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 05:30 (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.

Monday, 24 June 2013

European Russia: Part 1

I was woken from a deep sleep by an officious, uniformed woman. I'm not always quick at becoming alert in the morning but on this occasion I instantly realised that this was a Russian border official and that she was holding my passport in her hand. Good news, all is ok and I can proceed on my train journey into Russia. It is a little after 04:00 and the border process with Latvia had only taken 4 hours.

After a couple more hours on the train I arrived at Vitebskii station in St Petersburg. I'm collected at the station by a driver and taken to the Apple Hostel where I'm told that I cannot get my room until 13:00 but that I'm welcome to take a shower while I wait. I get talking to an Australian woman who's been here a couple of days and accompany her on an errand to the Mariinsky Theatre to orient myself a little in the city.

When I return I'm told that they actually do not have a room for me and that they've booked me a room in the Retro Hostel and handed over 3600RUB refund. I  am  not  happy! I'd pre-booked a walking tour of the city with the same people who booked me the room here and I was due to meet them here at 14:00 so waited. When the guide came she was appalled at what had happened and spoke for a long time with the hostel to no avail. She then spoke to her boss to book me a room elsewhere and in the meantime walked with me to the Retro Hostel where I dumped my bag before taking the tour. By the end of the tour they had not succeeded in finding me another room that night but did get me a nice one for the night after.

The Retro was good value for money at only 500RUB but by 03:00 there were 12 people in the 10 person dorm. I was not sad to leave.

From Trans-Russia 2013
I included St Petersburg in this trip since we'd considered it as a honeymoon location, but went elsewhere, and in all the years since had never got around to visiting. Some people I know who have visited speak well of the city so I decided it would just be a small extension to my trip. At first the city lived up to my expectations. Since the city was planned to be a European style city much of the architecture was familiar, the only real exception being The Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, built very much in a Russian Style. I've been told that the church is unpopular with some local people for this very reason.

By the end of my time in St Petersburg I had come to dislike this planned, European style. While whole streets of the building look very grand, Nevsky Prospect being the prime example, behind the façade there is often a run down tatty reality. All three places I visited for accommodation fell into this category. Once through the façade there were worn, crumbling dark staircases leading to individual residences that could be delightful behind yet more steel doors. The planned uniformity also gives the city a one dimensional feeling, most cities are an interesting blend of architectural styles, not so with St Petersburg.

Hermitage
HermitageFrom Trans-Russia 2013
This is not to say that St Petersburg is not worth visiting or that there are no attractive features. I took the opportunity to visit the Hermitage Museum and while for me it didn't meet my admittedly high expectations it was indeed an impressive museum. Unfortunately, the one section closed off for renovation included the one and only piece that I specifically wanted to see!

It was a lively time in St Petersburg with University Graduations taking place, part of the reason finding a room was difficult, and public concerts celebrating the longest day.

St Petersburg is built on a number of islands in the delta of the River Neva which should have warned my about the likelihood of insects. On my last night in the city it was hot and humid and my bedroom window was open… and in the morning I was covered in hundreds of mosquito bites!

I leave from the St Petersburg Moskovsky railway station headed for Moscow on the night train Tr #29

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Home to Russia: Part 5 and retrospective

The last leg in this journey is by far the shortest but the end point is also where I am most likely to encounter a serious problem, i.e. a problem with my Russian Visa.

I'm getting ahead of myself, so back to Riga where I am scheduled to catch train 038P. So that I am not surprised by anything on the day I pop into the station the day before to see what would happen. I enter the station and then walk down the tunnel that leads to all the platforms. Platforms and tracks here are synonymous (unlike Poland) and come in pairs 1;2, 3;4, 5;6, 7;8. ... the end, where is platform 11? I go back to the station and eventually find that platforms 10;11;12 are reached from platform 1, obvious?

This kind of wrinkle is why I recce'd the day before. The train was at the platform half an hour before departure allowing plenty of time to go through the checks at the carriage and board. Looking good.

