Trans Mongolian – Day 6

Well that border crossing was everything we read it would be. Long, tedious, and at the lovely time of midnight. The mongolian side was fairly straightforward. An hour to check passports and search our cabins, and off we went to the Chinese side. In China though, there was the thorough passport check, cabin check, and then the joy of them changing the track gauges (from single in Russia/Mongolia to double track in China). This took hours. Our cabin attendant did inform us that as our passports were already checked, we could get off the train as the process would be ‘very boring’. So off we got, and wandering into the large station shop. This shop had absolutely everything from food to house hold detergents, fresh fruit and veggies, even bedding, linens and jade carved dragons. We took our time and made a few purchases. When we went out outside again we had the pleasure of finding the platform empty – no train. Us and about 20 or so other tourists looked a little baffled but as we all tried to keep our game face on no one looked too panicked. The fact is we were all probably doing the same thing, trying to look like unfazed seasoned travelers even though we had no clue where our train was our when it was coming back.

An hour or so later, we got hussled out of the station through the back door onto the main street. Now i was a bit worried. Jason’s Chinese came in handy with a few ‘Wei shema’s?’ (aka: why), we managed to figure out were were being moved to another building, the departures terminal. Over another hour later the train finally showed up and we were allowed back on. Dear Lonely Planet guide book. Could you not have mentioned this detail? If you get off the train at 10:30pm don’t expect to get back on until well after midnight.

Back on the train, in no time were asleep, wanted to rest up for our last day on the train.

This is what we awoke to:
Inner Mongolia

Kind of to be expected I suppose. Is that smog, fog or the infamous spring sand storms? hard to tell.

For our day in China for some reason we were given meal tickets. This meant that the restaurant car was packed, but at least we got to see some more life on the train. At the border last night we’d clearly picked up a pile more passengers. The restaurant car itself was nice. Clean, efficient, kind of neuvo communist looking (unlike the old fashioned soviet looking Russian car). Breakfast was a quick efficient affair. Hard boiled egg, bread, and tea. Sit, eat, get out al in under 15 minutes.

China restaurant car

So, what’s the view like in China? Well, you spend plenty of time in Inner Mongolia which looks sparse and desert like:
inner mongolia

Then you pull up to a city of 3 million people you’ve never heard of to find mass industrialization:
china city 1

china city 2
DSC_0593

At certain kilometer marks our guide book would tell us things like: the north side of the train will offer commanding views of the great wall.

Well, maybe on a less hazy day, this was our view:

great wall

Can you see it? barely?

Lunch was another set menu in the dining car, rice vegetables, meat ball things – pretty tasty actually. And the afternoon was spent looking at more scenery like this as we got closer to Beijing:

DSC_0627

One very annoying thing is about 2 hours outside of Beijing the cabin attendants start to clean up. But not a little tidy up, like come in take all our sheets and bedding, the table cloth, our carpet, our window curtains…. they stripped our room bare. They also mopped all the floors even though us filthy travelers with dirty shoes are still walking around?! To me its as annoying as being told you can check out of a hotel at noon, but at 10:30 the cleaning staff will come in and start servicing the room around you. We’ve been on this train for 6 days, can you not wait another 2 hours? And seriously, you probably want to keep those cushion covers on the upholstery, remember we haven’t had a real shower in 6 days!

But, by the time we pulled into amazingly we were only about 9 minutes late. Fantastic punctuality.

beijing station

Beijing Station

So, 5 and a half days on a train – overall? We loved it. And actually found ourselves wishing we could stay on a bit longer. Favourite day? Mongolia. All around the most interesting scenery. Would we do it again? Probably not that same route, but another long distance train ride, for sure.

Trans Mongolian – Day 5

Mongolia! At last.

We awoke around 7am local time to arrive in the capital, Ulaan Baatar. Jason was ecstatic. He was one of the first off the train, in search of a money changer. The best he could do though was an ATM inside the station. Back on the station we picked up some more supplies (soup, bread, noodles, the usual). We only had about 30 minutes here, but we wandered the platform, snapped some photos and people watched. Mongolians generally seem happier than the Russians. We also noticed that last night a new restaurant car was inserted into our train.
UlaanBstation

DSC_0459

Once we pulled out of the capital, we got a chance to see how big it actually was. This is no far flung nomadic outpost, but rather a large bustling industrial city. What caught our eye though is that even though there were plenty of modern buildings, the yurt tent was always present.

Yurt

(suburbs of UlaanBaatar)
DSC_0481

Today proved to be by far the most scenic day. We spent most of it glued to our windows (and wishing we’d brought squeegies to clean the dust off the outside windows). The towns were few and far between, and even when there were towns, they were sparse to say the least.

towns of mongolian

one of the bigger towns:
mongolian town 2

The actual stops that we made were interesting, but on a completely different level than in Russia. Gone are the ladies selling food, we were lucky for the odd card table set up with bottled water and juice. Also gone were in signs of other commuter traffic. It was clear that we were the only train this station had seen for hours. And since our train was so quiet, it just added to the barrenness of each stop.

mongolian station

By lunch time we decided to try out the mongolian restaurant car. Mongolia gets the reputation has worst food on the entire trip. Typical speciality is boiled mutton and rice. We did however find they had the prettiest restaurant car by far – full of wood carvings. And the food, it was actually pretty good. We get upsold on 2 set menus which I imagine were touristed up, but that boiled mutton wasn’t half bad!

Mongolian Restaurant Car

Nice thing was they accepted a combination of our left over Mongolian currency and some Russian Roubles (at a ridiculous exchange rate, but well .. what can you do).

Back in our cabin the scenery kept us entertained all day. Livestock, small towns, emptiness… today was a photo happy day.

camels

Jason picking up some water
DSC_0534

in front of a hotel

typical view out our window
typical mongolia

By sunset our train pulled close to the border town with China. We got this one final shot before starting the extremely lengthy process of crossing over to China.
goodbye mongolia

Trans Mongolian – Day 3

Today, the disorientation of following Moscow time really kicks in. At sunrise we awake in Bogotol. I blink at my mobile phone which is still set to Moscow time. 3:30 am. Local time its 7:30. Sometime last night we crossed another time zone moving us to Moscow + 4. Its odd to have the train schedule posted in our cabin in Moscow time. Tomorrow we’re scheduled to arrive at Lake Baikal at midnight moscow time, which will actually be 5am local time. Must be even more unusual for the train stations that post their clocks in Moscow time. I can’t imagine working on Vladivostock station, looking up at the clock that will say 3am but the real time is 10am.

Today I experience a luxurious APC shower and (what’s probably mostly psychological) I actually feel clean.
Scenery is similar to yesterday, just a bit hillier. I also notice that the train has a distinct smell. A mixture of the coal being burnt in the carriage furnace, and our cabin attendant’s Chinese cooking. Yesterday in his little compartment he was chopping up raw cabbage, garlic and prawn to make some sort of soup. I’m thinking its possible his cooking maybe better than the dining car.

Krasnoyarsk is our first stop of the morning. The station is huge and the most high tech we’ve seen. The platforms even have electronic signs. We find a kiosk and the lady seemed overjoyed to be helping us. We picked up a fresh loaf of bread, a link of thick sausage, two containers of juice and 2 instant soup/dinner bowls (we’d learn the next day that we actually bought 2 bowls of instant mashed potato). Our biggest haul yet. Too often we stop at a platform far away from the main terminal to go far, so we’re at the mercy of what ever happens to be on our platform.

