Please note this is a multi-page post recording a 14 day sea voyage. I was the only passenger on CC Coral, a container ship travelling between Taiwan and New Zealand, in November 2019. It was an alternative to flying. But was it any more sustainable?
First night at sea. Mr Wang, my driver, had been a shipping agent for 25 years. He couldn’t understand why this giant of a company, CMA CGM, wanted to take passengers. Why? Other freight companies did not bother.
Well, Monsieur Wang, I was glad they did for they offered exactly what I wanted; a no-fuss way to travel without flying. I also felt comfortable that CMA CGM wore their environmental aspirations on their website. Mr Wang swooped the car around the grand driveway of the Excalibur hotel, lined with a small city’s worth of sparkly blue and white lights, and parked. We were there to pick up the new ship’s reever-electrician. (Whatever a reever is – it’s super important – I’ll find out later.)
The contrast between the chaos, clamour and steamy sizzle of my hotel’s not-foyer in the heart of the Kaohsiung inner-city night-market and this hotel-castle could not have been more marked. Romanian electrician Gabriel had been working on passenger ships for 15 years. This was his first container ship. Mr Wang hazarded he’d be joining a crew of about twenty-two. The company paid for his hotel.
We visited a small Immigration building where Gabriel and I watched a particularly silly and violent boxing film while forms were filled in and checked. Mr Wang kept our passports and we drove to the port security guard. She carefully examined our documents, and then us, looking us over from top to toe before waving us through.
As we entered the port Agent Wang was unimpressed with what he thought excess security. Ever since 9/11 taxis and unauthorised vehicles couldn’t get to the gangways. It was only possible to get shore leave through agents. (Although I found this differed port by port.)
Mr Wang drove us through a city of stacked containers. (Do you remember series two of The Wire? The container port?) The darkened containers towered above us as far as the eye could see. The roadway was busy in all directions with trucks appearing laden with different coloured boxes like giant Lego pieces.
There was a sudden brake as he came to an intersection with a truck driver bearing down, his truck lights illuminating where we were to go; the reveal of CC Coral, the immense side of her, and the two long-legged, monumental, roll-on-roll-off cranes that fed her.
The immensity was stunning. The overhead lights blared spotlight-yellow and others, super white-bright, and these giants had moving mouth-parts, swinging on cables like titan marionettes. They bit on to a container, (or two side-by-side) whisked the boxes up into the air, and swung them over and into the body of the ship. Limit 55 tones.
Lines of trucks bearing their containers, like ants carrying block-eggs, queued for their moment under the mechanical grabber when their load would be lightened. Then they would exit, their place taken straight away by the next pregnant truck. Clearly a pre-programmed sorting system existed, the times of arrival for each truck prearranged, for the containers would be packed with the soonest to be taken off at the top of the heap and all those balanced to keep the ship in trim.
Mr Wang swung his car cautiously around the cranes, not keen about driving so close to them, but he had to get right up to the gangway. We parked and retrieved our baggage. The side of the ship was tall. Gabriel did not hesitate so I followed, just ploughed right on, up those stairs. I was also holding my bag of emergency vegan snacks so I didn’t have two hands. Next time, I would take two hands. The handrail was grubby and greasy. It was steep. Luckily, I had been resting in the hotel. I needed all my puff to get up there with the required nonchalance.
The Coral was 280 metres long. She was being loaded with up to 30,000 tons of cargo. Agent Wang said they made most revenue from the refrigerated containers. He followed me up the gangway.
Third Officer, Myo Han Oo, wearing hard hat and heavy-duty overalls, nodded us into the office. Agent Wang introduced us to Captain Alessandru and Chief Officer Tudorel. There was some jostling around paper-work – which I’d forgotten I had – but in the end I handed over medical certificate, statement of responsibility, immunisation card, passport; all those precious documents collected months before. The Captain kept everything, even my passport. He wasn’t going anywhere. Neither was I. ‘Thank you’ in Romanian was ‘multumesc’ which sounds like ‘multimesk’.
The obliging Messman (they called him Messy but his name was Win Myint Thein from Myanmar) came to carry my bag and we went up in a tiny little lift, checked the Officers Mess where I’d be taking meals, and found my cabin. Furnished in aqua, reminiscent of my Phoenix House digs in Brighton, the cabin featured a bed, desk, drawers, ensuite and a window looking out on a heap of containers. And a picture of a naked lady, maybe by Klimt?
Win showed me how I could go on the side deck outside but explained if I went up or down I’d need to wear the hardhat hanging on the wall. He reassured me I’d be safe enough just to stand and watch the loading. After he left I did a spot of unpacking, made myself at home, and went back out to my wing deck to watch the containers fly through the air like extremely ungainly, inflexible trapeze artists.
The brightly lit people in safety gear doing serious, dangerous work, waved containers onward and signalled successful docking. The spreader (or in my mind; grabber) could reconfigure to fit the size of container. If there were two smaller (twenty-footers) loading on from the same truck, the grabber expanded to pick both up at the same time. And, if a normal container (forty-footer), the mechanism extended to the full width of the crane.
There were people working up in the cranes. I didn’t spot them until one climbed down from somewhere, walked across the lower level to chat with someone else in a little cupboard perched midsection of the crane structure and then caught a lift to ground level before walking over to the closer crane. A goodly distance.
The stack of building that sat in the rear third of the Coral was seven floors tall and more spacious than I’d guessed when observing similar ships in other harbours (see Harwich, Rotterdam, Hamburg … ). Obviously the Bridge, or Master’s Station, was at the top. The Captain’s rooms and archiving were on floor F. Then there were people like me, the Only Passenger and the Chief Officer, Chief Engineer and the Second Engineer on E.
These men were all relatively senior, and I might add, from Romania. Most of the other officers were younger and from Myanmar. This was a dual nationality ship, reflected in the Officer’s Mess. There were two tables, one for Romania and one for Myanamar. And a little circular island off towards the kitchen representing UK, Australia and New Zealand with Passenger Number Only One. My floor also had a rec room for coffee, tea and videos (a rather odd collection of action/sci fi movies and Mama Mia.) And a mini-laundry.
Back in the cabin, I skimmed through the folder of safety documents. There was a lot of hazchem, fuel and gas on board. Any number of things might go wrong. Soya beans in their little containers could build up methane. I had an extinguisher right outside my cabin. There was a life-boat just below my eyeline, a life-raft somewhere else and an immersion suit …
I sincerely hoped I only saw those things in drills. Donning was not something I wished to explore.
Tao 36 said, TO CONCLUDE FIRST
INITIATE. I could not stay awake to watch us depart Kaohsiung at 4am but we
It was not dissimilar to my first night on the train from Moscow. Solitary. I cleaned my teeth using one of the large bottles of filtered water Win had supplied for me. The bed was clean and comfortable. I slept almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Day one at sea. I woke for breakfast at 7am. The first thing I noticed was the pitching of the ship. There was a hefty swell. We rocked and rolled, baby. Managed a normal breakfast. More bottled water.
When quizzed, the First Engineer, Alin, hadn’t heard a weather report. But he did tell me that a nautical mile equalled 1,852 metres and knots were the measurement of speed in nautical miles. He explained the Coral burnt heavy fuel oil which was expensive and dirty. She did not have scrubbers on her chimney stacks so emission levels were high. Whilst in port she burnt relatively clean diesel. Both types of fuel were fed into the engine via different channels. When one was required, the other was simply turned off. There was one engine to drive the propeller. The propeller was 5 metres wide. Three other engines created power to run electricity, air conditioning and the reevers. Still not sure about those reevers.
Went out for a widow’s walk outside my cabin and saw a rainbow fluttering beside the ship. It was formed; appearing, disappearing and reappearing in the same place, by the spray tossed up from the prow of the ship. The pot of gold was right there.
From October to November 2019 I travelled from England to New Zealand to join a family reunion in the South Island. This blog series details my thinking, decisions and then the stages of the actual journey. It took much more money, probably more emissions, and a lot more time than flying would have. I hope you enjoy looking at the pictures, perhaps even reading some of the account and researching your own train/ferry/ship experiences!
Ningbo had only just built a subway system. Very easy to use, clean and straight out of the train station, I soon found myself walking unfamiliar roads toward my hostel, thank you, maps.me. I’d chosen the hostel for its proximity to the Ningbo port. Now I no longer needed that connection it was far from Ningbo proper. Began to have misgivings as I walked in the busy highway to get around the construction zones. When finally broached, the hostel was better than many I’ve met (particularly on the Camino!) and had lovely pods in which to shut yourself away. The common-room was filled with young people intent on their devices, the boys mainly playing League of Legends on screens that varied from huge to tiny. Couldn’t see the kettle.
I need not worry about my onward travel. Real Russia had sorted my ticket to Fuzhou and it would leave from where I’d just come from. I’d collected both paper tickets at Beijing South Railway Station. So I could relax in the slightly grubby shower and prepare to find food.
Headed down to a newly constructed ‘old Chinese hutong’ full of the snack bars and trinket shops so evident in the popular Beijing hutongs. (I didn’t see any churros in Ningbo.) This was a strange place so I turned off and went down a lane to find myself in normal Chinese life. There were folk going about their business, working in shops selling pots and pans, front doors and fish in plastic tubs. There wasn’t much on offer. Particularly the fish stalls. When I remember the markets in my HK childhood there was such a wild range of sea food, flapping and bubbling away. This scarcity? A result of overfishing?
Nothing near reported on Happy Cow so I acted like my son, Felix. He had a nose for a good restaurant. I tried to sniff out vegan food from the lines of cafes on offer. I chose one seemingly run by women. Not only staff but three customers and two children came to offer opinions, examine Google Translate and point at pictures on the wall. I had no idea what I would get as the front of house person waved me to a seat. It was delicious. Steamed rice, soupy garlicky lettuce and a stirfry of garlic beans in soy sauce. Perfect.
Tao 23 said, within the way become the way; those who gain, welcome within the gain. Those who lose, welcome within loss. Without trust in this, there is no trust. Winners and losers both, may as well accept your lot!
I slept very well within my capsule. The ladder was so widely spaced when I climbed down I needed some good leg waving to seek the next step. Useful to exercise those little-used muscles. As I approached my capsule in the evening, a young American woman cried out, ‘Oh! Another foreigner!’ and we embarked on a conversation. I explained my itinerary and she insisted she would be only too happy to get on the road early to show me the way. Insisted. She was up, bright and early at 6:30, snapping on lights and rustling about. When I signed a gentle remonstration, she said, ‘Nonsense! They’ve come in all drunk and silly and disturbed me in the night, I’ve got every right to see what I’m packing in the morning. That’s just how they behave in hostels here!’ I hadn’t heard a peep out of anyone in our female-only dorm the night before and if that was indeed the way to behave in dormitories in China, then perhaps one might offer an example for future peaceful, quieter sleeping. I merely demonstrated by action, quietly turning off the lights and shutting the door when we’d left.
Turned out Sarah was an English teacher from North Carolina. She’d spent six years in Korea previously and I think she’d been in China four years already. She’d just signed on for a further two year contract. She was a bit sad to hear I’d missed out on the Ningbo sights, especially the Lake and the oldest library in China. She preferred not to speak Chinese, although she was learning, for people got angry with her attempts. She travelled a lot in her weekends. She preferred the bus, for if she saw a brown sign that indicates a historic site, she could get off and explore. She used to be a librarian before she was a teacher so she spent most of her free time reading in her little apartment. She went back to see her family every second year. She got bored just sitting watching Fox tv all day but she did enjoy shooting pistols with her dad. She told me that although they’re not allowed, Chinese people have a lot of guns. And if they don’t shoot people they use knives. I suggested America was winning in the gun death numbers and she wasn’t so sure. She had to do a lot of study to get her license and the problem is most guns are got illegally, they’re the ones who kill people, the ones who don’t know how to use a gun correctly. She also had some observations about Chinese children, now mainly raised by grandparents who were essentially peasants. Their educated children go to work while the children lose all their manners and are no better than animals. I ventured that these days grandparents were often the main childcarers in Western culture, too. Sarah just shook her head. These people were raising the society of the future and it looked grim to her. I offered my notion that the society of the future was being raised by their mobile phones, the opiate of the masses. Sarah responded with some interesting facts about Chinese religion. The temples and churches were run by paid actors. They were not real monks. It can’t be easy, living alone in a flat, going out only to go to work or Chinese class or see the odd film. She taught full time, 22 fifty-minute classes a week. That was a lot of prep. She seemed a solemn person who didn’t miss her homeland. She’d just got a kitten so it looked like she’ll be in China for a while. She didn’t trust the medical system. One of her friends, who’d been here 20 years, had a mystery infection. Three operations later, he was dead.
We made it to the train station and I shook her hand and wished her well.
The train was a straightforward fast train (more of them in the world, please!) and the touts waiting in Fuzhou seemed to be more prevalent. I ignored them and walked with determination towards the bus stop. I found a kind man in a uniform and showed him where I needed to go. He looked around frantically and there was another kind man with a mobile phone at the ready. He looked things up, wrote things down and made me a plan. (I’m glad I read The Arrival, thanks, Sean Tan.) Perhaps the younger fellow also worked for the trains or transport department for they seemed to know each other.
It would cost me one yuan to Fuzhou South Bus Station. Half an hour trip. Got off at elderly, concrete station and stood confused, not knowing where to go. Luckily a man in a uniform waved at me and gave me directions. Went through a grim tunnel and then into another section before spotting the ticket window. Then I would buy another ticket for a hundred thirty seven yuan. Running out of cash, I couldn’t see an ATM. But I had enough for the moment.
