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  1. #1
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    China, Mongolia, Russia, Scandinavia - with kids...

    I'm planning a trip with my partner and kids from Shanghai to Edinburgh by a combination of trains and cycle touring and have a pretty broad brush question for starters.

    Could anyone recommend good areas to cycle? The plan is to use the trans-mongolian rail route for most of the way, and pick the best bits to cycle - either circular tours or onward to another train station.

    The train route is probably going to be Shanghai - Bejing - Ulan Bataar - Irkutsk, Lake Baikal - Moscow - St Petersberg - Helsinki - Stockholm - Copenhagen - Brugge - Edinburgh.

    Thank you

    Alasdair

  2. #2
    Senior Member mattbicycle's Avatar
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    I could only give riding advice for China out of the areas you mentioned.

    It would help to know: how flexible your schedule is -- i.e. how easy it will be for you to switch from bicycle to train and vice versa; whether you're looking for info regarding the most suitable areas to ride with children or the best scenery or flattest terrain etc; the time of the year/season you're planning on touring in; most convenient areas regarding hotels and ameneties; most conveniet areas for knowledge of English etc. etc. Also, it might help to know how old the children are and how much experience you/they have in touring and camping.

    Other members' ideas of "good areas" are likely to differ greatly from yours, and recommendations on suitable areas are likely to depend upon the factors I mentioned above.

    Goodluck. It sounds like a fantastic trip.
    Last edited by mattbicycle; 03-23-10 at 10:03 PM.

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    I've never cycled in Stockholm, but I'm fairly sure it's as cycle friendly as any city can be. I do know I see cycle direction signs all over the city and plan to cycle the Sverigeleden through it sometime this spring/summer. Lots of places to see in the city. Right on the edge of Stockholm near the lake to the west, lays Drottningholm (Queen's small island is nearest translation?) which is one of the World Heritage sites with extensive grounds and an almost Versailles look to it. In the royal residence in Stockholm there are a couple of nice museums to see like the Armory with historical items. Ooooh! The Vasa museum is a must see unless you dislike tall ships as the entire museum is built around a 1600's warship rescued from the Baltic sea floor in the mid-1900's. It sits on an island with Skansen (zoo, open air museum), several other museums and an amusement park. You can also go on little cruises around the archipelago.

    Sweden itself is an awesome country to cycle in and the south and south-eastern parts are flat. Most populated places have cycle paths along the busier roads and even between one small village and the next. Train stations are fairly common, but I've heard other people have had difficulty getting the train system to accept bikes on the trains except during the summer and generally with a 4 bike limit for the entire train, if I'm recalling correctly what one person on the forums here said.

    The people are friendly without being in your face. Most speak english fairly well and are willing to do so. Best of all, drivers are incredibly courteous and even friendly. I've never had anyone yell, flip me off, throw something or run me off the road in malice. The country is full of beautiful countryside, with old churches all over the place (most date from the 1300's), rune stones (most dating from around 1000 AD), and gravemounds.

    I've heard some nice things about Finland as well and have researched cycling there a bit, but it's still a few years away so I can't really offer much input there.

  4. #4
    Formerly Known as Newbie Juha's Avatar
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    Regarding Finland and depending on what you want to do (and how much time you put into it):

    - normal touristy sights to see near your route: cities of Helsinki, Turku and Porvoo have something to offer there
    - nice riding plus sights: The Aland isles and especially Turku archipelago trail, both situated between Finland and Sweden, are magnificent. The trail will take several days to navigate (lots of small islands with mostly free ferry connections in between), not a lot of daily mileage but splendid scenery. If you go that way, you can combine parts of the two and then continue onwards to Stockholm on board of one of the several ferries that run between Aland and Stockholm.