From Trans-Europe 2013
On the day I head straight to the platform and down to carriage 13 to board, I've an electronic ticket so no paper just my ID (passport). No luck, my ID is not on the list. To be on the safe side I'd printed Russian and English versions of the ticket but still no joy, if your name is not on the list you do not get on. Tension is rising...

I call my agent in London who booked the tickets and they confirm that there is indeed an electronic ticket and I hand over the Russian speaking agent to the ticket clerk, still no joy. I'm not on their list so I do not get on. Time passes, tension continues to rise...

I'm told I need to go to a ticket desk and get a paper ticket, so off I rush. When I get to the counter I'm fortunate to find three Russians in the same state that I am and the counter staff do something and tell us all to go. 5 minutes to get back to train, running up steps and along to platform with 20kg rucksack warms me up a little. When I get back to carriage 13 I wait 2 minutes and a new list appears and I'm on it! I climb aboard find my bed and before I can sit down we're off. That was close.

One of my fellow travelers in the compartment was one of those like me not on the list. His name was Alex and he speaks English. The other occupant of the compartment was a Russian that didn't speak English.

We have six hours travel ahead before we reach Karsava and the border, we should arrive a little after midnight. The shaky start to our trip gives plenty of reason to engage in conversation. Alex works for a Russian telecoms company and has traveled extensively in Europe and North America as well as to Ukraine and Belarus. As student he worked in the UK on a farm for several months. Our fellow traveler was a retired member of the Russian Navy. While he now lives near the Latvian border he served in the Arctic and out of Vladivostok. The rain had internet connectivity and we did some sharing of photos of places we had each visited. Alex had lots of photos of his time in UK and still keeps in touch with the farmer he worked for. They were keen to see my photos of Central Asia and Iran, places they knew little of.

Conversation could sometimes be slow with Alex acting as interpreter but it was a pleasant evening and the time went quickly. We arrived at the Latvian border and formalities for me were quick and painless, they were little more onerous for the Russians. We then traveled through no mans land for several minutes before arriving at the Russian border post. Things were not so simple here, procedures took another 3 hours before reaching their conclusion...


Retrospective


When planning this journey I only had one fixed point, the start. I had a choice of endpoints, St Petersburg or Moscow and eventually came to the decision that if I was going to visit Russia I might as well visit St Petersburg as I'm unlikely to do it at a later date. With fixed start and end points I could start on a route. The route as far as Warsaw was straightforward but then there were choices to be made. There were three "countries" to consider along the way that I have never visited, Lithuania, Latvia and the Russian enclave of Kalingrad. Train travel in this area is not straightforward and the added complication of needing a double entry Russian visa I decided on a route from Warsaw via Vilnius (Lithuania) and Riga (Latvia) to St Petersburg. In retrospect I think it would skip Vilnius and go for Kalingrad.

The journey east was a journey from the familiar to the increasingly unfamiliar. From Cologne onward the terrain changed very little, mostly flat with occasional undulating areas either cultivated with cereal crops of covered in forest. The trains themselves and the track that they run on seemed more like a journey back in time starting with the Eurostar and ICE trains that run at up to 300kph, through slower electric trains that might manage 200kph and finally tired old beasts that rarely exceeded 100kph and averaged much less.

The languages, unsurprisingly, changed from French which I can speak reasonably to German which I can also get by with through to the eastern European languages which I do not speak but at least use the Latin writing system. It will get harder as I continue my journey and have to contend with Russian and the change to the Cyrillic script.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Home to Russia: Part 4

This leg is about travelling from Vilnius (Lithuania) to Riga (Latvia). Unfortunately the railway system is not very helpful when it comes to travel between these two capital cities. I did find a route via Daugavpils that would take about 13 hours and require an overnight stay in Daugavpils! And to add insult to injury my onward train from Riga to St Petersburg goes via Daugavpils.

