Next up, Germany ya!

It was nice to leave Paris, a huge noisy, fast and furious city. It was quite an experience, but I had hoped to slow down a little. We had a 12 train journey to Germany ahead of us which ended up being 2 hours delayed. We got a 50% refund.

Upon arriving we immediately noticed how quiet it was. We stayed just outside of the immediate city centre, near Victory Column. We wondered if we’d arrived in the right ‘Berlin’

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We came across several museums dedicated to WW2. However it was roughly 5-10 euros for entry which was a shame. So we decided to take the metro to find some of the last standing bits of the Berlin wall. Seeing the wall really made you think how pathetic it was. A slab of concrete separating a country for political reasons.th_german blog2

A city walk wouldn’t be complete without someone trying to sell you something, or in our case, scam you. In the distance we had a guy counting 1! 2! 3! At first glance it looked like street magic, but we quickly realised it was far from it. The guy had set up a temporary table for a quick get away and had 3 cups. All you had to do was guess correctly which cup the ball was under. There was quite a crowd gathered but as we watched we noticed that we could tell which cup the ball was under, every time. If you’re not familiar with the scam, or haven’t seen The Real Hustle, this is how it works.

The guy will work with 3 other guys, the baiters. They’ll 1) make it look like a crowd has gathered to bet, and 2) show you that ‘ordinary’ people can win, and lose at the game, it makes it look a bit more legitimate. As a bystander you soon catch on that you can miraculously tell which cup the ball is under, every time. While you’re watching in the background the baiters will be betting huge amounts of money, and winning. An easy way to double your money! As the baiters play you’ll notice that they’ll suck you in so you’re eventually standing at the front of the ‘crowd’ and you’ll start pointing at the correct cup while others lose their money. The only reason you know the location of the ball is because he’s showing you every time by flicking the cup up as he stops shuffling them. So you think you’re amazing and put down 50 euros. The guy shuffles the cups again, and of course the ball isn’t there.

It’s fascinating to watch a scam like that in progress, especially when there are 3 or 4 people involved.

Germany has been an extremely interesting place and somewhere I’d like to visit again with a bit more money for the museums.

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Cheers!

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Should have paid more attention in French lessons

We made it to Paris! The journey went surprising quickly although I expected the Eurostar to be a bit more exciting! it’s just like any other train unfortunately. Very boring!

We arrived to a rainy, cold and in places, snowy France. No surprise coming from England. But as we got off the train the weather cleared and at least allowed us to find our Hotel. It’s located on the cheaper end of Paris on Rue La Fayette.

It’s true what they say, Paris is definitely expensive! It compares very closely to London.

Initially I was a little underwhelmed by Paris. I couldn’t see any designer or fashion shops, Operas or Ballet halls. I was beginning to think that was all in the movies. But today we decided to walk the 8 mile return trip to the Eiffel tower. It was amazing and a completely unforgettable experience. Not only was the tower fantastic to admireeiffel the engineering that took place by Mr Eiffel, but along the way we saw all the fashion shops (the type that had shop assistants dressed in £600 suits staring down at Craig and I as if we were scum of the earth ready to serve a daughter holding Daddy’s credit card) art galleries and opera theatres. The walk there was well worth it.

I love seeing the worlds cities, but I’m always ready to leave after a day or two, they just aren’t for me!

eiffel view

Next up is Germany tomorrow. Time to get a pitcher of beer and some Brätwurst!

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A Few Highlights

A few of our favourite moments on Ascension.

Sunset
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Louie’s Ledge
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Early morning turtle
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BBQ in Garden Cottage garden
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Climbing down Bat Cave
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Our view from Garden Cottage
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Turtle eggs
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Hannay blowhole
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Fishing at sunset
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Me next to a Green turtle
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Golfing
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Ascension Island Green Turtles

If we were at Ascension just for the turtles, it still would have been worth the money we paid for the trip. It’s something I’ll never forget and an experience that cannot be captured on any camera. We sat under a blanket of stars and watched and listened to the turtles making their way up to the beach. They take 5 or 6 ‘steps’ before stopping and taking in a big breath. It’s as close as I think I’ll ever get to a prehistoric creature. We saw them laying at night from 7pm to 2am, however we also woke up at 4am and watched them until 8. We found that seeing them at sunrise is a better experience. We didn’t disturb them with torches, and the natural light gave us a far better view of them.

