Wednesday 31 August 2011

Vilnius, Lithuania

It was an uneventful journey from Bialystok to the border town of Sestokai, in fact there was no one else in my entire carriage. The carriages were the traditional design of side corridor with several eight-seater compartments and it was a surprise to see a wheel-tapper checking the wheels. The connecting train to Vilnius was waiting at Sestokai and bizarrely left 15 minutes before schedule.

The Shakespeare hotel in Vilnius old town was another gem ( A glorious seventeenth century aristocrats mansion where they manage to make you feel like you're staying with rich friends rather than a commercial hotel. Shakespeare plays were apparently read there in the 1600's and this literary tradition is continued with rooms named and themed after authors. I was in Jane Austin with miniture portraits and literature while Hemmingway has his books and hunting memorbilia. Tea/coffee, fruit, a liquer, WiFi and bicycles are all complimentary - often extras in other hotels.

I thought Vilnius was merely a convienent stopping off point but it turns out to be a fabulous destination in its own right. The UNESCO World Heritage old town has a surprising Italianate Baroque style with red roof tiles, cobbled streets, alleyways, courtyards, street musicians and a thriving street cafe culture.

The whole city was in party mode on Sunday because it is the launch of the European Mens Basketbaall championship 2011 - being held in Lithuania for the first time since 1939. Basketball is Lithuania's national sport and 24 international teams are parading, a riverside concert is blaring, a world record attempt is underway with over 60,000 people dribbling a basketball at the same time, fireworks lit the night sky and a dedicated TV channel is covering every bounce of the ball.

Svyturys (lighthouse) is a great local beer, especially when accommpanied with a traditional snack of fried bread fingers smothered with melted cheese. My traditional dinner was Cepelinai (Zepplins) - dumplings stuffed with pork - a bit heavy on the dumpling; Balandeliai - stuffed cabbage leaves - very tasty and the Bulyviniai, potato pancakes with a bacon topping were a real treat.

Its an easy city to explore on foot but I still took a ride on the innovative Vilnius electric bike. They're a cross between a scooter and a limited mobility machine, really great fun although I was dubious about tackling street traffic on it. Got some great photos but the stupid blog still won't load them.

I wanted to stay longer but I've got to catch the night train to St Petersburg.

Making up language - Bialystok, Poland

I've gone off the rails and stopped overnight at the Branicki hotel in Bialystok, northeast Poland. Its a little gem of a hotel, off the beaten track but only a few minutes walk from the town centre that's surprisingly buzzing with street cafes and bars.

The Branicki was almost next door to the birth place of Bialystok's most famous son - Ludwig Zamenhof. Zamenhof is the creator of Esperanto, the universal language. You don't hear much about Esperanto amongst linguistically lazy English speakers, mainly because it is possible to get by with English in most parts of the world.

But Esperanto is a big deal with speakers of minority languages, as Bialystok resident and Esperanto speaker Conrad Amdrzejuk told me at the Zamenhof Cultural Centre and Esperanto public library. Conrad taught himself the basics of Esperanto many years ago during a two week sickness absence from school.

Esperanto is popular in eastern Europe, Brazil, Japan and in China 12 universities teach it. Interestingly Esperanto speakers find learning new languages exceptionally easy and Conrad also speaks Polish, Russian, German, French and English.

Zamenhof was born into the small but very multicultural Bialystok of 1859. He describes working in the town market as a Tower of Babel and how many disputes arose from language misunderstandings. So he set about creating a politically and culturally neutral artificial languge that would help to foster peace and international harmony.

To me Esperanto sounds like a polyglot European language but there are only 16 rules of Esperanto grammar, all of which can be explained on one side of A4 - compare that with an English language textbook! Sensibly there are 26 letters and 26 sounds whereas English has 26 letters and more than 40 sounds - very confusing.

Its not the only artificial language but it is the best developed with between 10-15 million speakers worldwide. So why, after 100 years and endless international disharmony, isnt it more widespread? It would seem to have been the most obvious suggestion when the League of Nations and later the UN was formed and what about the EU?

The main opponents were the French who still harboured delusions of French becoming the universal language and of course the British/American politicians who maybe saw that English was taking that niche. As usual politics and power override common sense and the common good.