From Trans-Europe 2013
The bus looks a much better option. I book a seat on Lux Express and once again cannot resist the small delta for a first class ticket. Spacious, relaxing, toilet, coffee, snacks, WiFi... whats not to like. An the scheduled journey time is only 4½ hours for the roughly 300km trip. We arrive 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

A wise choice if I say so myself!


72 hours in Riga


The longest stay of the trip so far. I'm staying at Hotel Irina which is right opposite the Riga Central Station and a few minutes walk from all the main tourist attractions. I quickly find that I like this city, while it has obvious tourist attractions they are set amid an interesting lively city that is full of local people going about their business and enjoying the open spaces. The Old Town of Riga may be a World Heritage Site but it isn't a tourist ghetto.

Like many cities in Europe there are a lot of historic places of worship from many denominations. Riga is no exception, in the Old Town alone there must be a dozen or more half a dozen of which are particularly dramatic.

The Old Town isn't just building and squares, there is a lot of green space, perhaps a mile long with Riga City Canal flowing through the various parks. Very relaxing and well maintained.

From Trans-Europe 2013
You do not have to venture far to see a less manicured, but none the less interesting, view of Riga. Just venture south of the railway tracks...     here you can see the unloved Soviet era building, the Latvian Academy of Sciences (Latvijas Zinātņu Akadēmija), reminiscent of the similarly unloved Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki) in Warsaw.

On the other hand there is the vast, bustling Central Market (Centrāltirgus), a mixture of outside stalls and 5 huge buildings built from reclaimed zeppelin hangars.

The largest of these is solely a meat market! That is not to say that there isn't meat being sold in the other hangers, there is, but this one is HUGE!

I managed a second breakfast in one of the halls (sounds like something a hobbit might say), a coffee and a swet something or other cost the princely sum of 0.45Lat (~50p). A small fraction of what you need to pay north of the railway tracks.

Across the Daugava river more signs of modernity are clear to see with the slender Radio and TV Tower looking slightly south and the dramatic National Library just across the river from the Railway Station.

Trans-Europe 2013

Monday, 17 June 2013

Home to Russia: Part 3

Today is another long travel day, planned duration of travel: 9:56 , Changes 2.

The first train of the day (TLK10011) is scheduled to leave Warszawa Centralna at 07:22. I arrive at the station by 07:00 to allow plenty of time to find my platform. The board shows an on time departure from Platform 2 so down I go. Platform 2 (and all the other platforms) have two tracks, which one will be mine? The overhead signs show the train details just before arrival and all the trains have their number on the front a side of each carriage, so no sweat.

Like all my continental trains so far a seat reservation is required, no standing. It is another Inter City (IC) train with carriages similar but just a little shabbier than the one into Warsaw. I share a first class compartment with two others. Yes, first class again, it was only an extra 10€.

We have to cover ~300km on the first leg to Šeštokai which is just over the border into Lithuania. We have to change trains here because of a break-of-gauge, i.e. where the Polish Standard gauge (1435mm) meets the Russian gauge (1520mm).

When the ticket inspector arrives I get some news that there is a change of plan. My timetable from Deutsche Bahn fails to mention that the trains stops at Trakiszki and that we have to take a bus to Šeštokai. At this point there are now only two of us in the compartment and luckily my fellow traveler speaks some English and warns me of what will happen.

This hiccup has a silver lining as it provides an excuse to engage in conversation. It turns out that he a young engineer from Minsk, Belarus, who had been working for a couple of weeks in Warsaw. We talk a little about the mutual difficulties of him as a Belarusian getting visas and the problems for me getting a Belarusian visa. We then have hours to chat about Life, the Universe and Everything else.

Since he was a native Russian speaker I took the opportunity to brush up on pronunciation of my limited vocabulary. He did at least understand every word I said, and I do mean words not sentences :-).

The bus transfer goes well and takes significantly less time than is scheduled for the train journey. We have only managed an average speed of about 50kph.

From Trans-Europe 2013
From here on the trains have a single class of service. The carriage is occupied by several local youths who are playing very loud music that is not to my taste. Luckily this leg of the journey to Kaunas is only about 1½ hours and we even go a little faster, perhaps as much as 60kph!