Back on the train we dig into our meal, deciding today will be a day that we skip the dining car.
It’s hard to describe what life is like on the train. You read, you eat a little, make some tea, stare out the window for a while, have a nap, chat, do some financial planning, read some more. The time just goes, and it’s very relaxing. This particular train is not overly social though, it’s running at very low capacity. I suppose it is the low season in between Chinese New Year and Easter, so expected. Our first class carriage has 8 cabins for 2, so 16 people capacity. There are only 6 of us on though. We’ve met a few people from the other cabins, but this doesn’t appear to be the season for the Vodka express.

Scenery is still a snowy wooded wilderness interspersed with vast open expanse of snow. Well, until you get close to a town, then it turns into an absolute industrial wasteland. Coal mines, industrial processing factories, timber yards. In between the towns you do get a feeling of extreme isolation though.

Siberiantown

Sibera - empty isolation[/caption]

Our last stop during daylight is at Illansky. Absolute jackpot for food. These Russian ladies had our first class carriage pegged and by the time our door opened they had their bags of food neatly on display in a long row not more than 3 steps from our door. Meat, eggs, bread, potatos, fruit some vegetables, juices and beer – it was the best selection yet. And they priced themselves accordingly. Sadly we weren’t overly hungry, but we did pick up 4 giant meat dumplings to add to our soup.

Dumpling in Soup

Trans Mongolian – Day 2

Sometime overnight we officially crossed into Siberia. Scenery has changed. Yesterday was birch tree forests with small industrial towns. Today the trees are thinning out and there are much larger expanses of open untended grassy lands. Still lots of snow. We slept through the 8am (moscow time, +3 local time) stop at Ishim, so we’ll have to wait 3 and a half hours until Omsk to experiment with any more food tastings.
Breakfast

Lonely Planet tells me we’ve crossed into another time zone, we’re now at Moscow + 3 hours. Jason discovers that our shared ensuite shower doesn’t have enough pressure to wash his toes let alone any other body part so he resorts to filling up the sink for a splash shower of key parts.

In Omsk, we buy some bread and onion rings /crisps from a little kiosk on the platform. At this stop we’re more brave and venture off the platform to have a peek at the town. just a peak though.
Omsk

OmskKiosk

CarriageAttend

Later in the day, we head back to the dining car for our main meal. My 3 hours of menu translation the day before proves useless as both dishes we requested were out of stock. Pierogies out of stock in Russia?! Criminal. Again we are the only ones in the dining car. The staff watch Braveheart dubbed over in Russian. My borsht is quite delicious.
At the next stop we pick up some bottled water. No snacks tempt as this time – i think we’ve filled our quota of salt for the day.

We spend the rest of the day reading, lounging and slowly being rocked by the train into various naps.
lounging

We make one more stop in the evening at Novosibirik, surprisingly a huge city. Interestingly enough, we had tried to come here last year for the solar eclipse in August but couldn’t get the planning to work. On the platform a few kiosks are open, we browse, but decide 300 roubles is too expensive for sausage.

Trans Mongolian – Day 1

I awake around 4:30 am. We’ve made a very harsh stop at some small station, and i’m now wide awake. We quickly come to the conclusion that sleeping on this trip will have to be a series of naps.

Jason goes back to sleep – he was up for hours after me, unpacking and settling into his surrounding – excited like small child. I instead went straight to sleep, so now rested, I wake up and watch the sunrise from my window and snap some first photos.
sunrise

A few hours later Jason is up, we make our instant oatmeal breakfast. a few more hours still and we are at another stop. We both get off, but as this is our first venture outside the train we’re paranoid. Trains do leave without people, it has happened many times (although people have survived to blog about it). Determined not to be one of the unfortunate ones, we only make a tiny 5 meter radius from the door.

day1station

Back on the train after a few hours of reading we decide to head to the diner car for some lunch. We find it empty, save for the 3 Russian staff members who are huddled around one table chain smoking and watching TV from the 70’s. Actually the whole train seems quite empty.

russainrestaurantcar

I attempted to decode the menu, but quickly realise that my Cyrillic and Russain vocabulary are just not up to scratch. I can only recognise the odd word: potato, dessert, tea.

decodingmenu

We give up and play Russian roulette with the menu choosing 2 random dishes. We got incredibly lucky. I ended up with a hearty cabbage and sausage soup and Jason with some fried beef patty and really delicious home made french fries. We decided that next time might not be so lucky, so we photograph each page of the menu. My next 3 hours were spent translating.

By the next stop, Jason has worked up more courage and ventures a bit further to a few local ladies to buy some food.
shoppingrussia

On a Styrofoam tray under tightly wrapped plastic wrap sit fried potato covered in dill, and two round brown pucks, which I assume are just meat patties. In another bag he has 3 giant home made pickles and in a final plastic container is some sort of salad dish with a layer of chopped beats on top. Poor score for presentation. I reassure myself that since it’s so cold outside that the chill acts as some sort of refrigeration and surely that will alleviate some of my food safety concerns. Hours later we’d find the pickles delicious, the meat and potatos also delicious (and reminiscent of food my Polish grandmother would make), but the salad… I wouldn’t touch it as fresh mayonaise is on my pregnancy restricted food list. Jason gingerly bites in to find that under the layer of beats are pieces of herring chopped in with potato. His gag reflex kicks in, and he chugs his bottle of beer to clear the taste. I’m thinking tomorrow he will be more cautious with his food purchases.
SunsetRussia

Trans Mongolian – Day 0

The train leaves Moscow at 9:30pm. We’re so excited all day. We actually arrive at the station a solid 2 hours early. We wanted to allow plenty of time to understand the departures board, find the platform, find our train, stock up on supplies. 2 hours was about 1.5 hours too early. We quickly realise the platform number won’t be announced until about 30 minutes before. As for supplies, there are a series of little kiosks in and around the station, but they are tiny and seem to stock mostly junk food. We do manage to get two giant 5ltre jugs of water, some juice and snacks. The rest of the time is spent eyeing our stuff, our back pockets every suspicious looking person in the terminal (like everyone) and generally feeling unsafe. The place smells, people smell, and there are way too many people loitering around doing not much. We couldn’t be any happier to get onto that train into the safety of our compartment.

train4sign

When we do get on, Jason is in pure gitty bliss. He spends the next few hours unpacking, checking out our compartment, his bunk, our shared sink/shower room, and just generally buzzing around.

onboard

Me? I’m tired from spending the last 2 hours on high alert for thievery. I got straight to sleep, happy that we made it and its starting.

Moscow

I suppose its the architecture that is the most reminiscent of Poland from the 80’s. Grey, soviet buildings, that were quickly built post war. But where as Warsaw has recently renovated and painted many of these buildings, the ones in Moscow I saw where still in their shabby grey state. There is also just a general feel that Moscow is about 10 years or so behind places like Warsaw (which tells you how far behind it is of other cities).

Its true what they say about Moscow, it is a city of two distinct classes. The new rich Moscow with its glitzy posh restaurants and cafes patroned by a crowd ostentatiously dripping in designer wear. And the old Moscow, the poorer Moscow, with the old babushkas waddling down the street in giant fur hats.

I will say, generally speaking, the stereotype that Russian women are beautiful seems to be true. Its hard to say if it’s because they are exceptionally well put together, or if its a natural beauty. But there are an exceptionally large amount of thin young women, strutting down the street on a lazy sunday afternoon dressed for the fashion shoot in giant stilettos with a face full of dark eye makeup. Their handbags ooze expensive showiness, but are carelessly slung on their arm (which to Jason and I is a notable relief as bag snatching must be pretty damn low to be that casual).

