Friday, November 14, 2014

On to Amsterdam and home

2 November, Grand Moltke Hotel, Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg was never intended to be more than a stop on the way home to visit the Miniatur- Wunderland, the largest model railway layout in the world. Somehow we ended up with three days here. There are apparently many model railway shops in Hamburg!
We arrived from Krakow, via Berlin, about 7:00 pm last night and walked out of the station into a full-on Saturday night in Hamburg. The area where our hotels are located (we have booked two for different nights) is right in the middle of the club and pub district. Coming from sedate Krakow into this madness was a bit of a shock, but we easily found our hotel and settled in after a long 12 hours on the bus and train.
When we left Krakow it was close to 0C. As we pulled into Hamburg, it was up to 20C, by far the warmest we have been since leaving China, seven weeks ago.
We have commented previously on the homogeneous nature of the populations of the countries we have so far passed through. China is fairly obviously almost exclusively Chinese, Mongolia was a mix of ethnic Mongolians and Chinese. Russia and all points west have been, from our observations, predominantly European. Spotting an African on the streets anywhere west of the Chinese-Mongolian border is a rare event, as is seeing anybody from the Middle East or the sub-continent. But walking out of Hamburg station was like walking into Garden City, Upper Mount Gravatt, 1km from our home. All that was missing was the Asians, who are not as strongly represented here as in Australia.
Germany seems to have become a real melting pot, vastly different from her neighbours to the East and north. Just outside our window, on a major intersection, is a small tent embassy, set up to support refugees from Northern Africa. Many African refugees congregate in the area, but they don't seem to cause any problems. It is obvious though, that while Germany and other western European nations need to boost their falling populations, they haven't yet come to grips with how to manage the rapid flow of people across the porous EU borders.
Escaping Hamburg for the day, we headed off to Lubeck, a 40 minute train ride north. Lubeck was once the queen of the medieval Hanseatic League of trading cities. It has retained some of its medieval flavour, but, following WWII, it has been significantly rebuilt. This time the blame doesn't lie with the Germans or the Russians, but with the British. 
Renovated though it may be, Lubeck still has a great feel. On this warm Autumn day, the streets were packed, the restaurants full and the mood festive. Back in Hamburg, it was much the same, though far more hectic. Constant car horns blare out in the traffic - not a very Germanic response from our previous experiences here. Could it be evidence of the change in Germany's ethnic make up? Interestingly, our observations are that the cultural diversity in Hamburg is not all that different from most cities in Australia, but the way it is impacting German society is far more dramatic, possibly because Australia has historically been a nation of immigrants and for Germany and for many other EU nations this is a relatively new development.

3 November, Hamburg, Germany

Many reading this blog may think that our journey more than halfway around the world, overland, was just another of our crazy adventures. Not so. It was a carefully crafted plan to get to where we went today. Miniatur-Wunderland, the largest model railway layout in the world!
Whether a model train lover or not, we defy anybody to visit this spectacular attraction and not be impressed. Some statistics might help explain the scale of this display. The whole thing covers 1,300 sq metres, there are almost 1000 operating locomotives, hauling more that 14,000 wagons, over 20 kms of track. There are 500,000 lights, 250,000 miniature people and the whole thing is operated by 50 computers and a team of young geeks who obviously would pay to work here.
To describe the individual areas would take days. So here is a brief description of just one of the 8 areas of the show.
A Swedish harbour has been recreated with every detail imaginable. There are ships in dry dock with welders working, fully operating locks, scale ships that navigate through the port, trucks coming and going at the cargo terminal, trains running along the waterside and wait for it... it is all done in actual water and it is tidal!
The latest addition, the Airport, features aircraft that actually take off and land. It has to be seen to be believed.
The rest of the day we went model shopping at a couple of Hamburg hobby shops.
Oh and we saw yet another church and the very tame Hamburg Red Light district.