The final connection time at Kaunas is very short but we make it easily. What a contrast, a nice comfortable, modern double deck train that gets us to Vilnius in 1¼ hours at about 80kph!

I say goodbye to my fellow traveler who is going to spend some time in town before he catching his night train to Minsk and then I walk the short distance to Florens Boutique where I'll be staying for my visit.


A weekend in Vilnius


It is time to slow the pace a little, I have never been to Vilnius before so I plan to spend the weekend here. I'm up early again, there is another hours time difference from Warsaw and walk the short distance to the Gate of Dawn (Aušros Vartai), the only gate remaining of the original nine city gates, and through into the Old Town (Vilniaus senamiestis).

From Trans-Europe 2013
I'm told that there is an interesting bar Apuokas on Subaciaus which is the first turn through the gate. I'm not desperate for a drink but figure it might be easier to find in daylight. As it turns out I didn't find it but the road led my up to The Bastion which provides a good view over Vilnius.

Now that I have left the main route into the Old Town I continue down the hill to look at one of the many churches in Old Town. Saint Ann's Church and Bernadine Monastery is one of the places you are supposed to visit and here I was, the church and the monastery are in two completely different styles. It was pretty lively as there seemed to be a queue of weddings lined up to take place. I had to come back at a later time to get some photos that weren't full of people.

From Trans-Europe 2013
I meandered my way back into the more mainstream areas and eventually decided I needed a coffee. I tried a Coffee Inn, it is a local chain that I rather liked. Reasonable prices, stay as long as you want, free and fast WiFi.

I spent the remains of the days wandering around the Old Town, there really are a lot of churches of different denominations and styles.

In the evening I looked again for Apuokas, it was easy to find when it is open! I managed to get a draft beer of some description which tasted fine. There were no beers in the bar and no list of them and the bar maid was a rather formidable lady who spoke no English ( I speak no Lithuania) but we sorted something out. When I sat down to drink my beer in peace and watch some locals playing darts I saw a menu, pity she hadn't told me there was one. I discovered what beer I had actually bought and ordered a bar snack. I was a really good bar snack, yellow split peas with heavily smoked ham lardons, served hot. I cannot recall ever eating a better beer snack.

From Trans-Europe 2013
I'm up early again on Sunday and decide to visit a different area. I walk straight to the Cathedral and then to climb to Gediminas Castle. It is another good vantage point and provides views back over the Old Town as well as views across the Neris river to the new town. Being early on a Sunday morning there were not many people about but the funicular was already open and there were more people than I like to be around early in the morning.

Actually I'd had enough of touristville for a bit and headed across the river to mooch around the new town. There weren't many people around and after passing some old, neglected buildings I ended up in sparkling, shiny, new, downtown Vilnius. Quite a contrast. I enjoyed a peaceful lunch before heading back to the mêlée I was anticipating in Old Town.

Photos of trip across Europe
I finished all the main sights, visited a different bar, not as good as Apuokas, and called it a day.

I'm booked to leave at lunch time on Monday, the town is much less frenetic than at the weekend. Note to self: avoid weekends! Two days was plenty for Vilnius.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Home to Russia: Part 2

Once again the day started well, an early breakfast in the hotel set me up and then I take the short walk to the station. I've plenty of time so take a final walk around the Dom and then take my seat on the train. Today's journey is scheduled to be 10 hours with a change in Berlin. When I booked I was given the option of a first class ticket for an additional 10€, which sounded like a good deal, and took it.

From Trans-Europe 2013
First class on an ICE is significantly more comfortable and spacious than 2nd so very happy to have paid the premium. When the ticket inspector looks at my ticket I get some bad news, the ticket is good, but the train will be late getting to Berlin and I'll miss my connection.

I realised when we approached a stop at Bielefeld that this must be the same train that I took all those years ago when as a schoolboy I took the train from Cologne to Bielefeld. Seems that I am retracing some of my steps.

