way that Westerners achieve most things in the Orient, acting big and silly with little apparent embarrassment. I acted out lifting some weights, hit a double biceps pose and mimed shoving the capsules down my throat whilst saying 'duanlian' (Chinese for exercise) repeatedly. This seemed to get the point across and even broke the ice to the extent that the border guards started laughing, pointing at each others biceps and prodding at mine.

The boat itself was pretty awesome, considering we were spending just under a day on it, there seemed to be plenty of amenities, many of which served as our first introduction to Korean life. Having never really read about Korea before planning this trip, I was curious to find out as much as possible about the country before getting there. Whereas some of our other ports of call - Russia, China and Japan - have had a huge impact internationally, Korea is a country whose culture is largely unknown in the West. All I really knew about Korea was that they build cars and electronics and being a hi-tech economy, they probably live to a degree of comfort similar to people in Japan. So little has been known of this country across the ages, that it has been dubbed by many a historian as 'The Hermit Kingdom'.

From Korea

Korean points of cultural interest:

1 They love the Internet, particularly LAN gaming

Presiding over the central atrium of the boat were a row of sleek looking black computers, sat atop glass tables, with black leather chairs. This, it turns out, was but a microcosmic representation of the 'PC Bangs', internet cafes usually filled with hundreds of computers, which now dominate Korean culture.

Nowadays as a Korean youngster you have one of two options, you join an after school club to excel in sports, languages or maths; or you spend every possible minute of your free time sat in an air conditioned, darkened room with hundreds of other people, playing video games.

Korea's induction into the group of internet connected nations was a rather unusual one. For many years the internet was limited to use in universities and national government agencies, then something unusual happened. Blizzard entertainment released a PC game called Starcraft, for some reason this particular game captured the imaginations of the entire nation to the extent that in 1998, before the game came out, only about 50,000 homes had internet connections, now that figure is over 12Million (over 70% of the population).

You may even remember reading this news story about one 28 year old gamer who died of exhaustion after spending 50 straight hours in a PC bang, chain smoking, drinking energy drinks and playing Starcraft.

2 Koreans eat in a very unusual way

The restaurant on board was super-easy to navigate thanks to the fact that at its entrance stood a glass cabinet filled with plastified replicas of the food on offer. We simply pointed at what we wanted, paid for a meal ticket and handed the ticket to a waitress who then handed us our instantly prepared meal.

The first point of interest was the fact that our meal came in 'pieces'. We had a large metal bowl of rice each and surrounding it were 5 or 6 smaller bowls filled with various pickles, chillies, vegetables, a vaguely meat looking thing and an egg. Our cabin mate, who was sat with us for dinner - a half Korean half Chinese man who spent the majority of the voyage in his pants watching TV - explained to us that we just had to mash everything together into a big slop.

It actually tasted alright for something so lacking in proteinous goodness (a common theme in Asia, with the awesome exception of the rampantly carnivorous Mongolians). Aside from the fact that our meal didn't come pre-assembled, we also noticed that all the cutlery was metal, including the chopsticks and the water cups. If you think you're pretty good with chopsticks try eating some slop with metal ones, I guarantee that there will be a least a moderate degree of soilage involved.

The reason for this abundance of metallic tableware is down to an old legend. There was once an emperor of Korea who after enforcing a number of unpopular policies in his homeland, became so worried of being poisoned by one of the palace staff that he made sure that the every food receptacle and its associated paraphernalia was made of silver. The reason for this being that silver has the unique property of reacting to most common forms of ingestible poison (as well as being corroded by eggs).

From that point on, it became tradition for all emperors to eat from silver, as a result it became popular for the upper-classes to do the same. Finally this filtered down to all of the Korean populace, most of whom were too poor to afford silver, and so (much like chavs with their 4 carat gold jewellery) most simply made do with cutlery made from any sort of metal in order to show that they too were just like the emperor.

We actually discovered a couple more interesting things about the Korean food culture once we left the boat - including one of my most highly anticipated events of the trip: Korean barbecue - but you'll have to wait until the next post to hear about them.

3 Public bathing is kind of a big deal over there

The Lonely Planet guide book has a fairly in-depth section talking about bathing culture in Korea. It seems that it is entirely normal for men to bond at bathing houses, just hanging around with their wangers out chatting about the latest video game, methods of galvanising tableware etc. There is nothing homosexual about it at all apparently, most Koreans will tell you that homosexuality is just something invented by Westerners and that it doesn't affect Koreans at all. Yet somehow, George and I felt that we weren't ready to embrace this aspect of Korean culture at the boat's fully operational bath house, we weren't that liberated... yet. So here instead is a wholesome photo of George in his bunk.

From Korea

4 Convenience stores are absolutely everywhere

Much like almost every street corner in Korea
, the boat featured a 24 hour convenience store. These things are awesome, you can get everything from sushi to miniature hoovers at any hour of the day. When you are travelling on a budget, improvising your own meals out of the cornucopia of goods available is more or less a necessity. As long as you steer well clear of the instant coffee, you're pretty much guaranteed to get something cheap and tasty, at any hour of the day. Speaking of which...

5 Their instant coffee is batshit crazy

Being a fan of coffee, proper coffee, upon waking after a good night's sleep at sea I immediately headed to the convenience store to purchase what I thought would be a vaguely adequate powdered coffee beverage. What I actually managed to purchase was so ferociously unusual that my brain's logic centre could barely compute what the hell was going on.

I peeled open the foil lid of my iridescent purple coffee cup to reveal the contents inside, not a sachet, or a 'pod' but two metal tea bags filled with 'coffee'. After letting this curiosity brew for a good 15 minutes, I tasted the contents, it tasted a lot like what I imagine a horse's ass would.

As luck would have it, on the topic of coffee and ass, I was ok because immediately upon disembarking at Incheon port;, I managed to get myself a cup of coffee that actually came out of an espresso machine, at this fine establishment:

From Korea

Tuesday, 26 August 2008


In contrast to the bustling hell that was Beijing's train station, the train that we took to Qingdao was a highly efficient mechanised beast. Fully reclining seats, complimentary mineral water and sliding glass doors were the order of the day. We pulled up to Qingdao station at around 10 at night and grabbed a taxi up a series of hills to the old observatory where our hostel was situated.