9 November, Home, Brisbane, Australia

The large gap between this and the previous post can be best explained as “travel time”.
Leaving Hamburg on the last leg of our long journey from Xian, China, we ended as we began, over seven weeks ago, on a High Speed train, this time bound for Amsterdam for our flight home.
While planning this trip we were extremely concerned that something might go horribly astray and throw our carefully crafted itinerary into chaos, but as we walked out of Schiphol Airport to catch the hotel shuttle bus to an airport hotel for our last night, the final piece fell neatly in place as the Best Western shuttle cruised to a stop just as we reached the bus platform.
It had been a long day with two connections to make to get us to Schiphol. Our flight wasn’t until the next morning, but we had travelled to the airport to avail ourselves of the free transport to our hotel.
The tragic events that befell Malaysian Airlines just prior to our departure from Australia saw us accepting that airline’s offer of free cancellation and opting for a Singapore Airlines flight which meant that we had to add a quick flight back to Kuala Lumpur to pick up our AirAsiaX flight home. A five hour break in the airport hotel at KL International 2, the extremely flash renovated terminal that has replaced the cattle sheds that made up Kuala Lumpur’s old Low Cost Carrier Terminal, gave us just enough sleep to see us through. 

Goal achieved.  Xian to Amsterdam, Overland.

Just for the record and as a guide for others who might wish to plan a similar adventure, here is a full list of the legs of our trip.

Brisbane to Guangzhou (Plane)

Guangzhou to Xian (Plane )- Xian to Beijing (High Speed Train) - Beijing to Mongolian border (Trans-Mongolian Railway)

Mongolian border to Ulaanbaatar (Trans Mongolian Railway) – Ulaanbaatar to Ger Camp (Private Car and driver) – Ger Camp to Ulaanbaatar (Private Car and Driver) - Ulaanbaatar to Russian border (Trans Mongolian Railway)

Russian border to Irkutsk (Trans-Siberian Railway) – Irkutsk to Listvyanka/Lake Baikal  (Private Car) – Listvyanka/Lake Baikal to Irkutsk (Private Car) – Irkutsk to  Moscow (Trans-Siberian Railway) - Moscow to St Petersburg (Sapsan High Speed train) - St Petersburg to Helsinki (Allegro High Speed Train)

Helsinki to Tallinn (Tallinn-Link Ferry)

Tallinn to Tartu (Regional Train) - Tartu to Valga (Regional Train) - Valga to Strenci (Local Bus)

Strenci to Riga (Regional Train) - Riga to Vilnius (International Bus)

Vilnius to Bialystok (PL) (International Bus)

Bialystok to Malkinia (Regional Train) - Malkinia to Warsaw Central (Regional Bus) - Warsaw to Krakow(Regional Train) - Krakow to Berlin (D) (International Bus)

Berlin to Hamburg (ICE High Speed Train) - Hamburg to Osnabruck (ICE High Speed Train) - Osnabruck to Amsterdam Centraal (NL) (IC Regional Train)

Amsterdam Centraal to Schiphol Airport (Local Train) - Amsterdam to Singapore (Plane)

Singapore to Kuala Lumpur (Plane) - Kuala Lumpur to Gold Coast (Plane)

Gold Coast to Brisbane (Hire Car)