We are on only a few minutes late when we arrive in Hanover and I'm optimistic that they will make up the delay but this hope is dashed. It seems that floods that have been impacting Central Europe are to blame and we travel slowly through some areas of extensive flooding.

From Trans-Europe 2013
We eventually arrive in Berlin Ostbahnhof just over an hour late and my first task is to rebook onto a later train, I'm in luck there are two more today but the earlier one, with a change at Poznań, doesn't get in till almost 10:00pm and the later non-stop doesn't get in until almost midnight.

In the end I opt for the early train with a change, not necessarily a wise choice given my recent experience changing trains, but the ticket lady gives me two tickets so that if I miss the connection I can just get on the later one. I am optimistic that the belt and braces approach will work out.

From Trans-Europe 2013
The train is an Inter City (IC), note the lack of Express in the description, it is not as quick or comfortable as the ICE but not too shabby either.

As we head east from Berlin the train is still travelling through gently undulating terrain but we also travel through extensive forests as well as the familiar farmland of predominantly cereal crops. We pass through more areas of flooding between Berlin and Poznań but it doesn't slow us up and we arrive on time and I manage to make the connection in the 5 minutes available.

As the day wears on each train is slower and less comfortable than the one before. Our destination is Warsaw (Warszawa) which is a long way in the Central European Time Zone and as such sunset is going to be pretty early and I'll be arriving in the dark. While I have learned from my casual arrival experience in Cologne I am always wary of walking around cities I do not know in the dark. Perhaps I'll take a taxi.

We arrive as scheduled and I decide that the station area is light and lots of people are about so I'll walk to my accommodation for the night. I find it quickly and easily. I'm pretty tired and fancy a beer before bed but cannot find anywhere that will accept something other than złoty. Fair enough, but worth a try!


A day in Warsaw

As with Cologne I allowed myself one day in Warsaw. I have also visited this city briefly once before in the winter of 2004 with one of my daughters.

First task was to find a kantor and change some money. Excellent rates of exchange, British Currency Exchanges are a ripoff.
Advice to travelers from Britain: bring Sterling and change it in Poland, you get lots more złoty for your pound.
When last here we only visited the Old Town (Stare Miasto) so I though I would head that way again.

Royal Castle, WarsawFrom Trans-Europe 2013

The whole place was rebuilt after World War II and even when I visited almost 10 years ago I thought it had a bit of a Disney feel to it. In mid-winter it felt a bit Disney, in high summer it seemed even more so! There were enormous crowds, countless tour groups of many nationalities as well as a large number of school groups.

From Trans-Europe 2013
I wandered the sights for a few hours and decided it was time to move on. I did a bit of random rambling before deciding it was time for evening refreshment. I'd seen enough tourist restaurants offering food from around the world or authentic, traditional Polish fare and wanted somewhere away from it all. I found a little hole in the wall place and since I couldn't understand the men, or share a common language with the lady taking orders, I chose what the person ahead of me ordered. It turned out to be veggie, but tasted fine, what else could I possibly want? Hmmm, a beer.

Photos of trip across Europe
Next task was to find a bar, found one nearby that had a sign with one word I understood piwo (beer) and another promocja which I thought might be promotion, and a price of 7złoty. No English, French, Spanish, German speakers so no conversation. Just a couple of nice beers.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Home to Russia: Part 1

Day one of what is only the first part of a longer trip starts well but ends a bit on the flaky side.

All starts well when my daughter picks me to take me to Stratford upon Avon to catch the first of many trains. We share a coffee at the station and then I'm really off. I've done quite a bit of research putting this trip together but I try not too over prepare.

When I get to Marylebone Station I have to take the tube to St Pancras Station... there is no tube station called St Pancras! Where the hell is it? I can not remember now how I determined that it is next to Kings Cross station but with that information in hand the journey is simple. The upgraded St Pancras International Station is certainly an impressive blend of the old and the new.