Everyone got on the bus and immediately drew the curtains, many to better see their mobile phones and most, eventually, to sleep. I reached over the preparing-to-sleep masked woman next to me to twitch the curtain a little so I could see. She nodded assent and then remained in the same position for the duration. The drive took 90 minutes and went over a big bridge onto Pingtan Island.
All day I had sat next to, or across the aisle from, a mum with her small wriggling son. The individuals on this bus were two dead-tired parents and their demanding toddler. Perhaps one raised by his grandparents?
The helpful man at the station had told me I would have to catch a taxi in Pingtan. So, ignored the touts and the ricketty little tuk tuk things outside the bus station because I needed cash to get the cab, and thought, okay, it’s just over 5km to the hostel. I’ll walk. It started to rain. And sunset! Bam. Suddenly it was dark. I found some cash. I began to regret my choice. It would take an hour. I was tired. Hungry. I went back to what I’d thought was a cab rank. There was building featuring a big green neon sign shining off the wet roofs of a line of cars, giving an impression of a row of cars with green lights on the top. Really.
I remembered my father’s sage advice to always go to a big hotel if you need a taxi. So I went to the Ramada Inn where they were hosting a wedding. I stood outside in a dither. Should I just call it a night and stay here? Should I ask for a taxi? Should I walk? Aaaargh! I really didn’t know what to do. The guy hosing the big black limo/jeep hosed a pretty girl in passing who shrieked at him. Action! I went inside and girded my loins to try to communicate. The receptionist had no word of English. Nothing. By a clever combination of brilliant mime, dance and Google Translate we worked out I wanted a taxi. I asked if she could call one for me. She told me it would cost 25 yuan. I asked if she could break a 100 yuan note? Yup. Cool. Good. Then she gave me a post-it with a number on it. And asked for her money. It took me a while to realise she’d called me the Chinese version of Uber on her own account. How nice was that?
When I got into the car the driver wanted to check the address so I showed him my maps.me and off we went. Then he started chatting on the phone and according to maps.me he went the wrong way (I’m pointing and making noises from the back seat and he’s nodding, yup under control and I’m not feeling that) and finally he went around a corner, the wrong corner according to maps.me, and there was huge construction works and a young lady running towards the car. He pointed at her and said, ‘Hostel’. I opened the door in mystification and she said, ‘Hello.’ And I said, ‘Hostel?’ Really? In this building site? And she said, ‘Yes.’ As we walked up to the hostel she explained how kind he had been. He had rung her to come to meet me because he was worried because I didn’t speak Chinese I wouldn’t be able to find my way to the hostel and he was right. I probably wouldn’t. Not only that, but the young lady from the Ramada Inn had also rung ahead to warn her I was coming. I relaxed a little. Pingtan was starting to feel positive. I was in safe hands!
The hostel was the most extraordinary hostel I’ve ever visited. It really was in a theme park. It was huge. Once again a four-person, female-only room, I had a capsule again, this time with a heavy metal sliding door (the Ningbo hostel had much nicer bamboo blinds). Split level spotless bathroom, with a shower over the squatty potty, and a big bowl with a metal pretend bamboo tap. I spread out and enjoyed my miso soup and crackers, mandarin, nuts and choc for dinner. This place has room for hundreds of people, in fantastic capsules with all sorts of fancy lighting options and a tv screen at the end of the bed but I didn’t ever turn that on. Totally clean and amazing, I could use the washing machine in the morning, and get up to the port to organise onward travel. It was enough. I was very glad to be there.
In Pingtan, if not in all of China, everything is done on WeChat. Every payment, every map, every message. From the lockers in the UCCA foyer to a piece of toilet paper in the public toilets, everything is WeChat.
Heard a lot of Les Miz audible during the night. Not much sleeping. I was nervous about the ferry ticket. Would it suffice?
When I walked into my female-only dorm in the Happy Bed Hostel a young lady from Taiwan was lounging on her bed. Brandy was a dancer whose teacher organised annual outings to see dance festivals. To different countries around the world. This year Berlin, last year, Tokyo, was it? Her friends had left her behind while she had chosen to continue travelling in Europe. ‘You’re from Taiwan!’ I almost shouted! ‘Can I ask you a big favour?’
And so it was that we both lounged on our neighbourly beds and took turns tapping away at my computer. She finally managed to buy me a ticket! A return ticket! I had to screen-save the evidence and get it printed and the next day (after Brandy had left) the CSF company agreed to refund me the part of the ticket I didn’t use.
THANK YOU, BRANDY! XIEXIE!
After I’d hung out my washing in the big old courtyard next to the stage, I prepared to find the port. I took my printed evidence, passports and the works. I would not leave until I had confirmation I was going to Taiwan the next day. I was confident.
My lovely friend Wheet on the reception desk wrote me out a clear description of what I could and couldn’t eat in simple Chinese. But was sorry, she hadn’t been able to find a taxi anywhere near. She didn’t think there was a bus. Okay. I had maps.me and all day. 8.9 km. I’d walk.
Out of the bizarre park/maze of entirely new building and on to the road.
I crossed eight lanes of empty freeway – maybe a few scooters (without little jackets here, it was warm).
Wandered along until I saw people standing at a bus stop. I decided to join in and showed the waiting people the picture of the ferry. They smiled but shunned me. The driver was much more helpful. I stood beside him while he drove and considered my options. He took me one kilometre and pointed at another bus stop and said, ‘Bus 5’. By now I had decided to invoke Great Aunt Min and her wonderful perseverance. Right. Crossed many lanes. Bit more traffic but still not impressive amounts.
None of the buses listed for the stop was 5. I think his English was a little bit rusty. So I just flagged each bus until one guy let me on. To the port! I had maps.me alive and ready and we proceeded until he stopped the bus, actually got off with me and pointed to the correct number on the next stop. 53! Stay here, he indicated! I was now a good 5 km into my journey so very happy. The driver of 53 was puzzled when I boarded but when the sign for the terminal came up and I jumped and waved she nodded and let me off the bus. So, there are working, useful, buses on Pingtan! And friendly drivers.
There was a tall gate pulled across the Ferry Terminal driveway but after showing them my ticket the two guards waved me on through. Go ahead. You’re in the right place. It was locked up tight. Wandered around until I found an open office and a young fellow slouched at his computer. He looked at my ticket and rang a friend, handed over the phone. SHE SPOKE ENGLISH!
BUT she did not have good news. She said, due to bad weather, my ferry had been cancelled.
YOU WHAT? Suddenly I could not breathe. I had never envisaged that. What the hell was I to do? But she went on quickly, it was okay, she would organise me a ticket to go to Taipei, in the afternoon instead of the morning. Taipei is very popular. You will like it. This took ages. Three more phone calls. The young man multiplied into five men of varied ages. They sorted through my passports, papers and sundries with more or less interest.
Once I had my printed ticket in hand and had packed away my paperwork I asked the three younger men remaining if there would be a bus back to Pingtan township so I could get more money, not having taken out enough the day before. Which bank? Any bank? Yes! And all three of the men came out of the office, shut the door behind them and indicated they would take me. I did, for the first time, think about my kidneys as I climbed into the apparently brand-new van (but only briefly) and off we went to town.
They dropped me off opposite a bank and we watched astounded as a line of human-sized Pikachus waddled along the road. Later I caught up with them at some kind of film premier.
Red carpet, pretty ladies and me stepping through mud and rubbish on the other side of the road.
Found a mixed goods shop offering a wide selection of fruit and nibbles. Every time I went to the counter to pay, the young lady would wave me off to the senior woman who was presumably her mum and she would weigh and price the item. Not just the fruit but also the little rice cakes and nut bars.
Not sure if this link takes you to the correct Chinese hawthorn but the ones Wheet introduced me to varied from yellow to the brown colour pictured and tasted like a mini-apple-pear. As usual I worried about ingredients in the snacks and I asked the young lady at the till if she could assure me there was no milk in my chosen treats. She looked at me in horror and just laughed as she read Wheet’s carefully translated note about being vegan and whathaveyou. She carried on laughing and said to one of her probably regular customers, (I’m paraphrasing here) ‘No fucking way can I deal with this! Did you ever hear the like?’ But the other customer was actually very kind. She bent to read the tiny ingredients and assured me no milk no egg no cheese! Very grateful to her.
Walked back to the hostel, a mere snap at 5km and as soon as I’d relieved myself, dropped the whole roll of toilet paper in the squatty potty. You’re not supposed to flush paper down these drains. Instead you put the tissue into a handy receptacle. Which I did. All of it.
Just as I was washing my hands, Wheet knocked on the door to invite me to join the team for a spot of sightseeing and I could also join them for lunch. Really? As a vegan? That would be okay? It was. She served me up some rice before she left, she said she’d already eaten, and introduced me to two woman in their forties and three younger guys. I tucked into some delicious okra and a scrumptious crispy dish of celery, lotus and fungus. They did keep asking if I would like to try this and that meaty thing and I did keep having to refuse. I know. I was rude. But I didn’t feel like getting sick on behalf of Mr Manners. They didn’t seem fussed and we happily organised to meet for the outing.
Anina, a very impressive young woman of 27 years, was keen to practice her English. She runs four shops near the hostel. Her mother manages the tea-shop for her. Perhaps dad is in the instant noodle shop?
We drove to a lookout to see Taiwan for tomorrow’s journey, another beauty spot at the other end of the island and a traditional village of stone houses now under renovation ready for weathy holiday makers.
Finally, Anina and I were delivered to a museum built around an archeological dig, reputed to have uncovered evidence of habitation from 6,000 years ago. As we entered the grounds of the museum I was startled, and delighted, to encounter these carvings.
What on earth had they to do with Pingtan in China?
Turns out the Austronesian Archaeological Institute has been investigating travels from Pingtan to New Zealand over 6,000 years. People had been traced migrating from Pingtan to Taiwan, to the Philippines and Indonesia, Hawaii and thence NZ. How very fitting to connect with my own journey!
Anina and I walked on to another hostel, a few more kilometres under my belt for the day, where we sat in a rocking chair and she showed me her favourite breakfast foods. Beautifully arranged juices and coffee, toast and eggs. She was delighting in healthy food. She had converted her boyfriend, friend and her parents to healthy living. She also ran an hour a night on her treadmill.
When they picked us up they even invited me to join them for dinner but I pleaded exhaustion and went up to my capsule. I suppose it’s got to the stage where I really don’t feel comfortable eating with other people when they’re chomping down on bits of dead animals. Does that mean I’m anti-social? I was happy to hang out with tea and toast, walk in park or game of cards? So, no. I was still a social animal. Like most of the critters people like to barbecue.
I had a new room mate who was gently snoring as I made myself a cuppa and chopped up an apple. I was very happy I had my ongoing ticket sorted. There was only the small matter of the passport to decide when I got to the other side and, bonus, I would see Sue Jollow in Taipei after all!
It was all going to work out very well but perhaps not for the cat or the ridiculously cute dog trapped in cages in the foyer of the hostel. I didn’t take their photos. I wasn’t sure you’d like to hear about them, either. But there’s something very strange about the whole development, the whole island really. Anina mentioned that Pingtan is for Taiwan. Bait. President Xi hoped to bring Taiwan back to China. He had offered young Taiwanese money to live and work in Pingtan. I wondered if the Austronesian Archaeological Institute had shown President Xi their map. There were no arrows flowing back into China. They all went one way.
Most of the team have been working in the hostel for between two and four years. It opened seven years ago. Now the rest of the estate is taking shape around them. They expect it to be finished in another year. LA China Land. On my way back from the township I noted a big derelict shopping centre at the top of the road which had clearly failed to attract the crowds. It was trashed, with rain-stained couches pulled out in conversational ways showing someone found it useful in the quiet hours. I hoped that tourists did find their way merrily to the hostel. They were certainly sure of a great welcome and some considerate helpers!
I was nervous when I woke up on Big Ferry Day. Had a sensible breakfast, supposing that would do for the foreseeable future, really! I went for a walk around the theme park.
Didn’t see Anina’s shops. Returned to work on the blog and then went down to wait for the taxi. Ate an apple as I waited, refusing their kind invitation to lunch. I had a ship to catch and said thank you to Wheet and I really was grateful for their friendship and support.
Soft Chinese rock music serenaded the easy (8.9km!) drive up to the terminal entrance. It was open and flooded with people, both staff and passengers. Walked through security and we had, of course, a very long wait. Wandered about aimlessly.
No, I’m not going to tell you. Put your answers in the comments below.
You can just make out the walk-through gangplank going from shore on the left to ship on the right. I’m sorry I didn’t take any better photos because I lost my composure.
They called the boarding time (I supposed, as everyone got to their feet and started arranging themselves) and, happily clutching my fresh A4 ticket, I lined up. The queue began going through the next level security. I was almost last in the queue. I saw with interest that everyone else had a blue and white card with the CSF logo for a ticket so out of mild curiosity I wandered up to the ticket desk and showed them my printed page. Was this okay?
The girl behind the desk was chatting merrily to a young man casually leaning on the bench. She nodded and he nodded and I turned to go back to the queue but suddenly he was beside me. Wait. He pulled out the phone. Uh oh.
He talks earnestly then hands it to me. I’m still not sure but it sounded like the same gal from yesterday. ‘Victoria, you need to buy a return ticket. My friend is concerned the Taiwan officials will not let foreigners enter Taiwan without a return ticket. You might not be allowed into the country.’