Trip Review
Xian to Amsterdam, Overland is best described as an “experience” rather than a journey or a holiday.
First off, one simple question should be answered. Would we do it again?
Absolutely not!
Not because it wasn’t fantastic, but because it really only can be done once. To do it again wouldn’t be any sort of challenge at all. Not only that, what we have learned would make doing the same thing again no challenge at all, so not worth doing!
We have never been fans of organized tours but, in planning this trip, we came to believe that we had to forget our prejudices and at least go half way and do a so called “Independent Tour”. What convinced us that such a course was necessary was information from travel agents and some reviews on the web that indicated that organizing visas for Russia and travel within Russia was all but impossible. In a word, “fiddlefaddle!” The more we saw of how things worked in Russia, the more certain we were that travel agents were engaging in scare campaigns to ensure control of the market and continue to gouge travellers by imposing outrageous mark-ups and fees.
Russian visas can be organized online. It is not a simple process, but it can be done. Travel within Russia is no more difficult than anywhere else, once you get the hang of it. Movement from city to city is unrestricted, booking hotels can be done online just as in any other country. There are hotel registration processes, but these are managed by the hotels, again, just as they are in many other places. We organized some parts of our trip through Russia ourselves and had no problems at all.
We may have been lucky, but horror stories of intimidation of Western travellers by Russian Immigration and Customs Officers and Russian Police, simply didn’t eventuate. Officials at the borders were universally efficient and polite. Russian Police were far more interested in the locals than us.
The other scare tactic employed by agents is the problems of travelling in both Russia and China where English is not widely spoken. Again,“fiddlefaddle!” With the exception of a small guesthouse at Lake Baikal, every hotel we stayed in had English-speaking staff and in any event, not speaking the local language has never caused us a problem.
It is virtually impossible to comment in detail on the many things we saw and experienced on such a long trip, so a few broad observations will have to suffice. Starting in China was great for us as we had been there before and were well prepared for the crowds and the very different “Chinese way” of doing things.
Definitely the standout in terms of cultural difference for us was Mongolia. Rapid development in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, is changing the whole country as nomadic herders move off the land and flood to the city in search of work. What they are leaving behind is a hard life in an extremely harsh environment. What is being lost is an ancient culture, the roots of which still exist in the thousands of family camps scattered across the vast treeless plains of Mongolia. Surprising to us was that the nomadic herders are, in fact, much better off than it may seem. Life is simple, but adapting modern technologies such as solar power and mobile phones into their nomadic life-style makes it easier to deal with the environment. The fact that they pay no tax, land is free, basic education is free and the Government insures their herds also helps.
Tensions between Russia and the West have been mounting over the past year as a result of conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Russian media is, as might be expected, very critical of the West, especially the USA. Unsurprisingly, Russians see their place in the world rather differently from those in the West. They seem to be looking to regain the status they had in Soviet times, although they are well aware of the negative aspects of those years. We were struck by the openness of society, the wealth in the west of the country, in particular Moscow and St Petersburg, and the underdevelopment of most of what lies east of the Ural Mountains. And, obviously, the vastness of the country.
Finland and the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were all new territory for us. Our stay in Finland was extremely short, but to us it felt much like its Scandinavian neighbours. We were enthralled and saddened by the difficult history of the Baltic States, but heartened by the success of their struggle to rise above their past and assert their independence.
Our final legs through Poland and Germany covered old ground and things were much as we had experienced previously, except perhaps for the rapid development of Poland since it joined the EU.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Into Germany

27 October, Old Town, Warsaw
What a difference a nice day can make! Early fog cleared late morning today to a crisp, clear, sunny day with some great late Autumn light. We caught local bus 116 to the outer suburb of Wilanow to visit the Royal Palace.

Transport tickets in greater Warsaw work on the metro, trams and buses, but the ticketing system is somewhat complex. We always use ticket machines in large cities, because they are universally easier to deal with than purchasing tickets over the counter, or from a driver. Warsaw has several day passes, long-term passes, time-limited tickets and transfer tickets. It was all too difficult for us so we just went for the cheapest option, a 20 minute time-limited ticket for 3.40 zlt, about $1.50. The way these tickets work is that you validate them in a machine as you get on a bus or tram, or use them at the turnstiles on the metro. The clock starts ticking once the ticket is validated. Apparently ticket inspectors frequently check tickets on buses and trams. We were lucky not to meet up with one on our trip today, because we had no idea how long the journey was. We dutifully validated our ticket as soon as we got on the bus. Fifty minutes later we finally reached our destination, a 30 minute over-run of our ticket validity. Coming home, we carefully delayed our validation!