    Mainland Finland has some nice riding too, and the good thing is, it's fairly easy to combine riding with other modes of transportation. Long distance buses carry bikes for a small fee and minimal hassle. With trains, it's still easy, but bike capacity in newer trains is limited. Advance booking is therefore advisable. If you have the time, you can for example bike from Helsinki to Porvoo (some 60kms), see the sights there and take the vintage M/S Runeberg ferry back to Helsinki.

    Regarding Sweden you will have to plan ahead your transfers towards South, unless you want to ride the whole way. Swedish buses and trains are very tricky in the sense that most do not officially carry bikes except packed as cargo. There are a couple of trains from Stockholm towards Denmark that specifically accept bikes. We saw people (tourists?) take their bikes in the trains nevertheless and get away with it, but those were commuter (shorter distance) trains and I didn't see any train staff during the journey. In long distance trains I suspect you will not be admitted. You can complain to Swedish Rail. That's what we did, not that I see it changed anything yet.

    --J
    Last edited by Juha; 03-24-10 at 03:31 AM.
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  5. #5
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    Thank you for the ideas, these are great. We weren't originally planning to go as far north as Scandinavia, but it is beginning to sound like a good plan. Thanks for the links for Finland.

    To give some more info:

    The broad itineray is
    China - 4 weeks (May)
    Mongolia - 3 weeks (June)
    Russia - 2 weeks (June / July)
    Europe - 3 weeks (July)

    We're still flexible at this stage, except we are limited by 30 day visas for china, mongolia and russia. Most of the distance will be by train, with the bikes giving us a chance to see the countryside, get around the cities, find a slower pace of life and campsites, etc. It would be a nice idea to cycle some sections of the route rather than making diversions and round tours, but we want to balance that with going to the most interesting cycling areas. We don't want to get on and off trains too often, as I'm expecting this could be fairly stressful, particularly if we have to take bikes to the train the day before as may be the case in China I think... We will reserach all bike-on-trains policies along the route, no doubt they are pretty specific. I hadn't expected Finland to be tricky, but will enquire.

    For the china / mongolia / russia part, we will be travelling on the trans-mongolian route which we will probably book ahead to avoid hassles when we're there. That would mean we'd be fixed to train dates, so will have to plan the cycling / sight seeing days ahead. We definitely want to have a few days in Bejing and cycling around the great wall of china, but haven't worked out what to do from there. Is Inner Mongolia a good idea, since it takes us in the right direction? Or should we be going somewhere else. We definitely want to make the most of being in China, as we've never been and don't expect to get the chance again for a long time.

    For Europe, we will have a rail card, so apart from booking the bikes in advance we should have more flexibility on when we take trains, so should be able to play it by ear more. Upsalla near Stockholm is a definite stop since we have friends there, and possibly a stop in Gottingen. The Turku Archipelogo Trail sounds good.

    Our boys are aged 2 and 4, but will turn 3 and 5 whilst we're travelling. They're well accustomed to camping, and don't seem to mind staying in a different spot each day. Last summer we cycled along the Outer Hebrides for 2 weeks with the boys in a trailer. They actually really enjoyed it, much to our surprise and read books, played with sticks, top trumps, a few carefully chosen lightweight toys, the maps and anything lese they could get their hands on. Mostly they would be wanting to go faster. 30 miles a day seemed to be a reasonable maximum before they got fed up, bearing in mind that the trailer was pretty clunly and seemed to slow me down more than the same weight loaded onto the bike itself. This time we are taking a tandem for me and the eldest (a Circe Helios - 20 inch wheels and small enough for him to ride on the back with the seat at it's lowest and crank shortners), and the youngest will go in a child seat on Kate's bike. We have also passed the potty training hurdle for this one, which will cut down the weight significantly! Any tips on cycling with children or children on tandems would be very welcome. They are pretty good at finding things to play wherever they are, and will eat most things without fuss. A steady source of felt tip pens is important, so we will need to keep stocked up on those. We have a rough idea of how they should get on, but this trip is a fair step up from the last one so it's a bit of an unknown really.

