Our Favourite European Underground Systems

One of the most rewarding challenges of exploring a new city is mastering the local public transport system. In Europe we have them all, the good, the bad and the downright confusing! This week we look at some of our favourite undergrounds from around the continent.

 1. The London Underground

Ok so maybe we are a little biased as it is our hometown, but ‘The Tube’ not only is the oldest underground in the world, one of the most used undergrounds in the world but also regularly voted one of the best undergrounds in the world. All Londoners’ have a love hate relationship with the Tube but without it we would be in a whole world of trouble, just try and get anywhere when there are line closures for maintenance works! In fact it is only when it is shut or not working do we truly realise how much the city relies on it. Best bit of advice, buy an Oyster Card, fares are much cheaper than paying for a paper ticket, oh and don’t forget to ‘Mind The Gap’.

Going underground...

Going underground…

 2. Berlin U-Bahn & S-Bahn

Ever since living in Berlin I have always loved the rail network here. The rickety old carriages rattling along the tracks elevated above the roads below or perhaps trundling through the old ‘Ghost Stations’ from when the city was divided between east and west. When you are riding the Berlin metro it feels like any minute James Bond or Jason Bourne will come bursting through your carriage is some cold war spy drama. Our tip, check out the Mohrenstrasse station, the red marble walls come from Hitler’s former Reich’s Chancellery building, and don’t forget to validate your tickets before jumping on the train it is a hefty fine if you get caught!

One of Berlin's former 'Ghost Stations', closed off during the Cold War and division of the city

One of Berlin’s former ‘Ghost Stations’, closed off during the Cold War and division of the city

 3. Moscow Metro

Difficult, confusing and amazing are just some of the words to describe Moscow’s enormous metro system. Built to showcase the might of the Stalinist Soviet Union, many of the metro stations look like they belong more in a palace than an underground. Finding the right stops can be tricky but rewarding with mosaics of Lenin, space aged themes and a statue of a soldier’s dog whose nose you rub (in the Red Square Metro) but a few treasures awaiting the brave! Our tip, get a good map and learn to read Cyrillic!

Waiting to board the Moscow Metro

Waiting to board the Moscow Metro

One of the many murals showing the strength of the former Soviet Union throughout the Moscow Metro

One of the many murals showing the strength of the former Soviet Union throughout the Moscow Metro

4. Budapest Metro

While not the best metro system in Europe it was the first on the continent, dating back to 1896. The reason we love this underground is the old communist feel when you go underground. Instead of turnstiles ore relying on German honesty, as soon as you validate your ticket at the validation box you are met by a handful of heavy set black clad metro guards demanding to see your validated ticket, (which they have just seen you validate). Then you head to the platform and you can almost guarantee to get checked again or perhaps as soon as the doors of your carriage close a badge is flashed “tickets please” yelled out and you are subjected to another check. Our record? In a three-stop journey we had our ticket checked five times! Better validate that ticket!

Entrance to the Budapest Underground, the oldest underground on the continent

Entrance to the Budapest Underground, the oldest underground on the continent

Do you have a favourite metro or underground in Europe, or better yet do you have a ‘worst’ underground or underground story? If so we would love to hear about it, leave a comment below or drop us a line on Facebook.

 

– Dean

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Borders, Buses and Indian Trains

The day leaving Lumbini began our second major travel day after leaving Pokhara, and was one met with a few nerves and raw excitement.

As luck would have it we managed to wrangle our way straight onto a local bus headed toward the Nepali border town. The 24 seat bus was rammed tight with close to double the number of people standing, us included. After the first stop the ticket master/boy then ushered us up to sit on a bench behind the driver. During the one hour long drive Natalie’s shoulder was used as a handrail, a handbag storage and at various times an emergency braking device, while for most of the journey my knee was hyper flexed in the wrong direction.

After the arduous bus ride the day before this was now stock standard and what we expected. Arriving at the border town we then negotiated a taxi for the 4 kilometre drive to the border itself. A straight line drive, it appeared our driver had to stop for directions on at least two occasions!

Border formalities were relatively straight forward and the Nepali immigration officers would have to go down as some of the friendliest we have encountered (UK and Australian Immigration please take note!). There is something quite rewarding about walking across National frontiers, what with passport checks, military questioning and the general shadiness of about every border town we have ever visited.