The palace was packed with historic art works and period furniture, interesting, but, as we said before, after seven weeks we are suffering a bit from "castle overload". "Church overload" has also taken hold, but we did manage to get into the Church of the Holy Cross, hoping to see the heart of Chopin. The great composer is buried in Paris, but his heart was removed and we had read that it was mounted in a pillar in the church. We are big fans of holy relics, having made the point of hunting out saints' fingers, hands and other body parts all over the world. Imagine our disappointment when we discovered that the heart was sealed in the pillar and so not visible.
It has been some weeks since we did a price update for those readers who like to know the cost of travel. As we have already said, Finland and the bigger cities in Russia can be rather expensive, equating fairly closely to travel costs in Australia. The Baltic States are more reasonable. Expect to pay $70-$120, at this time of the year, for reasonable quality hotel accommodation, generally including a good breakfast. Food is cheap by Australian standards, $8-$15 for a dinner main course in a restaurant. A cafe meal can be as cheap as $5 for a lunch main. A packet of sandwiches, a common lunch for us, costs around $3.5. Beer is extremely cheap throughout most of western Europe. Wine gets cheaper the further west and south you travel.
We found public transport very reasonable throughout all areas we have travelled so far, even Finland is reasonable by our standards. The greatest bargain, however, is the Beijing Metro, $0.40 for any trip on the whole system.
Here in Poland the pattern is much the same. Local transport is cheap, but we found the longer rail journeys a bit more expensive than we have experienced to date. For example, the train from Warsaw to Krakow translates to around $40 each for a three and a half hour trip. Even around the tourist areas in Warsaw, it is possible to have a main course and a beer for $20 each. Entry fees are something that can nibble away at the budget. Mostly we have paid $2-$5.
We chose to rent apartments in Warsaw and Krakow at approximately $90 per day. This allows us to self-cater for some meals. The weakness of the Euro has allowed us to book good quality hotels in Germany for $75-$90 per night, generally including breakfast.

29 October, Apartment Basil, Krakow
PKP, ICC train 5350 from Warsaw to Krakow wasn't the fastest trip we have had. There is major renovation being done on the line, so for most of our journey we seemed to be moving at jogging speed! Despite all the hold-ups, we arrived just 10 minutes late into Krakow. Mind you, such a timetable deviation would have resulted in mass resignations of staff on the Japanese, German or Dutch railways.
Krakow has an amazing station/Shopping Mall to welcome new arrivals. These combinations are an increasingly common phenomon in big cities around the world. Great for shoppers. A nightmare for travellers who need to find their way out of the station to a known point, from which they can find their digs. We managed yet again, although the trek was a bit longer than we had calculated. Lumping 20 kg packs a few kms every few days is doing wonders for our fitness!
The apartment we are renting allows self-check-in, which means they send you the address details and a number of codes to open doors, key safes and the like. Our experience in Warsaw made us a little shy of the whole process. All seemed well as, when we arrived, a couple of fellow renters let us in the front door. We unlocked the key safe, got the keys and were relieved to be inside the apartment hassle-free.
But wait... there is always a twist for us!
Conveniently situated at the corner of our little street was a small convenience store. It had beer and some other essential food items, so, as it wasn't more than 30m away, one of us elected not to take a coat. Shopping done, we approached the outer door of the apartment block and entered the codes we had been sent.. Yep! No go. We had got in before, but only by following others through the door. Now, in below zero temperatures and one of us without a coat, we couldn't get into the block. As usual, shouting obscenities at the door and yelling at each other seemed to have no effect. Another phone call to the agent solved the problem. "Oh yes, the codes were changed two momths ago".
Fog in the morning is mostly not a terribly bad omen this time of the year in these parts. Our experience is that the day will generally end up clear by late morning. Today fitted that pattern so, while the fog lingered, we wandered the Square, checked out the bus station for our planned future journeys, did a bit of shopping and by then the sun was shining, so we climed the Old Town Hall Tower for a city view. (We like to climb things.) Had the best hot dog we have ever had anywhere in the world at a street  stall; almost a foot long, with an enormous Polish sausage and all the trimmings, $3.50, then headed off to Krakow Castle.

You just have to do it, yes, both the hot dog and the Castle and later we are sure we will look back and remember both fondly, but now we are very seriously over palaces and churches. Nevertheless, we soldiered on and took the full tour of the Castle and the Cathedral, even climbing the tower, (remember we like climbing things) to see Zigismund's Bell. There was a reason for this. We had noticed a painting in the National Gallery in Warsaw, painted in the mid-16th century, of the raising of this bell in Krakow Cathedral and there it was, 500 years later, hanging in the bell tower, just as we saw in the painting. Later, in the crypt, we also found King Zigismund's tomb. Circle complete.

30 October, Old Town, Krakow
Oswiecim is a town about an hour and a half by bus from Krakow. In 1939, when Poland fell to the Germans, Oswiecim was a minor military base with a modern camp and newly-constructed brick barracks. It was a fairly unremarkable place, except for a few, key, locational advantages. Oswiecim had good railway connections to the cities further west and it was fairly well in the geographical centre of Europe. But Oswiecim was to have a place in history to which it most likely would never have aspired.
The Germans called it Auschwitz.