Intermixed between the drab soviet architecture are the impressive historical buildings. The Kremlin was as impressive as I had expected. Although, the red square was smaller than i thought it would be, and believe it or not, a much more distinct rectangle. The churches really are a work of art, and deserving of every bit of photography they get. The onion topped domes are really pretty, and in many cases the church is an absolute spectacle in excessive colouring. Maybe they used all the paint on the churches leaving nothing for the grey apartment blocks?

For food, we tried to stick to Russain food, or at least food of the (former) Russian empire. Most impressive was the Georgian restaurant we went to – absolutely exquisite. Uzbekistani, interesting but not as good. The Moscow obsessive love for Sushi is a bit shocking, literally every restaurant or cafe will serve it. The pierogie were excellent, as was the borscht – to be expected. Sunday brunch buffet at the Park Hyatt was interesting. Seems normal to bring your pet dog, chow down on sushi, but not be served eggs.

Riding the metro was a highlight. First for the massive brain exercise of figuring out the map whilst testing my Cyrillic reading skills. But second for the visual display of the metro stations. We’d read that they were built to be a celebration for the worker. Marble walls, chandeliers, some of these stations were quite done up.

The one thing we didn’t do was go to the ballet or symphony. But that wasn’t due to lack of trying. Tickets on the internet were going for around 200 USD per person – a bit excessive if you ask me. We tried our luck at the theatre box office, but found giant queues of people (blobs like at the airport) and everything in Russian. In the end we couldn’t stomach the patience we’d need to get to the front of the blob to find out that tickets were likely that same 200USD price seen online. Its hard to tell if the theatre buildings were architecturally nice or not, they were all covered in scaffolding.

Overall, a good couple days in Moscow. Not my favourite city in the world, but fascinating to see, especially from a historical perspective. I wouldn’t want to spend more than 3 days though as you do run out of historical sites to tick off that list, and really you’ll break the bank if you stay much longer. And tonight, the trans mongolian express.

Moscow airport: safety cannot be guaranteed

So day 3 in Moscow comes to an end. And in a few hours we’ll be heading to the train station to pick up the Siberian express.

Moscow. First impressions? The Warsaw I remember from the 80’s. The airport was sufficiently soviet looking, grey drab but clean. Customs line? Can’t really call it a line. More like one giant blob of pushy impatient people. This I was actually expecting. Soviet and ex soviet countries have zero respect for an orderly queue. These people in their lifetime remember waiting in line for bread – so can i really blame their ‘ no body helps me but me’ attitude? Surprisingly though, this is the non-Russian/Belarus passport check.

45 min later the blob squeezes through customs, our visas seem in order and we’re fetching luggage. Coming out to the arrivals area we pass giant warning signs in broken english about illegitimate taxi drivers, with very harsh warnings of: safety not guaranteed. noted. its a mob of family members and taxi drivers (most non legit). Although family members do come to greet people at airports in Western countries, the Eastern European countries just take it to another scale. I’ve seen it first hand in Poland were everyone of my 25+ family will make the trip to come see me at the airport, kiss hello for 5 seconds before we pile into various cars where i won’t see 20 of them, and only speak to the 4 or so in my car for the 45 min journey back into town. Its always been weird to me, but its a sweet gesture.

In Moscow we breeze past the throngs of Russian relatives and make a bee line with Jason for the nearest cash point. we’d changed some euros into Roubles back at Heathrow but knowing how expensive Moscow is reported to be, good to stock up on some more while we have the chance. Immediately we get approached by a man in surprisingly decent english offering his taxi services. We smile say no, and turn away. A police officer has already closed in on his position and given him a stern warning in Russian. Cash in hand we find the official taxi desk and ask the women for a taxi to our hotel. Immediately a man approaches us from behind and shows us some sort of seemingly legit looking certificate (a license perhaps?) and confirms the price in english. As the women behind the desk shows no adverse reaction we assume that this is our driver and start to make arrangements. Within 30 seconds though the police officer is on him, scolds him like a child and chases him away. Confused we turn back to the women behind the desk who has shown no reaction to the exchange, and instead simply points to a pricing list. We make arrangements, pay and are told in very broken english to wait 5 min for our driver. This gives us time to watch the half dozen illegitimate driver try to snag a fare. 3 seem hard pressed on snatching the customer as they approach the legitimate taxi desk, but with every attempt, they are chased away by the Police. This cat and mouse game goes on the entire 10 min we wait. Why they’re even allowed to loiter and solicit for fares I don’t know, it seems the Police never let them close a sale.

Our driver finally shows up and grabs our luggage. For a 60+ year old man he moves surprisingly quickly, as i have a very hard time keeping up. Jason gives me an expression of indecision. Leave his pregnant wife trailing behind? or stay with our luggage that is quickly getting out of sight.

It may be a legitimate taxi, but the car turned out to be a 15 year old Renault in rough shape. The driver spoke no English (seems that’s a skill only illegitimate drivers have), but was satisfied with the hotel address we showed him. We settled in the back and peered out the dirty windows as the Russian outskirts, and Moscow suburbs whizzed by. It was an hour and 20 min ride into town. The fuel light blinked the entire trip.

Three Years!

Three Years in the UK

Today is my three year anniversary of coming to the UK!

It’s been a great three years, and Sylvia and I are still loving it (sorry: no plans to move back to Canada).

During this time I’ve learned to love British pub culture and in particular (warm) English ales. Beer anywhere else in the world just doesn’t cut it any more: there’s nothing better than a warm pub & pint on a cold English day. There’s so much going on in London – great food, great events, and lots of friends coming through – that we’re never in search of something to do! Decent public transit is a nice change as well, and it’s fantastic to be able to take a fast train to Paris or Brussels with St. Pancras right around the corner! We also (obviously) love the ability to travel easily (while cheap flights are still around!). I miss good peanut butter though …

In these past three years we’ve travelled to the Cook Islands & Fiji, Hong Kong, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Finland, Turkey, Morocco, Greece, Ireland, Estonia, France, New Zealand (& a bit of Australia), Germany, Egypt, Sweden, Croatia, Montenegro, Belgium – not to mention numerous trips back to Canada (bloody weddings!). I’ve also been shipped off for work to Taiwan, Korea, Japan, China, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and various parts of Europe more times than I’d care to count (though I have to count for tax reasons). After all that travel my passport (a 48 page one!) is full! Of course, my UK Ancestry visa is still valid and the UK government doesn’t want to re-issue it so I guess I’ll be carrying two passports for a while … and don’t get me started on trying to get a new Canadian passport while living abroad …

We’ve spent a lot of time out of the country, so we’re starting to think we should try seeing a bit more of the UK (and London). Plus, working in Cambridge doesn’t allow me to get out in London nearly enough for my liking. Speaking of which, I don’t even want to think about the amount of time I’ve spent on the train between London and Cambridge on my way to & from work. This year I finally cracked and started working from home one day a week, which has allowed Sylvia and I to start taking Chinese lessons together (我们会说一点汉语).

I’m definitely heading to the pub today. Here’s to another great year in the UK!

Airport Security: the Roulette Wheel of Rules

I’m flying out of Heathrow Airport (Terminal 5) this morning on my way to a few meetings in Munich. I just flew out of T5 last month so I didn’t expect much of a problem, but this morning there was a huge queue. Guess what? They changed the security requirements again! Yay!

So now they’ve decided that because domestic and international flights leave out of the same terminal they need to double-check the identity of people flying domestically (don’t ask me why). That means they take photographs of all domestic travellers, and check everybody’s boarding pass to see if they’re domestic. Great.