Welcome to India!

Welcome to India!

Our arrival into India was met with the customary assault of touts all promising safe passage to onward destinations. With no buses to our hopeful first port of call (Varanasi) we had agreed to take a share jeep to the transport hub of Gorakhpur.

What the tout lacked in sales skills he made up for in sheer persistence and determination, so we piled into a small jeep with a Korean, three locals and a family of seven! Combined with our three drivers/rooftop luggage securerers our ramshackle caravan began the two hour “express” dash to Gorakhpur.

I say “express” because buses are supposed to take a minimum of three hours. Our driver had obviously been taught by the mysterious hooded driver of the previous day, or thought he was the future Indian Sebastian Vettel as we careered down in record time. There were some very near misses, several games of chicken with oncoming traffic, wheel screeching and a couple of moments where my heart skipped a beat or two! All part and parcel of your average journey in India!

Arriving into Gorakhpur train station the adventure really began as we tried to organise a train ticket to Varanasi. The station was a seething mass of people, cows and dogs and we made straight for the shortest queue. I waited, pushed and shoved like a local while Natalie followed a sign to Tourist Services (which was closed). Upon arrival back to line Natalie found me being lambasted for pushing my way through the ladies queue! Luckily we swapped spots and within minutes we had an unreserved ticket to Varanasi, a five hour train journey, or so we thought. The ticket seller told us the next train left at 4pm – perfect. When Natalie asked what time it arrived she shrugged her shoulders and said “about 9pm”. How wrong she was!

Tired, hungry and edgy after a couple of big and rough travel days we struggled to find our train (we later found out we had no specific train booked just an ‘open ticket’) but it was a great lesson in Indian train travel! Finally we boarded a near empty train that was apparently bound for Varanasi. The carriage was allegedly constructed in 2010 but looked like one of the first trains ever put into circulation. So our train rumbled out the station carrying us, and an assortment of cockroaches and rodents (yes rodents!) for our first Indian train ride. Natalie was fascinated by the open doors throughout the journey and for the first dozen stations insisted on ‘swinging’ out the door!

Who needs to shut the door?

Who needs to shut the door?

9:00pm came and went with no sign of Varanasi. At around 10:30pm we were starting to wonder if we had boarded the wrong train until my desperate scramble around the platform at one stop unearthed our alleged arrival time of 1:00am! Both of us by this point were struggling to keep awake.

Natalie 'trying' to stay awake!!

Natalie ‘trying’ to stay awake!!

Cold, hungry and totally exhausted we arrived at Varanasi around 1:36am, grabbed an auto rickshaw and then drove around to find a guesthouse. At about 2:30am we finally turned the lights out and crashed out to sleep. What a day and proof this certainly isn’t your all inclusive package holiday!

Borders are great fun and a great challenge when travelling but the travel around them is always long and difficult. I still remember a six and a half hour Belarus to Poland border crossing with my tour group in tow. However there is always a sense of achievement you feel at land borders, more so when you cross it yourself unaided. Most importantly we had made it to India, the next few weeks were going to be at times challenging, but above all truly amazing, we could just tell. But for now India could wait, all we wanted to do was sleep…

– Dean

Chapter Four: The World’s Highest Train Journey: Chengdu to Lhasa

Bleary eyed we stumbled off our overnight train from Yichang and arrived in the economically booming town of Chengdu. It was to be our base for the next five days as we waited for our Tibetan Travel Permits to be granted.

Chengdu is famous for a number of things, its spicy Sichuan cuisine for one, (which was the subject of our last blog entry), its legendary tea houses and most of all one of the symbols of China, Pandas! This was going to be a fun week.

Our first day was spent exploring the largest Buddhist monastery in the city, the Manjusri monastery. It was an enormous complex, very colourful and was great for photos. We had an interesting conversation with an elderly local gentleman who reeled off numerous statistics about Australia after I told him where I was from. This was followed by being invited in to what looked like an enormous assembly hall. The young girl who invited us then told us the man speaking was from a new wave Buddhist movement. It was like a Chinese version of the TV evangelical preachers you see on American comedy movies, needless to say we didn’t stick around long.

