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Posts Tagged ‘trains’

Zürich to Bratislava was a fairly long journey: three local trains got me to Bregenz in western Austria then I took a seven or eight hour train ride to Vienna and finally another hour on to Bratislava Petržalka, the western, communist-era part of the city across the Danube from the castle and the old town. Botond was there to pick me up and we headed over to his estranged wife So-young’s place; she’d just left for a couple of weeks in Korea.

I didn’t do much sightseeing in Bratislava while I was there. I went into the centre a couple of times and had coffee and lunch at Shtoor, the café Habiba and I had been to when we had been in the city a few weeks earlier. My inclination to sightsee was pretty minimal – I was looking forward to having no responsibilities or schedule. I spent a lot of time on the internet.

On maybe the second or third day there, I managed to drop the shower door on my foot. The injury didn’t seem too bad at first and there was no sign that I’d broken a bone. My foot swelled up a bit and there was a fairly hard lump on my instep close to my middle toes. Afterwards, it developed a purple bruise that spread in a ring across my toes and down the side of my foot over a period of several days. I went out one day, walking to the centre, and when I came back, it was very sore. Bo and I talked about me going to a doctor, but I semi-deliberately prevaricated over it and eventually it showed signs of getting better.

On the first weekend, Botond’s brother, Zsombor (in Hungarian, ‘zs’ represents the ‘s’ sound in ‘measure’), joined us and we (ie, Bo) drove to Austria for a camping/swimming/hiking weekend. With my foot, I wasn’t up for too much hiking, but we found an ‘experience trail’ – a trail leading through a narrow gorge and up a stream with games and activities for children. It wasn’t too long, so I didn’t suffer too much.

We stayed near Erlaufsee, a lake nestled between forested mountains that reminded me a lot of the Lake District. There were probably hundreds of people sunbathing and swimming along its grassy shores. The weather was hot and sunny until early evening when it suddenly turned stormy. I’m not a keen swimmer, but I went for a dip in my borrowed shorts; the water was chilly compared to the air, but not bad once you got used to it. In the evenings, a few fireflies floated around like burning motes from a fire. I’ve never seen fireflies in the flesh before.

On the Saturday evening, we visited Mariazell to have a look at the church and have dinner before returning to our borrowed and partially erected tent. The following day, we visited Lunzer See, another pretty but less touristy lake, had a look at some ski lifts and stopped at Melk to see the palatial monastery on the way back to Slovakia.

The next weekend, Botond took me to Lake Balaton, a large lake in Hungary, where we stayed at a holiday home – actually two homes consisting of a pair of semi-detached houses – along with a group of Bo’s old friends, their girlfriends and a couple of their newer friends. The lake had no actual beach – its shore was ringed by reeds and a concrete wall from communist times – but there were grassy areas nearby for people to set up their towels and whatnot.

I went swimming with the men. Well, only Bo was interested in swimming in earnest; everyone else was content to wade out – the lake bed went down at a very shallow angle, so you could walk out a long way without getting a drop of water above the waist – and throw a frisbee and ball around (in some sort of ball-frisbee combo game that was either just improvised play or I didn’t get at all).

Everyone seemed to speak English pretty well, but I suppose when it became apparent I was quiet, they mostly chatted in Hungarian. Still, it wasn’t a bad experience, just seeing the area and getting some reading done (I was enjoying Lord Jim).

On the second day, Botond and I went for a short bike ride together. Then, after lunch and icecream, everyone went their separate ways. Bo had lent me a Teach Yourself Hungarian book – which I didn’t make too much use of – but I learnt that the Hungarian name for the double-kiss greeting performed by Hungarian friends regardless of gender is a called puszi (sounds like ‘pussy’). I shook hands with the men when we said goodbye (one of whom said ‘Hello’, which functions like ‘ciao’) and puszied the women.

For the rest of the day, Botond took me to some nearby sights – the town of Keszthely and its palace and lakeside area, Szigliget Castle perched on one of several volcanic hills and the mill pond in a town called Tapolca.

Before I left Bratislava I was determined to do some sightseeing on my own and one day took the train back to Vienna to go to Schloss Schönbrunn. Getting to Vienna was easy enough – a return ticket from Bratislava’s main station was about €10. Navigating Vienna wasn’t quite so easy. I thought I’d take the subway but it turns out line 1 is closed, so I had to figure out which tram to take and from where.