After getting through that first new queue, I get to security and an even larger queue. Oh look! After months of advertising “leave your laptops in your bags!” (and chewing out anybody who took them out) they now have big signs stating “take your laptop out of your bag.” What happened to all those state-of-the-art scanners they were supposed to have?

Of course, all shoes come off. That’s been consistent for about a year, except when they decide it’s not.

All of this just adds to the fun of airport security. It reminds me of one time I flew out of a US airport on my way to Toronto, and then flew out of the same airport on the same flight three weeks later. The conversation went something like this:

The TSA person scared the crap out of me when he yelled, “STOP RIGHT THERE!! Take off your shoes!”

I was shocked to say the least; I didn’t need to take off my shoes three weeks earlier. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t realize I needed to take off my shoes.”

“Of course you have to take off your shoes! This is an airport you know.”

Well, as I later learned, when I flew out the first time it was “threat level yellow” and three weeks later it was “threat level orange.” The difference (at security) is that at level orange you need to remove your shoes. Of course, how silly of me.

I guess in the US they at least tell you the threat level (look for it – there will always be a little sign near security stating the threat level). In the UK they just make you guess what the security-regulations-of-the-week will be.

Another Year in the UK

September 10th has come which marks another year (a total of two years) since I arrived in the UK. It’s been really great so far and Sylvia and I are still loving it here.

We haven’t been very good about updating our blog lately, probably because we’ve both been living hectic schedules. We went back to Toronto for Lindsay & Kynan Bridge’s wedding in August. I then went directly to San Francisco for a tradeshow and then back to the UK just long enough to pack and meet Sylvia to head to Tallinn, Estonia for the August Bank Holiday:

The Old Town in Tallinn, Estonia

We also spent one day in Helsinki, Findland and instead of taking the ferry from Tallinn we finally got to tick off something we’ve been meaning to do for a while: ride in a helicopter!

Copterline Helicopter

We then used some of Sylvia’s points on the Eurostar from her regular trips to Brussels and visited Paris last weekend.

Sylvia in a Paris Cafe

Of course, for all the good photos you need to add Sylvia to your FaceBook – she doesn’t get around to posting photos on the Britlog much these days! :)

Of course, this year was another great year of travel. This year I’ve been out of the country for about 140 days – about half of that for business travel. For business I ended up in the US, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Korea. Surprisingly I was able to go the whole year without going to Japan, which is fine by me (I’m not a fan of seafood, but I do miss the Kobe beef). Sadly – to save on travel costs – my trips were on a mish-mash of different airlines, including several trips on the now-defunct Oasis Airlines, so I’m probably the most travelled person in the world with no decent status on any airlines. I’m hoping to fix that in the coming year.

For personal trips Sylvia and I went to Estonia, Finland, the Czech Republic, France, Morocco, Poland, Greece, Italy, Germany, Turkey, and a few spots in the British Isles including a weekend in Northern Ireland. Of course, I also went to Switzerland (Geneva) to see the Large Hadron Collider at CERN – which just went online this week and hasn’t destroyed the Earth yet. We still haven’t seen nearly enough of the UK however; I’d like to get up to see Edinburgh for my birthday (I have to find some 32-year old scotch!) but October isn’t exactly the best time to be going to Scotland …

All in all a pretty good year. We just recently signed on for another year in our house in London (which reminds me – I hate estate agents) so I guess we’ll be here for another year. Now it’s time to get ready for the long nights of the British winter.

Reims & the Champagne District

After a solid day off with Lindsay last week, exploring the girlier bits of London (and trying to not let the crap weather get us down) Saturday rolled around and we were off to Reims, France.  2 hour on the Eurostar, a quick change of stations in Paris, a 45 minute express TGV train later we’re in Reims, the capital of the champagne district.

It’s a typical cute french town, cobble stone streets, obligatory cathedral (check, check), but due to the mass tourism of the champagne houses the town is over stocked with cafes and restaurants happy to let you indulge in art of french leisurely relaxation.  We spent over an hour on a cafe patio munching on leafy salads and sipping a champagne cocktail, followed by a few hours in another cafe in the sun sipping cafe cremes chatting, reading the paper (napping if you’re jet lagged!) and people watching.  The best thing the french do is let you sit with your one drink for hours, without trying to get you to buy anything more.  Some people might call this bad service, i call it decadent.

Eventually we peeled ourselves off the patio chairs and wandered the town stopping to window shop and scouting the champagne houses for one to visit the following day.  Time for a cafe break, we are in France after all.

For dinner we went to a local bistro recommended by a coworker that was truly excellent.  Two big things for me, 1: I got to try escargot for the first time and 2: I learned what Magnum means in the context of ordering a bottle of champagne.  To be fair, this was new to Lindsay too.  No it doesn’t mean premium, and no it’s not a brand of champagne.  In fact it’s a size.  2 bottles worth, 1500 litres worth to be exact.  It’s like the french word for “mega”.  We got quite the look from the waiter (and let’s be honest almost every patron in the restaurant).  I guess they don’t encounter 2 champagne rookies like us everyday!

3 hours later, the bottle empty, we showed them!

Sunday.  Surprisingly no hangover!  I think I have a new love for champagne.  breakfast on the cafe we note that the main strip is quite sleepy.

Oh ya, France.  France loves to close stuff on Sundays.  Thankfully they keep the champagne houses open, so it was off to the Mumm house.

The tour was an hour, quite detailed and very educational.  And yes, within the first 5 minutes of the tour the sizes of the bottles are taught.  Lindsay and I exchange a glance and a quiet giggle as we see the magnum bottle in a line up vs. the other bottles.

Later that evening it’s the TGV express back to Paris and the Eurostar back to London.  And as we pulled into London, its one of those rare moments that i get to truly appreciate living in Kings Cross.  10 minutes later, we’re home.

Belfast

I don’t think i’m allowed to complain about the weather in London again.  It may be dark and dreary in London lately, and yes I may have worn a pair of wool trousers to work this week that in Canada don’t see the light of day between April and October.  But all of that pales in comparison to Belfast.

It’s actually damn cold here.   Jeans, wool jumper?  check.  Trench coat and umbrella? check.  Sopping wet feet and craving for a cup of tea?  check, check.

It’s a nice enough looking city though (what I can see from under my umbrella).  For now, we sit in a coffee shop try to dry off and wait for Jason’s friend to ring us.

Bank Holiday in Santorini

I’ve realized that I have a bad habit of coming back from holiday with the best of intentions to write up the trip, only to get busy and weeks later realise that not only is that holiday so last week, I couldn’t be arsed to do a write up. So this time, I seized the free wifi and drafted this up while still there.

And even with that, here I am, a week back for the trip and I’ve slipped. Oops! just the same, here it is:

Santorini.

After an overnight flight from Heathrow through Athens we arrived to cold foggy 7am Santorini. The manager of the Mill Houses was extremely accommodating for our early arrival. He made us a fresh pot of tea and brought us a few slices of citrus birthday cake, while he hurried around to see if our room could be readied. We sat on the terrace munching on cake bundled up in a multitude of layers. The view was non existent through the fog. The fog did help make everything horribly damp though, and I wasn’t feeling too good about this latest bank holiday choice. It is the low season still. A flash back of last years late May bank holiday comes to mind when we went hiking in the off season of Switzerland and hit a snow storm. The things I make us endure for off season prices!

After only half an hour the manager came by and informed us that our room was ready. 7:30 am and our room is ready? Unbelievable. less then 10 minutes later we were sound asleep.

