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Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks.

book cover

I've just completed reading The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks.

This book is one of The Culture series and centres on an aspect which has appeared in other novels but only explored in detail in this one, the notion of subliming. Like other novels in the series reading them is not an effortless exercise, there are many complex characters with difficult names engaged in a number of threads which eventually weave a compelling story. Along the way the notion of subliming is explained and provides some sort of alternative view to that provided by many religions.

The background to the novel is the final days of the Gzilt civilisation before they are scheduled to sublime and some ancient intrigue as well as the actions of actions civilisations who want to exploit what is left after sublimation.

While reading the novel I realised that this would be the last new science fiction novel by Iain that I would read since it is the last one that he wrote.

I've read all his science fiction novels and a couple of his other mainstream fiction novels (as Iain Banks). I met him once at the Cheltenham Literary Festival and was wryly amused at his response to someone who questioned why he wasted his considerable talents writing science fiction.

I knew that he was a contemporary of mine but it was only when he died of cancer earlier this year that I realised that he was born in the same year. Got me thinking…

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Back to Europe


The fifth, and final, part of this summer's travels has begun. I'm sitting in seat 1L of an Airbus 330 on Finnair flight 52 from Beijing to Helsinki drinking a very pleasant glass of San Polo Brunello di Montalcino 2005 and looking out the window at the Gobi desert below and thinking how different it looks from 12,000m.

Over the next eight hours I will retrace most of the 12,000km outward journey that took me eight weeks. The real difference between the outward and return legs of the journey isn't the speed, it is the experiences along the way.

I feel oddly relaxed but I shouldn't be surprised since aeroplanes are a familiar environment. I have spent thousands of hours travelling millions of miles in them over the last three decades.

Today will be a long day, I was up at 5:30(Beijing time) and will not finally stop until I've met up with my wife at Stockholm's Arlanda airport and arrived at our hotel which should be about 22 hours of travel time.

I should pace myself but I think I will also sample the Château Malescasse with my lunch…

Beijing, 2013

My first, and only, visit to China was a short one. When planning this years trip I was presented with the problem of how to get from Ulaanbatar at the end of my Mongolian leg back to Europe. The options were pretty limited:
  • a flight via Moscow, not very appealing especially if it involved Aeroflot
  • a flight via Istanbul, very appealing but only if my final destination was to be London
  • several options via Beijing,not ideal since I would fly the first leg in the wrong direction

However, when looking at the Beijing alternative I discovered that a 72 hour visa free option to visit was introduced this year to encourage passengers transferring at Beijing Capital International Airport to visit the city. Beijing has never been on my list of places to visit but the possibility of visiting for a short period while transferring airlines looked like too good an opportunity to pass up. So, a flight via Beijing is what I decided to do.

I was a little apprehensive about being an early user of the scheme and things did not get off to a good start in Ulaanbatar. When I arrived at the airport to check in for the China Air leg into Beijing my not having a China visa caused my passport, e-tickets for the inbound and outbound flights and hotel booking to disappear for quite a while. After what what seemed likes ages but was in reality only about 20 minutes the documents all came back to the checkin desk and I was allowed to proceed.

In Beijing the procedure was painless, the queue for 72 hour visa free immigration was very short and I was through in a couple of minutes.

I needed to get some local currency but the rates at the airport were terrible plus they charged 60Yuan commission. With what now seemed like prescient foresight I was able to use some of the Yaun I had accepted as a shared taxi payment from someone who had spent all their Mongolian Tigrit.

25Yuan bought me a ticket on the airport express into town another 2Yuan a metro ticket.

From China, 2013
Once again I was having trouble finding my hotel and in desperation stopped at a small eatery -- Little Yunan -- to ask for some help. I was in luck, a couple of patrons looked at my hotel details and while one phoned the hotel for details the other looked it up on their phone. Sorted! I was only a couple of hundred metres away from it. The couple, Coco and Luke invited me to sit while they sorted this out for me and then invited my to have a beer with them which I gracefully accepted. We talked, drank beer, they shared a huge bowl of spicy crayfish, more beer more talk. Three hours later I left for my hotel and they wouldn't let me buy a single drink. If Beijing ever needs any goodwill ambassadors, try Coco and Luke!

My stopover allowed me two days in Beijing. On the first day I started off easy with a leisurely breakfast in my hotel, a wide selection of Chinese food with the addition of fried eggs and a mystery meat. A visit to the bank introduced me to a bureaucratic paper system which eventually resulted in me having enough cash to last me for my visit.

My hotel, The Beijing Shatan Hotel, is very conveniently located less that 500m north of the Forbidden City so decide to strike while the iron is hot and set off for the Forbidden City. The North gate turns out to be the exit, while walking to the entrance at the south gate a thunderstorm breaks. I shelter for a while along the way and set off again when the rain abates. However, the rain soon restarts and by the time it get to the south entrance it is chucking it down again and there are thousands, and thousands of umbrellas with people attached waiting to enter.

I do not like crowds, and I'm not too fond of rain either, so decided to give a visit to the Forbidden City a miss and return at opening the following day.