From Trans-Europe 2013
Boarding reminds me of Japan with all the car numbers marked on the platform and my Eurostar train (EST 9140) leaves right on time! A comfortable, uneventful journey. The emergence from the channel tunnel announces that we are passing through northern France though the subtly different landscape and steeply sloped roofs of some farm buildings are another clue that we've left England.

The architecture of Lille Station is truly spectacular, this is not in Englad! We arrive at Bruxelles-Midi Eurostar terminal on time and 20 minutes is plenty to change platform to catch the next train to Köln. This time it is a comfortable ICE train but after about an hour a we come to a stop. We are eventually informed that there is something on the track, what we aren't told, and we are delayed for about 45 minutes. good news: I don't have to make a connection. The efficient Deutsche Bahn do have updated connection info for those that are making connections!

We arrive in Köln (Cologne) late, which contributes to my second example of not "over-preparing". I leave the station and head off in a roughly northwest direction towards my hotel only half a kilometer from the station. Cannot seem to find it, haven't got a map, spiral around figuring it's got be here somewhere. Ask a couple of folks and they've never heard of Ursula Platz. I figure that I must have messed up and start working my way back in the direction of the station when I find someone who does know where Ursula Platz is.

Boy have I screwed up! It is on the other side of the station, I have actually walked south east from the station, 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Back to the station, leave from the other side and I'm at my hotel in less than 10 minutes.

If we'd arrived on time, i.e. before sunset, I probably would not have made this stupid mistake. Still, never hurts to get a warning to be more careful.



A day in Cologne


From Trans-Europe 2013
I am not in a desperate hurry to get to Russia otherwise I would have flown. I allowed myself just the one day in Cologne for a look around.

I spent most of the day in the Altstadt (Old Town) though I did venture across the Rhine for a while. As a teenager I had passed through Cologne and changed trains at the Central Station, I vaguely recall seeing the famous Cathedral and now know that those recollections are valid, Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) towers above the station.

Nothing other than the churches of the Old Town caused me to get out my camera but I did enjoy tramping the streets and frequenting various cafes and bars.

I really enjoy a good English ale, there are many of them but there are also some poor beers on offer in some establishments. In Germany I have never has a poor beer, lager is different in style but when you get a good one it is really good. Needless to say I did try a couple in the time I spent here.

36 hours after arriving it is time to move on again...

Friday, 22 February 2013

"Conflicted" about Siemens

I occasionally post an entry when I experience good|bad customer service. Today I find myself about Siemens. Last year I had need of a spare part for our gas hob (EC745RC90E/01), it was a very small part, one of the four feet on the centre grid. I successfully found the spare parts page where an exploded parts diagram was displayed.

The middle grid was included but not the small feet. I figured that this must be a mistake and phoned. I was disappointed to be told that I could not buy just the feet but that I could buy a complete replacement grid for £83.66. I questioned their seriousness and eventually declined their generous offer. Exit one unhappy customer with no intention of ever buying another Siemens product.

Fast forward to the present and we suffered a problem with our Neff microwave. The engineer came out, identified the problem, ordered parts, arranged to come back and fix them, did so and all was hunky dory. I was very happy with the engineer and the service provided by Neff. While talking to the engineer I contrasted how well this problem had been handled with my experience with Siemens. It turns out that Neff, Siemens and Bosch among others are all members of BSH Group and the engineer services all of these brands. He looked up the details of the Gas Hob and found the same thing that I had but he was able too look a little deeper and found part number 616281, which is a set of RUBBER FOOT PAN SUPPORTS (with 4 units), price: £1.03! I ordered a set, they arrived in the post a couple of days later, they fit, I'm a happy camper.

So where does that leave me … Conflicted!

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Alphabet

αβ

Yesterday I was reading about the origins of various writing systems and when it got around to describing an alphabet some kind of background processing started in my head. In brief, an alphabet is a set of letters used in a language (or more than one language). It had never occurred to me before but, just before it was explained in the text, I realised that the word was likely formed by the concatenation of two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha (α) and beta (β).