Esperanto speakers are a bit cliquely, but that's understandable, and a bit ernest, which is commendable but I think I'm going to give it a go.

Monday 29 August 2011

Blog grumble

This Blogspot website is bloody annoying as it will not allow me to upload the photographs I've been taking. It says you can but does not do what it says Grrrrr. The other wierd thing is that now I'm in Poland the blog layout and instructions are all in Polish, so presumably I'll have to try and cope with Russian instructions from tomorrow!

Cologne to Warsaw

I had a cabin to myself on the sleeper train to Warsaw - toilet, sink and shower, albeit the smallest shower cubical imaginable. Some slices of bread plus cheese and jam were on the side for breakfast and the conductor asked if I'd like tea/coffee in the morning.

Cabin signs are in four languages although not English but everything was eminently guessable - Blokada drzwi - beside the - door lock - and pictograms saying it is wrong to put bottles and boxes down the toilet. An obviously new innovation was the shiny flatscreen DVD player, a good idea if you had known to bring some discs.

Woke up to a flat landscape of young birch and pine forest but interspersed with ploughed fields. No people, animals, buildings and more tracks than roads - in every sense an agricultural scene - wheat, maize, cabbage etc.

The train ignored most stations, many merely concrete slabs with a roof. I knew it was Poland because the station names had so many Rs, Ws and Zs appearing, to the English speaking eye, in improbable places.

Small towns appeared suddenly without sprawling suburbs as a warning. Surprising clusters of urban tower blocks, a few onion domed churches and Tesco; then fields and forest again.

I deduced from my observations that southern Poland was very rural but I was later told that it is very industrial and that I had travelled on a new rail line routed through an unpopulated area. So don't believe everything that travel writers say.

Sunday 28 August 2011

27-8-11 Tintin in Brussels

Its only a short stop in Brussels and being a major rail transit city must be annoying because so many people pass through but so few stop to appreciate what Brussels has to offer. The grand city centre has great restaurants, bars and galleries but I think the cosmopolitan Marollen district around the Gare du Midi has more interest. There are more bargains in morning flea market then you'll ever find in Paris and the street cafe culture is lively rather than jaded or touristy as in Paris.
Last time I was here I tested several famous and powerful Belgian beers but I need a clear head today so I'm seeking out some of the city's famous street cartoon artwork.

Brussels has been a hub for comic book art throughout the twentieth century and the city boasts three comic book schools/studios producing a string of successful artists. There are 44 house sized wall murals around Brussels and when I meet Marc Marghem he said he could give me a whistlestop tour in the 90 minutes I had before my connnecting train left for Cologne.
Tintin is a Belgian icon and makes an appearance in the foyer of the Gare du Midi - riding on the front of a steam engine in an American adventure. Tintin's popularity never seems to fade and the new Hollywood film - The Secret of the Unicorn - is due out in October 2011, with its world premier appropriately in Brussels. The film starts off in the popular Brussels flea market where Tintin and Snowy are of course drawn into adventures around the world.

The Smurfs, another international cartoon export, also have a new 2011 film out. But Marc said - The Kat - is of far greater cultural significance to Belgian's. The Kat would unexpectedly appear in the Brussels Evening newspaper and make political or social statements about Belgian life - a sort of cartoon editorial.

Brussels is such an easy day trip from London and I think its got more charm, a bigger welcome and is much easier to explore than Paris. Brussels does not expect hoards of visitors, which is a welcome change from cities with big iconic draws that often make them feel they don't need to put any effort into welcoming visitors.

27-8-11 Another Man in Seat 61

Finding WiFi links is already posing problems, when they do exist they're asking for £5 an hour & I don't fancy sprinkling my credit card number to all & sundry across the planet - it sounds like a great scam to freely give your financial details to someone you don't know. I'd never do that at home!
So I've failed to upload my first on-route blog on time. Didn't even manage it with free WiFi at St Pancras so I'm writing them & will post them when I get reliable access.