We were told by the receptionist that our reservations had been screwed up so we would have to stay in the hostel's most basic lodgings, everything else was fully booked. The receptionist grabbed a torch and lead us down a series of labyrinthine, outdoor, concrete steps (with no banisters) in almost complete darkness. The 'room' was situated at the very bottom of a dark path and occupied half of a semi-subterranean breeze block building the entrance of which was a huge steel door which the receptionist seemed unable to operate due to the rust surrounding the lock. Upon finally entering the room we were instantly met with a fairly challenging, two pronged, olfacto-visual attack. On the one hand we could see 18 beds crammed together into a room - although the term bed is a little kind - burlap sacks nailed to wooden benches is a little closer to the truth. What little paint remained was peeling off the walls and dank silken leftovers indicated that even the arachnid residents had given up hope of pursuing a worthwhile life in these surroundings. In addition to this there was an overwhelming smell of human excrement, the reason for which became immediately apparent upon opening the door to our 'en-suite' facilities. In lieu of a toilet there was a soiled pit in the ground, a pit which, rather efficiently, not only served to carry away fecal matter but also the water from the shower which was located directly above it. Never before has not showering made me feel so clean.

In spite of all this, the hostel made up for its lack of room based amenities with its awesome rooftop bar. It turns out that the hillside locations of observatories make for awesome views onto the cities that they overlook. This photo gives you an idea of how outrageously sweet the hostel's location was:

To top things off, the bar had seating that appeared to be made out of the World's most luxurious beds, huge, foot thick sponges which were perfect for crashing out on, should burlap sacks on wood not really be your thing.

On our first full day in Qingdao we wandered about with not much of a plan at all. We saw a series of German buildings, including a variety of incongruous churches, all remnants of German occupation. The town is primarily famous for its main export Tsingtao (Qingdao spelled the old fashioned way) beer, which was created by German occupants, desperate for a fix of their favourite hops based drink. The local method of serving is somewhat different to that found in Germany - or pretty much anywhere for that matter - as street vendors prefer to pour fresh beer into giant, heavy-duty, plastic bags the majority of which become filled almost entirely with foam. We saw more than one person walking down the street with a 2 kilo sack of beer, the side of which was pierced with a straw while the contented owner guzzled back the frothy liquid inside.

This, however, was by no means the most unusual sight we encountered during our time in Qingdao.

Unusual sight 1

Right on the pavement, in the middle of the city, huge rows of fish split open and left to dry amongst old pieces of chewing gum, chocolate wrappers and, most deliciously of all, dog shit.

Unusual sight 2

Like some fundamentalist Christian's rapturous fantasy, we saw a pair of shoes who's owner had seemingly disappeared mid stride, stood before a pedestrian crossing.

Unusual sight 3

Whilst standing in the queue to buy a ticket to the Qingdao aquarium, a seemingly endless series of ever more irrelevant shops punctuated by some token fish tanks - the first sold dried fish products (which we were in no hurry try) and stuffed animals of sharks, the last resorted to selling tea and model ships in order to empty the hapless patron's pockets of their last remnants of cash- a juvenile praying mantis somehow appeared on my bottle of coke. A bottle of coke which was in my hand, far from the ground or any trees which could have housed such a creature.

Unusual sights 4, 5 and 6

By some stroke of quasi miraculous luck we managed to bumble our way to a bustling food market, serving a range of tasty foods from throughout China to all the locals.

There we were first greeted by 8 Muslim men in full on Muslim clothing selling kebabs and naan bread whilst dancing with passionate and jubilant force to European, hardcore techno. Fair enough, considering the kebab vendors next to them had a man with inexplicably large hammer, hitting dough whilst topless save for an incomprehensible red oval - also to music, as their marketing tool.

If I were to tell you that there was a dog on one of the diner's tables you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was the unhappy ingredient in some Chinaman's delicious lunch time feast. What actually happened was this: a woman decided that rather than eating alone, she would take her inexplicably small and stupid looking dog to lunch, holding it in her left hand while she fed it with the chopsticks in her right. Of course it's altogether possible that she was merely taking the dog out to fatten it up with her favourite food with the idea of eating some weird and extravagant favourite food within another food amalgam at a later date. That way we're both right. Hooray.

We didn't tuck into a platter of piping hot canine parts (on this occasion) but we did still manage to rustle up a rather more interesting concoction than what one might usually enjoy for breakfast. We started off with stir fried aubergine with peppers and onions (top) descending rapidly into boiled starfish (left) and pan fried silk worm larvae (right) served with a Gatorade bottle cap filled with a dried spice dip (centre).

After this nutritious breakfast we felt ready to take on the World and were sure we'd be able to face anything that Qingdao could offer us. We were wrong, we could have eaten the heart of Pegasus served on a bed of mandrill faces and not been ready for...

Unusual sight 7

Unusual sight 7 involved one of those moments in life where a combination of disbelief and unpreparedness leave you unable to truly comprehend the magnitude of what you have just witnessed. As is clear from the photo taken at the rooftop bar, Qingdao is a large and vibrant city which houses a number of skyscrapers and the various financial institutions and high level shopping boutiques that come with them. It is in the heart of the commercial district where we stumbled across an unusual couple, firstly there was an elderly Chinese gentleman wearing shorts and a simple shirt along with a plain looking hat, a man that could easily blend in at any seaside town. That is, if he wasn't travelling with his unorthodox companion; a boy of about 12 or 13 in a plain white t-shirt, unassuming enough save for the fact that he was naked from the waist down. A sight which George described as "a party sausage sewn to a lychee".

That's right, at some point in the day the child's parent or guardian had decided that this boy was ready to leave the house. Its not like this was some destitute kid surviving on the streets either, the fact he was wearing a clean, new t-shirt was an indicator that his family could afford clothes, it's just that they had decided to funnel all of their resources into clothing that all important torso region of the body whilst leaving the lower body exposed. The weirdest thing is that nobody walking down this busy shopping street found this unusual, the kid didn't look happy or sad to be devoid of trousers he just looked oddly at peace, maybe this aura of authoritative, calmness is what made his parents allow him to leave the house that way. "Hang on you forgot your shorts", "No mum, I won't be needing those".

It was with the memory of Unusual sight 7 fresh in our minds that we boarded our ship to Korea, a short 24 hour voyage from Qingdao to Incheon. We would be leaving the country of China behind although only for a few weeks; plenty of time, we hoped, for the people there to purchase a set of rudimentary britches.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008


Slight omission from the last post re: the reason why the security guard wouldn't let us wrestle at the sports palace. It turns out that the people wrestling there were the Olympic freestyle wrestling team, they were preparing for the Beijing Olympics. We would have been annihilated.


The first impression that Beijing makes nowadays is very different to the one that it cast as little as two years ago, on my last visit to the city. It seems that in preparation for this summer's Olympics Beijing has undergone a significant transformation. In the airport all the signs are in English, the floors are a polished marble and even the escalator hand rails shine with an overwhelming cleanliness.