This was not very surprising but odd that it had never occurred to me before. The definition of alphabet as a set of letters could reasonably interpreted as simply a collection of similar items in the same manner that we talk about a set of chairs or teeth. In this sense set does not imply any order.

The dictionary definitions and the one linked to at Wikipedia omit mention of sequence. Many (all?) alphabets, definitely the English alphabet, also define an order and the related word alphabetical. With the additional notion of order perhaps it is significant that the word alphabet is formed by the concatenation of the first and second letters of the Greek alphabet. I have found no confirmation of this thought anywhere!

Monday, 28 January 2013

Prometheus

A couple of weeks ago I downloaded a copy of "To Set Prometheus Free" (by A.C. Grayling) to my Kindle. I eventually got around to reading it while on a train journey last Saturday. I found the book interesting and it has made me consider my own position after the chapter about Bertrand Russell and his self-description as an 'agnostic'.

Despite the previous paragraph this post is not about Religion, Reason or Humanity but about coincidence. This morning I was sitting in Hillers Café enjoying a peaceful cup of coffee and started reading The Information (by James Gleick ). As I read the Prologue what should appear but a reference to Prometheus!

Prometheus Adam Louvre MR1745

Who was Prometheus and why was he referenced in two such different contexts? I knew that this sort of this just nags away at me, so I'd better find out. While driving home I start to wrack my memory about Greek mythology and gradually it dawns on me that I've been confusing Prometheus and Polyphemus. I now recall reading about Polyphemus while studying Latin at school.

So I've done a little research and realise that I was aware of one reference to Prometheus and that was in the subtitle of the famous book:

Frankenstein,
    or the Modern Prometheus
  by  Mary Shelley

This alludes to the myth that tells how Prometheus makes man from clay and water. He is also known for the theft of fire from the gods for human use and his subsequent punishment by Zeus.

And the second reference in The Information? This is due to Aeschylus who makes Prometheus say:

"Yes, and numbers, too, chiefest of sciences, I invented for them (mankind), and the combining of letters, creative mother of the Muses' arts, with which to hold all things in memory."

Well that coincidence gave me pause for thought and now I feel happier knowing the linkage as well as adding a little to my meagre knowledge of Greek mythology.

p.s. a couple of hours after posting the above I turn on the TV and start watching an episode of Dark Matters and join at the point that they are discussing Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley!

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Everyone makes mistakes!


Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.
— Albert Einstein

While I would have to agree with Albert, there are instances of mistakes that I find particularly irritating. While out for a walk in the Cotswolds yesterday I stopped for a while at a hut in Lidcombe Wood to enjoy a coffee on this bright but cold day.

From Walks
On the wall were a couple of boards displaying some information about the woods and the Stanway Estate. Both were interesting but the second one - LIDCOMBE WOOD - included one of those irritating mistakes. The mistake appeared in the first sentence:

Lidcombe Wood was, at the time of the Domesday Book (1086), only 3 furlongs long and 1 furlong wide, covering a triangle of about 40 acres immediately north-east of this hut.

An area of the stated dimensions could not possible contain an area of 40 acres! For those not familiar with the units, and perhaps this includes the author of the information board, a brief explanation should help.

A furlong is an imperial unit equal to one-eighth of a mile, or 220 yards.
An acre is an imperial unit equal to 1/640 of a square mile, or 4,840 square yards.

The reason for size of an acre goes back to the Middle Ages when the Anglo-Saxon acre was defines as one furlong by one-tenth of a furlong (i.e. 220 yards by 22 yards) which just happens to be 4,840 square yards. This was roughly the area that could be ploughed in one day by a yoke of oxen.



So with these facts at our disposal we can see that even a rectangle measuring 3 furlongs by 1 furlong would only encompass 30 acres and a true triangle with those measurements half of that.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

All rivers run down to the sea...

Recently, I was talking to someone when the conversation led them to state that "all rivers run down to the sea". This seems to be a widely held belief here in England and I suspect that it is something learnt at school, I certainly recall being taught this.

