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Phillip Albertyn’s goal was to cross five continents, between two leap years, on public transport and a shoestring budget. Now he’s done it – the last trip being a trans-Siberian journey that took a month – and the 43-year-old is back in the Krugersdorp restaurant where I last interviewed him five months ago.
“I feel elated, but also a little sad that this mission is over,” he admits.
It’s no wonder. After all those incredible journeys – he travelled a distance of 55 000km through 42 countries over 326 days – the memories are countless, and the sight of his dog-eared Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas is just a little sore right now.
As he has done on all his other trans-continental journeys, including Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Asian sub-continent, Albertyn started his trans-Siberian trek by filling up a capsule of sea water, this time from the Yellow Sea east of Beijing in China.
“I spent five days in Beijing, staying in a backpacker’s hostel. I had to sort out my visa for Mongolia and make my train bookings.”
A second-class ticket from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar cost him R1 600, while Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk cost R480. From Irkutsk to Moscow it cost R2 000.
In Beijing, Albertyn visited Tiananmen Square, Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and the Forbidden City (the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty).
“I found Beijing to be a deadly quiet city, because all the motorbikes are electrically propelled,” he says.
Then he set off on the first leg of his 10 000km train journey, passing the Great Wall of China along the way. The first stop was the border town of Erlin in China, where the train is literally “lifted off one track and set on another, because the gauge changes” from the Chinese Railway service to the Trans-Siberian Railway service. After three hours, the train continued through the night to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
“Ulaanbaatar is the ugliest place, but a few kilometres beyond it are really beautiful landscapes. I met another traveller and we hired cheap Chinese bikes and explored the rural areas for three days. I’d never felt so free, in those endless spaces and visiting the little villages,” he says.
It was in one of these villages, in a Mongolian gur (the transportable dwelling of the Mongolian nomads), that Albertyn got his first taste of mare’s milk, a Mongolian staple.
“It was horrible and I had to concentrate on keeping it down.”
Phillip says the Mongols they met were friendly and hospitable, yet he and his friend opted to stay in their tent.
“You don’t want to intrude on people’s lives,” he says, adding philosophically: “Mongols are wonderful, beautiful people, the women especially. But they are not the right people to pick a fight with. They’ll bliksem you! One of their customs is if you accidentally touch someone’s foot, you must shake hands immediately. Luckily, I knew that before I arrived.”
Albertyn’s next stop was Lake Baikal, the world’s biggest and deepest fresh water lake at 744m, the top 3m of which is frozen solid in winter. “It could supply the world with water for 42 years,” he says brightly.
The train skirts around it, going over bridges, to Irkutsk, once a refuge for intellectuals and artists exiled for their part in the revolt against Tsar Nicholas I. Here, Albertyn settled in at a hotel for four days.
“It’s a beautiful city, full of expertly crafted wooden houses (part of the heritage left by the tsar’s exiles),” he says.
Then he boarded the train again for the longest single train trip – 50 hours – to Yekaterinburg. “I was in third class, which is six people a cabin, except the cabins are not closed off from the passageway like you’d expect. So it’s more like being in a travelling dormitory,” he says.
Keeping strict order are Russian carriage attendants called provodnitsa, impeccably dressed women who keep almost “military discipline” on the train and ensure the large kettle remains boiling and clean bedding is provided.
“They don’t smile, but I’m proud to report that I got one to crack a brief smile, just once,” grins Albertyn, who used the boiling water to make “six different variations of two-minute noodles” to eat with smoked fish.
Albertyn spent two days in a Yekaterinburg hostel, and visited Ipatiev House, a church where the house stood where Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their children were murdered by the Bolsheviks after the revolution.
Then he headed onwards to Moscow. “As a farm boy growing up in South Africa, and given our history fighting the Russians, to go to Red Square was an almost mythical experience for me.
“I arrived early in the morning at a train station that is so magnificent it’s like a huge art gallery, full of chandeliers and marble.
“I walked to Red Square and was blown away by the dimensions of it, and seeing the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral, the tomb of the unknown soldier.
“I was in a Springbok jersey. I don’t think that would’ve been a good idea a few years ago,” laughs Albertyn.
One disappointment, however, was the Olympic Stadium in Moscow. “You can’t get into it, and it’s surrounded by shopping centres,” he says.
To lift his spirits he went to the Museum of Astronautics where he saw Mark Shuttleworth’s space suit. “I never expected his suit to be in there,” he says.
After four days in Moscow, Albertyn boarded the train again with a heavy heart, to do “the last leg of the last leg” to St Petersburg. “I felt I wanted to see more, but the young Russians I met in St Petersburg were great. It’s an unbelievably lovely city, and hard to believe it went through a 900-day siege (as Leningrad in 1944). It is so intact.”
Albertyn finally emptied his capsule of Yellow Sea water into the Baltic Sea, marking the end of his trans-Siberian adventure.
Reflecting on the more than 10 000km trip from Beijing to St Petersburg, Albertyn says he never once felt threatened.
Vodka is customarily offered by Russian travellers, but he never saw shouting or brawling.
And remarkable is the fact that despite distances they cover, Russian trains arrive and leave exactly on time, says Albertyn.
The gap between the rich and the poor in that part of the world is very noticeable, he says.
“We think we have the monopoly on the divide between the haves and have-nots, but it’s not true. In Beijing and Moscow it’s common to see Porsches and Bentleys. I saw my first Maybach,” he says, adding: “I’ve never seen women so overdressed as they are in Moscow. It’s like they’re going to the Oscars when they’re just going to the shops.”
Which of the five continents was his favourite?
Phillip says every continent has its charms.
“I find that wherever you are, everyone wants to be good. You just have to put him or her in a position to be good, though with some, it’s a bit of a challenge,” he grins.
And how did he do it all and still keep his job lecturing tourism at Westcol College?
“Unpaid leave and double shifts invigilating exams,” he laughs, adding: “When I’m asked to explain the big chunk missing out of my grandchildren’s inheritance, my answer will be, ‘Sorry it’s gone, but at least I can tell you interesting stories’!” - The Star