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Fishing on Ascension

We had heard about a local fisherwoman named Debbie. She was happy to take us out to hopefully catch some Tuna. Unfortunately her boat was being repaired on the day. She luckily knew of another guy (Sam Arms) who would be happy to take us out with his friend.We met Sam at 5pm on the pierhead. We took his boat out to his anchor point and begun a 4 hour hunt for a Yellow Finned Tuna.

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Just as it was getting dark we got a bite. Craig reeled in the fish for a good 5 minutes or so. We’d not done any fishing before so this was an amazing experience for us.

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As you can see it was a pretty big catch for his first ever fish!

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We cut it up and had fish steaks for the rest of the week.

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The cost of going out (4 hours of Sam’s time, boat diesel, and the fish) was £25 each. We ended up getting roughly 15kg of fish which worked out to be about £2 per kilo. Not bad!

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Wildlife on Ascension

One of the attractions to Ascension Island for us is the wildlife. We were lucky enough to see everything in our 2 week stay.

Wild crabs are found along the roads and wetter parts of the island. They travel down from the mountains towards the sea to lay their eggs. On the left is a sea crab, and on the right is the more common land crab, found on all roads!

IMG_0370 IMG_0596Feral donkeys

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There are several species of birds on the island including the Fairy Tern and Boobies (+ baby)

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Feral sheep (with tails!)

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Green turtle

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Sea salt stalactites (left) – Ascension flower (right)

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The Worst Golf Course in the World

Officially dubbed as the ‘The worst Golf course in the world’ Craig and I found ourselves having our first ever game of Golf. I don’t know whether to blame the Golf course, our equipment or the fact that Craig or I have never swung a gold club, but we only managed to complete a pathetic 4 out of the 9 holes we paid for. The golf course was hot and sunny, and if your ball went slightly off course, it was just left in the rocks it had landed in!

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We both had great fun and eventually got the hang of smashing the ball across the dirt. We played twice and managed to finish about 9 of the 18 holes.

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Arriving on Ascension

We arrived at 7:40am on Ascension to a humid and rainy day. The rain didn’t last long though, and the 30 degree sun dried it within an hour. We happened to be there on the hottest month of the year with an average temperature of 30c.

We jumped straight into our car (didn’t need to produce licence or any form of identity, everything is very relaxed over there) and promptly got lost trying to find our cottage. When we left I asked one of the locals where to go, he said “head towards the big mountain” – we did, but ended up on the wrong side. After 2 hours we got to Garden Cottage with no food and no petrol. A very exhausting start to the trip. It didn’t matter once I saw our patio view though!

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At times, walking through Ascension feels as though you’re on a settlement on another planet. There are rocks and sand and mountain landscape that you’d only expect to see on Mars. There are also golf ball shaped communication devices placed around the island and in the distance you’re always guaranteed to see some sort of satellite.

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But then we’d go on a National Park walk on Green Mountain, and everything would change. We’d have to try and find our way through the fog which eventually leads to a bamboo forest. The air was thick and humid and the trees dripping with water.

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We didn’t have the internet on Ascension so updating the blog was difficult, so I’ll update it retrospectively as I can. We leave for Russia tomorrow so there isn’t much time to fit everything in. The eventual plan is to write a book in diary form when we get back.

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Ascension Island

IMG_0873I could write pages about Ascension, but I’ll try keep it short and hopefully readable! After being back in the UK for the day I already want to go back, but the rest of the trip awaits!

What an amazing and dynamic place.  One minute you’re surrounded by green – banana and pineapple trees, various tropical plants (including endemic species), feral sheep, crabs and rabbits and the next minute you’re surrounded by dry and dusty fields of ‘clinker’ (volcanic rock).  A few minutes down the road you can find yourself in a built up area full of typical huge left hand drive American cars on the US base.  The Volcano Club serves some amazing burgers!