Our, super-new, air conditioned, lcd screened shuttle bus to the city centre lead us through a series of ultra wide boulevards lined with monolithic shopping complexes awash with neon. In contrast to this our hostel was located in one of the city's hutongs - a series of seemingly never ending alleyways filled with 3/4 size houses and market streets. Although some of the hutong houses have been renovated by upwardly mobile Beijingers the majority of them still have no internal plumbing of any kind, the streets' public toilets serving as common bathrooms for hutong residents to chat outside, playing cards until the early hours of the morning.

The hostel itself (Red Lantern Hostel) was pretty special, like something out of a kung-fu movie. Open balconies facing onto a zen garden courtyard with a restaurant serving Blue Mountain coffee for 10RMB (80p) a cup, as illustrated by George below.

With a couple of days to kill before we could get down to some BJJ we decided to go and visit the sights. It turns out that Beijing indeed has some sights. The Temple of Heaven, The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace are all on the UNESCO World Heritage list, no mean feat considering most countries don't manage that many entries. The hyper-opulent Temple of Heaven, an ancient complex of sacrificial altars and temples set in an enormous park in Beijing's centre was particularly impressive despite being dwarfed by the other World Heritage sites in the vicinity. Seeing as its taken so long to get the photos up, here's another to show you how awesome the temple is:

As impressive as the sights were, interacting with the people of Beijing was also a fairly entertaining experience. You tend to forget that a quarter of the World lives in China and that as such a lot of internal tourism takes place. Beijing's tourist attractions are filled with people who travel there from far-flung rural regions of the country, places where they have only ever seen Westerners on TV. It seems that no matter how outrageously magnificent our surroundings were, for some people George and I were the main attraction. At the Forbidden City one girl stopped dead in her tracks after seeing George and began strafing sideways whilst looking at him, half shocked, half aroused managing only to utter the word "how?" over and over again in Chinese. Not five minutes later a large group of school kids asked to have their photo taken with me and immediately copied the obligatory jiu-jitsu hang loose sign that I threw out for the camera. Somewhere in Anhui province those kids will all be greeting each other that way for the rest of their lives.

Finding Beijing jiu-jitsu club was a fairly arduous task. If you're clever and get a map off the website it is probably really easy. When you write the address down on a scrap of paper in the hopes that you'll somehow shamble your way there, things get a little harder. It turns out that most buildings in China don't display their numbers on the outside, even when they do there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the numbering. Things become even harder when the place you are searching for is within a series of tower blocks which all have the same road number along with a 'sub number' for each particular tower.

The entrance to the club (once we found it) was awesome, the place is located a few floors up in a skyscraper, through a set of glass doors with the club's MMA organisation logo cast onto the wall behind. Once again our hosts were in the luxurious position of not only having toilets but also showers and changing rooms. Something we don't see much of back home. The place also had the feel of a trendy magazine editorial office to it, a few students were hanging around on chairs reading and a large desk with a computer filled one corner of the main room with a water cooler and a large set of coloured plastic cups next to it. The view from the window was somewhat more awe inspiring than Subway down in Bedminster as well, giant illuminated skyscrapers looming in from all directions through the wraparound windows on two sides of the studio. I think there may have been aircon, but as we found throughout our travels aircon is not made to deal with tons of sweaty people exercising in a confined space in countries where the nighttime temperature barely drops below 30.

The instructor, Pedro Schmall a Carlson Gracie black belt, lead a fairly different class to the ones taught by our Pedro back in Bristol. There was a far greater emphasis on stretching than cardio, with particular care taken to work the fingers and toes to prevent silly injuries that could sideline you unnecessarily for a week. In terms of size the class was pretty similar to what we're used to, around 15 students, although here the majority were white belts.

The class we attended was on a Friday and as such was a review of the week's positions. This particular week the class had focused on escapes from the mount. Pedro gave really detailed instruction on how and why each escape worked and taught in a 'decision tree' style where each mount escape followed on from the next as a reaction to your opponent's possible responses.

After drilling for a while we went onto positional sparring. Everything was going well until I went up against one particular guy who seemed to have a particularly strong resistance to my Ezekiel choke. I had rolled from the mount into a high guard in order to add pressure when suddenly the guy's eyes started rolling into the back of his head, Pedro quickly jumped in having spotted the fact that his student had lost consciousness. I have never actually had someone go limp like that whilst rolling with them and the experience was unusual to say the least.

I felt like a complete horse's ass for turning up at the club and doing that to one of their students but I spoke to the guy after and he was very cool about the whole thing. He said that he knew he should have tapped earlier and I apologised as profusely as possible for the whole thing, we actually sat and spoke for a while, discussing the finer points of choke mechanics.

George was even less fortunate with his time on the mat. During the positional sparring he jarred his knee while mounted on top of his opponent, re-aggravating an old injury and quite possibly sidelining himself for months. Pedro and Andy Pi (a purple belt who owns the club and who previously trained in Torrance with Royce and Rorion Gracie) were really helpful, grabbing some ice and getting some mats for George to elevate his leg on. Pedro kept telling George, who even in this condition wanted to move around and kick his leg about to keep it static and to always elevate an injury above the heart so that blood won't flow to it. A sound piece of advice which seems to make a lot of sense.

After rolling with one of the club's MMA fighters, a short, heavy Mongolian followed by Andy, one of the strongest purple belts I've ever rolled with, I got my ass completely handed to me by Pedro. The combination of fatigue, heat and lack of consistent training mixed of course with my general inexperience lead to him asking me in a concerned voice "Are you ok? You aren't resisting at all." A humbling experience for sure, but after seeing George bust himself up I wasn't about to go home tired when I could be getting some decent training in.

If you're ever in Beijing I would emphatically recommend stopping by, the atmosphere is great and it seems that there is a large contingent of regular students here who are all eager to learn and more than happy to leave their egos outside. The club also has several pro MMA fighters under its wings who train full time and whose fights are featured on a 50 minute, weekly TV slot that Andy has secured to get MMA the mainstream exposure it deserves in China.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Wrestling with Mongolians


We arose on day 2 in Mongolia after a cold night spent in the ger, it seems that our lodgings were located in the middle of some sonic battleground for the city's dogs. We were nonetheless absolutely ready for our wrestling session when we awoke at 7:30 to our, traditional Mongolian, breakfast of bread, jam, tea and eggs.

On our walk to the sports palace we saw the usual sights, open manholes, the burnt out communist party building and a man passed out in the middle of the road, face down in 32 degrees of heat.