I got there eventually, though, and queued up for a ‘classic’ ticket, which grants entry to all visitor areas of the palace and most of the grounds. The audioguide tour was pretty good and it wasn’t too crowded, so it was possible to linger comfortably and get a good look at the Imperial apartments of the Hapsburgs. A couple of my favourite rooms were one completely panelled with black and gold oriental lacquer work and another lined with dozens of frames painted blue to simulate porcelain, the frames filled with oriental-style drawings made by members of the imperial family.

I wandered around the grounds afterwards – much of which is free to access, but my ticket got me into the orangerie immediately behind the palace, the Gloriette up on the hill and the maze and labyrinth (which are mainly for children).

After that, I walked towards the city centre, had a look in the Schottenkirche, passed the film festival going on at the Rathaus and dropped by the Votive Church. Then I got a tram back to the station and the train back to Bratislava. Due to a misunderstanding, I got a bus home while Botond was waiting for me at the station.

It was great to spend time with Botond and to stay in So-young’s very nice apartment. Bo showed me how to make lecso (‘lecho’), a simple Hungarian dish of bell pepper, tomato, paprika and smoked sausage (or egg); we made and ate quite a lot of it. And, although I didn’t spend much time in the historic centre, Bratislava is a very pleasant place to hang out in. For the next stage of my travels, Bo took me to a town in the middle of Slovakia on his way home to Gödöllő near Budapest.

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Getting to Venice from Paris was pretty much a full day’s travel. As usual, we went by train, first to Basel in Switzerland, where I paid for a couple of coffees with a €10 note and got two 2 Swiss franc coins in return, then to Milan and finally to Venice Mestre. This latter station is on the mainland, where as the iconic old city is on an island (actually, it effectively is an island) just off the coast.

We checked in to a cheap hostel (which called itself a hotel) near the station, witnessing a beautiful sunset display of light and shade in the sky, chatted to an interesting and talkative New Zealander, Edward, who was sharing our four-bed dormitory, and caught a train (along the lengthy bridge that connects Venice to the rest of the country) to Santa Lucia station to have a look round Venice at night.

We didn’t go far within the city and the dark, narrow alleyways were pretty quiet – a little eerie, even. The area next to the station was busier, though, with plenty of tourists and vendors – there various people selling the little balls that go splat on a surface then resume their shape and the helicoptery things that you catapult into the air.

The following day, we had made plans to look around Venice with Edward, but there was little sign of him when we went to breakfast – at a different hotel. Habiba saw him out of the window, but then he didn’t materialise. I went back to our hostel to look for him, but he wasn’t there.

We took a crowded bus into Venice and then a waterbus along the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco.

We decided to go into St Mark’s Basilica and joined a queue. Unfortunately, after half an hour of shuffling along, it became apparent that we wer in the wrong line; we stepped across to the correct one. As we approached the entrance to the basilica, a French-sounding woman approached us (and apparently only us) and told us that packpacks weren’t allowed inside and that I would have to check mine in to a nearby cloakroom. I went to check this intelligence out and passed Edward coming out of the basilica. He explained that he’d come to the breakfast hotel that morning but hadn’t been allowed into the dining room because he didn’t want to have any breakfast.

Edward looked after my bag while we went inside. The inside was a spectacle of gold. Pretty much every bit of the ceiling was covered in mosaics with gold backgrounds. The floor tiling was interesting – circles and shapes that suggested 3D steps. One particular mosaic stood out: a lion with mad, anguished staring golden eyes.

We hooked up with Edward outside and started wandering around. We went back to the water and turned left past the Ducal Palace, passing over a crowded bridge that gave a good view of the Bridge of Sighs; when we came back the same way later the bridge was jam packed with tourists and tour groups all trying to get a glimpse of the famous bridge along which prisoners passed on their way to the cells.

We walked towards the castle walls and found them to be closed (it being Monday). We had lunch together – Habiba and Edward had surprisingly good value pizzas; I had a tasty but not so filling ravioli dish.

We headed to the Rialto Bridge and parted ways with Edward. Habiba bought some excessively juicy fruit that contained a ball of pips in their centres; I found them rather annoying to eat. Before we left, we headed to a souvenir shop that I’d seen the previous night and I bought myself a little aquamarine glass cat for €3.

The bus back to the mainland was less crowded, but still fairly busy. Bright and early the next morning we said farewell to Venice and took the train to Rome.

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The very first part of today’s journey (I’m writing this on the ferry) went well.