I took me some time to convince the individual that while it might be true in England (and I'm not even sure of this), and even that the majority of rivers flow to the sea, it is not the case that all rives flow down to the sea. One thing that they insisted on before abandoning this belief was an example, luckily I know of one.

It was while travelling in Kyrgyzstan that I saw a river for the first time that did not flow to the sea. The River Chuy is one of several in Kyrgyzstan that flows into Kazakhstan where it eventually disappears in the steppe.

Earlier today I was reading The Motion Paradox (by Joseph Mazur) which included a quote from King James Bible, Ecclesiastes 1:7
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
It seems likely to me that this is the source of the mistaken belief about where rivers end up!

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Back to Bredon Hill

From Seasons
I walk quite often with the Harvington Walking group and as luck would have it today's walk was around Bredon Hill, just two days since a New Year walk, also on Bredon Hill. However, this time our start point was on the other side of the hill. We had agreed with Beckford Silk that we could park in their cark park while we walked and that we would eat at Two Jay's Café at the end of the walk.


View Bredon Hill from Beckford 2013-01 in a larger map

We started walking at around 9:30 and at the point at which we should have left the road we were faced with a recently ploughed field that had been turned into a quagmire by the recent rain. This straight segment was only about a third of a mile so we just walked a little further along the road and covered two sides of a triangle rather than one to get to the same point. We had only walked about halfway up the hill when we stopped for coffee some seasonal remnants, i.e. some mince pies and/or stollen. We then continued up the hill to a derelict barn at Shalden Farm, the highest point (~225m) of this walk before heading back down in the direction of the village of Conderton.

Just north of Conderton we turned east back towards Beckford, the lower slopes that we were traversing became very wet, muddy and slippery though, unlike the walk two days earlier, no one fell. Along the route we called in at the Beckford Parish Church of St John the Baptist for a quick look see. I have rung the bells here on occasion so am reasonably familiar with the church but the early Norman architecture was of great interested to a couple of our party. From the church it was but a short walk along Ashton Road to our start point.

After getting out of dirty walking gear we visited Two Jay's Café for lunch. The lady working the café managed to take the order, prepare and serve the food and drinks, clear up and take payment all on her lonesome. It did take a while but we were not in a great hurry. The food was reasonably priced and good value for money. The ladies among us could resist the opportunity afforded by the silk works and shop.

The walk was only a little over 5½miles but with the wet conditions did slow us down.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

A New Year's walk

From Walks
In recent year's we've started the New Year with a walk to blow away the cobwebs. 2012 was, to put it mildly, wet. In England we experienced the wettest year on record. Our local weather station in Pershore recorded  841.09mm of precipitation in 2012 compared with the aveage value of 606.4mm based on the previous 30 years.

New Year's day was forecast to be dry and bright but the ground was saturated, the River Avon was back within its banks but, as seen from our photos, the River Severn had not yet peaked. With this in mind the route chosen was one that minimised the chance of ploughing our way through lots of mud.


Walking on hills rather that lowland seemed like the best way to avoid saturated/muddy ground so we settled on walking on Bredon Hill, a large neaby hill with lots of public footpaths over and around. Our start point was Bredon's Norton, a small village on the western slope of the hill. We parked near the church and then headed up the lane that leads to Woollas Hall. The next leg of the walk up through some ancient grassland to the ridge is much wetter and very slippery. We are not the only people out for a walk on this beautiful New Year's day and most head north for the tower, Parsons' Folly. We instead head south along The Warren with a pretty dry path before heading back down the hill through Aldwick Wood and Norton Park. The lower slopes were again very wet and slippery and one of our party lost her footing and got plastered with mud! Oh well, better to happen near the end of the walk. We looked in at Bredon's Norton, Chapel of Ease before returning to the car.

The walk was only about 4½miles but with the wet conditions it took just over 2hours. A nice refreshing start to 2013.
gps track as GPX