Several of the monasteries are surrounded by reconstructed hutong, or old Chinese alleyways. They were filled with souvenir stalls, street side restaurants, vendors selling various chilli concoctions and tea houses. We loved the Chengdu tea houses, you could walk in, buy a cup of leaf tea for around one British Pound, and then were given a thermos full of hot water. If you managed to finish the thermos, you just went to the counter and grabbed another one, free of charge. What great value!

 

Jasmine tea in Chengdu

Jasmine tea in Chengdu

The following day was time to visit the Pandas. Somehow we managed to make two connecting local buses to reach the Chengdu Panda Research facility, which was a mission in itself. It involved trying to find a bus line that didn’t exist and thanks to several very helpful bus drivers we reached our destination.

I’m not sure if we were shocked or surprised, but I guess we were almost expecting a big nature reserve similar to some of the reserves you see in Africa, with Pandas living as close to a normal life as possible. In reality what we entered was a Panda zoo. Huge enclosures holding anywhere from one to around five Pandas, all with bamboo feeding stations in the primo location for visitors to take photos.

After our initial surprise/shock/disappointment, we loved the Base. The Pandas were like big, goofy teddy bears, stumbling around and play fighting, but our favourite was one guy stuck up a tree. We must have watched him for around 20 minutes as he tried every which way to scale his way down the tree which he had obviously managed to climb. All his efforts were fraught with disaster and followed by mad scrambles back to the safety of the fork in the branches. We left him to it but returned about two hours later and he was still stuck in the tree! We were lucky enough to see him try several more ill-fated attempts before eventually falling to the ground flat on his back. The Research Base does do some amazing work protecting and breeding future generations of Pandas, and is even preparing to release some of them back into the wild. This day was a real highlight for both of us, but we both agreed we love to come back one day and try and trek out to see them in the wild.

 

Panda Cubs at the Chengdu Research Base

Panda Cubs at the Chengdu Research Base

Because of the amount of time we were spending in Chengdu we had decided to break out time up between days exploring the city and a couple of day trips, (the Pandas being one). Today it was time to explore several of the city’s parks. As we mentioned in our Beijing blog we loved the parks there and were hoping Chengdu’s parks would live up to our expectation. We visited another monastery, the newly built hutong surrounding it and experienced our first tea ceremony. Really it was a show to make you buy the shops tea, but we did enjoy a couple of free cups. The best part of the whole experience was the shop assistants puppy dog eyes and look of “if you don’t buy my tea I will get the sack” look. The huge People’s Park was another great place to spend a few hours, and it was here I had one of the more unique experiences of our adventure, I had my ears cleaned by an ear master.

The ear masters walk between tea houses in the parks wearing head torches and carrying numerous instruments that look like they belong in a horror movie. They proceed to pluck, scrub and clean your ears as well as dislodging any nastiness using what sounds like tuning forks. The whole process was a little unnerving and I can’t say it was my favorite experience, but the after the little massage at the end my ears did feel amazing. While Chengdu’s parks had totally different feeling to them, our love affair of how the Chinese people used their public spaces remained strong.
Our final day trip took us out to the town of Leshan, home to the world’s largest statue of Buddha. What was supposed to be a two hour local bus ride turned into the best part of a five hour marathon as the motorways were closed for one stretch due to fog, and then traffic halted due to an ensuing accident. However it was totally worth it when we reached Leshan.

The Giant Buddha is 71 meters tall carved out of the rock face overlooking the confluence of two rivers. The project was conceived by a local monk who believed the statue would calm the ferocious merging of the rivers some 700 years ago. Now days many historians believe the confluence was calmed by the amount of debris cast into the river during the construction rather than any magical powers of the Giant Buddha. All in all this truly was an impressive construction back in the day and a perfect way to finish off our time in Chengdu. It would also set the scene in many ways for what was to come.

 

At the Leshan Giant Buddha

At the Leshan Giant Buddha

The following evening, New Years Eve, we boarded our 44 hour train journey from Chengdu to Lhasa. The train journey itself is one of China’s proudest engineering feats, and believe us they have many, but also was incredibly controversial, something we would learn went hand in hand when visiting Tibet. The 3360km journey heads into some very remote landscape, isolated towns, and 80% of day two was spent in excess of 4000m! While not pressurized, each train cabin, and every room in the cabins had vents pumping in oxygen to help you aclimatise.