    As far as terrain goes, we're not averse to hills. If there landscape is stunning, I wouldn't mind riding up hill all day long, or totally flat either. We could manage roads that are a bit rough, but we need to bear in mind that the boys will probably feel the bumps as double what we do, so very rough tracks are out. I'm rather hoping that we can tour around Mongolia a bit, but suspect that one needs a reality check. Distance between food stops is going to be a limiting factor. We'll carry plenty of food with us when we need to, but don't want to be cycling 100 miles from one place to the next without somewhere to stock up inbetween - that would feel too much.

    We want to avoid heavy or dangerous traffic as far as possible. We I guess we may find that getting away from train stations will be pretty heavy until we're out of the towns.

    I'm slightly paranoid that we will have our bikes knicked. Any tips on different coutries and how to reduce the risks would be good. Normally when touring I've never been far from my bike and kept it locked, but when we're sight seeing or staying indoors, leaving the bikes is going to be unavoidable. Would removable pedals be a good idea (eg MKS Cube)?

    We're pretty bad with languages. We're going to try our best with the basics for Chinese, Mongolian and Russian, but given the time we've got and the fact it's 3 languages, it's just going to be the essentials. This is going to be pretty difficult I think. If there are areas that are more used to english speakers, it would be good to know, but we would probably opt for the scenery first if we had to choose between them.

    Thanks for reading, and hopefully there are some more suggestions.

    Alasdair

  6. #6
    family on bikes nancy sv's Avatar
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    YIPPEE!!!! Another cycling family! One by one, we'll get more families out there!

    That being said, I think your plans are way overambitious. We are traveling with 2 12-year-olds who are pretty independent. Even so, trying to maintain the pace you would need to maintain to make those miles I think would be next to impossible. It just seems like you are planning too short of time in too many places. Is there a reason you need to do all that on this trip?

    How about starting in Moscow and riding to Europe? Or sticking to China and Mongolia? I haven't cycled those places myself so I can't comment on specific areas, but I would seriously consider limiting the scope of your trip.

    I would suggest you ditch part of your itinerary but keep your timeline the same or extend your timeline to do it all. It just seems like it would be way too frustrating to do what you've outlined. I'm not sure if you have traveled a lot with a tandem, but they are difficult to put on trains and buses. Add to that the other bike and two small kids and I know we wouldn't survive it! the kids would do great, but you'll be frazzled.

    good luck and have fun!
    WE DID IT! Our little family of four cycled 17,300 miles from Alaska to Argentina! The trip of a lifetime for sure. www.familyonbikes.org

  7. #7
    mev
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    Quote Originally Posted by al gordon View Post
    Could anyone recommend good areas to cycle? The plan is to use the trans-mongolian rail route for most of the way, and pick the best bits to cycle - either circular tours or onward to another train station.
    As far as Russia goes, I'd rely a bit more on getting around by foot than bicycle. The easiest train stops to get on/off will be in the largest cities. There will be hotels or other places there and it is at least as easy to walk than to cycle in middles of those cities. In addition, from June/July the countryside outside cities from Krasnoyarsk to the Urals will likely have a few bugs.

    I cycled across Russia in 2007 and since my route paralleled some of the train tracks, I saw a number of the largest cities. Typically we'd stay in each city for two nights - parking our bikes at a hotel and wandering through the city. After that we cycled to the next places. With that said, I found the following large cities the most interesting (in rough order of interest from most interesting to less interesting):
    - St Petersburg (suggest metro and bus as ways of getting to Peterhof or places outside town rather than bicycles)
    - Irkutsk (more tourists with obvious attraction of getting to Baikal, this was one of the hilliest parts along the route)
    - Krasnoyasrk (relaxed city, Stolby Nature preserve potential cycle destination)
    - Kazan (tartar influence, Volga river, nice rebuilt center of the city)
    - Ulan-Ude (Buryati city, contrast with other cities)
    - Yekaterinburg (Afghan war memorial, Church of spilt blood)
    - Omsk (beaches along the river)
    - Novosibirsk (big city, parks)

    I'd probably also pick my stops based on how long in a row one wants to sit in the train. However, for all those cities above I wouldn't expressly go out of my way to cycle around them... you'll have bikes with you so that is different. In a few cities we also had to haggle some to make sure we could find secure spot to park bikes (e.g. in Irkutsk the hostel directed us to nearby garage; in Novosibirsk it was a long negotiation with the hotel).