Weather
Blue sky every day, 29-31°C.  We had one ‘rainy’ day there – about 10 minutes of heavy downpour, everything was soon dry when the sun appeared shortly afterwards.

2300ft up on Green Mountain where we were staying the temperature was about 23-26° and a little more rainy and damp due to being in the clouds half the time. A nice break from the heat.

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There are currently 33 letterbox walks on the island.  At the museum, which is only open on Mondays and Saturdays for a couple of hours, we found a leaflet that detailed every letterbox walk on the island with maps and instructions on how to get there.  They were mostly hand drawn, so not 100% accurate, but that added to the fun.  At the end of each walk you would find a letterbox which will either be a steel American post box, or a wooden box set in stone crafted by locals.  Inside is a stamp to prove you’ve been on a walk and also a notebook where you can leave a message for the next people.  The older, full notebooks are found in the museum which is quite cool!

One walk we’re particularly proud of completing is Louie’s Ledge, rated a 5 (5 is hardest!).  It took us along what they call the ‘goat track’.  About the width of your shoes side-by-side, a false step or slip could send you off the sheer drop.  We had to trust our shoes and hope that the particular piece of crumbling ash/stone we were holding on to didn’t give way.  The path also had a few gaps that needed to be negotiated. The letterbox and stamp were located on a ridge with a sheer 1500ft drop into the ocean on your left and a cliff to your right.

IMG_0897Another particularly good letterbox was was Bat Cave (there have never been any bats on the island and nobody really knows who named the cave).  A shortish walk off the old NASA road lead us to a fumerole with a few frayed pieces of rope attached.  Looking down into the fumerole you can see a ladder which of course doesn’t quite reach to the top, which made things interesting.  To get to the ladder we had to go bum first trusting all our weight on the old rope.  The walk leaflet has a warning, something along the lines of: “nobody checks the safety of the rope & ladder and they are not maintained”.  At the bottom you were almost immediately covered in a layer of sweat.  It was 30°C above and even hotter in this lava tunnel.  After exploring a little (it was a small fumerole, not much space for both of us to stand in there) we made our way back up with another stamp and some pieces of volcanic rock – nice desk ornaments.  Eveything is extremely sharp down there as it’s un-weathered, so care was needed.  The rock was red & covered the walls so almost looked like the lava was still flowing – amazing!

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Wildlife
On our way down from Green Mountain in the car we would normally dodge large crabs, feral sheep and rabbits who would sit in the middle of the road.  The sheep had a habit of sitting until the last minute at which point they would casually get up and walk to the side.

In Georgetown and dotted randomly around in the island you can find groups of feral donkeys.  With some patience you can gain their trust.  Very friendly creatures, although they probably just thought I had food!

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We spent a lot of time watching turtles lay their eggs at night on Long Beach, an incredible site which in itself made the trip worth every penny.  We watched these huge creatures slowly make their way up from the sea and choose a spot on the beach to dig and lay their eggs.  After a lot of grunting, sighing and moaning while digging the hole she would then delicately dig a smaller hole with her back flippers into which the eggs would go.

The best time to watch them is sunrise.  I hate getting up so early, but it was worth it and I’d do it again many times to watch the turtles.  Up at 4am and onto Long Beach by around 5am, we stargazed while the sun rose behind us.  In the morning light you can watch these amazing creatures without disturbing them and of course get some amazing photos.  You can take pictures at night when they’re nesting, but only from behind and even then it feels like you’re disturbing them with the flash, so morning is best.

I definitely want to go back, with a tent this time.  It would be amazing to explore the island and the rest of the letterbox walks.  You can easily walk for 4-6 hours, so camping would be perfect.

Onwards to China tomorrow, via Europe & Russia!

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Packed – 6 hours until take off to Ascension

One mistake a first time backpacker always makes is that he or she will pack too much to begin with. It’s not my first time backpacking, but it’s my first time around the world. I’ll no doubt be ditching quite a bit of stuff after the first couple of weeks!