It hit me like a ton of bricks. Why didn’t anyone mention this yesterday? On and on she explained. Lots and lots more words. Meanwhile, I’ve got the credit card out, all the cash I’ve got, there’s announcements going on, the queue is shrinking, shrinking before my eyes. Okay, let’s go, let’s buy this sucker and get on the ship. The man and the young woman are arguing with the woman on the phone and another official girl comes up beside me with sympathy in her eyes and says, ‘Okay?’ and I say, ‘No.’ And she says, ‘Uh oh.’ And I whole heartedly agree. ‘Right.’ I give her a shaky smile. She stays beside me. Still the arguing goes on between the woman on the phone, the woman at the desk and the young man. Suddenly, I realise I do have a return ticket! I pull out the evidence that Brandy and I had been so careful to print way back in Berlin. I slap it down on the desk and the woman and man pass the papers between them, ah ha, ha ha!
I ask for the phone. Before I can get a single word in she’s off, talking, talking, explaining the situation to me one more time. And then another time for good measure. I’m saying, ‘Excuse me. Wait. Hold on. Stop. Please!’ Sympathetic lady nods as I grimace, grit my teeth and clench my fists in frustration! Will she not stop talking!! ‘One moment … ‘ Finally she takes a breath.
I explain, very clearly and slowly, I have already spent the Taiwan dollars on a return ticket. Can they just change the date of that ticket? Ah, well. There is a pause. And the arguments start again. Another lady appears. The queue has gone through. Clock is ticking. I say, ‘Please. Whatever it takes. I just have to get to Taiwan today.’
And young lady behind the desk finally handed me out the blue and white card. The woman on the phone said she would make sure I was reimbursed for the part of the ticket I did not use. I was shaking trying to get the pack swung up onto my back. And the computer pack on my front. Of course, the second I was through the doorway I had to take them off again to put through the next x-ray scanner! You’d have thought the first one back at the entrance would have sufficed, wouldn’t you?
I desperately looked around for a clue as to where I should go next. Not enjoying myself.
Another lady waved me forwards to fill in the form. I got her to fill in the ‘flight’ number. Ship number. Then I was waved through to border control. I had no sense of humour left. I waited behind a gentleman with big red sandals on his feet. The feet did not move.
A senior, kind looking official man approached me and asked me if I spoke Chinese. I said, ‘No,’ and, smiling encouragingly, he engaged me in English conversation. He asked me about my trip and I was not sure why I was telling him but he wished me a wonderful journey and I was calm once more.
The Chinese Official duo looked at my UK passport and visas with some interest, bordering on concern, but finally waved me through. The rest was a piece of cake and we were onboard the ferry, a similar vibe to one experienced whilst whale watching in Queensland.
There was a guy behind me who brought his bike on and he so reminded me of the philosopher and the goat I met in France. He was only interested in games on his phone so I didn’t think it was him. (Remind me to tell you of the philosopher and the goat sometime.)
I found a seat – not our numbered seats – it didn’t matter – everyone piled their luggage up on the carpeted area because it soon became apparent things slid on the smoother surfaces.
I looked out the window to see sampans, oyster farms and distant hills. We puttered out of the smooth safe harbour, through some of Pingtans’ many surrounding little islands and I was sailing out of China. I began to relax.
NEWSFLASH TO MY BRAIN – I HAD A TICKET OUT OF TAIWAN!!! IT WAS ON A CARGO SHIP! Oh, for pity’s sake. Now I really could relax. At least, until we got to Taiwan Officials where I’d show them the evidence and all would be well.
There was a pile of grey on that horizon where there’d only been mist before. Ah. The weather. The reason they cancelled the ferry to Taichung.
The ferry began to go up and down. A few fearless older men chuckled and then, as the ship banged down, laughed very hard. Then everything went quiet except for the engine, the rattle of the boat and the sea. No more laughing.
A young staff member came to give me an Arrivals Card. With a pen. Now we were moving in open water and the sky was leaden and the swell was up and down I did not think it possible to fill that form in. This was the Big Moment. I would fill this card in with my NZ passport number. And maybe it would work or maybe they’d need the Chinese Visa in the UK passport and I’d be stuffed. (Well, somewhat inconvenienced.) I nodded, smiled my gratitude and sat up straight and hard by the window. I could not look at the words. I kept my eye on the horizon and the pen and card firmly under my leg. Each seat in the rows in the middle of the cabin had a tempting pink and white plastic bag and I began to hear rustling and coughing. One man groaned.
I could see plastic rubbish in the sea, going up and down but at different angles. Tubs and polystyrene chunks and bottles. I kept my eye on the horizon. At one stage I thought I’d better see outside for some fresh air. I sashayed from side to side of the aisle (the staff member didn’t do much better either!) noticing how wonderful my fellow passengers were that they could just go to sleep in this minor turbulence.
I felt incredibly stressed as I bumped into the wall and flung open the door to the stern deck. I looked up to see the fuming chimney stacks and realised there would be no fresh air at this juncture. The fumes did not improve my composure.
I slammed back along the corridor and bumped into all the chairs along the rows. I decided to try different places to sit to see if that made me feel any better. It didn’t. So I went back to my original place and sat up straight. I leaned against the cool window so I could see the spray come off the bow as the boat thrust down into the water. I could hear a lot of quiet coughing.
Later, my tour guide in Tainan informed us the Taiwan Strait used to be known, not affectionately, as ‘Dangerous Water’ or ‘Black Ditch’. It was said that six in ten Chinese people attempting the crossing would die. Three would arrive and one would turn back in terror. I knew how they felt.
And then, I realised, I couldn’t see the water any more. It was night. I could no longer see the horizon. Uh oh. Desperately I searched for lights. Surely we were near Taiwan by now. The ship plunged into the heavy water and suddenly I got it. That metallic sting along the teeth …
I scuttled across the aisle to nick a candy striped bag and sat quietly heaving up the remains of my apple. Not much to chuck. I did feel better though.
As soon as we had entered the harbour the heavy lifting and swelling and sinking stopped and I was able to fill out my Arrival Card. Which I did, proudly filling in my NZ numbers and turning Kiwi immediately. Guard Pacific’s triple star …
I was in Taiwan!
Next step. Taiwanese Customs and Border Officials. Gulp.
Sounds. The orchestra of Beijing. Live! Footfalls of people, barking of cute puppies, motors and horns of cars, buses, scooters covered at the front with little sleeve blankies, bike bells, warning officials with their flags or coloured batons; all process with purpose. Going to the supermarket was a bold endeavour.
There is some regard for others but only as objects to avoid. Face masks, small people, both elderly and children, smoking, more people and more scooters all travelling, going somewhere, curling around, moving away, getting places. I was scared at the traffic lights even though there were supervisors. When little green man lights up the vehicles take their time to stop. And some bikes and scooters just keep going. I was constantly amazed no one got hit!
I stayed in a small hotel in a traditional hutong near DongSi station away from the tourist centre but close enough to the subway to be within easy reach of everything. It was also surprisingly quiet. I had predicted my need some privacy after six days of train life and I was mighty glad to get into a warm shower and get a load of laundry organised. Both May and Zhao, the two girls on reception duty, spoke excellent English and could not have been more helpful.
Around the hotel, and the hutongs
generally, rose the familiar earthy sewage smell I’d grown accustomed to in Seville.
These are old streets and drains and occasionally a burp is to be expected. However,
unlike Spain, I couldn’t detect bleach and strong detergents. In fact, although
my hotel room was impeccably clean, I did not smell any particular product at
As I wandered around the narrow streets of the hutongs I walked past an elderly woman. She was talking with another, a neighbour or sister, both small, bent and white-haired. As I came up the road she looked me up and down in the most blatant, obvious way. She pursed her lips and made a face like my mother would have, perhaps thinking to herself, ‘What is she wearing?’ or, ‘What sort of get-up is that?’ Then she caught my eye and I laughed at her outright, recognising the resemblance to my mother’s attitude and feeling great warmth toward her. She knew she’d been caught out but decided to join in my merriment and we both laughed heartily. What a wonderful moment. A reminder that the best communication needs few words.
The hutongs comprise narrow roads lined with concrete brick walls, folding back on themselves with twists and turns. Air conditioners hung high on roofs, doorways lead off the main street into further twists and turns into un-see-able interiors.
Elegant pot plants and ornate doorways decorated the exterior of more settled hutongs while some looked a bit run down. Like blocks of flats, but all low-rise, semi-gated communities. I saw a group of observers gather around some electric workers, moving up and down ladders and retrieving objects from the little truck that was actually a motorbike in disguise. You wouldn’t get away with much in the hutongs.
As usual, my first objective in arriving in a new place was to test my onward travel. Gained expert tuition from reception, jumped on subway and bought my next ticket from Beijing South Railway station. My dry-run complete, also achieved a Transportation Card and hopped back into tourist mode to face Tiananmen Square. I assumed there must be phone shops near there and popped into a fancy hotel to enquire. Three people on the desk, not one with English. Or if they did, relied heavily on the speak-and-translate app. They seemed to fight amongst themselves for who would be the unlucky one to speak with the gweilo. In the end, they all had some input and we managed to work out there was a China mobile shop 300 metres down the road. Off I trotted.
The tiny hole in the wall shop was overseen by a large fellow on a platform reminiscent of a favourite Mediterranean delicatessen in the western suburbs of Melbourne. He towered above me as I negotiated a SIM for China and Taiwan. Using Google translate he managed to find a card, snap out the SIM, insert it into my phone, say, ‘Internet Only’ which wasn’t what I wanted but he’d done it by then and asked for two hundred yuan. We both knew he was ripping me off but the phone now seemed connected to something and I wanted to get out of there. How could I argue when it was clear he didn’t want to communicate? I paid and hightailed it to follow Happy Cow to a vegan café.
Only, Happy Cow is partially affected by the FireWall, in that the maps don’t work, and I couldn’t find where I was wanted to be. (I hadn’t organised a VPN as I was only here for a week and I walked a very long way and the air got thicker and thicker and began to sting my eyes. Saw a sign saying, ‘Herbal Café’ and thought that might work. Up four floors in a department store. Beyond reasonable hunger. No-one had English. Waved my little sign that Kim had written for me back on the train – vegetables only – no meat – said ‘Bu shi’ to egg – dan – and sat down to a plate of noodles with sprouts and onions. I avoided the heap of egg they’d left hidden in the middle with a sinking heart. My guts felt greasy for hours later. I have become sensitive.
How to get to Tiananamen Square?
I ate my mandarin in the foyer of the building to degrease. Catching the subway again, I went back two stops to join queues and crowds of people flocking towards Tiananmen Square. Felt inadequate. Felt duty bound to go sightseeing even though I really didn’t want to. I didn’t want to feel the power of that place, so recently marched over by the 70th Anniversary Military Parade.
I wandered through security, the kind young woman (and the folk behind me) waiting for me to fish out my passport, caught up in the flow of humanity heading towards the famous portrait of Mao.
Through the gate I went, fully expecting to join those paying respects. But no, we headed towards the Forbidden City.
As we went I could not see a ticket office and we drew closer to signs that said, ‘Ticket Inspection.’ I had missed a vital clue. The harassed guards at the gate waved hands at me and said, ‘Sold out!’ Okay, plan B. To be honest, I didn’t feel I’d missed out on much. Given the amount of tourist work I’ve been doing for the last few years one castle and a millennia of history less in my kit bag wouldn’t hurt. Went around walls, through gates and out to walk toward Jinshang Park where from I knew I could stare down over the fence and into the palace grounds.
As I exited, I checked my direction on the phone and looked up to
find a perky young woman attentive as a little bird asking if I knew where I
was going? Could she help? She’d love to help. She knew lots of history. Let
her help! I had done my homework and knew what this friendly lady was up to. I
was on to her! Apparently there were scammers operating near the tourist centres.
They were full of information and helpful hints and then guide you off to have
a nice special Chinese tea ceremony or special beer or whatever takes your
fancy while they share all sorts of good Beijing tips. Then the place charges
considerable sums and you are sucked dry. So lucky I’d prepared myself for
that, especially in the light of Mr SIM. I was polite but firm but, by golly,
so was she! She’d be the guide to take me there, for sure. If I needed a guide
to walk in a park.
The flood of humans caught me up once more and off I went,
marching along the footpath, in the shade of big old trees. The roads seemed to
get more crowded with traffic. Possibly school pick-up time?
The smog got thicker as I walked around to the park. Met a
middle-aged guard who stood in my path and started to chat. He finished by
suggesting, ‘5?’ With his hand outstretched, Five. All of the fingers. Did he
expect me to pay him? For what? Letting me walk on the footpath? I smiled and
laughed and played dumb, waving both outstretched hands at him. Five? Let me
show you Ten! Ten waving fingers! Ha ha! Although he kept smiling he stepped in
closer. I shrugged in a friendly manner, said ‘Du bushi, wo bu dong’ (I was
sorry, I didn’t understand) and stepped out to go around him. He clapped me on
the shoulder, and then kept patting me as I walked, copping a casual feel as he
patted. Still smiling like one of the boys in sixth grade. Beat it quick.
Nice couple let me in at the ticket window – well – I was there
first. We all laughed. Marched up to the lookout. The path was quiet. Lovely
moment between up and down. Not another person in sight. Noise volume kept down
by the trees. Still. Took deep breaths of tree supplied oxygen and turned to my
tourist duty once more. Off I went up to the top. Well, that’s where they all
were! Must have taken a different path.
Sometimes I felt like I was invisible. A young lady shoved me
aside to take a photo of her friend against the smoggy view. I offered in immaculate
mime to take a snap of her and her friend together but she ignored me. Her
friend noticed though, and after they’d gone a few steps they returned and she
offered to take one of me with my camera. Using my mime to great effect once
more, I refused, explaining I didn’t want to see my ugly mug! Laughed and made
friends 4 eva.