    The other possibility if you wanted variety would be to pick a smaller city than just the big cities - but still large enough to have baggage service. You could then get off and more likely cycle through the countryside there. It might matter a little less exactly which one you pick because the'll have some similarities.

    As far as language goes, you'll find more English in Moscow and St Petersburg. Irkutsk would be at next tier with other cities behind that.
    Last edited by mev; 03-24-10 at 08:30 PM.

  8. #8
    two wheeled accomplice
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    My wife and I are currently cycling towards Russia. I just wanted to drop in to let you know that the trans-siberian and trans-mogolian trains are commuter trains. There will be no cargo car to put your bicycles in.

    We originally wanted to take the train across Russia, stopping frequently to get off with our bikes and cycle around. Nearly every account we've read has painted a pretty bleak picture about the ease with which you can get a bicycle on and off of these trains, especially a heavily loaded one. With the added size of a tandem and the trailer you'll undoubtedly wind up pulling, I think you might be in for a lot of trouble trying to make this plan work.

    If you're still planning this in a few months, we'll be posting about our experiences getting on/off the trains with a pair of 130lb touring bicycles (website in signature).

    I agree with nancy that you should shorten the distance or extend the time. In any case, good luck!
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    Quote Originally Posted by nancy sv View Post
    trying to maintain the pace you would need to make those miles I think would be next to impossible. It just seems like you are planning too short of time in too many places. Is there a reason you need to do all that on this trip?
    Thanks Nancy. We're not planning to cycle the whole lot! Most of the miles will be on the train, and we would probably be doing around 30 miles a day when we're cycling.

    Your website is insprirational by the way! We're not quite ready to stop work and start home schooling as you have (is that the right term for a nomadic family?!), hence the 3 month time frame is a fix. We're starting in Shanghai so we can visit Kate's sister (and we've bought the tickets). I really like the idea of coming home over land rather then flying, and crazy as it may sound the big train journey with the kids is really appealing.

    Given how ambitious and experienced you guys must be, I'm taking your comments pretty seriously though. Getting the bikes on the trains worries me, but I'd be loathed to leave the bikes at home. More research required I think. Less stops may be the answer.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kazer View Post
    My wife and I are currently cycling towards Russia. I just wanted to drop in to let you know that the trans-siberian and trans-mogolian trains are commuter trains. There will be no cargo car to put your bicycles in.
    Yikes, this could mean a change of plan! We've been asking Real Russia about bikes on the train and searching the net. We've been told that luggage under 180cm long can go in the carriage with us - we would need bike bags but if we book a compartment they can come in with us. That would mean a 4 berth - 2 for grown ups, 1 for kids sharing and 1 for the bikes. I don't have masses of confidence in this though. It's a shame it'll be too late for us to hear how you get on.

    We don't have a trailer by the way, just a solo and a tandem. The tandem's a Circe Helios - 180cm with the front wheel off, and small enough on the back for a 4 year old. Here's a picture:
    circe1.jpgcirce2.jpg