When we entered the sports palace we saw the same security guard who had been there the night before, a young guy in his early twenties who was not expecting to see us again. When we asked where the wrestling was he just laughed and went to grab some of his colleagues, then something fairly unusual happened. One by one all of the people who he had now amassed at the front desk engaged in a ridiculous policy of trying to look busy. This involved them playing ringtones on their phones, reading books or pretending to write on pieces of paper, it was becoming ever more apparent that they did not want us to wrestle there at all. After watching this act of buffoonery for a full five minutes we decided to leave in order to hire a Mongolian speaking guide who would hopefully be able to help us to find out what the hell had happened and assist us in our quest to wrestle some Mongolians.

We made our way to a cafe called 'Chez Bernard' (home of the most overpriced food and drinks in all of Mongolia) as we had heard that this was the place to go if you wanted to hire a guide. We spoke to the manager, a woman in her early thirties with immaculate hair and nails wearing a designer dress and sporting some extravagant mobile phone that was doubtless capable of performing any number of alarming and esoteric acts. She said that if we wanted a guide it would be $20 for the day and that she'd be there with us in half an hour and so we came to meet Achdintoya (Acha for short), the girl who we were hoping would make our wrestling dreams come true.

Acha suggested that our best bet would be to head out of the city and find some nomads to wrestle as they were usually very keen to test themselves against "outsiders" and would spend most of their free time wrestling anyway.

We stopped by the Wrestling Palace hoping to get ourselves a wrestling costume from the shop we'd seen in there the day before. For those of you unfamiliar with Mongolian wrestling costumes here is a picture:

Legend has it that full shirts were worn in competition until one year a woman became the Mongolian wrestling champion. Presumably people found out she was a woman after she got super pumped from winning and ripped her shirt off in front of everybody. Thereafter all wrestling contests were held with open fronted shirts so that no women could enter and humiliate the Mongolian men.

It turns out that the Wrestling Palace only had costumes in two sizes, children and extra massive, so Acha suggested that we stop by The Black Market to see what the costumes there were like. Before heading off we quickly spoke to the receptionist with the cauliflower ears to see if he knew of any good places to wrestle in the countryside. He told us that not only did he know where some wrestlers were but that he'd drive us out there himself and introduce us to them. Things were starting to look very promising indeed.

Within 15 minutes we were at The Black Market with The Receptionist waiting outside in his car. The Black Market is a place that every guide book recommends against visiting, not only are there a large number of pickpockets and thieves as well as merchants all too eager to rip off gullible tourists but there have been incidents were tourists have been stoned by the locals for taking pictures of the stalls. Acha seemed mildly amused when we brought this to her attention and assured us that she'd get us the best possible price as she is a Mongolian. Sure enough 20 minutes later, after making our way through the cramped and dusty, narrow market we were the proud owners of our very own Mongolian wrestling costumes.

We set off to the mountains with a bag filled with traditional gifts as suggested by Acha; biscuits, cigarettes and Riesen chocolate chews. It turns out that the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar are filled with gigantic mansions that wouldn't look out of place in LA, the difference between UB and LA being the price, a 10 bedroom house in UB costs around 200,000 pounds. Nonetheless it was surprising to see quite how affluent the people of Mongolia have become considering the country's recent tumultuous history. It was also interesting to see how, sure enough, every house we saw had a ger set up in the garden no matter how lavish the main living quarters may be.

After driving for an hour or so on ever degrading roads we finally pulled up at the wrestlers' training camp. The wrestlers had set up shop in the Mongolian equivalent of Butlins, terraced rooms and decrepit looking playgrounds being the order of the day in Mongolia as in Britain. When we arrived it looked as though a lot of the wrestlers were sleeping, we offered some cigarettes to the ones who were wandering around the camp and waited for Acha to explain what we were doing there.

From Mongolia

After speaking to a couple of the younger looking wrestlers Acha informed us that we would not be able to wrestle with them because they were preparing for Naadam and as such it was considered unlucky for them to wrestle with "women or children". Quite which of these two categories the wrestlers considered us to fit into was unclear but one thing was certain, they were not going to wrestle us without the permission of their coach and he believed strongly in adhering to superstition.

Not wanting to waste a trip and still deeply committed to wrestling some Mongolians, we decided to do what any men of action would do; go to the most geographically proximate guys we could find and challenge them to a wrestling match. Just outside the grounds of Mongol Butlins we saw some men milking horses and sent Acha over to see if we could look inside their ger and wrestle with them. As soon as we stepped into the ger we were each handed a bowl of 'airag' a drink made by fermenting mares' milk in plastic barrels. The liquid had the consistency of regular milk but had visible strands of transparent liquid in amongst the white, presumably from where the milk had curdled. The airag smelled like rubbing alcohol and tasted like fizzy, sour yoghurt. A fairly sizeable departure from my usual pre-workout protein shake.

We sat and chatted for a while with the family who owned the ger and found out some fairly interesting facts:

-Although the family all had mobile phones and jobs in the city they would spend every summer living in the ger, up in the mountains

-The family had a whole herd of horses that would be sent to professional 'babysitters' during the winter and then handed back to them every summer

-Children wrestle pretty much from the second they're born, recreationally and in school

-When asked what they knew of England the family instantly mentioned Man U and Princess Di

-One of the men was convinced that in England there are restaurants that don't allow Asians to enter

After our verbal, cultural interchange ended we made our way outside for the physical one. It turns out that The Receptionist had sent word out that some Westerners wanted to prove their might against locals and had gone around picking people up in his car while we were in the ger talking. George and I gave a brief BJJ demo to the Mongolians, something which they found tremendously amusing. Not surprising really, considering that we had effectively just been rolling around in horse shit for their entertainment. Acha insisted however that because the horse shit was dry it was considered to be clean, very re-assuring.

From Mongolia

After a brief explanation of the rules - via the medium of charades - the first bout was underway. George faced off against a young Mongolian who looked to weigh about the same as us, they pummeled for underhooks for a while and the Mongolian attempted a body-lock takedown George quickly countered and took him down by hooking his leg.

What happened next was like something out of a film. The Receptionist, a man who hadn't spoken to us all day, a man who spent most of his time on his haunches smoking next to the car, calmly stood up and ripped his shirt off. He revealed a leathery muscular body, the type you only ever see on old men who have spent a lifetime on physical labour, all traps and biceps no fat on him at all. He looked George in the eye and said something in Mongolian, we didn't have to speak the language to realise that he wanted to fight for the honour of all Mongolian men after seeing George win. So that is exactly what he did.