Anyway, here’s a list of what I’ve packed if that sort of thing interests you.

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Pictured:

1) Mosquito net
2) Cotton sleeping bag liner
3) Sunglasses
4) Waterproof bag for electronics including:
Double adapter
Universal adapter
Spare batteries for torch
Laptop plug
USB adapter
USB Kindle charger
USB camera cable
Camera charger
Phone charger
Shaver charger
5) Goggles
6) Trek Towel
7) Backup hard drive(500gb) including:
Spare camera battery
Spare SD cards for camera
8) Rainproof cover for backpack
9) Camera
10) Kindle
11) Toiletries/first aid bag including
Savlon
Bandages
Earplugs
Rehydration Sachets
Paracetamol
Ibuprofen
Imodium
Soap
Multi-vitamins
12) Notepad + Pen
13) Diary + Pencil
14) Playing cards
15) Chain + combination locks
16) Body pouch including:
Passport
£650 cash
Driving licence
Credit card
17) Phone
18) USB Stick
19) MP3 player
20) Torch
21) Flip flops
22) Laptop
23) Sun cream
24) Bug/Mosquito repellent
25) T-shirts x2
26) Socks x4
27) Calculator
28) Mug
29) Documents folder including:
Travellers cheques
Passport details
Visa details
Tickets
Directions to stations/accommodation
30) Swim shorts

Not pictured:

Tank top x3
Cap
Boxers x3
Rope
Door stop
Lighters
Sfork
Shaver
Pocket tissues
Deodorant
Cable ties
Toothpaste
Toothbrush
Flannel
Hairbrush
£50 cash
$300 cash
Noodles
Soup
Shirt
Trousers + shorts
Fleece
Waterproof jacket
Beanie
Malaria pills

I’ll put it into some sort of order when I get back, but that’s it really. I wonder how much of it I’ll throw away….?

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Ascension Flight Ticket

ascensionsheadWe received our ‘tickets’ from AITA (Ascension Island Travel Agency) yesterday – a Word document with an MoD booking reference and a list of reporting instructions, baggage allowances and all the usual stuff.  We’ve had it booked since August as there are only 10 civilian seats per flight and as promised they sent us everything a week before travel.  Details of the flight are here: http://nykamp.co.uk/travel/ascension-island-confirmed/.

We will be at Brize Norton at around 7pm.  The latest check-in is 3 hours before the flight (8pm) and it’s recommended we get there earlier to avoid waiting/queuing.

We will be staying in Garden Cottage, which was recently inaccessible due to a storm destroying the road, 2300 feet up Green Mountain as shown here: http://obsidian.co.ac/gardencottage.html, about a 20 minute drive from Georgetown and 10 minutes from Two-Boats village.  Not bad for £280 each for the two weeks (check out the view - http://ascension-flights.com/gal-view.htm).  We also asked to hire the cheapest vehicle possible for our stay which happens to be a pick up truck for £15 per day.

Obsidian have been very helpful with booking our place to stay and hire car.  A big thank you to them.

The internet isn’t great on the island, so our next Ascension update will probably be in 3 weeks time when we’ll have much more detail.

6 days to go!

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Tickets

trainticketsWe can now get from Germany to Russia & from Russia to China! Our tickets arrived early this morning, special delivery 7 days earlier than expected. Once again Real Russia have impressed us.

It’s a while still until we need to use these tickets (almost 2 months), but it’s good to know we have everything booked and ready as we only have one day back in the UK (17/03/13) after Ascension Island.

There’s a single ticket that covers both of us for the Germany to Russia leg, which we can just about understand from German lessons at school, and a small ticket-sized folder each containing various bits of paper with Cyrillic writing (there’s a very useful “How to
read a Russian Train Ticket
” link within our final itinerary PDF).

It seems we’ve mentioned Real Russia quite a few times!  We’re not sponsored by them or paid to advertise, it’s just difficult not to as they’ve been a huge help with tickets and visas to get us from Germany to China.  We are also not used to receiving such good service.