I'm sitting in seat 61 on carriage 11 of the Eurostar to Brussels. Its not that I'm superstitious or anticipate any special luck from occupying such a famous rail travellers seat - it just seems a good place to start a train journey to the other side of the world.
For years I've thought about doing parts of this journey & Mark Smith's (the man in seat 61) website is an inspiration to every adventurous rail traveller. But it was whilst talking to Sheila Manzano from a few months ago when she simply said 'why not?' And she was right, so here I am riding the rails out of the UK, on-route across the planet.

26-8-11 When does a Journey begin?

Where & when does a journey start?
Is it the 13.17 from Wokingham to Clapham Junction that I've just got off or tomorows 12.55 Eurostar to Brussels. I never did take the 9.35 London train I originally intended a few weeks ago. I decided to stay overnight in London the night before taking the first train out of the UK because I think a journey starts when you say goodbye. For me its not a place or a time but when I make the emotional detachment from home - the final goodbye.

For more than a century the Goring hotel in London has been a traditional jumping off point for grand Orient Express tours around Europe so it seems an appropriate place to set off on a grand rail tour of half of the world.
After a century the Goring family still own & run their hotel but rather than running out of steam, they're still winning awards in 2011. Dinner was excellent but the lobster omlette & obscure English cheeseboard were masterful & truely memorable.

There are so many characterless hotels in London, even the 5 star luxury brands have an international uniformity that is essentially dull whereas the Goring is a complete one-off still retaining all the best of its unique Edwardian charm. Its the only family run 5 star hotel in London just few minutes walk from Victoria station & the same from Buckingham Palace. But I'm sure it was the style, personal ambience & service that attracted the recent royal wedding party to the Goring rather than the fact that it was - handy for the Palace.

I bet Agatha Christie stayed here before setting off on the Orient Express but today I seem to be the only guest setting off on a grand rail trip. Unfortnately the Orient Express isnt as regular as it used to be, so I have to trundle over to St Pancras & take the Eurostar to Brussels.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Got my visas

Hooray I've just picked up my passport with all the necessary visas in place. Bit of a last minute panic but I could'nt have got them all in time without using a visa procurment agency - but what a price! Just need a few tickets now.

Friday 19 August 2011

Fluent in English

I think its very poor the way English speakers don't bother with the language of the countries they visit. I usually try to learn a few words as it shows some respect but on this trip that means learning a smidgin of: Belgian, German, Polish, Lithuanian & Russian - all in the space of 3 - 4 days. I think I'll be doing a lot of smiling, nodding & looking a bit simple.

Monday 15 August 2011


I usually leave packing until the last minute but as this is going to be a 10 week trip I’d better give it more forethought than usual. I hate luggage & refuse to take more than a medium sized bag. I’ve splashed out on a clever holdall, with wheels, that can also be backpacked but because I’m travelling on the Eastern & Oriental Express from Bangkok I need to take a few smarter clothes than I usual. I’ll probably do my usual thing and rely on a good stock of washing powder and buying a few things on the way.

With plenty of reading time on the Trans-Mongolia between Moscow & Beijing I’ve downloaded my favourite, too fat to carry book (Lord of the Rings), onto my new computer tablet.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Less on visas

My ticketing agent Railbookers ( has managed to route me through the Baltic States, avoiding Belarus, and savings yet further visa costs and letters of invitation hassle -required even when simply transiting to Russia.

Germ ridden flight

Having just returned from India & avoided all the diseases I was vaccinated against and the Delhi belly that 60 % of visitors apparently return home with – I crashed out with a respiratory infection.
Someone in the seat in front of me on the flight from Bangalore to Mumbai coughed & sneezed the entire journey & with the wonders of modern air travel all his germs were concentrated & spread amongst passengers. 
Just one more reason I’m looking forward to travelling by rail to Australia.

Tuesday 2 August 2011


I'm leaving London on the 9.35 train from Kings Cross for Sydney on 27 August 2011. I still havn't got all my visas yet but they'll hopefully all be ready in time.
If anyone else has done this trip I'd be pleased to hear from you?

I'm a bit of a blog virgin so am just checking how to upload images.

So many visas

I've got to get visas for Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam & Cambodia within the next 3 weeks the rest I'll get on-route. All my eggs are in the Visa World basket - a London procurement company. Pricy but quick - I hope.