After a heated series of attempts to secure underhooks from both parties, The Receptionist pulled at George's sleeve, as George pulled back The Receptionist dove beneath him shot his free arm between Georges legs and lifted him clean into the air, dropping him on his back an instant later. He then challenged me and did the exact same thing. Receptionist 2 Us 0.

Wanting to reclaim some honour for the Westerners I fought a smaller Mongolian who, despite his size, was pretty damn strong. He shot for a single leg on me and I managed to secure double overs on him. I then realised that I was in a perfect position to go for a full overhead suplex. So that is exactly what I did.

My attempt was received by cheering and clapping from the Mongolians even though I actually lost, due to the fact that my shoulder touched the ground before my opponent came crashing down next to me. Flamboyance 1 Actual ability to win 0.

Magnus was introduced to a particularly unpleasant strand of Mongolian medicine after cutting his knee open in one of his bouts, bleeding continuously and profusely like some ailing haemophiliac. Acha took a piece of cotton wool, set fire to it and then jabbed the flaming, bubbling mess straight into his wound in an attempt to curtail the flow of blood.

After taking on a few more bouts we said our goodbyes to everybody and headed back to the city for, yet another, buffet. BD's Mongolian buffet is apparently a chain restaurant from The States, the only chain restaurant in Mongolia in fact (there was a notable lack of McDonalds and Starbucks in UB places whose presence is felt on the street of almost every other city in the World). What the buffet lacked in authenticity however it more than made up for with heaping fistfuls of awesome. There was a salad buffet which, this being Mongolia, contained an enormous amount of cold meats as well as a vat of the tastiest lamb ribs I have ever come into contact with. The buffet proper involved a series of steel containers filled with every raw meat imaginable (including lamb tails) followed by an island of sauces. Once you had piled up a suitable raw meat mountain on your plate you passed this over to one of the chefs who used a pair of v shaped swords to cook your meal for you upon a giant, heated, donut shaped slab of metal.

After another night spent in the ger we made our way to Chinggis Kahn airport for the only part of our odyssey (save for the start and finish) carried out via airplane - Mongolian airplane. It turns out that the Chinese government had bought all the train tickets between the UB and Beijing in the run up to the Olympics, presumably so visitors would have to fly in and see how clean and shiny the airport now is.

Chinggis Kahn airport had the ruthlessly clean air of downtown Zurich to it coupled with the overall size of Bournemouth airport, unlike Bournemouth airport its walls were adorned with portraits of bloodthirsty warlords with wry smiles on their faces. The plane itself was very new and didn't fall out of the sky at all, in this respect it exceeded our expectations. The view of Mongolia from the sky was incredible, the landscape slowly evolving from city; to swamp; to mountains to desert.

Within two hours, as we descended through the layer of clouds which had marked the Southern edge of the Gobi desert, the stunning neon sprawl of Beijing came into full view.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Wrestling with Mongolia


Upon arriving at Ulaanbaatar station we quickly met up with our host Gaan. He drove us straight to the hostel in the style of all Mongolian drivers, batshit crazy and dangerous as hell. Absolutely zero adherence to even the most rudimentary of traffic signals.

Gaan's driving however was nothing compared to the bombshell he dropped on us as soon as we sat down in the kitchen of the guesthouse, our backpacks still on the floor next to us.

Gaan: "So, maybe you don't know the situation in Mongolia now"

Us: "Not really. What's going on?"

Gaan: "There was a general election last week and the old communist party won. Not many people believed this, me included. They all went to Sukhbaatar square and threw everything from the party headquarter windows. Printers and chairs and paintings from the walls. Then they burnt it."

Us: "Holy shit"

Gaan: "The prime minister declared a national state of emergency four days ago. This is the first time in Mongolian history"

Us: "Oh"

So now we were seeking not only to engage in feats of athletic prowess with a notoriously proud and physically powerful people; we were doing so whilst they were in the midst of total political upheaval.

From Mongolia

Our accommodation was awesome. The 3 of us had a 6 bed 'ger' to ourselves. The beds were basic wooden frames with ornate looking shells crudely shambled onto them to give a veneer of 'authentic' quality. There were no actual bed sheets or pillow cases but that really didn't seem to matter, neither did the lack of running water or plumbing in general.

Our first impression of Mongolia had barely had time to form when, upon exiting the guesthouse and walking down the Gandam Temple Street, an immensely excited old man insisted on shaking our hands vigorously. For no apparent reason. After shaking all of our hands, whilst laughing uncontrollably, tears of ecstasy streaming down his face he took things to the next level by passionately embracing George's neck.

Before we actually made it onto the main road in central Ulaanbaatar, Peace Avenue, we all very nearly died. It turns out that there are a large number of street children living in the sewers of Ulaanbaatar (6000 or so at the last count) and to them a manhole cover is merely a useless, heavy barricade to their home. To us, on the other hand, it is the one thing stopping us from plummeting down jagged, scatological, portals of pain to our certain doom.

With wide open eyes and necks tucked firmly into our torsos we proceeded to the Naadam stadium where, for 3 days every year, the world's largest wrestling tournament is held. The place is awesome. All around the outside there were various pictures depicting wrestlers locking up with each other, shooting for doubles and performing the obligatory falcon dance, carried out by wrestlers when they defeat thier opponents.

In order to cope with how unbelievably sweet the Naadam stadium was we decided to track down a nearby restaurant which, we had heard, served up something called a Mongolian warrior battle platter. Surely, we thought, nothing could have a name like that and not be ball-crushingly awesome. We thought wrong. Instead of a series of steaks served on a rhinoceros' rib cage, garnished with ground up unicorns and doused in babies' tears; we were presented with 3 foo foo little specks of insignificance served on 'fashionable' glass plates. It took every ounce of self-control within me not to dropkick the waiter over the horizon as soon as he disrespected us with his meagre offering. In the end we settled for quietly eating our food and then paying the bill. I'm sure though that deep inside though, he knew. He knew.

We spent the next few hours visiting a few different temples, all of which were in pretty dire states of disrepair and all of which showed a peculiarly Mongolian depiction of Buddhism. Mongolians don't believe so much in reflection and serenity as they do in cold bloody murder carried out by a series of ghoulish beasts, particularly this guy:

Here is a list of horrors we saw depicted in the temples:

People who's tongues were being ploughed with sharpenedlades
Disembodied heads with organs hanging from them via their spinal cords
Women being raped by laughing gods
People being eaten whole by goats, dogs and even cows
A guy having his wang bitten off by a pack of dogs
Deities trampling the 'ignorant' beneath them
People being boiled alive
People being skinned alive
A man having his stomach pulled out of his body while people pitched stakes into its corners

The number one wierdest:

Gods terrorizing peasants with guns

With the Mongolians being a nomadic people their capital has moved around on a regular basis, because of this the temples we visited weren't much over 100 years old. I have never before seen gods depicted carrying guns in a place of worship or anywhere else, outside of Stargate. for that matter.