25 days to go!

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26 days to go – accommodation

Now that our Berlin to Moscow and Trans-Mongolian tickets have been confirmed we have booked places to stay in France, Germany and Russia. China was booked a few weeks ago as we needed the confirmation for the visa, but I’ll include the info here anyway.

These have been booked on HostelWorld.com which has, so far, been an invaluable resource.

Paris, Franceeiffeltower
Hotel De La Comete
18/03/13 – 19/03/13
Standard Double Bed Private Ensuite
Price per night per person: €30
Total: €120

Why: Close to Gare Du Nord (where we arrive) and Gare De l’est (where we leave to go to Germany) and 7-8km from the Eiffel tower which is one of the places we’ll be visiting during our short visit.

Berlin, Germanygermansausage
Central Inn
21/03/13 – 22/03/13
Double Bed Private Ensuite
Price per night per person: €29
Total: €116

Why: Close to Hauptbahnhof train station (Berlin Central) which is where we arrive from France & leave for Russia.  It looks like there are also some good restaurants & shops around the area, particularly Schönhauser Allee – home to Konnopke’s Imbiss - rumour has it we can get some traditional German cuisine here.

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Chocolate
24/03/13 – 25/03/13
Standard Twin Private Shared Bathroom
Price per night per person: 1333.40RUB
Total: 5333.60RUB

Why: We arrive at 1am so wanted somewhere within walking distance of Bellorusskya train station (where we get off) and relatively close to Yaroslavskiy which is where we’ll get train #4 to China. Both the Red Square & Kremlin are accessible from here as well.

Beijing, China
Beijing City Central Youth Hotel
01/04/13
Standard Twin Private Ensuite
Price per person per night: CNY134
Total: CNY268

Why: it’s in the station square and we’ll be very tired. We only plan to stay here for one night before setting off to find more suitable accommodation.

All of the above are well over our normal hostel/hotel budget, however we needed convenience for this part of the trip to avoid missing trains and unnecessarily long, expensive taxi rides.

26 days to go!

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Visas!

visas28 days later and we have all the necessary visas to get from Leamington Spa to Beijing! Belarus transit, Russia tourist, Mongolia transit & Chinese tourist.

We’re very impressed with Real Russia‘s service.  All 8 visas (4 each) were processed back-to-back, on time and without any problems.  They were very helpful throughout the process and kept us up to date.

We did pay a little more than what a visa actually costs, but that’s to be expected and was well worth it.  All we had to do was send our documents (which Real Russia’s system auto-filled with our details) and passports along with some passport photos to their office in London.  From there they did the rest.  No waiting in consulates/embassies and no worrying about sending our passports all over London via the postal service.

Belarusian Visa – Transit – £77
Russian Visa – Tourist – £117.60
Mongolian Visa – Transit – £89
Chinese Visa – Tourist – £93

The prices might seem a bit steep, but the above includes support documents, letters of invitation and everything else necessary to obtain a valid visa.

Next step – the tickets.  Real Russia will also be sorting these out for us towards the end of next week (45 days in advance).

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Deposit Paid

We’ve put down a deposit of £50 each for the Berlin to Moscow & Trans-Mongolian tickets!  The tickets only become available for sale 60 days before the departure of the Trans-Mongolian train and 90 days before the Berlin to Warsaw leg, but Real Russia have reserved our places.

The tickets should be in our hands towards the end of Jan 2013!

The next step is the visas.  Belarus, Mongolia and Russia are all quite straight forward and China shouldn’t be a problem as long as we have proof of at hotel/hostel book for at least our first night there. Hopefully everything goes smoothly…

Meanwhile, we’ve been following http://www.robohorse.tv/.  Check it out.

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Now it gets stressful

Now that our Ascension tickets have been confirmed and paid for, it’s time to start planning the rest of the trip. The most complicated and stressful part is the Trans-Siberian. Before we even have to contend with Russian or Chinese visas, we need to get to Moscow first. As we don’t want to cheat by flying, we’re going to be taking several trains from Leamington Spa (England!) all the way to Moscow. Stopping off in Germany and France for 2-3 nights each.

