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)
Xian to Amsterdam, Overland is best described as an “experience” rather than a journey or a holiday.
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?
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.