After a hard day of sightseeing we figured we'd head to the Wrestling palace (an altogether different place built solely to house wrestling competition within UB) to see if we could join in with some type of training. We tried to communicate this to the guy at reception (who was sporting a fairly decent set of cauliflower ears) but he didn't seem to understand. Either way, he let us just walk about and check the place -which was deserted- out which was pretty damn kind of him. All around the outer hallways were portraits of previous Naadam champions from the past 150 years or so as well as various bits of scaffolding, pipes and cans of paint. The inside had modern looking multi-tiered seating with a large carpeted area for the competitors, it seems that the Mongolians don`t believe in the use of mats.

From Mongolia

After running around like a pair of idiots, taking photos of ourselves on the competition area and climbing the awards podium we decided to head back downstairs to speak to the receptionist again. We tried pointing at George`s monstrous ears and pummeling for underhooks to show him that we wanted to wrestle but all he could do was tell us when Naadam was. We walked away feeling slightly disappointed but still in high spirits with one more potential wrestling venue still on our to do list: the sports palace. Basically just a leisure centre but Mongolians are so absolutely sweet that they call pretty much anything a palace.

The sports palace was right by Sukhbaatar square, where the rioting had just gone down and also the location of the best ever government building in the world: The Mongolian Houses of Parliament. The building dominates Sukhbaatar square with its massive, sand coloured columns and blue tinted glass as well as an enormous, widescreen statue of Chinggis Kahn sat on a throne at the top of its steps. Rumour has it that just beyond the front door is an inner courtyard containing the most badass Ger in all of Mongolia, the place where all foreign dignitaries are welcomed to the country. That is some savage dedication to the Nomadic lifestyle.

In this noble and manly a location we were sure we'd be able to find ourselves some willing opponents and so burst through the doors of the Sports Palace, eager to get started. Right in the entrance hall there was a bronze state of a wrestler plus there were actual people walking in and out of the foyer. Things were finally looking up, or so we thought.

After carrying out our previous routine in order to communicate the fact we wanted to wrestle, the security guard just laughed in our faces. We kept hanging around though and made it clear that we really didn't intend to leave without wrestling. Eventually the guard asked for the help of a man who he knew spoke some limited English. He spoke enough to let us know that wrestling practice was at 9am and 7pm safe in the knowledge that we now had a time and location for our first go at Mongolia's national sport.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

5 days on a train

From Trans Mongolian Railway

I imagine that the usual reaction to being incarcerated in a small room with two other people for an extended period of time is not one of excitement. Nonetheless Magnus, George and myself were giddy as schoolgirls when we stepped aboard the No. 4 train from Moscow to Beijing (via Ulaanbaator). We stowed our belongings away into the various hatches, nets and cubby holes available and decided to 'explore' the train.

Our compartment was spacious and clean enough and was only mildly falling apart. Magnus and I managed to spend our time there with no injuries whatsoever.

George on the other hand was not so lucky.

Upon waking up on day 2, George decided to yawn and stretch much in the fashion of a baboon (more on that later). In doing so he managed to drive his hand through the metal blades of the compartment's fan and slice into 2 of his fingers. Although the fan made its way through one of the nails George wasn't too seriously injured and has now more or less fully healed. He did decide, however, to sleep with his feet facing the fan for the rest of the trip.

From Trans Mongolian Railway

However much the ferociously dangerous fan sucked, the compartment had one awesome thing going for it. The abundance of training possibilities it presented:

2 handles over the door at 45 degree angles for wide grip pull ups.
2 fold out, miniature step ladders for dips and attaching bands.
2 perfectly spaced bottom bunks for doing super deep push ups.
6 other hooks for attaching bands at various angles to perform pretty much any exercise imaginable.

The only problem with using the bands is that you generally have to veer into the higher rep ranges when using them. My love for lifting heavy things finally overpowered me on day 3 when I put Magnus on my back and attempted to squat him whilst on a moving train with a vicious, finger loving ventilation system looming over us.
I attempted one rep.
Magnus was displeased with the attempt.
I went back to the bands.

One particularly enjoyable part of our training sessions was the fact that the conductor was convinced we were going to break the compartment to pieces by the sheer force of our rippling, herculanean torsos. This meant that we had to shut the door every time we trained, thereby eliminating all airflow from the open window in the aisle way facing us. The heat got pretty unbearable with 3 of us in a 7'x6'x10' compartment but at least we didn't have the smell of raw chicken entrails being thrown out of the window by the conductor to bother us while we worked out. Seriously, the dude was disgusting. He did this on a regular basis.

As well as our, now fairly routine, bands, dips and chins workouts we all had a go at the 50 burpees challenge in the space between our carriage and the next.

Magnus: 3:16
Me: 2:35
George: 2:30

Our hands and feet got so disgustingly filthy that we decided we might as well try doing these on the platform, at one of the train's regular stops, the next time.

From Trans Mongolian Railway

Our hands and feet still got absolutely putrefact but seeing the looks on the other passengers faces as we jumped around whilst panting and sweating profusely made it worthwhile. Our outdoor attempt took place after George's 'incident' so only Magnus and I got involved:

Magnus: 3:05
Me: 2:19

Just enough time left after to buy some lardy, mashed potato pasties from the local vendors before getting back on the train. A real man's post workout meal.

One surprising aspect of the journey was seeing how different from our expectations Siberia was. When thinking of this region of the world people tend to conjure up images of frozen tundra, gulags and black bears. While this may be the case in the Northernmost reaches, the Siberia we saw from the train was an incredibly green place, filled with trees and shrubs and lakes. This of course only applies to the few parts that weren't filled with people. Most of the time we would see settlement after settlement, millions of people live in Siberia. Some places were comprised of little more than tin roofed shacks, not even separated by rudimentary paths, looking more like glorified allotments than villages. Elsewhere enormous cities, larger than Manchester, would punctuate the landscape with their skyscrapers, shopping malls, cooling towers and outdoor lcd advertisement screens.

From Trans Mongolian Railway

At around 7pm on day 4 we made what we thought would be a 2 hour stop at the Russian border with Mongolia. We thought wrong. Our passports were taken from us almost immediately for inspection and were duly returned to us an hour later. We then waited, for no apparent reason, for another 3 hours before making the 5 minute journey across the border in order to begin Mongolian border formalities.

