Train Travel Provides Closer Look at Asia's Culture and Landscape
Byline: Been there by The Register-Guard
TRAVELER: After working a year as an English teacher at a high school in Japan, Kate Clarke of Eugene decided to travel home by train across Asia to Europe.
Clarke and two British women, who also had participated in the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, began planning their overland trip to Europe about four or five months before it began. They chose Monkey Shrine, an English company headquartered in Beijing, as their travel company and they were pleased with the service they received. The company not only booked trains and lodgings, but helped them arrange for the visas they would need, Clarke said. (The company's Web site is www.monkeyshrine.com.)
The three women got on a ferry at Osaka, Japan and traveled to Shanghai, China. To their disappointment, because they had wanted to avoid flying, they discovered that all the trains from Shanghai to Beijing were booked. So they had to fly on that leg of the trip.
They boarded the first of a series of trains in Beijing. They traveled in a four-person compartment, never knowing who would be assigned the fourth berth at the next stop.
From Beijing to Ulan Bator in Mongolia (where they stayed for three days) and from Ulan Bator to Irkutsk in Siberia (where they stayed another three days) and on to Moscow, everything went according their travel company's itinerary. Among other things, they slept in a collapsible tent called a ger (or yurt) and drank mare's milk in Mongolia; and stayed at a private home on the shore of Lake Baikal near Irkutsk.
"It was really nice to travel by train for such a long distance because you were really in tune with the changes of the landscape and the housing," Clarke said. "It was a gradual change. It wasn't like you hop on a plane and then you land and you're somewhere completely new."
Clarke, 30, now a mental health therapist for The Child Center in Springfield, began traveling abroad at age 23, during her second year of graduate school. It was a Eurail trip through Europe with her brother. "After that, I was completely bitten by the travel bug," she said.
When she finished her master's degree at Indiana University in 1997, she worked abroad in London for six months. She was able to visit Scotland and Ireland while working in London, and decided when her visa expired that she would spend a month visiting five countries in Africa.
"I wanted to really go somewhere that was different and that would really put me out of the realm of what I was familiar with," she said.
She moved to Eugene five years ago, joining her brother, who was in graduate school. But after working here three years as a therapist, she began to feel a need to experience the unfamiliar again.
"So I got a job teaching English in Japan at a high school," she said. "I basically went there illiterate. I didn't know any Japanese. I picked it (Japan) because I knew nothing about it and I knew it would be completely different for me.
"It was great to be a minority," she said. "That was a real eye-opener experience for me."
Japan's "wonderful railway system" allowed her to get around easily. "I traveled around Japan quite a bit and I also took a week's vacation to Australia," she said, explaining that Australia was only a seven or eight-hour flight away.
FAVORITE DESTINATION: "I really enjoyed Tanzania," she said. "I enjoyed that because it was very different from anything I'd ever experienced. The scenery is amazing. You're walking down the road and you see wildlife in their natural habitat. ... I felt it was almost surreal a lot of times.
"It wasn't a glamorous trip for me, the Africa trip. I camped the whole time," she said. "I was with a group of people and we made our own food. It was very basic living, but, for me, that's part of Africa. Part of the experience is doing it as simply and naturally as possible. …