  11. #11
    mev
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kazer View Post
    If you're still planning this in a few months, we'll be posting about our experiences getting on/off the trains with a pair of 130lb touring bicycles (website in signature).
    I have put my touring bike on a Russian train between Samara and Penza in 2006. From that experience, my guess is it should be possible to have your bike on a train - but it might require some good Russian language skills to work the logistics:
    - The train we rode as passengers was a long-distance train coming from Tashkent to Moscow.
    This particular train did not have a baggage car. However, there were other local trains along this same route that
    did have baggage cars. Hence, the trick was we needed to book ourselves on one train - and book our bikes on a different train.
    Our passenger train went first and later that evening we went to the station in Penza to pick up our bikes.
    - Booking your bike on the train in Samara was also a three step process. My brother did more of the work here,
    but I believe it involved
    (a) showing our tickets and getting a slip indicating that we were traveling by train. This was done at the baggage
    office which was different than the normal booking office.
    (b) taking the slip to nearby bank and paying fees for the bike transport and getting a receipt
    (c) coming back with the receipt to the baggage office and getting our bikes checked in for later delivery

    My guess is there will be ways to bring your bike on a train with baggage cars but it might not be the same train you travel on as a passenger. Working the logistics and knowing how to problem solve when someone says "you can't do X" might be difficult as a foreigner, particularly one without much language skills.

    As far as the train ride itself went, I've done two longer train rides in Russia. One was an overnight train from Penza to Moscow (we left our bikes in Penza so didn't take them on that leg). It had standard passenger coupe and wasn't that different from some experiences I've had riding Amtrak. The other one was definitely an interesting experience. Our train from Tashkent had been underway for two days and we had berths that were stacked up to three deep. Instead of an individual coupe, the car was open with all. We were definitely a curiosity and had some interesting conversations and shared food (we'd brought a small bag of oranges we shared - folks underway had other food). Again it helped that my brother was fairly fluent in Russian and I had some basic conversational skills.

  12. #12
    family on bikes nancy sv's Avatar
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    What about leaving your bikes at home for this trip and trying to rent bikes in some cities? I know nothing of the practicality of that, but it seems like a HUGE hassle to deal with your bikes on the trains and such for the short amount of time you would be riding them. Save them for when you quit your job and take off to roadschool your kids while traveling!
    WE DID IT! Our little family of four cycled 17,300 miles from Alaska to Argentina! The trip of a lifetime for sure. www.familyonbikes.org

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    Formerly Known as Newbie Juha's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by al gordon View Post
    I hadn't expected Finland to be tricky, but will enquire.
    Just to clarify, regarding bikes on trains/buses: Finland - not tricky. Sweden - definitely tricky.
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  14. #14
    Senior Member mattbicycle's Avatar
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    A shorter and well-planned trip in touring-friendly countries sounds the most prudent. Or, as nancy sv mentions, renting bicycles along the way for day trips. It sounds like a logistical nightmare even for a solo rider with one bicycle.

    If you go through Xi'an, the city wall there is remarkably preserved and attractive to look at. It's possible to ride around the old city, from start-to-finish, along the top of the wall.

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    Well we're back and I just thought I would say thanks for the replies / advice / inspirarion. We cycled in China north from Beijing, trained across the Gobi, cycled UB Mongolia to Siberia, trained to St Petersberg and Helsinki, cycled through Finland, the Aland Isles and Sweden to Copenhagen, trained to Amsterdam, cycled to Brugge, ferried back to Scotland, and cycled home. All in all a thoroughly good trip. The Circe tandem was great, and taking bikes on trains turned out to be ok, although that's not to say it would work a second time. Having the kids with us made it double the fun! I would highly recommend taking kids touring, if you have them.

  16. #16
    family on bikes nancy sv's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by al gordon View Post
    Having the kids with us made it double the fun! I would highly recommend taking kids touring, if you have them.
    Hear, hear!!! Good to hear it all went well and that you enjoyed traveling with your kids. I totally agree that touring with kids is more fun than touring without them.
    WE DID IT! Our little family of four cycled 17,300 miles from Alaska to Argentina! The trip of a lifetime for sure. www.familyonbikes.org

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    Quote Originally Posted by al gordon View Post
    Well we're back and I just thought I would say thanks for the replies / advice / inspirarion. We cycled in China north from Beijing, trained across the Gobi, cycled UB Mongolia to Siberia, trained to St Petersberg and Helsinki, cycled through Finland, the Aland Isles and Sweden to Copenhagen, trained to Amsterdam, cycled to Brugge, ferried back to Scotland, and cycled home. All in all a thoroughly good trip. The Circe tandem was great, and taking bikes on trains turned out to be ok, although that's not to say it would work a second time. Having the kids with us made it double the fun! I would highly recommend taking kids touring, if you have them.
    I'd love to see a more detailed write-up or journal. Do you have any plans to do one? There needs to be more family-biking info out there for inspiration!