We got to sleep at around 2am.

We were woken abruptly by chicken carcass man at 6am who insisted we get ready to disembark the train.

Looking out of the window was a pretty incredible experience. The landscape looked like something out of a video game. Green rolling hills as far as the eye could see, wild ponies running around in packs and a landscape interrupted only by the occasional 'Ger' - Mongolian tents, owned by almost all Mongolians (even those living in cities will pitch one up in front of their regular house and live in it intermittently). Crystalline streams the only visible divisions across the open plains.

We had arrived in Mongolia.

From Trans Mongolian Railway

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

The long awaited Moscow update

From Moscow

Due to the fact that we only had access to 14.4kbps internet in Mongolia for the last few days, we haven't had a chance to update the blog. We are currently in Beijing but will update you chronologically before talking about our time here.

We will also be putting up photos on all the posts now that we finally have access to a halfway decent computer.


We only spent a couple of days in Moscow but to be honest I think we got the balance between there and St Petersburg right, once you've been to Red Square you've basically seen most of what the city has to offer a tourist. The Kremlin is there, Lenin's Mausoleum is there (although his brain was removed by Stalin under the auspices of "studying true communism" years ago), St Basil's is there and The Tomb of the Unkonown Soldier is a few feet away.

One thing we weren't expecting however was to find ourselves face to face with an enormous, gothic skyscraper whilst walking down Arbatskaya. The monolothic building was obviously built within the 20th century as it was adorned with a huge hammer and sickle. However, the main section looked like a malformed, enormous Houses of Parliament; whilst the top was adorned with an audacious looking spire. Out of all the sights we saw in Moscow it was definitely my favourite.

From Moscow

The one workout I managed to get in at our Hostel looked like this:

10 x 10 Tricep dips (using 2 bunk beds) - George joined in for this bit, Magnus was asleep
3 x 12 Push ups (medium band)
5 x15 Behind the back pull-aparts (medium band)
5 x12 Bicep curls (doubled up monster mini band)

We were in a hurry to get out and eat some food so I went for as fast a set of burpees as I could muster at the time. I managed an abysmal 50 reps in 3:19 and headed off to Mu Mu (a cow themed Russian canteen) for some borscht and beef.

On our second day we came to the sharp realisation that we were about to board a train and not get off it for 5 days. Having heard about the quality and price of food available on the train we decided to perform two acts:

ACT 1. Eat like fucking savages while we could

ACT 2. Prepare for the journey ahead by buying 48 boxes of instant noodles and several packets of cured sausages which later turned out to taste only of blood and fat.

Let me tell you this: when it comes to buffets, Russians have got their shit together. We found a place that, for about 8 quid had a buffet that included all manner of salads, sushi, Georgian food (including some, rather unusual, veal bone slices), pancakes, about 5 different kinds of cakes and fruit salad. We stocked up like bears preparing for winter and hobbled away to the train station with our sights firmly set on Mongolia.

From Moscow

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Onward to Russia

Within minutes of boarding the overnight bus to Tallinn, a bus highly reminiscent of the musky, brown horrors my school used to cart us to do sports in, we realised that getting to sleep was going to be nigh on impossible.

After being woken from various shallow dreams by incredible pains in my unnaturally contorted body I decided to sit up and attempt primitive conversation in order to pass the time. Soon enough we approached the Russian border and prepared ourselves for the first of many exchanges with steely eyed guards who didn't take kindly to our types.

After showing our passports and boarding cards for the first time we waited around 20 minutes to be allowed to remove all our bags from the bus, walk through another checkpoint (our bags, were of course, at no point inspected) and then get back on the bus again.

We then crossed over an epic, fenced bridge with an enormous, gothic looking monastery looming over it only to find ourselves at yet another checkpoint. This one simply involved the bus driver making a series of grunting noises at an overweight man smoking a filterless cigarette whilst wearing a mixture of old bits of uniform and his clothes from home. The gate was lifted, the bus hissed on and finally: we were in Russia.

From St Petersburg

We arrived at St Petersburg Baltic Station at around 6:30 in the morning, a distinctly Russian looking blend of grey functionality and grand Tsarist columns, and took the Metro to our hostel on Nevsky Propekt.

We quickly made a series of realisations:

1. The Tsars had it coming to them

The degree of opulence that invades your vision at every possible turn is frankly stultifying. The entirety of Nevsky Propekt is an almost pornographic display of wealth. Every building is mind blowing in its design, any single one of them would be the defining centrepiece of almost any city (or country) in the world.

When you see how awesome St Petersburg looks and compare that to how poor the living conditions for peasants at the turn of the 20th century were you can see that it was only a matter of time before people spoke up.

From St Petersburg

2. Russians love roller-blading

Not the regular kind either, we're talking full on Tampax advert attire: lycra pants, helmet, wrist protectors and neon t-shirt. I have never seen so many people on roller blades in my life.

3. Russian women are really hot

Whilst most Russian men look like a cross between a bear and a bag of mashed potatoes. The disparity between genders here is crazy. Almost every chick you see would be, much like the buildings here, the best looking in any British city. The constant bombardment of incredible women was almost too much, which probably explains why one of the showers in the hostel delivered only cold water.

4. There is probably more Sushi in Russia than in Japan

The following places are awesome:

Valhall - a restaurant serving meat on viking shield 'platters' with proper coffee for 50roubles
Teremok - a Russian fast food joint serving borscht, pancakes and various types of buckwheat porridge.
Place we didn't bother to remember the name of - for 300 roubles (less than 8 quid) you are given a 1 hour key card to an all you can eat buffet featuring a range of pastas, salads, meats, pizza, pies, espresso, soft drinks - alcoholic drinks costing extra. Beer and wine are included in the price however as Russians do not consider them to be alcoholic (seriously).

Everywhere else in all of Russia is a sushi bar now.

We spent the next four days seeing what is possibly the most incredible looking city on the Earth. It is a real shame that more people don't come here and that more people don't realise quite how much St Petersburg has to offer. The Hermitage alone holds such a large quantity of great works of art that the process of cataloguing them all still isn't entirely complete. One room had every wall covered in paintings by Picasso the next was filled with Matisse. Downstairs was filled with Roman statues and pottery, Egyptian sarcophagi and classical paintings from Rembrandt to Leonardo. The place is sick.