On the south side of the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square, a vast area surrounded on all four sides by grand buildings. It too is packed with umbrellas! I give in and slowly wend my way back through The Exquisite Park, a long narrow park that runs runs north /south and which just happens to pass Little Yunan where I stop for a late lunch and a beer.

From China, 2013
My next outing is in better weather and I head for Jingshan Park which is on the north side of the Forbidden City. This is an atractive park in its own right but the hill also affords great views of the Forbidden City to the south as well as views to the north. This time I walk around with a New Zealand couple who are only in town for 24 hours and we get an unobstructed view of the south gate entrance 'cos it is closed.

The crowds have got to me and I spend the rest of my time mooching around quieter areas, eating and drink at small establishments and finally getting my shaggy mop of hair cut before meeting Lyyn in two days time.

The exit procedure at Beijing Capital International Airport is as simple as the entry procedure.


Okay, so this is a pretty brief review of a major world capital city, but it is brief because I cannot say I liked the city very much. I'm glad that I only devoted 2 days of my life to visiting it. The highlight of the visit was meeting Coco and Luke.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Asian Russia

From Trans-Russia 2013

Ekaterinburg


After a journey of a little over 25 hours my train (TR #60) and I arrive in Ekaterinburg (Екатеринбу́рг).

The journey from Moscow was uneventful but I was surprised that we seemed to gain little elevation during the whole trip even though we had crossed the Ural mountains to arrive here at Ekaterinburg, the capital of the Urals region. It seems that the southern section of the Ural mountains are quite low.

Konstantin, the proprietor of the KGB-Hostel I would be staying at while in Ekaterinburg was waiting to meet me at the station. He asked if it would be ok if we took a diversion so that he could get an injection for Japanese encephalitis as he had had an encounter with a tick while walking in the forest earlier in the day. It turns out that there is a significant risk of Japanese encephalitis and Lyme disease in the forests around here. (Note to self!)

The hostel is well situated and once inside the rooms are excellent.

Ekaterinburg has an interesting history and is very different from both St Petersburg and Moscow. It was founded in 1723 and became known for the exile of the Tsar along with his family and their subsequent execution. It also gained prominence during World War II when many facilities were relocated from western Russia.

From Trans-Russia
I was only planning to be in Ekaterinburg for a few days and decided not go anywhere that I could not walk to. To orient myself to the city I decided to walk the «Red Line», a 5.5 kms circular walking route around the center of Ekaterinburg. The «Red Line» is literally a red line drawn directly on the footpath surface. Once you are on it, it is hard to lose your way, except in a few places! The accompanying map identifies 35 architecture sights, historical places and unusual monuments.

One of the sights is "The Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land" which stands on the site of the Ipatiev House, where the the last Tsar and his family were executed. The main Russian Orthodox Church was consecrated in June 2003, 85 years after the executions took place. The church was built to commemorate the Romanov sainthood.

From Trans-Russia 

The Military Museum has examples of  military hardware produced in the local factories, in front are Katyusha rocket launchers, tanks and an SA 2 (С-75). Presumably the closed city of Ekaterinburg with its factories and military bases was part of what U2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers was spying on when he was shot down nearby by a locally produced surface-to-air SA 2.

Afganistan War Memorial...     From Trans-Russia

With the ever present reminders of "The Great Patriotic War" it easy to forget that the Soviet Union was involved in other conflicts. There was a large memorial dedicated to another was which did not end well, i.e. the Afganistan War. There were lots of people visiting and a lots of fresh flowers while I was there.

The longest of my train journeys...


This leg of the journey included 3 nights on the train (TR #340). I am getting used to the routine now and settle into my upper bunk in a 4-berth sleeper. My three fellow travelers are all Russian, one elderly lady and a young couple. The train leaves at its scheduled departure time of 22:20 (local time) and as soon as we are underway it is time for a celebration. It took me a while to figure out what was going on given the language barrier but it seems that today was the young lady's birthday and her husband had brought along food and drink to celebrate. We ate snacks and drank Russian Cognac (not vodka!). I slept well.

In the morning we were continuing to get to know each other when the carriage provodnitsa arrives with breakfast for my three companions. There is lots of spirited discussion and off she goes. After a while she returns and hands me a breakfast. This was a surprise to me, I hadn't booked or paid for a breakfast with my ticket but my fellow travelers didn't let that stop them! The same pantomime played out each morning.

With about 80 hours to pass we slowly get to know something about each other and to enjoy the company. By the time we arrive in Irkutsk I am sad to leave them as they continue to Vladivostok.