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    Hello. My name is Bart and while searching for some information regarding cycling in Asia with small kids I came across your post And let me tell you how happy I was when I read your it

    I am currently in Japan with my wife and my son who is 3. Next year we are planning to leave the country after many years of living here and reach the western edge of the European continent travelling on land through China, Mongolia and Siberia. Some of it we are planning to do it by bikes and the rest by train. As you see, the plans of our trip are very similar (at least the Asian part) to what you and your family have done.

    Our biggest concern is the child. We have travelled across China a few times before and never worried about food or water, but this time we will be on the road with a 4 year old and we are a bit concerned

    The biggest worryto is the food and water in China, Mongolia and Siberia. Small kids are more susceptible to getting sick from food and water than we are. When you cycled, how did you ensure that the food your kids ate was OK. Did you buy food in stores/markets? Did you buy fresh vegetables/fruit? Did you dine at the restaurants? How did you go about this problem? Also, what did you do about water? From what I have found on the internet, the water available between cities in Mongolia north of Ulanbataar is quite dodgy.

    What about accomodation? Is it easy to wild camp in those places or did you stay at hotels, guest houses and so on on your trip?

    These are the 2 biggest concerns we have and I hope you can help us by letting us know how you resolved this problem.

    Thank you and hope to hear from you

    Bart Z.

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    Sorry to keep you waiting, I've not checked the forum for a long while.

    In the 3 month trip our kids were ill once each - vomiting one day and better the next. My girlfriend and I weren't ill at all. Probably down to luck though, as we'd normally fare worse than that at home! We obviously had the full complement of injections recommended by the doctor (at a cost of around 1200 for the four of us, but we didn't question it). We avoided tap water and salad that might have been washed in it. We had purifying tablets with is that we used occasionally for river water, but mostly bought bottled water which was available from shops everywhere we went. We ate from shops, in restaurants, transport cafes, peoples kitchens, and never had any problems.

    It would depend on your route, but we (almost) always managed to find a shop once a day. Our longest stretch was about 150km, but again that was probably down to luck and we didn't cycle for many days in Siberia. Depending where abouts you are you definitely need a decent reserve of food in your panniers (and space for it) and plenty of spare water carrying capacity. In Mongolia we crossed the least mapped areas of our trip, but felt fairly comfortable that if we didn't find a shop we would be able to buy food of someone - so long as we could see gers we felt ok. We never had to ask, but always felt that the generosity of the local people was a bit of a fall back if we had an absolute disaster.

    Camping in China seems to be a bit unusual and the areas we were in had virtually nowhere we could find a flat spot that wasn't being cultivated anyway, so we stayed in doors. In Mongolia, camping is the norm, the only difference being our technology is a bit different to theirs. We tried to keep away from towns and out of sight (a bit difficult on the steppe) but never felt we were likely to have any trouble. It was really the best camping we've ever had. Siberia was a different matter - we only camped one night, and people we spoke to the next day were horrified that we would risk the chikldren's lives, so we didn't do it again! Probably an over reaction.

    Which ever way you go will be different and there isn't really any information beyond looking at maps and asking peole as you go, so it's probably a case of having space in you rpanniers to stock up and playing it by ear on shops and good places to camp.

    Sounds like fun. If you asked me for the best bit, Mongolia to the Russian border was unforgettable. We branched off the main road into wonderful landscapes, with the railway line to navigate by and local people shepherding along the way.

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