Due to our inability to get in contact with the Russians, coupled with George's one day illness from hell, we didn't get a chance to train any sambo. We made do by rigging up our portable chin up bar and blast straps as well as using the resistance bands and some chairs (for tricep dips) to set up a training ground.

From St Petersburg

We used the chin up bar not only for chin ups but also as a bar bell (in conjunction with the bands) and as an anchor for the blast straps (for suspended push ups).

Considering how immobile and massive the majority of guys over at are its somewhat ironic that the shit they sell is so useful for travelling around the world with.

Next post: Our time in Moscow

Saturday, 28 June 2008

3D Treening, Tallinn

From Estonia
Our second day in Tallinn was almost entirely dedicated to training. The anticipation of getting to visit a BJJ club in a foreign country was overwhelming. Because it was a nice day we decided to warm up by climbing the ramparts of the Old Town and in doing so ended up visiting the most impressive looking church in the whole city.

The walk from the Old Town to the gym took a good 45 minutes down what must be the longest street in Estonia. Once we arrived we realised that it was well worth the walk. We got there a little early and had a chance to look around the facilities before the guys arrived and were blown away. The place was by far the biggest, in terms of mat space, that I've ever trained in. There was a side section, in addition to the main space, with a selection of bar and kettle-bells as well as a climbing frame with chin up/ dipping bars clipped into it. There was also a rather audacious glass fronted office, overlooking the mats, on a higher mezzanine floor.

Our host, Daniel was really welcoming and immediately apologised for the fact that the main instructor was training with the Straight Blast guys in Ireland all summer. As such, the training session was more or less entirely dedicated to sparring. This was fine by us.

From Estonia

The range of size, strength and technique levels on display was awesome. Just when you'd gotten used to rolling with an awesome open guard player a really strong athletic wrestler would come in and do their best to keep you on your back. Although most of the guys claimed to be white belts the overall level was pretty high, we later learned that they basically never grade at 3D. This may well be a reflection of the fact that there is only one tournament a year in Estonia and as such the need for belts is somewhat diminished. The lack of belts also added to the laid-back feel of the place, there didn't appear to be any nastiness or ego on display at all and everyone seemed to enjoy helping each other out.

I particularly enjoyed going up against one opponent with a very similair top game to my own, it really gave me a chance to work on my submission defense and in doing so, discover other ways to chain submissions and transitions whilst avoiding common counters.

From Estonia

It was a shame when the entrance of a gaggle of skirt wearing, aikido losers marked the end of our session, but seeing those guys come in and start a series of drills mainly involving bowing and punching themselves made for a good ab workout for us, so why complain?

I would like to personally thank everyone at 3DTreening for making us feel so welcome and helping us to improve our games; in particular Martin (hopefully we'll get to train together next time I'm in Estonia) and Daniel (thanks for driving us back man, we probably would have missed our bus to St Petersburg were it not for you!).

If any of you ever find yourselves in England you are more than welcome at Pedro's in Bristol.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

And so it begins

The scene at Stanstead airport at 1am is deeply unsettling. The mass of crumpled bodies in makeshift blankets amongst the eerie tranquility of closed shops and check-in counters is like something out of a zombie film. This is how The Manly Odyssey began. With a few hours to kill George, Magnus and myself set up camp in front of a coffee shop and waited for check-in to open at 4:45am. Our Destination: Tallinn, Estonia.

I managed to fall asleep on the plane and woke up with my copy of New Scientist stuck to my face with drool... high brow. As we touched down the intercom cracked in, "Hello and welcome to Estonia, where today the weather is not so great." No shit. The torrential downpour that greeted us was like something out of a 'Nam film. We quickly filed into the nearest taxi and got to our hostel for some sleep.

Upon waking we decided to have a look around and grab some food at a supermarket. We saw a pretty nuts looking orthodox Russian church just sort of dumped amongst the outskirts of the ferry port. Later on , after seeing the munificent offerings on display in the Old Town we realised why this one had been largely ignored. The Old Town is like a Disney Land for medieval church enthusiasts, albeit one that is punctuated with a series of strip clubs, bordellos and restaurants.

With a day to kill and nowhere to train, it turns out that the 24th is a national holiday here, we were delighted to find a 24Kilo kettlebell just lying around the hostel kitchen on our return from the supermarket. Before we could even get our shopping into the fridge the urge to bust out a set of swings became too much. We took on 5 sets of 5(per arm) and decided that since we'd warmed up we might as well try and get some form of a work out in.

Using my trusty resistance bands we cracked out:
5x10 on push ups (medium band).
5x12 military presses (medium band with broomstick).
6x10 concentration curls (doubled up super-mini with broomstick).

Whilst the work out wasn't fantastic it was still a relief to see we could put something together with our limited resources; something we'll need to do on our 6 day train journey from Russia to Mongolia.

After getting some food down us we went for a look around the Old Town again and found a well equipped playground just outside the city walls. We stretched our gymnastic imaginations by doing some dips, chin ups and -in George's case- muscle ups into hand stands. Freakish bastard.

We kept wandering through winding streets and courtyards until we realised that, even though it was still light, it was 1 o'clock in the morning. I hadn't really given any consideration to how far north we'd gone. I'm not sure it actually got dark at any point, what a mind fuck.

Today we'll get a chance to roll with the guys at 3DTreening, we'll let you know how it went once we get to St Petersburg.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Final steps in preparation

Organising a trip for multiple individuals across six countries (and two Special Administrative Regions) can be a total pain in the ass. Trawling through Chinese timetables and dealing with the Visa section of the Russian Consulate can be an arduous, albeit necessary, process. There is however one aspect of the planning that has been a complete joy: dealing with the International grappling community.

I have sent emails out to BJJ clubs in Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul and have heard back within a matter of hours from all of them. Everyone has been super accommodating and eager to help.

This is a phenomenon not limited to BJJ either. I have never in my life attended a Sambo training session, in fact I plain suck at leg locks. I know the difference between a knee bar and a toe hold but that's about the extent of my knowledge. Furthermore, I'm not American let alone a member of the American Sambo Association, yet this didn't seem to bother Steve Koepfer (the head of the ASA) one bit. He went out of his way to provide me with contact details for an ASA affiliate club, which will hopefully teach us the ropes once we get to St Petersburg, once again within hours of me sending him an email.

Although we're going to some pretty far away places with radically different cultures to our own it seems that the common language of grappling is not so different throughout the world. I think that the respect and friendship gained from sparring all out with some one is a hugely positive aspect of combat sports and these values are an unequivocal part of being a worthwhile human being, something which transcends cultural boundaries.

Here's a massive thanks to everyone that has helped so far, I'm really looking forward to training with you all.