More than a million people were murdered here, mostly Jews, but also large numbers of Poles, Russians and other men, women and children from a score of other European countries.
Auschwitz was in fact three camps, with camp two, Auschwitz-Birkenau being the largest. Last time we were here, in 2000, we were almost the only visitors and so we wandered at our leisure. Now so many people visit the camps that guided tours are mandatory to control the flow of people. Today there were thousands of visitors, including many Jewish groups making  pilgrimages to the place where many of the greatest atrocities of the Holocaust were committed.
The industrial scale of the exterminations in Birkenau comes into clear focus when you realise that the gas chambers could kill up to 2000 people at a time and the furnaces could incinerate 1400 a day, with the excess being burnt on open pyres. Now multiply this by five, because there were five of these industrial killing factories in Birkenau.
Perhaps the most horrific events here occurred towards the end of 1945 as the Red Army advanced and the certainty of Germany's defeat became obvious. Tens of thousands were moved out of the camps on forced "death marches" to the west. In Birkenau, thousands of elderly and infirm prisoners were simply left to starve or freeze to death in a part of the camp that had never been completed. Wooden huts with no roofs and no water or sanitation became the grave yard for thousands of the sick and elderly, their groans and pleas heard by those in neighbouring sections of the camp, who would amost certainly, eventually meet the same fate.
Of the more than 1.3 million people who entered the Auschwitz camps, there were only 7000 known survivors. And not only the Jews suffered at these rates. Of 15,000 Russian prisoners of war who entered Auschwitz, only 96 survived.

31 October, Old Town, Krakow
Lipowa, 4, is the address of a factory in a run-down inner suburb of Krakow. We took a tram over the Vistula River and walked through the dingy back streets to Lipowa Ul (Sreet). The factory is now renovated and recently painted, but in 1940, it was part of the German war machine, producing kitchen pots and pans and, more importantly for the Nazis, bomb fuses and parts for fighter aircraft.
The factory was owned by Oskar Schindler, an unlikely hero, little known until the publication of Thomas Kenneally's best seller, "Schindler's Ark" and the subsequent movie, by Steven Speilberg, renamed "Schindler's List."

As one might expect, the Hollywood version of the story is somewhat dramatised, but the basic facts are true. Schindler did treat his workers much more reasonably than most other industralists and when Poland fell to the Soviets, he arranged for over a thousand of his Jewish workers to move, with the factory, into Germany, as the Front advanced. Almost all of these workers survived the war and it is estimated that today, their descendants number over 20,000.

Market Square in Krakow is dominated by the Cloth Hall. Today the market is a boring alley of souvenir shops, but below the current building is a museum that includes extensive archeological remnants of the markets that have existed on this site since the 12th Century. Displays include graves from the middle ages, the foundations of several of the previous markets and artifacts from all periods of human habitation on this site.
Early start tomorrow for our long trip to Hamburg. Trains no longer run from Krakow to Berlin, so that leg of the trip is by bus. Leaving at the uncivilized time of 7:05am, the bus trip will take about 8 hours. An hour or so transit in Berlin, then on to Hamburg on the high-speed ICE train.
1 November, DB BAHN bus
We had calculated thirty minutes to get to the station for our 7:05 bus, but as usual, we made it in half that time and had plenty of time to cool our heels.
Express buses run regularly throughout most of Europe and so far we have found them comfortable and, barring major traffic snarls, punctual. Today we have mostly motorway to Berlin, so the ride is extra smooth.

Monday, October 27, 2014

On to Warsaw

16 October, Tartu, Estonia
Another glum and cold day today, but luckily most of our activities were indoors. We re-assessed our views of the Draakon Hotel this morning when we were treated to a reasonable breakfast. We managed to get a three course breakfast down, even though we lashed out last night on a couple of pizzas that were slightly bigger and heavier than we had anticipated. Lucky we walk such great distances to work it all off.

We now consider ourselves experts on Estonian history, having explored several history museums in great detail. It has to be said that the Estonians do an excellent job in presenting history through a mix of interesting multi-media and artifact displays. We even went to the Tartu University Museum today. Yep, you guessed it, we probably allocated a little too much time to our stay in Tartu!