5 hours later we awoke to what seriously was a new day. The fog had burned off, the sky was brilliant blue and the view was every bit the brochure promised. Firastefani made for the perfect first day overnight recovery spot. It’s picturesque and quiet. Something you really appreciate when you walk the mere 15 minutes to the capital Fira to find 2 cruise ships of tourists swarming about the narrow streets asking joyous things like: ‘Do you take american dollars?’ Loved the response by the way: ‘no! euro only.’ My thoughts: listen lady, this isn’t 1997, leave your American peso on the cruise ship. You’re in the EU now. It’s called a bank machine, use it.

a cruise ship circles the volcano

By day 2 we switched hotels to one in Thira thinking we’d be closer to the action. Action, not really, but we were definitely closer to the tourist hive. So we rented a Smart car and explored the island. The part of Santorini that’s not postcarded to death includes flatter ground, sea level accommodation and lots of black sand beaches. If you care to mimic being a sausage on a teflon pan, this is the place for you. The average age of the tourist drops by about 25 years too. the old folks don’t make it this far from the cruise ship, the stick to the well beaten tourist circuit, and the high concentration of jewellery stores. And the ones that do make it to this side, are very laid back people who ditch the tick list of sites to see, and instead grab a nice cocktail in the very comfy beach bars.

Day 3: Oia. (pronounced EE-a!)

Truly amateur photographer’s paradise. Any snap happy monkey puppet named Bobo could take a decent picture in this town. Point, click and it’s photo after photo of postcard perfect shots. With my snap happy Bobo in tow, we wandered the town. As much as I thought the houses were perched on cliffs in Fira, Oia takes the dare just that extra step further.

The town is essentially one long pedestrianized street that hugs the edge of the cliff.

Everything was just that much more picturesque in Oia. the hotels, restaurants, shops even the walk ways. We got lucky with our hotel choice (booked online less than 24 hours before departure). Armeni Village is perched on a cliff like the others, but it’s on prime real estate jutting out away from the others.

On Day 4 we took the classic volcano tour. Since the island is the site of the biggest volcanic eruption the planet has ever seen we thought we should get up close with the crater. Basically 3600 years ago the volcano erupted and blew the island into chunks, and now what’s left is a well manufactured tour that is incredibly efficient at draining your tourist euro. It was Memorial Day weekend in the States, which resulted in an abnormally disproportionate amount of Americans.

That aside, and the fact that I felt like an ant marching two by two, the tour was interesting. As far as volcanoes go, I’ve seen better. But getting out to the actual volcano really gave you perspective as to how far away the main island is, and that pre-explosion it was all connected.

Back in Oia the tour boat dropped us off at the peer and rather than fight the tourists for the limited number of shuttle vans, we scrambled up the cliff to the town high above. As the donkeys breezes past you, it’s a humbling experience. They are in wicked shape.

Our long weekend ended the same way every night in Santorini ends. Yet another sunset to admire as you fade into relaxation.

LHC at CERN – It’s Like Mecca for Science

This weekend I visited the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. This was their last “open day” before the equipment becomes active – and radioactive – later this year.

Even if you’re not a particle physics fan, this thing is really cool. LHC holds the title as “world’s largest machine.” It’s a 27km ring of vacuum tunnels and superconducting magnets under France and Switzerland for the express purpose of generating two beams of protons and smashing them together at 14TeV to see what happens. Of course, it’s all under ground, but this is the area it covers:


All this can be yours for only €5-€10 billion

CERN is also interesting because a lot of technologies have come out of the research done here, including Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) used in hospitals and the World Wide Web (the thing you’re reading this blog on and download your porn from).

LHC was designed to probe deeper into the “stuff” the universe is made of, and will help answer several questions:

  • What is the universe made of?
  • How many dimensions of time and space exist?
  • Why do particles have mass?
  • Why is everything made up of matter instead of anti-matter?

… or, it may just swallow up the entire Earth into a giant black hole. Either way it will be exciting.

While the site at CERN was very interesting, the logistics of “open day” were atrocious – thankfully their physics are better than their event management! They certainly weren’t prepared for the number of visitors they received; the event was insanely popular! There were people of all ages there and the queues were enormous. I got there early, but there was already a crowd of a few hundred people before the official 9AM opening time.

Queue for the LHC Tunnel
One of the many queues during Open Day.

In total I ended up queuing for about 3.5 hours throughout the day, most of that to see the LHC tunnel. Of course, the LHC lifts (to bring you 3km under ground) weren’t made to shuttle thousands of people per hour:

However the capacity problems were exacerbated by the interesting choice of the CERN staff to put every sign and instruction only in French. OK, fine, you’re a site based in French Switzerland and France, but when about half of your guests are from other parts of Europe and don’t understand French, don’t be surprised when half of your crowd doesn’t follow your instructions. During one tour a woman asked if the tour guide could mention some instructions in English and he said that “many people understand French so I’ll just talk in French.” One CERN employee called me a “faux Canadien” (in French) when he found out I was Canadian but didn’t speak French. The most entertaining part of all this was watching the crowd during a presentation of “introduction to particle physics” in French. I captured a minute of it for your enjoyment:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQTH0XfdEWk]
Good thing I already learned this stuff in University.

The first thing I saw under ground was the biggest detector at the LHC: ATLAS: a giant ring made up of 8 superconducting toroid magnets and the height of a 5-story building.

The pictures don’t do this justice: this thing is HUGE. It’s amazing that you need something this big to detect particles that are unimaginably small.

After seeing ATLAS, and a particularly long queue, I finally got to go down into one of the tunnels of the LHC where the protons travel before being smashed together in ATLAS:



Magnets chilled to -271C – can you imagine the electricity bill?

Another interesting part of the day was the computer centre. As I said CERN invented the world-wide web back in the early 90s and now they’ve invented “grid computing” to process the massive amounts of data that the LHC will generate when it goes online later this year. They had an interesting real-time map that showed where the data is being processed right now:

If you’d like to donate your own computer resources while you’re not using them, you can install the LHC@Home software.

Of course they also have their own data centre which is still looking quite empty as the continuously dropping price of computer technology means they won’t buy the computers until they need them:


Sure, it’s really cute until it becomes sentient and takes over the world

Ever wonder where the old equipment goes? I found this out back:


Let’s hope they recycle

One other funny thing is that all the streets at CERN are named after famous physicists:


Route Schrödinger isn’t always there: it depends how you observe it.

All in all – and despite the queues – it was a really good day. I didn’t get to see the ALICE detector, or the SPS, but I was able to go underground twice which is better than most visitors! It will be interesting to see what comes out of this experiment when they fire it up later this year.

PS: If anybody at CERN is reading this, I would love to come back for another tour! Just let me know when and I’ll be there. :)

Radisson Shanghai – Ground Zero for Bird Flu

I was staying in the Radisson Shanghai the other week for business, and they had a rather interesting Easter display:

Radisson Shanghai Easter Display

It was interesting for two reasons:

1) it was mind-bogglingly tacky
2) there were dozens of live rabbits and chicks

Radisson Shanghai Easter Display - Chicks and Rabbits

Radisson Shanghai Easter Display

People kept coming by the display and picking up the animals; kissing and snuggling with them. So remember – the next time you hear about an outbreak of birdflu in China you know who to blame: the Radisson Hotel Shanghai New World.

PS:  the hotel sucks – never stay there. The staff aren’t nearly as helpful as you would get from any other hotel in Asia and the heat wasn’t working in the guest rooms. Plus they’ll give you bird flu. Fun!