Lovely lookout; if there was no smog. Apparently it may not be all
pollution but also dust blown over from the Gobi desert. Not sure I understand how
that would work. If Beijing is surrounded by mountains I can see how air
particles would get stuck inside but how does it blow in?
Came down from the lovely place and considering that I would be climbing the wall on the morrow thought I could try to level up on Beijing public transport. I would attempt a bus and save my legs for the wall walk. Wonderful lady, fellow passenger, helped me work out which bus would be good; 128 was the one for me. So pleased I had a transit card. I hadn’t even realised it was going past DongSi station so was thrilled to alight just across the street from the road to my hutong.
Wandered around the big supermarket once more and found another lovely lady helping with my museli selection. Lots of smiles and giggles as she told me which one would suit my purposes best. All in dance and mime. After a bit more wandering I discovered another aisle had more options and stood looking at the pix on the packets when yet another helper came to my assistance. Soon we were joined by helper number one and the three of us all weighed in. Got to be the one with the kangaroo on the front. Second lady started pulling stuff out of my bag and exclaiming in wonder, ‘Where did she get this stuff from?’ When I unpacked later I realised each of the things she’d pulled out had contained smaller bags. Perhaps she was commenting on my lack of sustainable shopping? I had bought severe over-packaging in snackpack size.
When I was working in Kings, Brighton, a teacher had pre-prepared a lesson for his absence, about the Great Wall of China. Personal research time! I spent that ninety-minutes reading, listening and searching the internet with around a dozen international students. What did they think the best way would be? The discussions revolved around crowds and touristy trinket shops. I decided I would avoid them. Instead I would go on a private tour with a Trekking Company.
James picked me up bright and early from the hotel – driver
Vincent had to go around the block a few times because there’s no standing in
As we drove out of town I asked James about the air quality in Beijing, being victim to the surrounding mountains restraining the smog. James told me there had been much improvement in recent years. Tree-planting, coal fires had been outlawed … Not so fast, I assured him my own lungs still contained coal particles from the week before! I had to show him the photos to prove it. He was surprised to hear it and assured me the inner city was completely coal free.
Mind full of autumn leaves in gold, yellow, brown and cracking vermillion into orange. Lizards flicked away, rocks crumbling, some hewn from larger foundations into rectangles, some shards placed to balance or fill, some sturdy, some loose, sound of shifting as footfalls, clinking as stones replace.
Terraced paddocks in far valley between steep rounded mountains, the girl raising the bike into the triumph for a photo on the peak at the three region marker, clean air, joy of concentration on a safe foot position, life, living on the edge, the wall, the drop, the hazards, the surviving. This was great fun.
The wall built by emperors who never saw it. Did it ever stop any
Mongolians from marauding? Perhaps as it protected the soldiers who guarded it,
the prisoners who built it and the farmers who fed them all.
James told me of Emperor Qin, first emperor of China, who heard a scholar examining the moon and as a result of his observations exclaimed that the Emperor must be away from the palace. The Emperor overheard and assumed the declaration was as a result of learning and science. As a result the ruler was scared and ordered all the books to be burned. My Tao 20 for the previous night had been that people would benefit if learning was discarded. There would be no more thieves if skill and profit were banished. Hmm. What does the scholar or sage do if they cannot study? Well, apparently, they get buried alive.
As I walked on the crest of those bony hills, I tried to work out what made the shapes of these mountains so distinctly Chinese. Obviously they were rocky, I’m no geologist, but even I could tell the folk who built the wall were using resources close at hand.
When I tried to remember Spanish mountains I thought Asturian mountains wider at the base but sharper at the top. New Zealand mountains were much sharper. Perhaps someone will tell me my theory is baloney but to my mind a Chinese mountain is a tall thin rounded mountain.
Crumbling ruins. I walked over the cemetery of the broken wall
Not sure if the Wall walk or rest had managed to calm my mind but I did feel considerably better on the third day of my stay in Beijing. When I had arrived I felt stirred up. I couldn’t think. Now, I just didn’t want to.
What is 798 Art District?
My next outing was to 798, the art district, risen like a phoenix from the industrial remnants of factories closed down to clean Beijing’s air. The websites described funky warehouses and brutalist buildings. Cool. I was looking forward to some art.
It was a change on the subway and nine stops on the bus. I
alighted outside an electronics shop and wandered inside to find myself a long
overdue mouse. These are the sort of negotiations that take time and patience –
not from me! The young woman who attended to me was incredibly helpful, showing
me all sorts of mice and obeying my whim to see my selected brand plugged into a
similar Mac. When I got it home I struggled with it for a day or two until it
tamed me and I believe it has been successful!
On the train, Maria had asked me of my expectations of Beijing. I said I’d given up having expectations years ago. That said, I must have had expectations of 798 and they were not met.
Many galleries charged an entry fee – to my stunned surprise I even got a bonus bottle of water for my five-yuan ticket in one particularly big shiny art gallery – the water was from Tibet.
Happy Cow gave me no vegan options in the entire area. Any entrepreneurs, start-up businesspeople, here’s a potential market for sure. Did find an NZ café – Cafe Latte – they have two in the area – demonstrating Kiwi prowess with coffee. They even sold me some ground to take away.
I ordered a BLAT – without the pig – focaccia. When was the last time I even saw a focaccia? Couldn’t remember. Hopped in with teeth and smile.
It had been buttered. Now, to you, that’s nothing. What’s wrong with butter? I’d had the conversation with the waiter about my vegan attitude, shown her the sign Kim from Singapore had organised for me, talked about pig and cheese and, for sure, there was no egg but I’d forgotten to say, ‘None of your rich, creamy NZ butter, thanks’. Why couldn’t it have been a scraping of delicious NZ olive oil? Bare bread? Or just smeared avo?
To you, I’m sure butter is terrific. To me it felt greasy, like I’d
eaten an entire yellow lip-gloss. For the next hour or so I could feel it
around my teeth and tonsils. I didn’t feel sick. It probably amounted to a teaspoon
of cow fat after all but I didn’t like it. It was present in my gut for long enough
to remind me to get the hostel staff to write me a clear note for me to carry
in the future. Another lesson learned.
In only one gallery, a pop-up, was I truly engaged.
‘Gravitational Tides’ showcased a collective of ten cartoon and toy designers based in Beijing showing their creations and selling collectable models.
They’d arranged the space so there were a number of photo ops for youngsters hungry for selfies and fun group shots with their favourite characters.
Because the young guide was happy to practice her English, she showed me around and indulged in some fun portraiture. This at least showed an interest in the audience, vibrant set design and some intriguing design chops.
The remains of big industry soared above the pedestrian, brutal, angular and powerful. Their utility gone, individual artists were beginning to mark various walls and commercial interests used the spaces in a variety of ways. I saw the Beijing Fashion Festival setting up near the big blue tank.
The atmosphere was like a fun-fair or theme-park. Old factories! Big art! And tons of trinket shops selling tourist stuff. I could see hanging and unpacking going on in preparation for a big art fair so some galleries were closed.
Plus it was a grey, rainy day so customers had stayed away. It’s perhaps too arrogant of me as a visitor to wish I’d seen more youthful art.
The space cried out for art schools and invention. I would love to have seen more fresh street art and less advertising but I’m sure I did not see everything.
One of the exhibitions at UCCA, a big gallery in the centre of 798 district, was a community-based show. The first piece was dramatic, a heap of burnt newspapers supporting glass printed with headlines. The pillars and stacks of blackened news reminded of ancient buildings, ancient happenings, while the roof of glass (glass ceiling?) could also have spoken of fragility as well as impenetrability. Thoughts of ephemeral events, judgement, censorship and biodegradability were provoked as I walked around the shapes. The other community pieces included a photography collection of stories from the hutongs and a fun skeletal walk-through student house.
There was also a big American show, Redoubt, by Matthew Barney about myth, hunting and ritual in Alaska. A big space was filled with tree trunks, altered and filled with molten metals. There were a number of electroplates on the walls. The core seemed to be a two-hour long film about Diana hunting with her two Virgin assistants, observed by the Engraver and the Electroplater. It was intercut with footage of wolves and a hoop artist who sculpted herself into creatures with the additional hoops. I liked the part where Diana shot one of the plates. That is hidden away in a back room – a nice burnt bullet hole evident in the metal sheet.
None of those pieces added up to the excitement of walking in a
Beijing street or thrills of finding my way in the subway or drama of visiting the
supermarket seeking sustenance!
In Beijing, I found the lovely fresh innocent faces apparent in advertising were stunningly smooth and beautiful, almost entirely devoid of sexuality. Western ads, or what I remembered of them, were generally full of wanton stares and come-hither looks, buttocks and cleavages for male and female alike. Yet in Beijing the sweeties offer friendship, cheerfulness and companionship. You too, could be like me! The first ad I notice in Ningbo, a city over a thousand km south, is a woman in an off-the-shoulder skin-tone ballgown, as risqué as I’ve seen in China, but, still, her gaze is direct, honest and open.
On the surface, I was not sure what this economic system missed in comparison with Western Life. Very conscious of people stuck to their phones. Their spines curve down like bananas to their laps on the subway. I calculated one in four were NOT on their phones. Saw one paper book and one e-book. Most folk are on their phones as they walk the streets, stop in corners of the subway, at the cafes, everywhere to play games, communicate, catch up with news, who knows …
Struck by tunnel ads flashing past the train after leaving tunnel. Slides? Electronic but presumably static. When train has picked up speed the pix line up and give the impression of movement, selling bright cheerful things. There are also video screens in the carriages, similar to Moscow. When you bring advertising to the people, better make it fancy.
Next attempt at tourist work was to visit the Lama Temple. On arrival I walked around the area until I saw shops and retraced my steps, going around the block until I found an arrow on a police bus pointing me in the other direction. Then I walked, repeating first steps, looking for an entry, until I reached another hutong area well past the Temple. It may have been closed for lunch? Another tourist fail. Luckily, Happy Cow informed me of two vegan options near the Temple and they were easily found without a map. I picked the first which, given the nature of Chinese dining, may have been an error. The woman spoke a little English and seemed to comprehend I was there by myself and wanted a simple lunch. Of course, Chinese dishes are meant to share. And so, I faced my delicious mountain of steamed broccoli, a huge platter of sweet and sour lotus root with potato and a bowl of rice mixed with corn with some trepidation. When I lived in HK as a child we employed an amah called Jean. Her sweet and sour sauce still held highest esteem in my flavour memory. This stuff was not a contender.
Again, I must still be vulnerable to expectations!
I was enjoying reminders of the Chinese aspects of my childhood even though overwhelmed by sights, people and smells, buildings old and new, sounds, those sounds of Beijing. I was living on the edge of another culture once more and I found it comforting.
Tao 22 talked of the way being crooked and then smooth. The paths,
particularly when I thought of the Camino, were always shifting. Sometimes
straight, sometimes twisty, and yet always the same path. On the TransMongolian,
you only had to turn your attention away, read a book for half an hour and the
landscape changed utterly. Yet we were still on the same journey.
I was glad to have taken James’s advice and left an hour earlier than
I thought necessary. Having done the dry run I thought it would be straightforward.
James warned me, ‘You will have to go through security. It will be crowded.’
There was something in his tone. The voice of experience. So I obeyed.
Big brekkie, enjoyable routine of packing, pulling up the little
tendril roots I’d set down by rearranging the furniture to suit my odd ways.
There was May, asleep in the foyer. I imagine she must hardly ever go home in
the winter. She told me she lived a half-hour bike ride away.
Not sure if it was rude or interesting to leave all my small change
behind. Euros, zloty, roubles and tögrögs … perhaps the small child can play
banks with them if they cannot exchange them.
The air was fresh at 06:20 as I strode off for the last time to DongSi station for the last time. The security guard was hunched in his jacket like the performers in the skit from Secret Policeman’s Ball waiting for the end of the world. He was a silent, bulky, sleeping mountain as I swung my packs into the x-ray machine to be scanned. I saw another head over the top of the scanners, bent and still. It did not move as I picked my bags up, ready to go.
There was a distinct increase in population after my line change
but it wasn’t until I reached my destination until I found myself in an
extruder of humanity up the escalators to ticketing floor 1F.
I went to refund my Transport Card. There was a deposit of 20 yuan and I think around another 20 yuan still left. I hadn’t paid much attention once I knew I’d have enough to get myself to Beijing South Station. As I stood in line a spritely woman darted up to me and indicated the sign saying there was no refund at this station. She looked happy, like she’d just landed a big fish. Ah, thought I, as she jammed my card into a machine and finding no number, turned to offer me a crisp 20 yuan note, enterprising. Especially if the note turned out to be fake! (It didn’t.) Apparently scammers, as mentioned before, have included forgery among their daredevil activities. But, I enjoyed the communication and wished her well.
I made my way to security. Thank you, James, I whispered. For
there were all the people. I lined up calmly for I knew I had plenty of time. Sadly
James had not been able to advise others for many people were late for their
trains. And they pushed and shoved and elbowed to get past blockages in the
line, like me. I felt like a boulder in the middle of a river as I watched folk,
completely ignoring me, strive to get past as if it were a matter of life and death.