News of a rail strike in Germany has frightened us a little. We are 10 days or so off from needing to use DBRail, so hopefully it will be sorted.
We leave Estonia for Latvia tomorrow. Having spent only 5 days in the country, we are no experts, but we feel we have seen more of the real Estonia than your average tourist. One of the quotations in the Estonian National History Museum, that we visited today, probably sums up our views on Estonia fairly well. "A country's past is an anchor to maintain its culture, but an anchor can also be a drag on a counry as it strives to move into the future." Estonia's past has been painful, no question, but to us there is a tendency to dwell on it far too much, rather than looking forward to a future that could well replicate the success of their Nordic neighbours.
17 October, Latvian train to Riga
Ain't it always the way? When we are travelling all day, the sun breaks through.
Elron train 330 from Tartu to the border town of Valga, Latvia, was a pleasure to ride, with brand new, airlline-quality seats and smooth as silk, even at 120 kph. From Valga we were to pick up a Latvian train direct to Riga, but track work has closed part of the line so the first leg to Strenci was by bus. Not as bad as it might seem, because the bus had to stop at all stations along the way, so we were treated to some interesting back roads and quaint little villages. Our current conveyance is far less comfortable than the flash Estonian trains. Never mind, it is a nice day and the sedate 50 kph lets us take in some nice country scenery. Cost wise, rail transport here is extremely reasonable. Today's full day trip cost about $15 each. And the very best thing about European railways, even out here on the edge of the EU, trains, buses, trams, whatever, leave and arrive exactly on time.

After the usual game of "Find the Hotel", we are settled in the very nice Monte Kristo Hotel, right on the edge of Riga Old Town. A real novelty in our room is the hi-fi system! We are currently indulging ourselves with a little Slim Dusty... NOT my fault... it was the first thing that came up from the USB and I don't know how to change folders!!!
18 October, Riga, Latvia
Autumn can be a real lotto here in northern Europe. Mid-October will always be cool/cold, but today was a bit over the odds for autumn! We know we aren't as well dressed for winter as the locals. Our gear is mostly many layers of the same stuff we would wear at home. But today the cold was creeping through to the bone under four layers, including a Driza-bone (what Aussie doesn't travel with one?) and a pure Australian wool jumper. The forecast was -1C to 3C, but we were sure the day started at well below zero and only hit positive territory sometime late afternoon. Naturally enough, today was the day we decided to do the self-directed walking tour. By lunch we were ready for soup and that's just what we got and very fine too!

Latvia's history is very similar to that of Estonia, although, interestingly, the Estonians seem more culturally aligned with the Finns, probably because of common language roots. Irrespective, all three of the Baltic states share common horrific experiences resulting from their fairly helpless involvement in the ebb and flow of European history.

The Museum of Occupation in Riga does an excellent job capturing the essence of the impact on Latvia of the wars of the 20th century. Soviet occupation, Nazi occupation and then the Soviets again - loyal Latvians mustn't have known which way to turn to best serve their nation. Tens of thousands joined the Soviet and thousands more, the German army, while thousands more took to the forests as partisans.
Like many of the locals, we have a morbid fascination for the dark years of Soviet occupation and the role played by the Russian KGB. Both the KGB museums we have visited in Estonia and here in Latvia, have been well patronised by locals. We only had time for a small part of the "Corner House" as the locals know it, the former KGB headquarters in Riga. We will probably make a return visit tomorrow.

What is fascinating when we look at the dates of all these events, is that anybody we pass on the streets who is in their thirties would have vivid memories of life under the Soviet regime. Even more to the point, people in their 80s, and there are a few around, would have lived through all this - the early Soviet incursion, the Nazi invasion then the Soviet re-occupation. Those our age would probably have been on the streets in the late 1980s, risking all for freedom when Soviet tanks rolled into Riga. Many would have joined 2 million of their fellow Baltic citizens to form the 600 km long human "Baltic Chain" that stretched from Tallinn to Vilnius, demonstrating Baltic solidarity in their move for independence.
20 October, Lux Express Coach, Riga to Vilnius
It is amazing what a difference a few degrees can make to comfort. This morning it was 11C, yesterday, 4C and the previous day -1C. Hard to believe, but we felt quite warm as we dragged our gear off to the bus station.
This is our first long-haul bus trip and it is pure class, with an "in-bus" entertainment system, WIFI and comfortable seats. The countryside is extremely open throughout the Baltic, with low population density, flat, rich farmland and abundant forests.