The scenery was nothing short of stunning, from rocky gorges to flat desert and then the barren expanse of the Tibetan plateau as we ascended above the tree line. The highlight was definitely topping 5000m as we crossed the highest point of the journey and began to see numerous snowcapped mountains surrounding us.

 

Approaching 5000m on the World's highest train journey

Approaching 5000m on the World’s highest train journey

We also saw some truly remarkable and bizarre things as well. The one that puzzled us the most was during one stretch of perhaps 20 km at regular intervals there would be a Chinese soldier, standing in the middle of nowhere, with nothing around him, saluting the train. There was no rhyme or reason for it, truly bizarre! On another section we saw three men lying prostrating on the road near the train. We would later find out they were pilgrims on their way to Lhasa, praying and prostrating themselves all the way from their home tome to the capital. Some of these journeys can take up to six months, crossing several quite dangerous mountain passes, (like our 5000m one) and being subject to both extremes of both cold and heat, truly remarkable.

So our new year had been ushered in on the train, (celebrated with a bottle of Great Wall Red wine no less), as was the first day and a half of 2014, rather appropriate really considering how far we have travelled by train so far. We finally pulled into to the final destination, one that polarises opinion, stirs various emotions and promised a very special experience, Lhasa, the capital of Tibet….

– Dean

Thank you for your support

After the most amazing time in Mongolia (more about that in the blog to follow) we are really sad to leave this special place, but are looking forward to boarding our train to Beijing in the morning.  Internet access is likely to be a bit more ‘few and far’ between, and social media quite restricted, so we wanted to take this opportunity to say a big thank you!

Sending stories back about our trip has been different for us this time round.  In the past we have sent big round-robin emails, but this time we thought we would blog and see how that went.

I have heard numerous comments from people in the past (not always positive!) about people always putting things on Facebook and Twitter about their travels, so we thought the best thing to do would be to start up ‘The Smart Way Round’ Facebook page.  We invited all of our friends to ‘like’ the page, that way people could either opt in or out of our travel updates.  At the time it all felt rather self-indulgent and like we were promoting ourselves which was not the way it was intended at all!  In short, we were blown away with the response we got so maybe more people are interested in our travels than we first believed!

So above all this is just a big THANK YOU for your support both before and during our journey.  We will continue to post blogs were we can, although it may not be possible to post these on Facebook.  You can always sign up for email updates via ‘The Smart Way Round’ blog page, or alternatively we will be back on Social Media as soon as possible (Dean can’t be parted with Twitter for too long)!

For now, thank you and see you in China (you better pinch me as it doesn’t seem possible)!

– Natalie

From London to Irkutsk – The First Chapter

As we travel on the Trans-Siberian train its day two, there is a blissfully perfect wintery snowy scene out of the carriage window and its time to turn our thoughts back to all the amazing things we have seen and done on this adventure so far.  As we look back we find ourselves reaching for the brake pedal – slow down its going too quickly!

There is only one way to toast a big trip!

There is only one way to toast a big trip!

The last few weeks before we went away were a whirlwind and before we knew it, we found ourselves on our first overnight train (just!).  For those of you that read Dean’s earlier blog you will know that it was a close calls that testing my ability to run with my backpack from the offset!!  Good job we had packed light!

When we woke the next morning we have travelled through three countries – from the UK through France, Belgium, Germany, and finally into Poland.  I remember Dean remarking that in many ways Poland was like the UK – full of Costa’s and Tesco’s!  I can’t deny there were definitely similarities, yet it had a character all of its own that was an amazing introduction to the trip.  Our day and night there would prove to be the first day where we walked our socks off and racked up the miles.  As we got off our train, we walked out of the station and were greeted with the mighty sight of the Palace of Culture – a big imposing building that welcomed us.  We discovered the ‘singing’ Chopin benches (that’s right – park benches that play Chopin music!), explored the buildings in the old own square, walked the Old City Walls, had a Costa coffee (why change the habit of a lifetime?!), dashed down to see the Jewish Ghetto Memorial as the sun was setting and eventually toasted our arrival with a Polish beer –  Nasdarovje!