CeBIT 2008

Well, I’m back from what was a pretty short CeBIT tradeshow (I skipped half of it, attending just Monday morning to Wednesday night) which is just as well as CeBIT is pure evil. I hate the huge German tradeshows and their enormous exhibition grounds. They even let members of the public come (WHY would you come to a tradeshow on purpose!?) so you have to avoid moms pushing prams as well. Not much to say really: Hanover was cold (it even snowed on Wednesday) but the show went pretty smoothly. I’m glad to be back in the UK.

There is this demo that Panasonic does at every tradeshow – I must have seen it at least a half-dozen times myself – of rotating TVs. It’s actually quite cool, and I managed to grab a video of a small part of it this time:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atAzHIUVbr8]

Since this isn’t one of the big Asian tradeshows there weren’t as many funny name, but my coworker did come across this unfortunately named company:

Kuhnt

Fortunately in German it’s pronounced “koont.”

I spent most of my time talking to the press and pimping Samsung’s “Ubisync” products that have my company‘s technology built-in:

6 Monitors on one PC with Samsung Ubisync (DisplayLink)

Ubisync7: 7-inch USB powered mini-monitor

ASUS (also one of our customers) had some new PCs on display that are made of bamboo instead of just metal or plastic. They actually look a lot better than you’d think! I like them:

ASUS Bamboo Computers

Of course, we didn’t forget to partake in the best part of visiting Germany:

Pretzels and Beer

Next week: off to Shanghai!

Windsor Castle

Trip 11 out of my little book.

Going to Windsor was trivialy easy. Train from Paddington, change at Slough, and a 6 minute train ride to Windsor. Easy. but wait .. SLOUGH! I’ll get to the castle in a minute.

As a fan of the UK version of The Office, a stop in Slough is exciting. It’s like being on the set, my eyes peeled for Wernham-Hogg Paper Company. To anyone else, it’s a place to go to work in one of the many business parks or it’s a place to change trains as you make your way to somewhere better

dsc_9990.JPG.

Anyway, fun for me, but off to Windsor Castle. I can see how in the peak summer season you’d need a full day. Here we are in the absolute low season, cold dreary day in February and there’s still a substantial queue to get tickets, queue to go to the doll house, queue to the states rooms, queue to the loo … God the British just love to make you queue!

As for the Castle, well, it’s just a castle:

castle.JPG

Well, a really old castle. Going on 900 years actually. And the Queen does live here (one look at the flag and we noted she was indeed in today). The Doll House was completely ridiculous. Built in the 1920’s it’s the size of our old Smart Car, and includes such ridiculous things like running water. Inside the castle proper, an extremely long audio tour takes you through the States Rooms which is a series of drawing, sitting, dining, dressing, and sleeping rooms. The art collection is impressive, the royals seem to have a fondness for Rembrandt. As do they have a fondness for self portraits. But I guess, back in the day, an oil painting was their version of a family photo album.
The most impressive room inside hands down goes to the one with all the weapons. This houses a massive collection of swords, riffles and daggers. Many of them are excessively decorated, and many are the spoils of the empire’s conquests.

In all, it takes a few hours to get through the castle and finally to the chapel. I found this picture on wikipedia:
400px-windsor_castle_from_the_air.jpg

From the air, you can really see how massive this place is!

Outside the castle, a kitchy town thrives on the hoards of tourists. We stopped for tea and noted that aside from the staff we were the only ones speaking English.

Across the river we popped into the town of Eton to have a look. It’s a famous private school (oddly called public by the brits. At &;pound24,000 a year tution, tell me HOW is that public!) . Through out most of the year the campus is open to visitors, but during the winter months it’s closed. Probably something about needing to study ..

That’s ok. Judging by the college chapel I’m not too sad:

dsc_9978.JPG

I’m beginning to see a theme in the architecture of these buildings …

Canterbury

… a bit late, we were in Canterbury last week. But it’s been a busy week, and I’ve procrastinated…

Canterbury.
Our 10th of trip from Frommer’s: Best Day Trips from London book, 25 trips in all. I’ll be honest, I can see why this is pushed as a day trip. Although very pretty, the town is limited on things to do. There’s the Cathedral of course:

cath1.JPG

which is absolutely stunning, and there are Roman walls and other such historic fragments of buildings:
gate.JPG

… after that there is some hype on those Canterbury Tales displayed in a very forced looking ‘museum’.  Oh there’s a large student population too.  That’s about it.  Did I mention the cathedral?

But I’m being too harsh. In Canterbury we had some excellent meals, enjoyed cream tea (tea, scones jam etc) at at least half the price of doing it in London, and we just plain relaxed.

Surprisingly there were no protesters to be seen in front of the Cathedral. I thought given all the flack the archbishop has been getting about his opinions there would at least be one angry Brit. Sadly no.

But there was our tea, and the excellent weather, and another ‘to-see’ crossed off our list.

Across “the continent” to Cross Country ski in Finland

I think it was sometime in October when I was trolling through Ryanair’s site seeing where they fly and noticed that the only stop they make in Finland is to some town called Tampere. Thinking back to our May Bank holiday last year in Spain and the good luck we had with their flight to the lesser known town of Almeria I took the idea of Tampere and ran with it. A quick search noted that the 3rd largest town in Finland was nestled on 2 lakes and home to over 90km of cross country ski trails within it’s city limits. It sounded like a solid winter weekend idea. I suppose picking up the magical unicorn of flight booking – the 2 pence round trip flight might have swayed things a bit too. Although, it’s funny how 2 pence each can suddenly turn into 96 pounds after all that tax, airport check in fee, baggage fees abd the because-we-can-and-you’ll-still-book-our-flights fees that they are so good at nickelling and diming you for.

In my research I’d read somewhere that people often compare Tampere to Liverpool in terms that both are cities living in the shadow of their country’s capitals but on the verge of a cultural rebirth. That all sound nice, but having never been to Liverpool this didn’t really help me.

We arrived late Friday evening and checked into our hotel. It was a converted industrial building which made our rooms look like lofts, but our neighbouring buildings looked all industrial too. Not a promising sight to a pair of empty stomachs (no need to purchase the food on Ryan Air, they have enough of my money thank you very much). Thankfully after a quick lap around the block we noticed that many of the buildings had been converted into shops and restaurants as well and we quickly popped into a Spanish Tapas bar for some light snacks. Why Spanish? Because it was there, I guess.

Another vacation and another reminder that I spend far too much time on details of hotels and airport transfers and not enough time on such simple things as learning “hello” and “thank you” in the local language. Luckily those childhood road trip pit stops at Taco Bell have equipped me with enough Spanish to recognise key things like ‘pollo’ and ‘queso’. Looking at the menu and choosing a tapas plate to share I’m grateful it was Spanish we happened upon and not say, Hungarian. I’m even more grateful when we order from our waitress since she gives us a look of absolute fear when she realised we speak no Finnish. Mental note, must learn more of the local language lest I am mistaken for an American.

Saturday the rental company drops off our skis at our hotel and drives us to the Kauppi Park. The Finnish fella tells us that due to warm weather and lack of snow we are his first customers of the season. They must have much higher standards than us because we think there is more than plenty:

dsc_9601.JPG

I think my memory of cross country skiing on the Lake Placid Olympic tracks back in the 1990s are a bit hazy because I remember cross country skiing being much easier:
dsc_9589.JPG

Day 1 is a painful experience.

