For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!
When I showed her my ticket as we boarded the train, the white-blonde compartment manager wearing a smart red beret held up one finger. She said, firmly and clearly, directly into my face, ‘One’. Gottcha. I clambered onboard with everyone else and wandered up to the end of the compartment to realise there was no number one. I went back to find the first compartment held three worried looking faces staring at me. I had place number 11. I guess she meant the first compartment.
I was very lucky to share a compartment with Tatiana, her daughter Maria, and colleague Ella. Tatiana and Ella are teachers at a select Secondary College and extremely clever people. Tatiana speaks excellent English as she spent her teens living in London with her parents. They gave me an introduction into life onboard a long distance train. First get into your comfy clothes because it’s warm inside. Then crack open the snacks and keep going. And keep hold of your keycard.
We had basic Russian lessons, compared teaching lives and enjoyed some simple jokes. Like the one about me going to spend 6 days, one hour and four minutes on the TransSiberian. They couldn’t stop giggling. ‘You’re going to live like this for a week?’
We were in a Russian train. It seemed new. It was certainly a solid heavy piece of equipment. There was no riketty racketty clicketty clackity here. This ironmongered beast was a smooth driving force.
Soon enough the Belarus police came to check our passports. The Russians got a stamp. I had to fill out a duplicate form. It took a good time for the officials to get through the train. Then a short trip to get our wheels changed. The rail gauge changed over the border. This also took considerable time. As we pulled in the men-power were getting into formation. There seemed to be about twenty blokes involved. They set about rolling a huge gantry thing overhead, connecting each carriage somehow to the side yellow pillars which must be a jack system. When the other train pulled in opposite I could see what must have just happened under our train. I didn’t feel any perceptible lifting of our carriage but it’s clear how high they have to go. I could see the folk in the carriage opposite going about their snacking and chatting. The others in my compartment had gone to sleep by now. We were not allowed out to watch. They have to physically move the wheels under each carriage. Three frail men sliding under the trains, heaving and pushing these enormous machines into place under the carcass of the carriage. There seemed to be mortal danger everywhere I looked. There was a far bit of smoko and wait and check the phone but the job got done.
How they manage without loosing a plate or a bolt or a wire in such dim lighting is astonishing. How much would a continual line of equal gauge cost between the two countries? Or is it better to keep decent men employed in an important and responsible position?
After a short trip along to the station, customs officials came to call. They brought a cute dog that everyone along the corridor cooed at in turn. We had to get out of the carriage so they could take a good look. We were very serious and obedient.
Around two in the morning my bladder called, we argued, I lost. I slipped out of the compartment to go to the toilet. As the door clicked firmly shut I remembered Tatiana’s advice. ‘Keep your keycard with you.’
After making use of the facilities I made my way slowly back down the corridor. A corridor lined with locked and shut doors. My locked and silent gate. I looked longingly at the empty manager’s chair as I passed but I could not invade that sacred space.
I went out to the doorway and sat in the stairwell. I had passed the sleeping manager but I did not think her temper would be improved by me waking her around 2:30 am. I came back and stared at my door. I figured my best place would be where either the manager or one of my ladies might go so I sat down and practiced my meditation skills just outside like a loyal canine companion.
A shiver of hope came when the manager’s little alarm went off. Something was about to happen. Soon enough the train slowed and came to a station. She moved around quickly, putting on her uniform and attending to things in her office. Then she noticed me and without a hint of surprise indicated the door. Oh, yes, spasibo! And I was back in my comfy welcoming bed just after 3 am. I was so pleased to straighten out!
It was after 8:30 when I became aware that our breakfasts had been delivered and our door was clicked open. New day!
Bread bun thing I will not name with a French word beginning with C, biscuits, tea/coffee/sugar, napkin, salt and pepper and a refreshing towel. What more could a train traveller want?
Taking careful turns with the available space, we managed to get the packing done we managed to get going with the day.
We had a twenty minute stop to change the engine – one of those thunderously big machines. It reminded me of the old iron lawnmower we’d inherited on moving in to one of our houses. Incredibly heavy and incredibly effective. The wooden roller tamed the grass and, once sharpened, the heavy blades made short work of the greenery. The train was built to last. Possibly your grandmother’s sewing machine would also share that permanence and purpose?
There will be more about the Metro in Stage Six – Moscow – but for now, I’m getting ready to start that hilarious six day TransSiberian jaunt. Not sure when I’ll get email again.
But trust me, I’ll soon be back and let you know more of my tågskryt journey!
And guess what lesson I will endeavour to remember just as hard as I can?
For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!
On the rails again, I was encouraged to see so many windturbines, not only through the Netherlands but also in Germany, as the train trundled over the border. We also passed workers building an enormous solar array in the middle of lush green pastures.