I got up at 5:30 in the morning darkness, showered and packed the remainder of my things that hadn’t been packed last night. I checked out of the hostel; there was a bit of a delay when I didn’t hand over the correct receipt with my keys – I needed the one that was specifically for the deposit, not just for the extra days that I’d stayed (and certainly not for the laundry service). I walked to Wangfujing Station, put my bags through the scanners that they have at all the stations and places like Tiananmen Square, bought a ticket for 2 yuan (about 20p) and took the subway to Beijing South Railway Station, where I’d entered the city the previous week. I had a McDonald’s breakfast (hopefully, my last fried, fatty breakfast for a while – my breakfasts at the hostel were generally fried eggs, toast, hash brown, maybe bacon, maybe cornflakes. I navigated the dimly lit concourse and found the correct gate for my train – the departure concourse is huge and has a series of escalators where travellers gather before being allowed to pass through the ticket barriers and down to the platforms. I got on the train and tried to ask a member of staff if two numbers on my ticket were my carriage and seat – I’m sure she said they were. When I got there, there appeared to be a man sitting in my aisle seat – he told me to sit in the window seat; I didn’t complain. The train left at 7:20. I got off the train at Tianjin when it arrived at 7:50 – the English part of the announcement helpful said that it would be a quick stop and people getting off should get ready.

This is where things started to go wrong.

I headed towards an exit of Tianjin Station; it seemed to be the only one available – signs for others had Xs taped over them. The station was huge and new. I ignored a couple of men who wanted me to hire their taxis and found a couple of toilets near the taxi rank – both were disgusting, so I didn’t go. Instead I queued up for a taxi. Once I got in, I couldn’t tell the driver where to go because he didn’t speak English, so, as he drove away, I fished out my ticket wallet, on which the woman at the Incheon office had written the name of the ferry terminal in Chinese, and I showed it to the driver. He looked at it and twigged where I wanted to go and off we went.

Superficially, so far, so good. However, the drive took a while. And then it took a while longer. And then it took longer still. Then I saw a sign that said ‘Tanggu – 30 km’. What’s Tanggu (besides being the Korean for billiards)? Tanggu is the city where Tianjin Passenger Terminal actually is. The driver seemed to be beyond the limits of his usual territory. 9 am, the time I’d been told be at the terminal by, came and went. I showed the driver a little map on my ticket wallet and he stopped and started asking other taxi drivers and pedestrians for help. It turned out the map on the wallet wasn’t relevant – probably the ferry company, Jincheon Ferry’s Tianjin offices. We kept going. I tried telling the driver I was in a hurry and I should have been there for nine. He seemed to tell me not to worry about it, we’d be there in ten or twenty minutes. He kept winding down his window to ask other taxi drivers as we went, though.

We got there towards ten o’clock and I handed over a massive 143 yuan. To find the value in pounds, you just have to divide by ten; £14.30 is not very much, but this is China – consider that the basic fare started at 8 yuan (80p). One of my souvenirs was to have been a full set of nice new Chinese banknotes. I had to hand over the hundred, the largest, of this set to pay; I thought my 100 yuan deposit from the hostel would have been enough for that and for my port fee of 30 yuan. I plan on buying another 100 yuan note once I arrive back in Korea.

I walked into the terminal, showed my ticket to someone behind a window, who told me to go to another window. The person there gave me a boarding pass, so I headed in through the main entrance – but was turned back because I needed my pass stamped. I went back to the first window and handed over the 30 yuan for the stamp.

Inside the main part of the building, after a baggage scan, there was a long line of people with boxes and packages on trolleys. A couple of them ushered me forwards as I tried to line up behind them. My bags were scanned for the second time in about as many minutes. Then I queued up for Immigration. But an officer asked me if I had a departure card – I didn’t and he showed me to the desk where they were kept. I filled one in, but was stumped over the box that asked for my flight number/ship name etc. The officer came back and wrote a couple of Chinese characters in there for me (although he botched one a bit). How very proactively helpful.

Once past Immigration I waited about five minutes behind a small crowd of people just inside the door for a shuttle bus to the ferry. When I got on the bus I realised the ferry was all of about 150 metres away. Oh, well. The wind was blowing hard as we got off the bus and climbed a staircase to gangway on to the ship.

This one is nicer than the one I took from Korea – which is just as well, as I’m going to be on for a whole day. (The scheduled times are 11:00 on Thursday morning to 11:00 on Friday morning – which is a period of 25 hours, taking the one hour time difference into account.) The common areas are cleaner and they don’t have that savoury Asian dumpling smell that I now associate with Chinese people. The other ferry had a restaurant that was only open twice on the journey and for less than an hour each time. This one’s restaurant is more like a real restaurant. The bathrooms are less grim. The demographic on board seems less working class than my outgoing trip.