The beautiful old town square

The beautiful old town square

Our next journey was by bus (double axel as Mum spotted in the pictures!).  It was possibly the poshest coach I have been on and came complete with cheesy chick flicks and aeroplane style entertainment system.  True to form I chuckled away at a naff film!!  After an 8 hour journey, next came Vilnius and our journey into Lithuania.  I had received many reports of what a pleasant city it is and it certainly lived up to that.  Our hostel was just outside the old city walls, so a short walk and we were down in amongst the beauty of it – you can certainly see why it is UNESCO World Heritage listed.  Lacking funds we had our first taste of noddles for dinner.  We had a full day to explore and again we walked and walked.  If this trip doesn’t tone my legs nothing will!!

The Green Bridge

The Green Bridge

We walked up the main shopping street and down to the river where we meandered along the banks and came to the Green Bridge.  Built in 1956 this is the only bridge in Lithuania that has statues on it.  Given the adornment of statues on bridges in other cites this fascinated us!  We then carried on and walked up the hill and went up the Gediminas Tower which gave us a brilliant view over the city.

The Old Town Square in Lithuainia

The Old Town Square in Lithuainia

All too soon it was time to leave.  On the way back to the hostel we came across this little local bar.  It was basically park benches outside, and I convinced Dean that it would be good to have a drink with the locals.  I was the only woman in there (apart from the lady behind the bar) but we paid our 50p and got our ¾ pint of beer.  It was so good that we thought we’d invest in the economy and have a second!!!  When we got on the train a couple of hours later, we were greeted with red velour beds and animal print blankets – it was almost like something out of a 1970’s dodgy film!!

Using up our last 50ps

Using up our last 50ps

It is fair to say that crossing borders on a night train doesn’t make for a very restful night’s sleep.  First our stop in Latvia and the Latvian border control where Dean got a stamp, and then an hour later came the Russian side.  At 4am we handed over our passport and hoped for the best.  To pass the time we had a midnight feast and tucked into our big bar of chocolate – bought to use up the last of our Lithuanian money and a great investment!  Finally we were stamped in and rolling again, and next came awesome St Petersburg.

Our cabin for the night

Our cabin for the night

We spent the next three days exploring everything from the Hermitage to St Peter and Paul Island, St Isaacs Cathedral, The Church of the Spilled Blood (my first introduction to the ornate frescos), Udel Naya flea market as well as going to an Ice Hockey game – go SKA!  We had planned to go to Swan Lake, but as it was too late in the season this made a nice alternative.  We ended right on the edge with the opposing team so we had to keep cheering for SKA so there was no confusion as to who we were wiling on!  It was no wonder the seats were both cheap and still available – no one else wanted them!!!  It was a mammoth couple of days full of taking LOTS of pictures (both day and night).  I couldn’t get over the amazing architecture everywhere – the buildings were just stunning and I was blown away.  Definitely a city to come back to!

In the Hermitage

In the Hermitage


Our last stop was Moscow before the journey onwards.  It had a lot to live up to for me as I’d loved St Petersburg.  We took one of the German built express trains between the two cities, and arrived into Moscow at lunchtime.  There is no denying that seeing St Basil’s for the first time is one of those real ‘I have made it moments’ and I was amazed by what I saw.  It is the most stunning building and really does stand up to every expectation you have about it.  We went inside and this amazed me too.  I expected a big wide open space in there, instead it’s essentially lots of smaller chambers with the most beautiful frescos and artwork.  Wow.  The next few days were spent paying our respects to Lenin (I was the first of the day in there and had it all to myself which was very eerie!), going round the Kremlin, visiting the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, riding the Metro (Dean was amazing at navigating and we managed to sneak a few pictures) and going out to the old Communist All Russia Exhibition Ground.  There was a really funky memorial to the Russian Space exploration out there which was quite unique.  We loved our afternoon out there exploring lots of the old buildings and architecture.

Wow!

Wow!

So as we got to the first of the ‘big train’ train journeys there was a small amount of sadness that we were saying goodbye to these amazing cities.  It had been the perfect start to our overland adventure, and we were well and truly on our way!