Here were human spawning salmon. Some panicked, rolled their eyes and twisted
and turned in their efforts to find a weak point to break through. Like water
under pressure, the queue moved towards each twist and turn in the path increasing
speed. There was a press behind me and people pushed through as fast as they
There were four gates and three diminutive women holding back the flood. The ID cards flipped cursorily against the scanners and there was no waiting for permission to go. I saw one man avoid the card section entirely. A man tried to get an attendant’s attention when he saw I was holding my passport like a butterfly flag over my head. It would not go through the scanner system. I was extruded next to the uniformed girl. Tapped her shoulder and she nodded at the passport as if she hadn’t ten thousand people bearing down on her. Scanned the luggage, took it round the corner away from the crowds. Stared aimlessly into the window where the young man stared at the little pink and green boxes sliding past on his screen. The guard must have felt my observation and turned to frown at me. ‘What are you looking at, punk?’ I melted away but not before wondering about the training they must undergo. To observe pretty pictures of see-thru suitcases for hours on end must take a particular skill set. (Unless asleep like the guy at DongSi!)
Then the pressure recommenced as we extruded up the escalators to
the waiting area. Further, up, up to waiting room 2F. Now all I had to do was
locate my train. I began by time, narrowed it down to train number and found entry
12/13. Off to the squatty potty for my ablutions. Again, the notion of queuing
is relaxed, depending on how desperate you are to use the loo, I suppose. The
rest was plain sailing.
The guard checking my ticket took his time to look at my passport
but a woman with small child in arms disapproved. He was taking too long for her.
I think he said, ‘Boil down, Lady,’ and easy down the escalator I went. Check I’m
reading my numbers correctly, carriage 4, seat 5D. Lovely staff onhand,
interested and smiling. There was a person in my seat who quickly disappeared
when I showed my legit ticket.
Trains have come a long way since I arrived in Beijing. These days
we had fast trains. Not a hint of coal in the air. Averaged around 295 km per
hour. It felt a lot like an aircraft cabin, which is why I’ve advocated for airlines
to get into the fast train biz. There was a lot of advertising. I saw a trolley
going by filled entirely with fruit in plastic boxes. Anther sold drinks and
yet a third type featured big orange plastic bags. What was in the bags? Why,
roast duck, of course.
There was a screen showing a hero film and I wasn’t sure where the audio was from. I was surrounded by little game noises and people chatting on their phones, their individual phone sounds and songs as their relatives called for a natter. Most people hunched over their phones had ear buds jammed in their ears but many played their videos so other people could share in the delights. There were the sounds of coughing, sweet wrappers and I suppose the roast duck wrappers as well.
Surprisingly soon we were out of cityscape and back into rural surrounds. Oh. No. Back into city. Not so much rural life in evidence, actually. The city of Nanjing was huge. Row after row of high rise. People have to live somewhere. Lots of mono-culture tree-planting along the lines. If a disease or beetle should fly along many of these trees would be vulnerable, like a line of dominos. Perhaps they spray for that.
Once more my experience of life in a major city, Beijing, had to be merely surface. I had missed most of the tourist ‘must-sees’ (Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and Big Shorts) and knew nothing of history or dynasties. I was a traveller, moving through the land, observing and interacting as best suited the moment. For who knew if there would be another visit?
On my train to Ningbo there were several recorded messages at first in Chinese followed by clear, concise English. ‘Please to mind the safety.’ One exhorted the passengers to behave well and not stand on things. One of them explained if you did not pay for your ticket correctly, or misbehaved in anyway, the information would be reported to the authorities and recorded on your credit history. How interesting that modern China invokes fear of credit, the traditionally capitalist manner of controlling people, down to the smallest infractions against the transport department.
The lady next to me in a purple tracksuit had been steadily eating an assortment of carefully wrapped snacks for hours. She stared at the instructions on her instant noodles for a very long time before going to fill the container with boiling water. (Most long distance trains offer boiling water for your cuppa.) I could tell they were very tasty but they did not smell like my cup of broth.
Went past a fun-fair apparently in the middle of no-where. It
caught my eye because of the giant Sphinx. There was also the glass pyramid of
the Louvre, a huge Greek temple and a giant robot. Perhaps monster mini golf?
As I stared around the carriage I thought the opiate of the masses had become the mobile phone. Generalising from my observations, people around the world do not talk to each other the way they used to. Common areas in hostels are quiet. People’s spins curve down to their machine in a way that looks painful. I’ve watched people looking at sunsets through their phones. But when I walked past, they weren’t taking photos. They were scrolling through Insta. Sitting next to their friends or loved ones, looking down and hunched. I’d seen parents chat on their phone and, when they’d finished, give the phone to the toddler.
We travelled around the satellite towns of Shanghai and down towards Ningbo. For those of you who have been following since the early planning, Ningbo was where I was supposed to catch the cargo cruiser. But I was only going to catch an ongoing train. Onwards, south to Fuzhou, a bus to Pingtan and a ferry to Taiwan. This was were the matter of the passports would be resolved, once and forever. I was headed out of China.
For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!
Please note this is a multi-page post. Although my trip took 6 days, one hour and four minutes to complete, it won’t take you that long to read! That said, you might need a cup of tea and a little snack to take with you.
Hope this account inspires you to explore the world by train, too!
Tuesday 15th October 2019 – NIGHT ONE – TransSiberian/Mongolian – boarding the train at Yaroslavsky Train Station, Moscow – 23:55
Two middle-aged men in uniform greeted me at carriage five with some bemusement. They frowned and flapped my ticket. ‘But, do not fold it,’ I cried out mentally, thinking Lena from Real Russia would be shocked to see their carelessness. They gave the precious paper back to me and one fellow ambled inside. Without anything else to do I followed him and he pointed at my compartment and my lower berth number 9.
I said, ‘Xiexie,’ (‘Thank you’ being the limits of my Chinese so far) and he blinked at me before he left. This was not the same train as my previous shiny new Russian train. This was an antique Chinese train. It felt a bit rickety and there was no fancy screen showing time and temperature on the wall. Could it have been a steam train? I could definitely smell coal. Everything smelt of coal in the carriage.
Obeying train-life rules I quickly jumped into comfy nightwear and then serious man gave me a couple of sheets and a pillowcase. I said, ‘Xiexie,’ some more. I got my sleeping bag out as a base layer against the cold and I had brought a pillowcase of my own. I found the pillow on the top bunk but didn’t like to investigate further.
The full moon out the window. It was a wonderful feeling as the tow kicked in and the carriage began to move, pulled in the wake of the engine. We were off. We chuntered and chattered and clunkered on and on. We were going to Beijing. From Russia to China through Belarus and Mongolia. I was in for the trip of my life. At least, it would be the longest train journey of my life! Six days, one hour and four minutes.
The air got in and, boy, was I woken by some extreme industrial pongs in the middle of the night! Petrol, gas, plastics; all sorts of foul stenches came up from the walls. I got really cold too. (Mainly because I was too dumb to work out where the blankets were.)
The toilet was European-sit-down, metal and grim. I couldn’t work out how to flush it. I kicked a green lever and opened a tap all over my foot. I kicked it off and then noticed the other foot pedal. Actually, I considered the foot-lever thing a good plan considering Goddess Hygienia. Out in the corridor I could see the antique water boiler at the other end of the carriage. I couldn’t see anywhere else to get water.
The coffee from Avocado Cafe kept me alive, alive, oh, so I stared out the window at the big shadows and lights of the station and thought I was lucky. I was safe and well. The door locked with a big chunky metal handle.
During the night we stopped for long periods at a couple of
stations where, through a tinny loudspeaker, a kind of clarion trumpet call
heralded a woman’s shouting instructions. Still no-one else got in my carriage.
I began to hope I might have the place to myself.
I got out my test sachet of arnica and dripped the oil over the clean sheet. Not so clean really and definitely made my mark in the pattern of old stains! (My Fisiocream from Spain had finished and, given this interesting twitch in my arms from constantly altering photos somehow uploading upside-down, I needed a new muscle cream. Back in Moscow I’d gone shopping. The cosmetic lady waved me through to the chemist who pondered the ingredients and bought me a couple of options. One had recognisable calendula flowers on the front, and mint, so we were a quarter of the way to the recipe. I pointed to the hypericum on the ingredient list, thinking perhaps pharmacy training might extend to Latin – the old St John’s wort – but with smiles and extensive, ‘Spasibo,’ in action, in the end, made do with her offering. Smelt like toothpaste. On the way out, cosmetic lady pulled me over into a corner. She pointed at the Weleda range. There was arnica. She gave me three sachets – if only she’d gone there first! That’s the stuff I spilled over the sheet. Smelt nice anyway.)
Awoke very cold. Went for a wee and on my return prodded around above me. Piled on the upper bunk I found a long thin blanket to cover the base of the bed and another, wider, to cover me. I was so glad to have these. Not sure who else was in the carriage. All the doors were shut but it felt quiet, empty and cold. Apart from the constant train movement and groan and hum-bumbles of the engine.
There was, what I took to be, a sizeable air gap over the door. I wasn’t sure who had the key to the door. BUT STOP! I couldn’t be there for almost a week and worry the whole time. I had to give myself over to the power of the moon and my beautiful empty compartment for the foreseeable future. All would be well. My hip sockets existed, firmly pressed against the bunk. Slept, rocked by the irrepressible train.
For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!
The Moscow Metro is similar to other metros in my experience. You buy a ticket. (There’s often an English speaking window at the station.) You wave the ticket at a machine. You find your line. You get on the train. You get off and change to the next line. You get off at your stop. You find your way to the surface, point in the right direction and walk towards your destination.
BUT! Moscow Metro IS different! The stations are the People’s Palaces! They are GORGEOUS!
Advertising came along with the World Cup. The video screens were put into each train so that it would be possible to see every game even if you were commuting. In fact, you could sit in the warm trains and watch if you wanted. Now there are ads. And funny cat videos. And screens are appearing in the middle of the platforms in the People’s Palaces.
The station names were unfamiliar and written in a different alphabet. I was deeply grateful that underneath the Cyrillic the familiar (to me) Latin alphabet spelled out those words or I do not think I could have found my way to my hostel. The streets were quiet as I walked the 10 minute stroll, houses and buildings set back from the road. Little traffic. Autumn leaves clinging on. People in warm coats, scarves and gloves. October. It was nearly winter. Nearly dusk. Mid-afternoon.
Strawberry Duck was a lovely building. Like the city I had experienced so far from the Metro, and the little park on the way, it was quiet and orderly. The interior designers had been given free rein and the flavour was elegant, quirky Prado.
Deep blue walls transitioned down the long hallways into mulberry, then into a kind of mustard, giving an impression of opulence and soft dignity. The art pieces scattered around were light-hearted, an origami duck lampshade, a collection of watercolours showing inviting places to sit with your friends perhaps and many prints and paintings featuring ducks in amusing poses.
Downstairs, the kitchen and common areas were hard-hit-back designer brick inlaid with cool shapes and atmospheric dim lighting.
As well as the deep colours throughout there were wallpapers of bold florals that matched the decorative noveau splashbacks in the bathrooms. You could pay for 45 minutes of private bathroom but the shared spaces were cleaned regularly – in fact there was no time when I didn’t see a cleaner somewhere nearby. The reception staff were very kind to me – the oldest woman they’d seen in Strawberry Duck ever, I imagine! Most of the girls in my shared room were young and, as I went to bed, they fussed over their make-up and outfits preparing for a night on the town. The beds were curtained off with a deep green faux velvet, adding to the quiet style. Everyone had a locker but many of the girls seemed to be between houses, bringing suitcases, hangers and boxes of clothes. There was a lot of packing, repacking and some emotional phone calls going on. But quietly. Real owl and sparrow divide. Definitely in the sparrow tribe, me. Though, solitary. Just an unidentified LBB, then.
Thought I was lost for a moment. I walked around their block, not making sense of the map and their street not coming up on maps.me. I asked one lady who pointed me off in the wrong direction (we were actually just near the building) and another who steered me correctly with lots of words but we nodded and smiled and I said, ‘Spasibo’ a lot. Another young woman looked at my crumpled piece of map and, fearing I wanted money, I suppose, cut me dead and steered away. Made me think how I have treated people in need in the past.
Lena and the two girls gave me my ticket with a small ceremony. ‘Do not bend the ticket!’ And they let me charge my phone. I would not bend the ticket.
Back to a little cafe near my hostel
and a walk around the pond.
There were beggars, people with their hands out in the shopping strip and in the tourist area, just by Resurrection Gate. This is modern Russia. I gave some coins to a man with no feet and there was a strange circular place like a coin fountain, where if you threw money over yourself, presumably depending on where it landed, you would get the wish of your dreams. A random man picked up some of the coins with a collecting stick. He wore no badge of accreditation. Could just have been his turn.
On our walking tour we heard the story of a young woman who did just that, and as she stood and contemplated her wish, a young man, bearing an armload of long-stemmed red roses raced to kneel before her and propose. ‘Of course,’ said the guide. ‘We can only hope she knew him beforehand.’
Our lovely Free Tour of Moscow guide, Iryna, happened to be late. I spotted her preparation at the bus stop in front of the meeting place, the sculpture of the two fellows who invented the Cyrillic alphabet. She put on her red scarf and microphone and bouncy stage presence. Then made an entrance as she swept up the steps and called us all together into a group with such merriment she sounded like she was twelve, giving an Eisteddfod speech. She was well into it by the time her assistants arrived with the red umbrella. Perhaps she was on edge because everyone had chosen to be late that day?
I found it difficult to engage for some reason. It might have been my state of mind, the tone of her voice or even the subject. Russian history in a nutshell was incredibly hard to digest; overwhelming and unsatisfying. I guess it was me. We went up to see a beautiful swirl of green, white and red old church that is usually unavailable for tourist viewing. But today the street was open.