Day 2, we’re sore, but we’re convinced that we might have learned something.
Back at Kauppi park we realise that it won’t be a quiet day of solitude in the forest. Instead a local race is on and there are loads of Finnish children geared up in race gear and pinnies. We watched for a bit.
This was one of those lovely travel moments when you accidentally become witness to some truly authentic local culture.

dsc_9625.JPG

Back on the tracks we spend a few hours exploring the forest and are pleased to note that we did in fact learn something the day before. Today we fall much less.
This also gives us time to enjoy some of the views:

dsc_9637.JPG

That evening we purposefully choose our restaurant, and we choose a Finnish tourist trap called Viking. At least the menu came in English because there is no way I would know the words for reindeer or wild pheasant (both delicious by the way). We also stopped into a very bizarre Spy Museum and wandered the town a bit. But the cold wind in the evening keeps us mostly indoors and in the cozy cafes scattered around the town centre.

By midnight the “On Time Airline” lands in Stansted over 30 minutes late. Our muscles are sore and our cheeks still have the rosy remains of a weekend outdoors.   About that cultural rebirth?  Well there were museums, converted industrial buildings, theatre and giving the other guests in our hotel clearly a ballroom dance competition on. Yet I’m sceptical to think that this could at all be similar to a weekend in Liverpool.
But on the train ride back from the airport I can’t help but be at least a bit curious.

Happy New Year!

Sylvia and I just got in from celebrating the start of 2008 in Hong Kong.

We had heard there would be a great fireworks and light show this year, so we ensured we had a great viewing spot from the convention centre:The View of the Fireworks

Unfortunatley, this being Gweilo New Year as opposed to 春節, the fireworks weren’t nearly as impressive as we had hoped. Still, they put on a good finale with fireworks coming from all sides of the IFC (AKA the “Big Dick“):

Hong Kong New Years 2008 - Finale

Happy 2008 Everone!

Happy 2008!

Ein Prosit! Ein Prosit! Der gemuetlichskeit!

Oktoberfest day 2 is in the Paulaner tent for us. We got here early enough to grab a table, and thankfully, unlike the first day, they serve beer right from the start. Everyone is standing for the band’s entrance:

IMG00370.jpg

Sylvia is starting on her second litre and the band has started playing:

IMG00376.jpg

These 15 year olds lucked out – their fake ID was accepted. Amazing:

IMG00373.jpg

Ah Oktoberfest. Joy of joys.

It’s Been One Fantastic Year

One year this week, September 10th, 2006, I entered the United Kingdom. And what a year! Sylvia and I got married on the 23rd (our first year anniversary, “paper,” is fast approaching) and after spending almost 6 months living apart we started living London. We went through the arduous process of importing our two cats into the United Kingdom and we both started new jobs.

Travel this year for Sylvia and I has included Fiji, The Cook Islands, Hong Kong, Thailand, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Germany, and all around England. We’ve already got a few more trips lined up to Germany, Italy, Ireland, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. My business travels have taken me to Taiwan, Japan, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, The USA, and Canada with a total of over 63 flights this year – and that’s just from flights where I kept the boarding passes! I managed to avoid going to Korea somehow, despite having LG and Samsung as customers; we’ll see how long that lasts.

This year we’ve viewed more flats in London than I’d care to remember: dealing with estate agents is a truly painful experience. We have had a few friends make the long journey over to visit and we have as many again coming in the next few weeks!

We’ve had lot of interesting experiences that have made it to the blog including attending horse races, dealing with the tube, travelling by train, hunting for the perfect flat, buying Manolos, navigating the floodwaters, watching local sports, exploring English cuisine, mobile blogging, tasting sweeteners, bitching about the weather, hanging out with the cats, stumbling through the language barrier, getting well deserved status, attending tradeshows, exploring the Sunday pub culture, tasting cheese, the trials and tribulations of international professionals, ranting about the commute, ranting about budget airlines, and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of travel.

So what do we think about living here? We bloody love it. Let’s hope 2008 is even better.

Last Week in Europe

While I’m sure you all can’t get enough of “Sylvia rants about her commute,” it might be time for me to finally write an article! I just got back (very late Monday night) from one week in Europe – Brussels and Berlin. Europe? Yes, haven’t you heard? The Brits don’t really consider themselves part of Europe. They often say they’re “going to Europe” by which they mean “the continent” or “real Europe.” Admittedly, things are pretty different over there – the chavs speak two languages for instance.

I’ve had just about enough of air travel lately (having taken probably about 70 flights this year already), so I opted to begin my journey to the Continent via the train. I arrived at the Eurostar terminal in Waterloo just over an hour before my train and I couldn’t even check in yet! They didn’t board the train until 10 minutes before departure. Now that’s a nice change.

Eurostar Train

The Eurostar trains are good – better than airplanes – but not as perfect as I expected. I was hoping to get a pile of work done but with no power outlets (c’mon, it’s electric!) and no WiFi, my options were limited. Maybe I have to go First Class? However I did manage to get my highest score yet on Ka*Glom (damn you SHAUNDOUGHERTY – how do you score so high?).

But in the end it was a smooth journey. Less expensive, faster, and more comfortable than flying. I’m sold! When the Eurostar opens at St. Pancreas (less than 5 minutes walk from our flat) then I’ll be taking it as often as possible. And, they just hit a new speed record for London to Paris this week.

My hotel in Brussels wasn’t so great. For instance, there was a moth in the room and no soap in the despenser in the bathroom. Internet accesss was obscene: only WiFi with lousy reception (natch) and it was €20/day!! The best though, was the iron.

Like most hotels on the Continent, there is no iron in the room. I figure there must be some kind of EU tax on irons that make them particularly expensive because they seem to have every other useless hotel peripheral but never an iron. If I’m on a business trip, I would rather have an iron over a TV, but hey, that’s just me. But I digress. I phoned housekeeping, as per usual, to ask for an iron. The fellow on the other end of the phone sounded very confused. After explaining to him that “yes, I need it to iron my clothes,” he said “there’s one in the hallway.” Usually housekeeping brings it up but hey, if the can’t even be bothered to fill the soap dispensers I’m sure they’re not exactly employing a top-notch housekeeping staff.

Here was the iron:

Iron in the Hall

Yes, the ironing board is firmly attached to the wall and the iron is chained there as well. I had to stand out in the hallway, ironing my trousers, while guests and staff walked by. There is something truly ridiculous about this. I was tempted to strip off my clothes and start ironing in my birthday suit; maybe ask a few passers by if they need me to iron anything while I’m there. I’m sure they’d love a naked man standing in the hallway saying “Hey buddy, can I press your trousers?”

Anyhow, I’m done staying in Ibis Accor hotels.

So on to Berlin. My Lufthansa flight was uneventful. Berlin is an interesting city; much more spread out and spacious than a typical European city. I guess that’s what can happen when they rebuild it from scratch 60 years ago. It was good to practise my German which is getting worse quickly as I rarely practice.

Guten Morgen. Ich möchte zur Messe bitte fahren.

I was attending the “IFA” tradeshow during the week; this was a first for me. IFA is a typical enormous sprawling German tradeshow – kinda like CeBIT, but not in a shitty city. The strangest thing about IFA is that it’s completely open to the public so you’ve got a young couple pushing a pram next to granny inspecting the latest LCD TVs. Very strange. I was busy all week helping our customers with their tradeshow events and press. Here’s Wim – our trusty Señor FAE – helping Lucky Goldstar get their house in order:

Wim helping LG

Of course I was also meeting with the press every day to tell them all about our new and wonderful technology that enables users to improve their productivity quickly and easily through the use of multiple monitor computing with DisplayLink‘s unique network display techno…uh… sorry about that. I’ve been doing elevator pitches all week.