On passing through Gouda, I reflected on the illustrious history of that cheese and the many times I had enjoyed a sumptuous slice on a cracker. Which lead me to contemplate the current lack of (cows milk) cheese in my life. No bad thing. Imagine if, when breastfeeding Felix, someone had snatched him away to make me ‘donate’ my milk to other beings? I suppose, when our cows were Daisy and Buttercup out in the back paddock and we were all friends together it might have been different but now there are billions of us drinking billions of café lattes and billions of little calves snatched away from their billions of bellowing mothers. What happens to the baby cows? The things you think on a train …
The verdant green paddocks flashing by my window were divided by slim, flat channels of shining water. Wooden fences, trees and fat ponies were interspersed with modern buildings and power lines. The old and the new sat back to back in the Netherlands, like the woman in the Rotterdam memorial to the fallen facing sadly down to the past and the man with the spade looking up for a new vision.
Netherlands is trying to shake the Holland image – Holland being only one part of the country. I’m shaking off the Netherlands! Onward! Forward, forward went the rattling train, into the next county, the next region, the next country. Human muttering, snuffles and snores surrounded me all the way to Amersfort.
Amazed how stressed I became when I couldn’t find a notice
board giving me the onward time and place for my connection. I had to go
outside the station and find a tiny little screen well-above head-height to
spot it. It did not show on the platform screens for another twenty minutes.
It’s difficult turning up bright and early, prepared and ready, when the
systems are not ready for you.
A pretty young blonde sitting in my seat, innocent as you please, said, looking around at her fellow gang, ‘Oh, most of us don’t have reservations’, as she snuggled in (to my seat) and looked smug. The rest of the passengers seemed to nod but I may have imagined that. They might have just looked down to avoid my eye or read their book or check a piece of fluff on their shirt. I passed on to lean on a patch of wall with the other too-lates-for-a-spot. I remembered the summer of 2016 when I had travelled on a Eurail pass, two of my German trains had neglected to add my carriage. Clambering into any available wagon, many of my fellow passengers squeezed into corridors, sat on the floor or leaned on their luggage to while away the hours. Perhaps this was normal in Germany. When the ticket inspector came along he made no comment to those hogging the reserved seats, looking carefully at each ticket and then grudgingly approving them. When he gave my ticket the required grunt, I asked about my seat number. He said, ‘Well, you should go and sit there.’ I explained that I could not. ‘But you reserved it.’ Shrug. And he said, ‘Well, she should move.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think she wants to.’ And he said, ‘She has to.’ And I said, ‘I can’t make her.’ And you could see the exasperation in his eyes. ‘She has to.’ And my silent shrug made him decide who was in charge. He marched toward the pretty blonde but pretended he didn’t realise it was her, looking around at all the seat numbers innocently, creeping closer to his prey. She didn’t like it but he persisted and soon enough she was packing up and the seat was mine. The woman next to me said, ‘Awkward’ in that funny American sitcom kind of way. I said, ‘She’s young. She can cope.’ And the woman leaning next to me smiled and said, ‘That’s the rules. Unfortunate.’ BUT NOT FOR ME!!
I had desires to buy a coffee and eat my sandwich but her blonde companion sat beside me like a disapproving thunder cloud, crossing her long legs uncomfortably against the seat in front of her like a thin-legged crab trying to get into a shell. Her judgement lay across me like a forbidding arm.
The train stopped to change staff and take a break. The voice said you could go outside for a smoke so I went to look out of the door. Ah. This is the sort of thing I could expect on the TransSiberian. Pausing. But I did not want to risk losing the train so I did not set foot on the platform plus, you know, tobacco smoke. It was only for a few minutes and I’d left my run a bit late. Still. Got to practice the idea.
My Hamburg walking tour – sadly forgotten guide’s name – mainly because she lost ME – began by the water (river Alster) next to a Venetian looking shopping mall, Alsterarkaden. She was an excellent speaker. She told us that one in forty citizens of Hamburg was a millionaire. And there are more billionaires registered in Hamburg than anywhere else in Europe, maybe the world. The rivers were full of ships and boats of all sizes and shapes, tangible evidence of supremely successful trade. I was also reassured of wealth and comfort by the chateaus grandstanding in the leafy suburb near my cosy Airbnb apartment.
Not sure what the people sleeping in the street imply, tucked up, silent and hunched, in their sleeping bags in shop doorways and alleys. One was even curled over into a wheelchair. What sort of life is that? Hamburg was cold.
The guide told us the city has been built and destroyed over and over again in its long history. It was originally a fort surrounded by three rivers, Alster, Elb and Bille. Water is more than life-blood. It is food, drink and communication channel. It is wealth.
A couple of young lads rolled up on their little scooters and peered over shoulders. When the guide asked them if they were joining us they said, ‘Yeah, nah,’ and I knew we were in the presence of Melbournians. ‘Yeah, nah, we’ll just park the scooters.’ We walked up from the river, part of the lake now, up to the Hamburg Rathaus (town hall).
The Rathaus is canvas writ large with historical figures and symbols.
At the rear of the Rathaus to look at the Goddess of Hygiene in her fountain, chosen because of the cholera epidemic as a result of the Great Fire of Hamburg. The fountain is cleverly used as part of an intricate cooling system throughout the building. When the water trickles, it must be summer. In the winter it’s turned off or else the pipes will freeze and cause all sorts of trouble for the Rathaus.