This site has been haggled over ever since Stalin wanted to build the Eighth Sister there. (Guess he settled for Warsaw?) Now, after years of debate, it is a place for the people, entertainment, museums and cafes.
We walked through the roof garden to the observation bridge that is not a bridge. It is a lookout, a hang out, a stretch over the River Moscow that does not go to the other side.
Irena told us of the Romanoff Museum and the Moscow History Museum side by side in the little valley and assured us a visit to either of these small places would be very rewarding. Next time. There is a LOT to see in Moscow.
Once in Red Square, the tourist area felt unreal and arranged so conveniently it was difficult to take seriously. I began to feel I was in a theme park or a film set. It’s possible I have been a tourist too long.
The square itself was packing up what had been a gastronomic festival, many little stalls and bright pot plants were folded with a bang and pushed away towards trucks. Beside the super shopping centre full of high level labels is a street already decked with sparkling Christmas twinkles, getting ready for the winter markets I suppose.
Stalin was removed from Lenin’s mausoleum. There’s now a bust nearby. Our guide made a couple of daring remarks about Stalin that would have had her arrested for making them and us arrested for hearing them. She showed us the unbalanced front of the Four Season’s Hotel, the architect apparently too frightened to check which design Stalin had signed off on. Now either side of the building is noticeably different. (But you can’t really tell from the photo below!)
She added the tale that when the Metro Engineers met with Stalin to discuss the different options the lines would take he left a coffee stain on the map. Which is why there is a brown circular line.
It may be a joke but the terror he inculcated was certainly real. They say not to speak about Stalin to a Russian for you do not know what their family stories may be. That sounds like Franco in Spain. At least there has been a reckoning with Stalin – Moscow has been de-Stalinised.
Red Square is surrounded by history and story and I found it really is overwhelming to be there.
I was keen to join the Metro tour. As a train afficionada – or at least a fan of tågskryt – I felt my journey onward should be my focus rather than history. We all had receivers with ear pieces which meant our guide could speak quietly and keep us all connected without having to wave flags or chickens on a stick. Of we went, down into the metro system to hop on and hop off the trains.
Alex showed us photos of some of the murals that used to include Stalin. The big Mother Russia with a plea for peace around the world is impossible to imagine with Stalin up in the middle of that, where the big MUP is now, don’t you agree?
The Moscow Metro was one of the last to be built in a major city. Mainly, according to Alex, because the people were religious and superstitious. Why would you choose to dig down closer to the devil? Finally, there was a dramatic day of gridlock in the city. No horse, tram or car could move so it was decided to build the People’s Palaces. Read this excellent blog post for more information.
The tunnels were built just in time for WWII. Each station was used as a bunker and each had a different purpose. The first one Alex showed us, Bibliotecka Lenina, was used as a library. He showed us pictures of people sitting at desks, studying or attempting to continue with their work while the bombing raged overhead. The economy does not stop with war.
Revolution Square Station features sculptures notable for their shiny patches. Each group of sculpture was repeated four times across the platforms. There was the family, the sports people, the man with the dog – and each one had a part to rub to bring good luck – the dog particularly. Before I heard this I carefully patted the mother’s shiny shoe. This would bring either love or heal a broken heart. Perfect.
Apparently when sitting exams, students must exit their train, pat each of the four dogs over the platforms and enter the train going the other way and they will pass their exams. For sure. As we admired and rubbed our bits, the commuters definitely did reach out and pat the dog or rub the golden rooster, everyone smiling as they did so. It was not that they were superstitious! They did it for fun, for habit and maybe … Alex pointed out it paid to be careful which bits you rub. Some might bring you bad luck. Not superstitious at all, then.
I am sure these magnificent spaces must influence regular commuters. I loved the peace and tranquility there. Apparently buskers have to undergo a strict audition process. Once granted space, they have that time to themselves. There is no competition setting up amplifiers nearby and they are unmolested in their performance. Is that the best way for cut-and-thrust, the best will rise above, life-hurry-scurry and bustle? Or does it show respect for the artist’s value?
We finished the tour near the theatre district. Unmissable. The Bolshoi.
I found it hard to believe I was in Moscow! And next, on to Beijing. Wow. That idea felt fabulous and awe-inspiring. It felt like I’d entered the portal of hard-drug travel. Went through the gate in Warsaw, I reckon. Comfort zone got a bit smaller. Went back to hostel. Time to get organised.
Tatiana, my Warsaw-Moscow train companion, WhatsApped me to ask what else I intended to see in Moscow. I told her I’d done the walking tour and the Metro looksee and added I didn’t really feel the urge to run around and see everything. She asked, then what was the point of my visit? I said, ‘To get to the other side’. My main aim was to stay calm, make everything as easy as possible for myself and get to the train on time. Moscow was the first place where I hadn’t managed to find a post office, nor post cards. Signage outside shops was indistinct. I think it would probably be worth a few language and cyrillic lessons before visiting next time. But for two days sight-seeing? I made do.
I did a load of washing, fed myself and aimed to finish two blog posts before I left the land of wifi. Poor young lady from Korea, just arrived and bleary lonely and tired, wanted to chat. Turned out she had recently been to Taichung, one of my impending destinations. She showed me her photos where she looked happy and alert. She did not seem happy now. I said I was very sorry but I really had to push on with my work. She listlessly turned away but kept drifting around. I typed, uploaded and corrected as fast as I could. Sorry for the mistakes that got by!
I managed to extend my hostel stay by half a day. My train left at 23:55. I could stay in my room, have the use of all the facilities (shower, wifi) until 21:00 at which point I packed up and went to reception. I took some time to observe the beautiful full moon. How auspicious was that? Dasha remembered to give me the all-important form to show the police where I had been staying. And I remembered to get her to print me the little hand-drawn map of my hotel in Beijing. She then wrote out her phone number and email and invited me to visit her and her family in Saint Petersburg! What a darling. We exchanged Instagrams so I hope to see her in that platform. Once I leave China, of course.
Luckily, the Avocado Café, just around the corner, was open to 23:00. Back I went for poppy seed rolls and mango coco icecream with a double espresso to keep me on my toes. I gazed happily at the pretty coloured lights changing over the flat Clean Pond before heaving up the packs and strolling ten minutes up to the number one metro line, Chistye Prudy, three stops to Komsomolskaya, the nearest to Yaraslavsky Train Station.
It was almost too easy. I congratulated myself on clever hostel booking.
Quite a few folk in the waiting area. I surreptitiously interviewed them in my mind. Was she going to China? Would I have to share a compartment with him? Did she look like an intrepid traveller? As soon as my platform number was announced, I left the stinky banana on a chair and whisked off to platform three and Pekin!
First impressions. Cold. Coal dust. I’m the first one in my carriage. The beginning of six days, one hour and four minutes on the train.
For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!
When I showed her my ticket as we boarded the train, the white-blonde compartment manager wearing a smart red beret held up one finger. She said, firmly and clearly, directly into my face, ‘One’. Gottcha. I clambered onboard with everyone else and wandered up to the end of the compartment to realise there was no number one. I went back to find the first compartment held three worried looking faces staring at me. I had place number 11. I guess she meant the first compartment.
I was very lucky to share a compartment with Tatiana, her daughter Maria, and colleague Ella. Tatiana and Ella are teachers at a select Secondary College and extremely clever people. Tatiana speaks excellent English as she spent her teens living in London with her parents. They gave me an introduction into life onboard a long distance train. First get into your comfy clothes because it’s warm inside. Then crack open the snacks and keep going. And keep hold of your keycard.
We had basic Russian lessons, compared teaching lives and enjoyed some simple jokes. Like the one about me going to spend 6 days, one hour and four minutes on the TransSiberian. They couldn’t stop giggling. ‘You’re going to live like this for a week?’
We were in a Russian train. It seemed new. It was certainly a solid heavy piece of equipment. There was no riketty racketty clicketty clackity here. This ironmongered beast was a smooth driving force.
Soon enough the Belarus police came to check our passports. The Russians got a stamp. I had to fill out a duplicate form. It took a good time for the officials to get through the train. Then a short trip to get our wheels changed. The rail gauge changed over the border. This also took considerable time. As we pulled in the men-power were getting into formation. There seemed to be about twenty blokes involved. They set about rolling a huge gantry thing overhead, connecting each carriage somehow to the side yellow pillars which must be a jack system. When the other train pulled in opposite I could see what must have just happened under our train. I didn’t feel any perceptible lifting of our carriage but it’s clear how high they have to go. I could see the folk in the carriage opposite going about their snacking and chatting. The others in my compartment had gone to sleep by now. We were not allowed out to watch. They have to physically move the wheels under each carriage. Three frail men sliding under the trains, heaving and pushing these enormous machines into place under the carcass of the carriage. There seemed to be mortal danger everywhere I looked. There was a far bit of smoko and wait and check the phone but the job got done.
How they manage without loosing a plate or a bolt or a wire in such dim lighting is astonishing. How much would a continual line of equal gauge cost between the two countries? Or is it better to keep decent men employed in an important and responsible position?
After a short trip along to the station, customs officials came to call. They brought a cute dog that everyone along the corridor cooed at in turn. We had to get out of the carriage so they could take a good look. We were very serious and obedient.
Around two in the morning my bladder called, we argued, I lost. I slipped out of the compartment to go to the toilet. As the door clicked firmly shut I remembered Tatiana’s advice. ‘Keep your keycard with you.’
After making use of the facilities I made my way slowly back down the corridor. A corridor lined with locked and shut doors. My locked and silent gate. I looked longingly at the empty manager’s chair as I passed but I could not invade that sacred space.
I went out to the doorway and sat in the stairwell. I had passed the sleeping manager but I did not think her temper would be improved by me waking her around 2:30 am. I came back and stared at my door. I figured my best place would be where either the manager or one of my ladies might go so I sat down and practiced my meditation skills just outside like a loyal canine companion.
A shiver of hope came when the manager’s little alarm went off. Something was about to happen. Soon enough the train slowed and came to a station. She moved around quickly, putting on her uniform and attending to things in her office. Then she noticed me and without a hint of surprise indicated the door. Oh, yes, spasibo! And I was back in my comfy welcoming bed just after 3 am. I was so pleased to straighten out!
It was after 8:30 when I became aware that our breakfasts had been delivered and our door was clicked open. New day!
Bread bun thing I will not name with a French word beginning with C, biscuits, tea/coffee/sugar, napkin, salt and pepper and a refreshing towel. What more could a train traveller want?
Taking careful turns with the available space, we managed to get the packing done we managed to get going with the day.
We had a twenty minute stop to change the engine – one of those thunderously big machines. It reminded me of the old iron lawnmower we’d inherited on moving in to one of our houses. Incredibly heavy and incredibly effective. The wooden roller tamed the grass and, once sharpened, the heavy blades made short work of the greenery. The train was built to last. Possibly your grandmother’s sewing machine would also share that permanence and purpose?
There will be more about the Metro in Stage Six – Moscow – but for now, I’m getting ready to start that hilarious six day TransSiberian jaunt. Not sure when I’ll get email again.
But trust me, I’ll soon be back and let you know more of my tågskryt journey!
And guess what lesson I will endeavour to remember just as hard as I can?
For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!
On the train (Tågskryt!) from Berlin into Warsaw I sat next to Simon. He lived in Berlin and was not a DJ. Proof that not everyone in Berlin is a DJ. (See previous post or if you’re brand new and want to read about planning this trip, here’s Part I ) He was editing music on his laptop, working on songs to play with his new band, the Soft Boyz, chill electro-jazz, so watch out for them in the future. Simon comes from Warsaw and loves to spend time with his family – he speaks to his mother EVERY DAY. He is saving up to travel through South America next year. He told me the best things to do in Warsaw are to visit the Polin Museum and to take a walk through Praga (no, not the city, silly) the artist’s side of Warsaw.
Kind Simon actually walked me out of the underground maze and pointed me in the right direction. It doesn’t take long to get familiar with a place but those initial first few minutes … Do you remember those 3D hidden picture puzzles? That’s how I feel when I stare at a map of a new city until it comes into focus. Takes a day, normally. I was very grateful to the first citizen of Warsaw, Simon. I hope his travels in South America find him many kind and helpful people in return.
When I asked my Airbnb host, Alicja, she said, ‘Oh, no, don’t go to Praga, it’s dirty and violent.’ So I didn’t. (Actually I ran out of time!)
But, Alicja could name three vegan restaurants within five minutes walking. Cake for dinner!
The next morning I trekked in to the Central station to see if I could catch my Moscow train from there rather than out in the suburbs.
Beautiful aromatic walk through a block and a half of flower stalls next to the market.
As I marched up to the station a man appeared at my elbow and said, ‘Passport?’ He kept saying ‘Passport? Passport?’ and then added, ‘Australian?’ and I said ‘Yes’, but even as I pulled my passport wallet out to show him (regular readers will know I’m not holding an Australian passport but I am a citizen) he indicated I should follow him and I did because he also added, ‘Police’. I would follow this man to the end of the earth. This is Warsaw. Round the station and out the back and into a twisty office section and he flung open the door and announced to the ladies inside, ‘Passport! Australian!’ One of the ladies rose to her feet with a sympathetic and worried look. She found a small handbag, fished out a passport, opened it to reveal a wad of cash, and the police officer grabbed it and thrust it towards me. I felt, one, relief, I wasn’t in trouble and two, tremendous pity for the poor woman who had lost her passport. I spent the rest of the day looking for her. My friend Nadine lost her passport in Canada. When she reported to the police, they opened a drawer full of other passports, so it must be common. Keep a hold of your identity, people.