IFA, it seems, is all about the TVs. Who would have thought there were so many TV manufacturers out there? It seems like China has invaded the LCD market. Every room was plastered with huge LCD TVs proclaiming “Full HD” and “True HD,” as opposed to the “Half HD” and “False HD” the manufacturers have been peddling for years.

TVs

One vendor stood out however:

CRT at IFA

The miracles of modern CRTs! It takes some guts to go to a consumer electronics tradeshow and fill over a thousand square feet with 50 year old TV technology. Bravo!

This wasn’t an Asian tradeshow, so there weren’t as many funny things as some other shows I’ve been to. Still, I managed to find a few gems.

Walinda Technology Co. has what has to be the world’s most boring trade show booth:

Boring Tradeshow Booth

I guess they blew so much cash on the booth space they didn’t have the budget for anything else. If Walinda don’t do it for you, these folks will keep you 100% satisfied:

Satisfied GPS

At one of the restaurants, they had these random “speech bubbles” hanging from the ceiling:

Speech BubblesSpeech Bubbles

I particularly liked this guy who was walking around:

Speech Bubbles

No idea what these were for.

Sylvia joined me for the weekend, which would have been perfect if a) I didn’t need to work through half the time and b) shops were open on Sundays. Oh well, live and learn. We did go to a dark restaurant on Saturday night, but I think we’ll leave that for another blog post

Pining for the Fjords

To set the record straight, no we don’t have a thing for rain.

Several of my friends who lived here last year told me about this heat wave in London last year in August and about the general lack of air condition in the city that makes things miserable. When I started working and commented on our freezing cold a/c (in April!) coworkers told me I would be happy come August, when it’s HOT. So, with that in mind, I figured we’d be eager to escape the heat and want to head north into Scandinavia. So several months ago I booked us tickets to Bergen, a city that averages over 260 days of rain per year! 3 days in the crisp Norwegian Fjords, oh how clever I thought I was.

But then we get the 2007 floods and the worst summer on record (since the 1700’s apparently) and I feel a bit silly flying north for the last bank holiday of the year.

But with e-tickets burning a hole in our inbox, it’s off to the fjords for us.

As the plane makes it’s pass over Bergen, first impressions are excellent: dark green landscape of small islands dotted with brightly coloured houses. After a slight delay with EuropeCar, we loaded into our green Ford and headed North.

Driving in western Norway is probably as close to driving in a car commercial as you can get. Tight narrow roads wind through the forested hills meanwhile breathtaking scenery drops down into the valleys below you. Once you get about 2 hours outside of Bergen the traffic dies down nicely giving you that “closed course” feel (Except when you round those blind corners and find yourself head on with a tour bus).

roads1.jpg

To get through the impossible landscape, the Norwegians have cut hundreds of tunnels into the fjords, some as long as 24km, many of which cut directly through the fjord. But with the landscaped so geographically shredded the infrastructure is further supplemented with high class car ferries.

We made our home base for the weekend in Mundal, a tiny village in the Sognefjord, Europes largest Fjord.

mundal.jpg

This village may only have 2 hotels and 1 cafe, but it still manages to have 14 bookshops and the self declared title: Norway’s Book Town.

books1.jpg

I’ll be honest, those who know me well, know that the idea of paper books sitting out in the damp outdoors does not sit well with me. But that’s another story.

***

Sunday brings us across another car ferry to Ornes to check out the Norway’s oldest stave church:

church1.jpg

.. and later that day to Jostedalen Glacier, the largest glacier in continental Europe. Both stops involved a bit of a hike, clearly the glacier more so:

glacierhike.jpg

The fjords are a place where photos just can’t do it justice. The scenery is truly magnificent.
After several weeks in Iceland in 2003, we are no stranger to glaciers. But with this one we managed to get a more dramatic view of the glaciers edge. In Iceland, the end of the glacier more subtly melted into the rock, where as here it appeared to be cleanly sliced revealing the layers of blue and white on the interior.

glacier.jpg

That evening we drove back to Mundal snacking on Wasa rye crispbreads topped with local Yarlsberg cheese and thin slices of dried salted lamb. Norwegian food is in fact quite delicious. The meatballs with cloudberry sauce we had for dinner the night before were excellent as was our lunch of Smorbord, open faced sandwiches common to Scandinavia that we first sampled in Copenhagen in 2005. And as we learned earlier that day, local raspberries taste uncannily like gummy Swedish Berries. Thankfully unlike Iceland, Norway is not a culinary dead spot.

***

Monday we decide to take a long scenic route back to Bergen starting with an hour and a half long car ferry across the fjord to the small port village of Vangsnes. Cruising the fjords gives you perspective as to just how massive the surrounding hills are. Ribbons of glacier waterfalls trickle down the slopes of the hills; it’s a peaceful way to travel.

As we make our way back to Bergen, our little green Ford makes the shockingly steep climb out of the Sognefjord away from Vangsnes and remarkably over into the next fjord just south of us.
It’s at the top though that we experience the most memorable scenery of the trip.

top.jpg

At the top of the fjord, the trees disappear and the landscape turns to rugged moss and rocks. The temperature drops to about 6C and for a while it’s only us and the frisky sheep. We stop and take time to breathe in the air.

I look around and note a scattering of small bright red coloured farm houses and quietly hope that we can find a guest house for next time.

red.jpg

Oh, to spend a weekend on top of a fjord in almost solitude rambling along the rocks with only the sheep.
I quickly sketched out a future long weekend.
We learned early in our travels that even though we adore living in big cities, we do have a thing for vacationing in remote desolate places. Iceland, Atiu, and now this place, Vikafjellet.

With an early evening flight to catch, we tore ourselves away and zipped down into the valley on the other side and after a few hours (and many more winding roads) later we reached Bergen.

It may not have been sunny skies and beachy weather, but a weekend in the Norwegian wilderness seemed to satisfy our August Bank Holiday needs.
But perhaps I’m not entirely fulfilled.
After 3 days I’m left pining for the fjords.

No, we’re not under water

For all of you who keep asking, no, we’re not flooded. We’re well away from it as we were smart enough not to build our castle on a swamp. However last weekend we were in the Cotswolds and, while not the worst of the flooded areas, we definitely ran into some water. Here are some more pictures from our weekend.

We visited “The Slaughters”:

The Slaughters

Our hotel in Lower Slaughter was flooded:

Floded Hotel in Lower Slaughter

Here’s a picture of the reception as we were checking in:

Flooded Reception

Fortunately they were able to put us in their “cottages” that were up the hill.

Several parts of Lower Slaughter were flooded:

Flooding at the Lower Slaughter Mill

We wanted to do the “Wardens’ Way” hike to Upper Slaughter but the path was … under the weather:

Wardens’ Way Flooding

The Slaughters weren’t the worst hit in the area. We had to turn around a few times whilst driving through the Cotswolds:

Flooded Road

Flooded Road

Of course The Guardian found a much better “flood” sign picture than I did:

Guardian UK Flood Picture

But in the end we still had a great time in The Slaughters:

Upper and Lower Slaughter

Back from the Cotswolds … and the Floods

We took Friday off to go visit the Roman city, Bath and then spend the weekend in the Cotswolds with Jason’s parents.
More on Bath later when we get our memory card back and have photos to share. As for the Cotswolds, they were quite beautiful, even when flooded.

flood.jpg

Evesham, one of the hardest hit towns over the past few days is only 19 miles away from where we were.
Even Oxford where we ended up this afternoon, 45 miles away, had signs of flooding:

oxford.jpg