So what have we learnt?  Successful travel as a couple is much easier if you a:  tell the other person when you are hungry, b:  tell the other person know when you are tired, and c: tell the other person when you are struggling!  Follow these simple guidelines and you can’t go wrong!

Above all, in the words of an advertisement in Warsaw…. ‘Life’s Good’!

Life's Good!

Life’s Good!

–  Natalie

From Russia With Love

I first came to Russia eleven years ago. Since then I have been lucky enough to return on several occasions with work. When the initial planning of this adventure began the inevitable question and discussion arose between us and several friends who had visited Russia as well. Which city do you prefer, St Petersburg or Moscow?

Since I first visited Russia this had always been a pretty simple question for me, the answer was Moscow, without a shadow of a doubt. However, on this visit, the answer is not so clear cut. A lot of water has passed under the Neva and Volga rivers since I was last here, and a lot has changed.

It would be fair to say that St Petersburg wowed Natalie. The architecture is stunning, from the St Peter and Paul’s Fortress, St Isaacs Cathedral and the Church of Spilt Blood and all culminating at the Palace square with the Winter Palace, it is obvious the city was built with a plan in mind rather than built generation upon generation like so many cities around Europe.

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

Every building was once a palace built for another noble family wanting to be as close the Czars as possible. Every street, every corner, there is another amazing building waiting to wow you. There are so many similarities with other Central and Eastern European cities yet also so many differences.

According to the current edition of the Lonely Planet Trans Siberian guide book, the city is looking the best it ever has, and to be honest I have to agree. The first thing I noticed was how clean the city was. You struggled to find even a cigarette butt on the ground which is incredible in itself considering how many people still smoke over here. The metro is spotless so are all the streets, also quite incredible considering the lack of rubbish bins everywhere.

The next thing I noticed that had changed so much was the amount of ‘Latin’ signs everywhere. Cyrillic can be tricky at the best of times, (I clearly remember taking one of my tour groups in completely the opposite direction to the one I wanted to go in on the Moscow Metro one day because I had misread the direction I wanted!), but now the Metro stops are all labelled in Latin, and even some announcements are made in English. The difficulties that once existed for non-Russian speakers seem to have dissolved away, in fact in some sense St Petersburg felt very European.  Perhaps that is why for so many people who visit Russia, St Petersburg is their favourite city.  It is not only beautiful, but it feels familiar and you are no longer too far out of your comfort zone.

Maybe that is why I always preferred Moscow.

Today we caught the fast train or Sapan train from St Petersburg to Moscow, and there were almost more English announcements than Russian, and all the messages on the carriage electronic info boards were in Latin and not Cyrillic, another sign of the times.

Moscow couldn’t be more different than St Petersburg. As the train rolls in you see row after row of former communist apartment blocks, many desperately in need of some love and attention. Arriving into Leningradsky Station those differences become more apparent. That dull grey architecture hits you as you exit from the station, the vibe feels different as well. Moscow definitely has that big city feel and its citizens that big city mentality, but what else would you expect from a city with a population of eleven and a half million?

However, while St Petersburg has all the palaces and the Hermitage (one of the world’s largest museums), Moscow has the Kremlin and Red Square and for me this is why Moscow wins. The Kremlin/Red Square area is quite simply, breathtaking.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

I think my fascination with Red Square comes from growing up in the days when the Cold War was petering out. My main memories and all I ever remembered of Russia, were the military parades on May Day that were beamed on TV all over the world. The troops marching, the tanks, missiles, here was the Soviet Union in all its military glory. All the history in that square – the powerful figures who have graced the steps and are buried in the walls of the Kremlin, not to mention the preserved figure of Lenin (if it’s still really him).

Moscow appeals to the history nerd in me, and as depressing as it looks, I also love the former communist architecture and Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’.

I’m really looking forward to revisiting some of the sights around Moscow over the next few days before we board the Trans-Siberian, and as much as I loved St Petersburg, I think Moscow will always be my favourite, but the gap is getting smaller! This of course will lead to many discussions between the two of us and with our friends on our return, but I guess that’s the beauty of travelling, different things appeal to different people, maybe I’m just a communist at heart…..

Do you prefer one city over the other? If so leave a comment below and let us know your preference.