High on this feeling of relief, I went to Information and, with minimal mime and clowning, managed to extract the information my train could be easily caught from platform two the following day.
On to the next thing, a walking tour, a mere short walk away. Only, the map of Warsaw is a bit bigger than it looks! The walk went through parks and streets and took a long time.
No sign of Extinction Rebellion. Regular debates and free speakers gather outside the White House to express their thoughts. This is where they would be. Should be.
Behind the square you can just see the Opera House – the third biggest stage in the world after Moscow and Beijing.
Warsaw citizens still debate what to do with the site of the Saxony Palace. Many wish it to be left open, with the Tomb a sombre reminder of the waste of war. Some, including a local lady in our group, suggested that it could be rebuilt and used to house the Polish National Museum. It turned out almost half of our group, with that opinionated lady, was from a business that supports International Workers arriving in Poland with their visas and guide them through the myriad legal requirements. They were out for a team building exercise which was fun for them but meant our guide was often tested and gently reminded of her facts. Sometimes they offered the punchline of her story without waiting for her build up. She remained admirably calm in the face of this intense scrutiny from the senior female cohort and they had a good time, looking at their city from a different perspective. Sometimes.
The building in the photo at the top of this post and here, the Palace of Culture and Science was given to the people of Warsaw by Stalin. It is a copy of one of his Seven Sisters of Moscow. Apparently most older people in Warsaw hate it. They wish it had been destroyed along with other Russian edifices in the ’90s. But the younger generation are more practical. They believe as it’s made its mark on the city, it’s iconic and there’s a couple of cool bars inside.
And the walking tour finished directly opposite a cool vegan restaurant, Nancy Lee! Truly delicious soup.
Finding strength for more exploration I went in search of the Museum of Modern Art’s Architectual Exhibition at the Zodiac Gallery. It was called Pomnikomania – Monumentomania – Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. There was a lot of art-speak but as Warsaw contains so many monuments the young artists’ responses varied from absurd to offensive. I liked a video piece I didn’t understand but it was a ritual performed next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The next day dawned bright and early. After washing and organisation, Alicja let me leave my luggage for the day. I would seek the Copernicus museum down at the river’s edge. It’s right by the Modern Art Museum. Glorious day. Off I marched once more to discover that map really is too small. I walked FOR AGES to get to the river.
When I passed the underground I relaxed, I’d certainly be able to get back in time for Alicja. Continued to walk under the bridge, passing enterprising stallholders displaying freshly picked mushrooms, great grey platters of sunflower seedheads, homemade pickles and jams. Finally reached the shores of the great Vistula. Across the river is the enormous sports arena.
I was reminded of my visit to Merida, in Spain, and the remains of Roman civilisation visible there. What will citizens of the future find here?
Amazing how fast I calmed down as I walked by the river, looking out at the wilderness preserved opposite. This side is for smooth paths, museums and cafes. The other is the famed and ‘dangerous’ arty Praha. There are bicycle paths that run through wild areas left for animals and even eagles have been spotted there. Our guide lived there and spoke rapturously of her interesting environment. Alicja, you have to make a visit. In the daytime, you’ll be safe. Certainly, the Warsaw I visited so very briefly was clean and under development. It is a modern city like most, however, it is in Poland!
I couldn’t find a good vantage point to photograph either the Copernicus or Modern Art buildings so I turned away and found this lookout. Oooooh.
It’s not easy to work out, two innocent bystanders pointing up, over and around things for me, and finally I walked through a gate and then up into a wonderfully peaceful garden over the roof of the University. Given the proximity of Copernicus and Modern Art, this garden is surely worth a visit should you have a day to spare in Warsaw. Leave time, though. It’s all a lot closer on the map!
The metro from Kopernicus was clean, fast and easy to work out. Once I’d worked it out. I had minutes to spare before my Airbnb deadline so I raced back through the supermarket, bought some mandarins and a bread roll for the trip. Back at Alicja’s, made sandwich from leftover dinner, left most of the fruit for weight, got act together and went to one of her recommendations, Cafe Miasto, for lunch. So busy! But, as I waited, I saw the library of exchange books and decided to ditch the one I’d been carrying around recently. Sped through last three chapters and plonked it on the shelf. This made up for the newly added weight of mini shampoo and biodegradeable baby wipes. Had to speed through my meal as well but it was extremely tasty.
That was it. I jumped on the tram straight down the line back to the station. I was ready for the big train journey ahead. My first overnight experience. What would it be like? How would I cope? Locked in a compartment for nineteen hours with three others? On to Mother Russia!
For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!
It was 10:30 am on the train from Hamburg to Berlin when a young chirpy woman’s voice presumably welcomes us to our journey in German, before adding, clearly, ‘Good afternoon’. A loud laugh from the man near me gave notice there were not too many English speakers on the train. She said no more.
There was no ticket inspecting, as compared to Spain, where any intercity train journey is accompanied by a security check and close analysis of tickets at every opportunity. No-one ever checked tix in Hamburg. Does anyone even buy tickets apart from tourists?
As for my carefully reserved seat, there weren’t even any numbers on the walls or the chairs. The man, so kind and genuine, selling me the tic in his comfortable uniform and urging me to make that extra payment of four euros fifty to reserve a seat, said, ‘Hamburg to Berlin is our busiest route. It’s normally full. But, you must wake up in time. If you miss it you must pay again.’ All so jovial and such a big, fat lie!
I didn’t miss the train. Walking to the train station was a joy. It was a beautiful sunny morning in my leafy suburb and the fallen leaves, crisp and crunchy the day before, had already turned to sludge in the soft rain. The glowing autumn colours shone through. Those old trees spoke eloquently of change and time passing. The grey mist enhanced the mystery.
On the train I found my Jess-made sewing kit and fixed my pockets and zips, particularly the wallet pocket zip. Definitely a case of a stitch in time. Could not afford a uniform malfunction in the wallet area.
Arrived safely in my cheerful Happy Bed Hostel in Berlin and thought to seek delicious German fare.
All the world’s cusines are in Berlin!
Wednesday began in Kreuzberg, with the simple idea of getting my ticket printed and doing a tour of Berlin, taking in the Spree Gallery in the afternoon. I figured the ticket might take half an hour. I began at the U station, Hallesches Tor, near my efficient hostel.
I bought a daily ticket which no-one asked to see, ever. I put
it in the machine to get it stamped. Who buys tickets in Germany?
From there I caught the train to Warschauer Strasse station. Then I had to change to the S-train. I asked the only staff member I could find who was hiding in a booth and didn’t want to come out. He didn’t speak any English and the jutting of his whiskery chin made it plain he didn’t like the idea of English. After I indicated my desired destination by jabbing at my map, he pointed to the exit. I came out of the U and looked around the streets for the S. Where was S? I started to feel I was in an ep of Sesame Street. There was considerable building, scaffolding and blocked pathways around me. I was about to cross the street to find a café with a human who might know something when I looked up. A sign!
When I got to the S I could not find a train that went to my
station. It only went to Nölderplatz. You might think this is petty but when
you are trying to organise ongoing travel arrangements these things can get
stressful. If I had made this trip the next day when I wanted to catch the
train to Warsaw, I would have missed it. So the dry run was turning into a
sweaty run. But I took deep breaths. Planning ahead is good.
Back in the corridors of train world, I asked a couple of men in orange high viz and they shrugged. I figured it was better to get close to where I wanted to be and caught the train to Nölderplatz. There seemed to be no ongoing to Lichtenberg. I asked a couple of charming smiling women in high viz orange and they pointed across the suburb and waved and danced the information that I could catch a bus two streets over. Schliststrasse? Schillerstrass? So I wandered out of the station, into a nice park, saw a bus stop that did not list Lichtenberg and wandered two more streets, past a skateboard park with no graffiti and a man in his fifties practicing his skate moves in his dark blue raincoat. The yellow leaves made sharp contrast with the grey concrete curves.
I saw a promising orange bus. It did not list my name so I
went to the other side, just missing another. Then I returned to ask a oncoming
driver of the first side. He pointed at the other side. Why did I cross the
road? To make sure I was facing the right direction. Finally a bus arrived. I
asked for my station. He shook his head, staring ahead. Oh, dear. But then, in
the nick of time, he remembered! Yes! Get on, get on, so I did.
The couple in front of me looked worried and turned back to
examine me. Lichtenberg, they muttered to each other and shook their heads. I
had no-where else to be but time was ticking on. I would get somewhere. I
looked out of the window at the grey day. The blocks of flats were either grey
or cream or off-white or taupe or beige and the paint was flaking but the parks
were always present with their glowing gold and orange tints growing bolder
through the greenery. People in the streets wore olive green, brown, black and
We arrived at a large carpark with a small bike-stand array (why are there so many cars in Berlin?) and there was Lichtenberg station.
It was quiet. Shops were shut. Informative signs in German guarded the stairwell. I found my ticket machine, chose the Union Jack and looked for a pre-paid ticket option. I patted and tapped all around the choices open to me. I couldn’t find it. Luckily, I was standing right next to the information desk. I went to stand in the queue stretching out into the hallway. There seemed to be an invisible forcefield around the workers’ counter. Only one person could fit into the shop in this queue. At least two metres separated our first contender from the desk. Purposeful German chatter filled the air as the two assistants organised tickets and directed people. I took deep breaths.
I got the old guy with a white beard. I apologised for speaking only English and he stood up, as if to go, and on second thoughts towered over the printed information I offered him. English? What is English? Reluctantly, quickly, he read my journey details and told me to go to platform 16. I indicated no, not now, tomorrow. And tried to explain I needed to print the ticket. He shouted, ‘Machine! Machine!’ and pointed with vigour at the place from whence I’d come. I said, ‘But I can’t … ‘ He said, ‘Machine!’ and turned to go.
He swung back to look at the next person in the queue. You can bet I was saying Bitte and Danke all I could but, really, this guy was working in the information desk? In Berlin? In an international station? Are all their patrons German? I went to look at platform 16. At least there were no barriers across it. I took deep breaths and headed to the WC for extra calming. A little queue in front of the shut doors looked worried and held money and one guy at the front had even managed to print a ticket. But it was closed. A large woman wearing a floral scarf around her neck and a taupe jacket stretched across her front marched to the machine and talked to the young man commandingly. Perhaps he had broken it? No? That was that. She had enough and left. The WC, the entire station, was not functional today.
Considering my options I thought the best thing to do was return to a place where I had once found kindness so I returned to the air and went to find U. Finally, worked out how to get to Alexanderplatz on my path to return to Berlin Hbf (of which I had fond memories). Alexanderplatz is where that big tall landmark tower is.
On my way to find the S I saw an information booth and stood in a queue there. After a while the lovely smiling woman showed me a photo-card of the correct options in the machine. You have to choose ‘All Offers’ and ‘Bahnof tickets’ and then you are given a choice to put in your number or voucher. Job done. It had taken me nearly two and a half hours to print my ticket.
There were a lot of people sleeping rough, especially around the train stations.
I won’t go into the struggle to find a café, although there was one, my decision to head towards the Brandenburg Gate to take a tour regardless of lagging vim and joyfully, on the way, by chance, finding a brand new café called ‘Beets and Roots’ where they really do treat you like a rock star (my name was Bradley Cooper) and the food is delicious. I sat outside in the silvery sun and had an ongoing discussion with three kamikaze wasps. I believe all three survived in the end. Greedy things.
The Brandenburg Gate was familiar from much film and tv. The lady with the chariot and prancing steeds was apparently once called ‘Peace’ but after Napoleon stole her away to the Louvre and the Prussian return, she is now known as ‘Victory’ and carries the German Eagle to show her people fresh resolve. (How did Napoleon and indeed, the Prussian victors, get her on and off the gate? Were there cranes?) It memorialises war, victory and ownership.
My guide was called Susan Grouchy. She had a masters in archaeology and had returned to uni to study memorials. Berlin is the obvious place for such an endeavour. She was not originally from Berlin but urged us to find not only physical memorials but people who lived here. They would be sure to have some interesting stories. What do they remember?
As well as the roads steeped in history, from 1250 onwards, there was a group of vibrant red Extinction Rebellion protestors gathering, silently swaying, palms skywards, flags fluttering, white faces grim, making a bold statement against the grey imposing structures around them.
Can such a people-based movement rise up once more in this city of peaceful protest? When the Berlin Wall came down thirty years before hundreds of thousands of suppressed people took to the streets to come and see for themselves if the travel restrictions had been lifted? And the guards did not open fire. There were not enough bullets to shoot everyone and the time had come for the German people to come together again. The walls came down.
Now the fight is not so tangible. You cannot see climate change. You cannot smash it or break rocks from it. You cannot paint it with colourful visual poetry. Is the time right for people to see a change in how corporations use fossil fuels? Can we shoot the typhoon headed for Japan?
Susan took us to the great and sombre grey block Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There are other memorials to different minority groups singled out for extinction elsewhere but this Jewish memorial is imposing, belittling, awe-inspiring. I can see how politicians might feel when they take a break from the nearby Reichstag, with its glass dome to symbolise transparency, and visit this neighbour. You must interact with it. You must consider the shapes and individuals and be overwhelmed by the height of it. Lost cities. Lost dreams.
Our guide, as student of memorials, encouraged us to consider these effects. She explained what the artist Peter Eisenman stated; that it was designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and not stated; that any numbers or shapes were symbolic in any way, in his presentation to the city.
In the end each individual’s response is personal and how I wish everyone in the world in power had to come to this place to consider their responsibilities. People making, negotiating and dealing in missiles, arms of any kind and tanks with a view to harm and destruction should come to this place. The humans on the UN Security Council, they should come here.