On that previous trip I’d shared a business class room with three others. This time I plumped for economy. I’m in bed 48 of what I think is a 48 bed dorm. It’s not too bad at the moment – I have an upper bunk, and, once you draw the curtains, it feels fairly private. The bunk isn’t tall enough to sit up in it, though. It also has no convenient power outlet. I’ve spent most of my time so far watching Prison Break in my bunk or writing blog posts out in the ship near a socket.

I’m at 75% charge now. It’s 7pm Korean time. I should start thinking about dinner.

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In the hostel I was staying at in Qingdao, I was sharing a room with about four other people two nights ago. Around midnight people started going to bed. I was on the internet on my bed, having spoken, briefly, to Charlie and watched some Prison Break. I prepared for bed, too. There was one Chinese guy in the bed next to mine, who seemed to spend most of his time in the room on his computer, conveniently placed on the table right next to his bed. He stayed up for maybe an hour or so, tapping away on an instant messenger program, his keystrokes amplified by the table. The previous night – my sick night – he’d been clicking away till the earliy hours on his phone. Even when he finally packed it in, his noise production continued – sniffing and blowing his nose, scratching loudly. Fucker.

Then, a bit later in the night, I heard a woman’s voice somewhere out in the corridor desperately saying things like, ‘No!’ and ‘Get out!’ I couldn’t hear any other voice. After a few moments worrying about what to do I got up and went into the corridor. The door to one of the twin rooms opposite was open a few inches and a man was standing inside. I knocked and asked what was going on. The door closed and the one-sided argument continued – the woman begging her boyfriend – I assume – to leave, the man not saying anything. I went down and told the two old Chinese men on duty and one of them followed me up and knocked on the door. I’m not sure what happened – I went to bed – but I think they probably just stopped the argument so the person knocking would go away.

My main task the next day was to travel to Beijing on the train. As I checked out of the hostel, I had one of the women at reception write down what I wanted in Chinese so I could show it to someone at the train station. As I was queueing up for a ticket, I noticed that one of the counters showed ‘English language counter’ on the display above it, so I didn’t need my translation. There was only standing room available for that day, so that’s what I plumped for. The ticket was 275 yuan, about £26 pounds or so.

For the first hour and a half of the five and half hour journey I was able to sit, but then a young woman needed her/my seat. She got off shortly after at the very next stop. However, by this time, the train seemed completely full, so I stood or occasionally crouched in the end of the carriage. I did a fair amount of reading on the trip. Fortunately, Marked Cards is a lot better than its immediate predecessor, Card Sharks.

Before I left Qingdao, I’d had word from Charlie that she’d be prepared to meet me off the train. Just before I left, I e-mailed her the details of my train. Unfortunately, she was busy all day and wasn’t able to read my e-mail or meet me. I’d printed out details for a hostel in Beijing that Habiba had stayed at when she was here a few months ago. I followed the directions on my printout and took the subway to Wangfujing Station (noting with a hint of pleasure and surprise the English accent of the English translations on the line four announcements). There, however, the directions seemed to break down.

I wandered round for a long while, my backpack weighing heavily on me and my less than perfect spine. I decided I couldn’t find the Tian An Men Sunrise Hostel, and so checked into the Eastern Morning Sun Hostel instead.

This isn’t really a hostel as we would understand it. It’s a cheap (in multiple senses of the word) hotel located on the 4th basement level of its building. On the pro side, I got a room to myself and cheaply – about £10. On the con side, the place is quite grim. My room is a fairly clean white box with a bed, desk, TV and chair in it, but it smells subtly but pervasively of old cigarette smoke. It made me think I was going to sleep in an ashtray.

The communal toilets smell of piss – some I’ve been to in China just smell of sewage, so that wasn’t too bad. They don’t provide toilet paper, though – not even one shared roll outside, which is the general practice here. The showers were like something out of Prison Break. The shower room was done out in dirty, broken blue and white tiles, half of the stall weren’t functional, there was no door, there were no shower curtains (although there were rails and some loops to indicate that such things must’ve existed in the past). The water was hot and consistent, though, and I had the place to myself.

The place also has no laundry facility. When I approached one of the staff with my bag of dirty clothes, she showed me a plastic bowl. For this reason, if nothing else, I’m going to check out today.

I’m currently at a nearby Starbucks, where I’ve had a sandwich for breakfast. Can’t get on the internet here, though – it’s only for residents of China. I think I’ve figured out where that hostel is, though. I think I was simply facing the wrong way when I tried to follow the directions. My coffee’s nearly finished, so I’m off to take a look.

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