After we’ve entered Europe, we’ll need help to get to Moscow onwards. For that we’ve used a company called http://www.realrussia.co.uk/. They mainly deal with the Trans-Siberian express trips, but they can also help with visas and general enquires when travelling through Asia.

Real Russia will help us getting from Germany to Moscow through Poland and Belarus as well as organising Belarusian visas. After that we’ll jump on to the Trans-Mongolian (train number 4) from Moscow, and head through Siberia just north of Kazakhstan. We’ll then enter Mongolia where the train carriage will be swapped around. We’ll now be on a diet of rice and mutton! Moving on the last stop will be Beijing, China. Again as we enter Chinese territory the train carriage will change again. The Chinese visa is arguably one of the more difficult visas to get, we’ve asked Real Russia to help us with this.

There are a million smaller details that I’ve missed out that we need to worry about, but our initial email went something like this:

 

My brother and I are looking to travel from Berlin to Moscow then Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian express early next year. We both hold UK passports.

 We believe the costs are as follows:

Berlin to Moscow (via Belarus) – £261.00

Moscow to Beijing – £759.27 (2 berth first class)

Belarusian transit visa – £77.00

Russian visa – £117.60

Mongolian transit visa – £89.00

Chinese visa – £93.00

 We would like to travel from Berlin on the 22/03/13 which will hopefully allow us to board the trans-mongolian on 26/03/13

 As we’re staying in Moscow for 3 nights, can we book a hotel ourselves and do we need to report to the local police station or is that something you can sort out?

 We are looking to book this as soon as possible.

 We look forward to hearing from you.

 Thanks,

Mark & Craig Nykamp

 

As you can see there are smaller details in there like needing to have permission from the Russian police to be able to sleep in their city.

I think I’ll be a bit happier when we step on to the train. Until then, we just have to keep planning.

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U.S.A! U.S.A!

Today Craig and I applied for our ESTA authorisation for entry to the US. Luckily GB residents are part of a visa waiver program for the US, so apart from having to pay $14 for the paperwork, it was relatively straightforward.

We’re still undecided on where we want to go in the US, but we do know we’ll be landing in New York. We’re both into Motorbikes, so it would make sense to head into Orange County and visit Orange County Choppers! A series we’ve always been fans of.

We plan to stay 1 month, so anything could happen. Not having a plan is part of our travel plan.

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Leaving Codemasters

I finally got round to writing and handing in my letter of resignation to Codemasters. I had spoken to HR before leaving to see if there was any possibility of me staying in their books, or taking extended unpaid leave. The short answer was no. It’s not a problem for me, and I expected it, 6-8 months is a long time.

It’s been awesome working in the games industry and I’m obviously leaving with regrets, but it’s time to see the rest of the world!

Having spoken to the bosses I don’t think it’s completely unrealistic to be working there again at the end of 2013, but we’ll see. I start my notice on Christmas day, and leave on the 25th of January 2013.

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Ascension Island Confirmed

Today (05/12/13) we received confirmation of our flights to Ascension; they were also kind enough to take £1938 for the tickets… It’s an expensive place to go, but it’s somewhere different, where the average traveller hasn’t been.

We fly on the 27th February. Take off is under the cover of dark at 11pm, maybe it’s a military thing. We are flying with the MoD after all.

We still need to organise day to day money, we think around £6-700 should be fine. This will include petrol money for the pickup truck, renting the cottage and food/drink.

Before we think about setting foot on the island we’ve had to make sure we have repatriation travel insurance in case of air travel evacuation. Not only is Ascension Island home to the RAF, but it’s a rocket tracking station for the US, and provides 1 of 5 GPS systems for everyone around the world, anything could happen!

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“Permission is hereby granted”

ascension entry permit

After answering a few questions about why we wanted to stay on Ascension, and after holding our breaths for almost 3 weeks we received our entry permits today!

The entry fee is just £15 for the duration (£20 if you want to pay on arrival).

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