Marching along the remains of the wall, so weak and thin, she told us of Amplemann and obeying the pedestrian signs, or else.
She took us to the car park over the bunker where Hitler ended his life. She showed us the work-places of Goebbels and Himmler. The great grey sideways skyscraper where the Lufftwaffe was based, now the taxation office. She took us to the cheery tourist ridden Checkpoint Charlie, overlooked by KFC and Macdonalds and other brazen honeypots. She showed us the cobbled reminder of the wall but she did not point out the small brass squares, brightly (recently) polished that we walked past.
The German and French Cathedrals (copies rebuilt by the East Germans to show what Berlin used to look like) stand on opposite sides of the Konzerthaus. Nice they are brought together by music.
And the Konzerthaus had a red carpet pleated up the tall stairs to the grand entry. Exciting events during the 30th anniversary of the Wall coming down.
All is building, barriers, perhaps in preparation for a thirty-years party – or the Festival of Lights – but many buildings under construction or renovation and of course, the S-train is to be improved. About time. There is surely room to improve the signage! Many police officers and cars in evidence – if it was for the Extinction Rebellion they were over-prepared. The people had not come to the streets in any great number. Why not?
Never made it to Spree but my taxi driver in the morning was a Berliner. He spoke English extremely well, having grown up in the West. He’d visited Australia when he was a kid. He said he feared he was a rare oddity in this international city. I assured him there were plenty of old white German men who did not wish to be part of the tourist flood, most of them working for train stations.
He remembered when the wall came down. He was twenty and ready to party. He hated David Hasselhof for stealing the moment. He thought Paul Weller should have come. He was still waiting for Paul Weller.
Walls come tumbling down
You don’t have to take this crap You don’t have to sit back and relax You can actually try changing it I know we’ve always been taught to rely
Upon those in authority But you never know until you try How things just might be If we came together so strongly
Are you gonna try to make this work Or spend your days down in the dirt You see things can change Yes, an’ walls can come tumbling down
Governments crack and systems fall ‘Cause unity is powerful Lights go out walls come tumbling down
The competition is a color TV We’re on still pause with the video machine That keep you slave to the H.P.
Until the unity is threatened by Those who have and who have not Those who are with and those who are without And dangle jobs like a donkey’s carrot Until you don’t know where you are
Are you gonna realize The class war’s real and not mythologized And like Jericho you see walls can come tumbling down
Are you gonna be threatened by The public enemies number ten Those who play the power game They take the profits you take the blame When they tell you there’s no rise in pay
Are you gonna try an’ make this work Or spend your days down in the dirt You see things can change Yes, an’ walls can come tumbling down
Speaking to another young Berliner, she said, ‘It is a city to make memories in.’
Another of the questions Susan asked us to consider was, ‘Why are so many Berliners DJs?’
I was sitting next to a young fellow on the train on my way to Warsaw. He was editing some music on his computer – listening intently to his headphones. Maybe I’ll ask him.
For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!
On the rails again, I was encouraged to see so many windturbines, not only through the Netherlands but also in Germany, as the train trundled over the border. We also passed workers building an enormous solar array in the middle of lush green pastures.
On passing through Gouda, I reflected on the illustrious history of that cheese and the many times I had enjoyed a sumptuous slice on a cracker. Which lead me to contemplate the current lack of (cows milk) cheese in my life. No bad thing. Imagine if, when breastfeeding Felix, someone had snatched him away to make me ‘donate’ my milk to other beings? I suppose, when our cows were Daisy and Buttercup out in the back paddock and we were all friends together it might have been different but now there are billions of us drinking billions of café lattes and billions of little calves snatched away from their billions of bellowing mothers. What happens to the baby cows? The things you think on a train …
The verdant green paddocks flashing by my window were divided by slim, flat channels of shining water. Wooden fences, trees and fat ponies were interspersed with modern buildings and power lines. The old and the new sat back to back in the Netherlands, like the woman in the Rotterdam memorial to the fallen facing sadly down to the past and the man with the spade looking up for a new vision.
Netherlands is trying to shake the Holland image – Holland being only one part of the country. I’m shaking off the Netherlands! Onward! Forward, forward went the rattling train, into the next county, the next region, the next country. Human muttering, snuffles and snores surrounded me all the way to Amersfort.
Amazed how stressed I became when I couldn’t find a notice
board giving me the onward time and place for my connection. I had to go
outside the station and find a tiny little screen well-above head-height to
spot it. It did not show on the platform screens for another twenty minutes.
It’s difficult turning up bright and early, prepared and ready, when the
systems are not ready for you.
A pretty young blonde sitting in my seat, innocent as you please, said, looking around at her fellow gang, ‘Oh, most of us don’t have reservations’, as she snuggled in (to my seat) and looked smug. The rest of the passengers seemed to nod but I may have imagined that. They might have just looked down to avoid my eye or read their book or check a piece of fluff on their shirt. I passed on to lean on a patch of wall with the other too-lates-for-a-spot. I remembered the summer of 2016 when I had travelled on a Eurail pass, two of my German trains had neglected to add my carriage. Clambering into any available wagon, many of my fellow passengers squeezed into corridors, sat on the floor or leaned on their luggage to while away the hours. Perhaps this was normal in Germany. When the ticket inspector came along he made no comment to those hogging the reserved seats, looking carefully at each ticket and then grudgingly approving them. When he gave my ticket the required grunt, I asked about my seat number. He said, ‘Well, you should go and sit there.’ I explained that I could not. ‘But you reserved it.’ Shrug. And he said, ‘Well, she should move.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think she wants to.’ And he said, ‘She has to.’ And I said, ‘I can’t make her.’ And you could see the exasperation in his eyes. ‘She has to.’ And my silent shrug made him decide who was in charge. He marched toward the pretty blonde but pretended he didn’t realise it was her, looking around at all the seat numbers innocently, creeping closer to his prey. She didn’t like it but he persisted and soon enough she was packing up and the seat was mine. The woman next to me said, ‘Awkward’ in that funny American sitcom kind of way. I said, ‘She’s young. She can cope.’ And the woman leaning next to me smiled and said, ‘That’s the rules. Unfortunate.’ BUT NOT FOR ME!!
I had desires to buy a coffee and eat my sandwich but her blonde companion sat beside me like a disapproving thunder cloud, crossing her long legs uncomfortably against the seat in front of her like a thin-legged crab trying to get into a shell. Her judgement lay across me like a forbidding arm.
The train stopped to change staff and take a break. The voice said you could go outside for a smoke so I went to look out of the door. Ah. This is the sort of thing I could expect on the TransSiberian. Pausing. But I did not want to risk losing the train so I did not set foot on the platform plus, you know, tobacco smoke. It was only for a few minutes and I’d left my run a bit late. Still. Got to practice the idea.
My Hamburg walking tour – sadly forgotten guide’s name – mainly because she lost ME – began by the water (river Alster) next to a Venetian looking shopping mall, Alsterarkaden. She was an excellent speaker. She told us that one in forty citizens of Hamburg was a millionaire. And there are more billionaires registered in Hamburg than anywhere else in Europe, maybe the world. The rivers were full of ships and boats of all sizes and shapes, tangible evidence of supremely successful trade. I was also reassured of wealth and comfort by the chateaus grandstanding in the leafy suburb near my cosy Airbnb apartment.
Not sure what the people sleeping in the street imply, tucked up, silent and hunched, in their sleeping bags in shop doorways and alleys. One was even curled over into a wheelchair. What sort of life is that? Hamburg was cold.
The guide told us the city has been built and destroyed over and over again in its long history. It was originally a fort surrounded by three rivers, Alster, Elb and Bille. Water is more than life-blood. It is food, drink and communication channel. It is wealth.
A couple of young lads rolled up on their little scooters and peered over shoulders. When the guide asked them if they were joining us they said, ‘Yeah, nah,’ and I knew we were in the presence of Melbournians. ‘Yeah, nah, we’ll just park the scooters.’ We walked up from the river, part of the lake now, up to the Hamburg Rathaus (town hall).
The Rathaus is canvas writ large with historical figures and symbols.
At the rear of the Rathaus to look at the Goddess of Hygiene in her fountain, chosen because of the cholera epidemic as a result of the Great Fire of Hamburg. The fountain is cleverly used as part of an intricate cooling system throughout the building. When the water trickles, it must be summer. In the winter it’s turned off or else the pipes will freeze and cause all sorts of trouble for the Rathaus.
We walked to the Patriotic Society – a kind of NGO for growing community – and found a group of several small brass squares embedded into the footpath outside. These little squares, called Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) by Gunter Demnig, are now all over Europe (apart from some places where they do not think walking on memorials is a respectful act). I’d seen them before in Lubeck. She explained they were memorials for those persecuted by the Nazis, regardless of religion. They give names and dates but cannot tell much more of the story apart from their placing. These particular people must have been members of the Society. Our guide explained that when locals go about their business they often keep their eyes down and they will see those names, and perhaps be jolted. That those who notice will have to look down to read the names and therefore will be bowing.
She told of meeting an elderly man on his knees in front of the plaques when she was delivering her tour. He was polishing the brass. When asked, he explained that his father was a member of the SS and this small task, polishing these little squares of metal, were a way for him to atone his inherited feelings of guilt.
We moved to Saint Nicholas, a blackened wreck of a church, which has been left as a site for memorials. It makes for sombre visiting. Most of Hamburg was bombed by the allies. It is now thought to have been the most bombed city in WWII. The allies decided to force the citizens to decide to give up – they rained down white fire on Hamburg for ten days and nights. The white fire was so powerful it drained oxygen from the air, sucked life from deep inside bomb shelters and killed old, young and creatures alike. When offered the choice, Hamburg quickly surrendered.
My father was a navigator in the Royal Australian Air Force. I do remember him talking about Dresden. He thought the destruction of Dresden was one of the greatest crimes of his war. He talked sadly about the beauty of that small city before the allies had smashed it. I don’t think the Australians were involved in bombing Hamburg. He did not talk much about his war, apart from jovial remarks about his only injury coming when he’d drunkenly fallen off a gate. I knew he’d been shot down in the Mediterranean because his brother, Syd, told me so. His crew had been rescued by a British submarine that surfaced metres away, saying clearly and commandingly to ‘Douse that light, you … ’
I did not inherit any guilt about these bombings. As far as my education and assumptions about WWI and WWII went, we were on the right side, we won and we did the right thing. My grandfather and my father told me so. I could not help but think of those who are suffering in wars at this time. Have humans learned nothing but arms deals?
My walking tour took a break in Starbucks. I could not remember ever having taken food or drink in one of those before. I really enjoyed my almond-milk hot chocolate but the three other Aussies (from Melbourne) despaired at the quality of their coffees. ‘Yeah, nah.’ Making faces they said things like, ‘Disgusting.’ ‘Medicinal.’ ‘Don’t do it.’ Think of all those poor little calves and their milking mummies.
Then we visited the surviving 16th century buildings near the beginning of the Great Fire, some of the few old buildings in this city. They not only survived that fire but also both world wars. These are strong buildings. See the tidal marks on the foundations?
We progressed towards the harbour proper, still river water. When I started chatting with Debbie, a ceramicist from Florida, we lost sight of the group. More and more tourists and locals out for a weekend stroll swirled around us. I thought I saw the other American on the tour wave at us but perhaps I was mistaken as our dash to catch up was fruitless. So I never did get to hear the end of the guide’s story. But Debbie and I talked about Extinction Rebellion and the gritty reality of American politics until I had to meet my friend in St Pauli, the edgy side of town.
I met Tanja at StrandPauli, a funky beach themed café. Wish I’d taken some photos but we were too busy gossiping. I met Tanja at a Christmas yoga retreat near Seville nearly ten months ago. Later we walked down to the Elbphilharmonie (or concert hall on the Elbe). She told me the glass for the windows was difficult and expensive and when you see the melty bends and flexes in the surface of the glass it is easy to understand why. Apart from the fact it’s very high up and really, will people notice that, or the tailor-made light bulbs that also had to be made internationally?
The next day was sunny and delightful. I wandered from my little apartment to the old fishing village area, Treppenviertel, now a gentrified suburb for some of those millionaires!
I wandered and waited to catch a ferry from Blankenese (white nose). Had no idea where the ferry was going so I wasn’t surprised when it seemed to be driving towards shallow water, a surly bridge and an opening gate.
There was an aborted landing attempt, presumably because the open gate was releasing a force of muddy water (were they dredging in there?) twisting the ship around at unpredictable angles. Our ferry had to push away from the dock and regain composure mid-stream.
I did wonder if we were to go through the gate but finally, with much bumping and clanging of those big metal pillars, we tied up, folk disembarked and new passengers ran to get onboard. Then we sat again. Cigarettes were smoked. Babies’s chins were chucked. The sun was brilliant. Glorious day. Expectation remained high amongst the other passengers. We would surely be leaving soon. Wouldn’t we?
Went down to ask about buying a ticket (and our destination) in this luxurious autumnal cruise and found my daily train tick was ample and I would change ferry at the next landing. Eventually we got underway.
Back we went to Blankenese, carefully avoiding the mudflats pimpled with small birds.
No hesitation here. Off we went into deeper shipping channels and new industrial vistas. It is a huge port.
The main reason I came to Hamburg was to check on the assertions given to me by young peregrinos on the Camino. They all attested to the great beauty of Hamburg. No, really. It was far more beautiful than Sydney harbour. Much. Well. Yeah. Nah. I don’t think so. Sorry.