We walked to the Patriotic Society – a kind of NGO for growing community – and found a group of several small brass squares embedded into the footpath outside. These little squares, called Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) by Gunter Demnig, are now all over Europe (apart from some places where they do not think walking on memorials is a respectful act). I’d seen them before in Lubeck. She explained they were memorials for those persecuted by the Nazis, regardless of religion. They give names and dates but cannot tell much more of the story apart from their placing. These particular people must have been members of the Society. Our guide explained that when locals go about their business they often keep their eyes down and they will see those names, and perhaps be jolted. That those who notice will have to look down to read the names and therefore will be bowing.
She told of meeting an elderly man on his knees in front of the plaques when she was delivering her tour. He was polishing the brass. When asked, he explained that his father was a member of the SS and this small task, polishing these little squares of metal, were a way for him to atone his inherited feelings of guilt.
We moved to Saint Nicholas, a blackened wreck of a church, which has been left as a site for memorials. It makes for sombre visiting. Most of Hamburg was bombed by the allies. It is now thought to have been the most bombed city in WWII. The allies decided to force the citizens to decide to give up – they rained down white fire on Hamburg for ten days and nights. The white fire was so powerful it drained oxygen from the air, sucked life from deep inside bomb shelters and killed old, young and creatures alike. When offered the choice, Hamburg quickly surrendered.
My father was a navigator in the Royal Australian Air Force. I do remember him talking about Dresden. He thought the destruction of Dresden was one of the greatest crimes of his war. He talked sadly about the beauty of that small city before the allies had smashed it. I don’t think the Australians were involved in bombing Hamburg. He did not talk much about his war, apart from jovial remarks about his only injury coming when he’d drunkenly fallen off a gate. I knew he’d been shot down in the Mediterranean because his brother, Syd, told me so. His crew had been rescued by a British submarine that surfaced metres away, saying clearly and commandingly to ‘Douse that light, you … ’
I did not inherit any guilt about these bombings. As far as my education and assumptions about WWI and WWII went, we were on the right side, we won and we did the right thing. My grandfather and my father told me so. I could not help but think of those who are suffering in wars at this time. Have humans learned nothing but arms deals?
My walking tour took a break in Starbucks. I could not remember ever having taken food or drink in one of those before. I really enjoyed my almond-milk hot chocolate but the three other Aussies (from Melbourne) despaired at the quality of their coffees. ‘Yeah, nah.’ Making faces they said things like, ‘Disgusting.’ ‘Medicinal.’ ‘Don’t do it.’ Think of all those poor little calves and their milking mummies.
Then we visited the surviving 16th century buildings near the beginning of the Great Fire, some of the few old buildings in this city. They not only survived that fire but also both world wars. These are strong buildings. See the tidal marks on the foundations?
We progressed towards the harbour proper, still river water. When I started chatting with Debbie, a ceramicist from Florida, we lost sight of the group. More and more tourists and locals out for a weekend stroll swirled around us. I thought I saw the other American on the tour wave at us but perhaps I was mistaken as our dash to catch up was fruitless. So I never did get to hear the end of the guide’s story. But Debbie and I talked about Extinction Rebellion and the gritty reality of American politics until I had to meet my friend in St Pauli, the edgy side of town.
I met Tanja at StrandPauli, a funky beach themed café. Wish I’d taken some photos but we were too busy gossiping. I met Tanja at a Christmas yoga retreat near Seville nearly ten months ago. Later we walked down to the Elbphilharmonie (or concert hall on the Elbe). She told me the glass for the windows was difficult and expensive and when you see the melty bends and flexes in the surface of the glass it is easy to understand why. Apart from the fact it’s very high up and really, will people notice that, or the tailor-made light bulbs that also had to be made internationally?
The next day was sunny and delightful. I wandered from my little apartment to the old fishing village area, Treppenviertel, now a gentrified suburb for some of those millionaires!
I wandered and waited to catch a ferry from Blankenese (white nose). Had no idea where the ferry was going so I wasn’t surprised when it seemed to be driving towards shallow water, a surly bridge and an opening gate.
There was an aborted landing attempt, presumably because the open gate was releasing a force of muddy water (were they dredging in there?) twisting the ship around at unpredictable angles. Our ferry had to push away from the dock and regain composure mid-stream.
I did wonder if we were to go through the gate but finally, with much bumping and clanging of those big metal pillars, we tied up, folk disembarked and new passengers ran to get onboard. Then we sat again. Cigarettes were smoked. Babies’s chins were chucked. The sun was brilliant. Glorious day. Expectation remained high amongst the other passengers. We would surely be leaving soon. Wouldn’t we?
Went down to ask about buying a ticket (and our destination) in this luxurious autumnal cruise and found my daily train tick was ample and I would change ferry at the next landing. Eventually we got underway.
Back we went to Blankenese, carefully avoiding the mudflats pimpled with small birds.
No hesitation here. Off we went into deeper shipping channels and new industrial vistas. It is a huge port.
The main reason I came to Hamburg was to check on the assertions given to me by young peregrinos on the Camino. They all attested to the great beauty of Hamburg. No, really. It was far more beautiful than Sydney harbour. Much. Well. Yeah. Nah. I don’t think so. Sorry.