Irkutsk


Today Irkutsk (Иркутск) is a large industrial city though it is still one of the largest suppliers of furs to the world markets. The size of the modern city wasn't really apparent to me since I was staying in the historical center of Irkutsk and only visiting places I could walk to (with one significant exception).
I was staying in a private home near Rossiyskaya ulitsa. My host was a lovely lady who spoke German and a little French, both which I can get by in. Every day she prepared a huge breakfast and we spent an hour or so chatting and all the time teaching each other some Russian and English.

contemporary wooden building...     From Trans-Russia
I spent a couple of days wandering aimlessly soaking up the atmosphere of this strange place, I may have been in Siberia since crossing the Urals several days ago but Irkutsk is a very long way from anywhere and unlike anywhere I have been before. The infrastructure has to deal with seasonal variation in weather that is enormous. Irkutsk may be towards the southern edge of the Taiga</> but there are still countless trees in the millions of square kilometers of forest. Buildings were traditionally built of timber and there are still lots of traditional wooden buildings as well as more recent grand buildings in the Soviet style. There are even contemporary wooden buildings inspired by tradition!

One of the reasons I wanted to stop at Irkutsk was to visit
Lake Baikal. Even before I arrived in Irkutsk I had come to the realisation that I had not allocated sufficient time to do the job properly. Like everything in Siberia the lake has some impressive statistics associated with it. It is the world's deepest lake, the largest freshwater lake by volume, the world's oldest lake, and the seventh-largest lake in the world by surface area.

It is about 75km to Listvyanka on the west bank of Lake Baikal so I board a Marshrutka (minibus) that takes me all the way. I spent a few hours walking by the lake from Listvyanka which was all I could manage with the totally inadequate amount of time available to me. While at Lake Baikal is saw something I had not seen anywhere else in Russia, namely, CCCP emblazoned on a small speed boat.

The return journal should have been simply a matter of reversing the journey. After getting on the bus successfully we returned to Irkutsk... BUT, I realised that we were not going back to the bus station I had left from! I jumped off as soon as I realised the situation and figured a way back to my accommodation.

Friday, 28 June 2013

European Russia: Part 2

Taking just a little more than 7 hours, my train journey from St Petersburg is a short, comfortable and uneventful journey, the only downside being that I arrive at Moscow Oktiabrskaia station at 05:15. Someone was waiting for me at the station and took me to my hotel. Along the way we passed a dramatic sight which I missed the opportunity to photograph. The sun was just rising, the sky was red and Monument to the Conquerors of Space looked spectacular.

No hotel problems in Moscow, I stayed at the very pleasant Hotel Zarya north of central Moscow but just a few stops away on the Metro. I was able to grab a couple of hours sleep before breakfast giving me a full day to start exploring Moscow.

The nearest metro station was Vladykino (Владыкино). I bought tickets for 5 rides for only 150RUB, and one ticket takes you anywhere on the Moscow metro, one price, no zones, the best value item in Moscow. I take a simple journey with no changes to Borovitskaya (Боровицкая) which I later discovered is geographically located in the very centre of Moscow. As you emerge from the station on to Mokhovaya Street the towers of the Kremlin (Моско́вский Кремль) are impossible to miss as you look east.

From Trans-Russia 2013
Although the Kremlin is just a short walk east of the station I decide to head south for a bit to see if I find anything interesting in the knowledge that I can always return to the Kremlin. I hadn't walked far when the golden dome of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (Храм Христа Спасителя) came into view. I spent some time walking around the grounds of this spectacular church before taking the footbridge across the Moskva River (река Москва) to an island -- Balchug -- …

After wandering most of the day the sky became increasingly threatening so I decided to make my way towards the public entrance to the Kremlin. The queue to enter suggested that there were likely to be was more people inside than I wanted to deal with, and I do hate queueing. So I continued walking through the Alexander Gardens to Manezhnaya Square and then into Red Square (Красная площадь). While Red Square is a large space, it is not as big as I had expected based on all the footage I had viewed over the years. While in the square there was a cloud burst and a torrential downpour, the first real rain I'd seen in my weeks of travelling.

GUM, from Trans-Russia 2013
I took the rain as a cue to visit GUM (ГУМ) and sit out the storm with a coffee. Like all the places I'd seen in central Moscow, GUM was pretty amazing, and seemingly a world away from images formed during the Soviet era!

My second day started out much like the first, this time I was planning to visit some of the metro stations with a view to their architecture rather than location. The first station I visited was Arbatskaya since it was one of the stations that intersected  9  from Vladykino. I visited several other stations including Oktyabrskaya and Mendeleevskaya.

From Trans-Russia 2013
I managed to spend some time in Gorky Park (Moscow) and nearby Fallen Monument Park. Unfortunately there was extensive landscaping work taking place in Fallen Monument Park so many of the iconic statues were not to be seen, still worth a visit though.

I continued my Drunkard's Walk and as the sun was setting I found myself in the Tverskoy District, north of central Moscow. Time to get the metro back to my hotel.

Two days is certainly not long enough to see any significant fraction of what Moscow has to offer. That said, I did enjoy my time here and would certainly recommend Moscow as a city to visit. Much more interesting than one-dimensional Leningrad!

TR #60 from Trans-Russia 2013
I did experience one wrinkle in my travel arrangements while in Moscow. When I booked my train I was scheduled to leave Moscow from Yaroslavsky station, the western terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. When I collected my tickets it turned out that I would actually be leaving on TR #60 from Kazansky station (Казанский вокзал‎)! I faffed about a bit at Kazansky trying to find the platform but no great problem.