–          Dean

Best Laid Plans

This was supposed to be the easy part. London to Warsaw, a couple of train changes and a nice easy introduction to training across the world, the perfect introduction to get us back into that travelling mindset.

Well, Day One of our adventure was more a baptism of fire than a nice leisurely break into solo travelling again.

This is how the day was supposed to pan out. After farewell champagnes with Natalie’s parents we caught the Eurostar to Brussels. In Brussels, granted, it was a short turnaround of twenty minutes, but then it was the German ICE train straight to Frankfurt and forty-five minutes to then board our overnight sleeper train to Warsaw.

Everything started well, we said goodbye to Natalie’s folks and passed immigration and security with plenty of time for the Eurostar. We had learnt our lesson from our honeymoon where we cut timings very very fine to make our train. The Eurostar pulled out on time and everything was going great, our adventure had begun, all the planning, the reading and researching was finally a reality.

Then we were thrown one of those travelling curve-balls that everyone experiences at one time or another. All your planning, all your research goes out the window and your travel experience kicks in.

We arrived at Brussels Midi station and had what we thought was an easy two platform changeover to the ICE train. However, when we got there the information boards were flashing red wording in both French and Flemish. While not fluent in either one of these languages, the translation was easy – ‘Leaves From Another Station’.

What?! This can’t be! We managed to track down a local attendant who told us to find the German train information desk. Running through the station, watching the minutes tick down until our departure we finally managed to find the Deutsche Bahn info desk to be told there was a problem with the train and now we had to catch a local train to Liege and hopefully a connection to Frankfurt from there.

We raced to the platform and jumped on the train to Liege (literally) as the doors closed and the train pulled out. The next hour and ten minutes seemed to drag on, we poured over possibilities, would we make Frankfurt in time for the sleeper train, could we meet it somewhere else or worst case scenario what to do if we missed it.

Upon arrival into Liege the conductor informed everyone that the ICE train would be departing from an adjoining platform, and would begin from Liege to Frankfurt. We had made it! Or so we thought.

We boarded what turned out to be our scheduled train, rail problems between Brussels and Liege had caused the rescheduling last minute, but now the train was departing over an hour late, and due to arrive into Frankfurt six minutes after our sleeper train was due to depart. I managed to hunt down the conductor and in my best German explained the situation – we just could not afford to miss that train. ‘Oh you will be fine’, he replied, ‘I think they will wait for you’.

Frantically doing some calculations

Frantically doing some calculations

As we hurtled through the night at over three hundred kilometres an hour watching the minutes tick by we became more and more nervous we would miss the train. Another visit to the conductor and this time less reassurance than my previous visit did nothing to calm our nerves.
As we pulled into Frankfurt station the conductors voice blared out over the speaker system, ‘Those passengers going to Warsaw your train departs from Platform 1 and is waiting for you, please hurry’.

Now this is where there is a little blurring between fact and fiction. I like to imagine that mad dash for the train to be like a scene from an action movie. The doors popped open and Natalie and I bolted out the carriage, down the stairs and through the tunnel accessing the platforms. 15, 14,…..4,3,2 and finally Platform 1. In front us now looked like what was the world’s largest stair case.

We scampered up as quick as we could to see the train slowly beginning to move, a conductor leaning out our carriage entrance calling for us to run. As we came up alongside the open carriage door, the train picking up pace, we threw first our day packs and then our rucksacks to the conductor. First Natalie, then I were dragged onto the train. Lying there exhausted, panting and out of breath, we looked up to the smiling conductor who slapped us on the back and thrust a bottle of vodka into our hands.

Sadly however that’s not exactly what happened. We ran down the access platform the stairs and finally made it to our carriage, literally we jumped on, the doors closed and we were met with the disdainful look of the female conductor, who muttering something in Russian under her breath, showed us to our sleeper cabin. We collapsed in a heap onto the bottom bunk and just looked at each other, we couldn’t believe we had somehow made that train. Surely the entire four months were not going to be like this.

A stressful Day One to our adventure, but a timely reminder that it doesn’t matter how well prepared you are, how much research you have done, things change at a moment’s notice, and it is these experiences we will never forget and can laugh about later on.

Exhausted, but happy to be on the train

Exhausted, but happy to be on the train

However, I really do hope we don’t have to run for any more trains!

Dean