Now that we are moving more into "Euro-world", as opposed to the slightly more exotic "East", parts of most cities take on the sameness that we have spoken of in other blogs. In the country though, there are some distinct village housing types that set the Baltic states aside from the more modern farm houses of Western Europe. Timber houses still predominate and in Estonia in particular, combined barn/house/grain store structures can still be seen, though, sadly, many are now deserted and rapidly deteriorating.

Our hotel here in Vilnius is again right on the edge of the Old Town. We took a bit of a wander this afternoon and the early verdict is that Tallinn still is the best of the old cities of the Baltic. Some of central Vilnius escsped destruction during the war. It is always interesting to see current buildings in old photographs or paintings. The Vilnius Town Hall appeared in a couple of paintings we came across, one showing Napoleon's army in front of the building during the retreat from Moscow in 1812 and another 18th century scene we found in Warsaw.

We will probably have a big day on the tourist trail tomorrow as we have only allowed ourselves one full day in the city.

23 October, St John's Apartment, Old Town, Warsaw
Even though we often don't know what day it is when we travel, we generally get the sequence of events right. That is, we leave a place on the right day and arrive at the next, also on the right day. Hmmm, not today!
It all started well with a pleasant, though noisy night (didn't notice the window was open!) in the northern Polish city of Bialystok. We had survived the long bus trip from Vilnius the night before, arriving well after 9:00pm, being delayed for almost an hour by traffic and road works. Given the late hour, we decided to grab a taxi rather than walk to our hotel, where, fortified by several packets of peanuts and some pretzels, we called it a night.

A cold and glum morning greeted us, but nevertheless, we decided to walk the 2 km to the station to catch the PKP, Polish Rail, Special ICC Train into Warsaw. Our first suspicions about the accuracy of the description on our ticket, were confirmed when we noticed that Warsaw wasn't mentioned on the Station destination boards. Checking with an official-looking gent - he had a clipboard - as we crossed the tracks to get to our train, we were assured that we were headed for Warsaw Central. When the guard came around to check tickets, he launched into a long and complicated explanation of our journey in Polish, to which we just shook our heads. Surprisingly, the teen/early twenties girl who shared our compartment didn't speak English so we were temporarily at a loss. A nice guy from the adjoining compartment helped out, explaining that the major part of our trip would, in fact, be by bus. Oh jolly, just what we needed after six and a half hours on the bus yesterday.
But the day was still young and, unknown to us, there were a few additional challenges awaiting us.
Ignoring a minor hiccup getting into the Metro in Warsaw, (who knew there were separate entrances depending on which direction you were going?) we easily found our apartment, situated within spitting distance of the Old Town City Square. Armed with the codes for the front door of the building and the apartment key box, we staggered up the three flights of stairs with our packs, hit the codes on the key safe and - no go! Bad language and yelling at the safe and each other, seemed to make no difference, so, ready for a stouch, we called the agent in Warsaw, only to have it politely explained to us the we were actually a day early for our booking. Oops! All ended well, the apartment was available for the extra night so, after the agent had walked the key around to us, we have moved in.
Good bye to the Baltic.

Our trip through the Baltic states has taught us a lot about the  resiliance of these peoples and the amazing struggles for freedom that have occurred here, mostly un-noticed by the West and more sobering, un-noticed by those of us who grew up in the same times.
History has dealt almost identical hands for each of the three nations - hard-won independence in the early years following WWI, then betrayal, through deals done by their larger neighbours. All three suffered occupation by the Russians in 1939, "liberation" by the Germans, re-occupation by the Russians and eventual inclusion in the Soviet Union at the end of WWII. Throughout these years,  millions were exiled, imprisoned, or executed by the Germans and the Russians.
We visited the Occupation Museums and the KGB Museums in all three nations and the evidence of the brutality of the Soviet occupation from the end of WWII until 1991, when all three states declared independence, is just frightening. Many Russians were visiting these museums at the same time as we were and, just as we have often pondered what young Germans must feel when confronted with the holocaust, we wonder how Russians feel when facing evidence of atrocities inflicted in far more recent times.
From a touristy point of view, our vote goes to Tallinn as the pick of the Baltic cities. They all have something worth seeing and experiencing, but Tallinn's Old City is our favourite.
24 October, Old Town, Warsaw
Our "bonus" day in Warsaw was well spent with a leisurely wander through the National Museum of Warsaw. We don't know much about Polish art and artists, but working on the premise that any art you like is good art, we now believe that there are some gr
eat Polish artists. Our one reservation would be in the area of contemporary art. Much of what we saw of this genre was just way too bizarre for our tastes.
During Soviet times, many, very basic cafes, called Bar Mleczny (Milk Bar) served cheap simple meals to the working masses. Most of these have disappeared over the years, but we managed to find one today and partook of a grand lunch of dumplings for the princely sum of $3 each. The place was packed and there was a constant queue at the counter.
A little spooked by our error with our itinerary yesterday, we stopped by Warsaw Central station and, carefully checking and double-checking dates and times, picked up our tickets to Krakow for next week. It will be the third last leg of our long overland journey from China.
25 October, Old Town, Warsaw
The fate of the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto in WWII, is reasonably well known, but outside Poland, far less is known about the Polish Uprising that began in Warsaw, 1 August 1944. Hundreds of thousands of Warsaw's citizens, Jews and Gentiles alike, had suffered unspeakable oppression under the Germans, after Poland fell in 1939. In the early years of the war, thousands of Polish soldiers and airmen escaped to the West and joined the Allies based in England. Many thousands more were demobilized under German occupation. Around this core, a well-organised Partisan Underground Army developed during the years of occupation and by the time the Red Army pushed into Poland in October 1943, the so-called Polish Home Army was a significant force, numbering over 35,000.

As the Russians advanced, they initially co-operated with the Home Army and fought side by side with the Partisans as the Germans retreated. This co-operation was short-lived. As soon as the Red Army's short-term objectives were achieved, they arrested and executed or imprisoned the leaders of the Home Army. Many of the Partisan fighters were Communist and these were promoted and supported by the Soviets to establish an early puppet government in the "liberated" areas of Poland.
On 1 August 1944, the people of Warsaw rose up against their German occupiers. For 63 days, a largely civilian, untrained, poorly-equipped force held the Germans at bay. Small arms, home-made bombs and simple street barriers were, however, no match for trained and battle-hardened troops, tanks and dive bombers. Through all this, the Red Army stood by, within striking distance of the capital as more than 35,000 Partisans died and most of the city was razed. The Russians were happy to let the Germans destroy the Home Army, a force that they would have to defeat to impose their planned future regime.

Before the war, Warsaw had a population of 1.3 million, by the time the Red Army finally moved into the city in late 1944, as few as 1000 people were living in the rubble of this once-great city. As revenge for the uprising, Himler had ordered the city to be totally destroyed and the population exterminated. His orders were carried out, almost to the letter.
All these events are recorded in the incredible Warsaw Rising Museum, where we spent most of this extremely cold day. The weather probably matched our mood after learning about the heroism and sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of citizens of Warsaw involved in this desperate uprising.
Part of the museum is a 3D movie showing the city as it was at the end of the war. Looking over the city now, it is remarkable that so much has been recreated in just one life time.
26 October, Old Town, Warsaw
One of the most remarkable things about modern day Warsaw is that, in 1945, the city was quite literally a pile of rubble. In just under 70 years, this modern day phoenix has achieved some remarkable things. Around us here in the Old Town, the whole area has been faithfully restored to the way it was prior to WWII. Fourteenth and fifteenth century buildings, like the Royal Castle at the end of our street are so well restored that it is hard to believe that it is not original. Luckily, many of the castle's priceless art works were spirited away and hidden prior to the fall of Warsaw. Many other works were plundered by the Nazis. Most of these works have now been returned.
Poland, unlike the states of the Baltic, was not integrated into the Soviet Union. Poland was governed by a strongly pro-Russian communist government. It has to be recognised that it was this government that rebuilt the city, restoring it to what we see today.