The Grand Farewell Tour
Like an aging rock band, we decided to do a Grand Tour of Europe, to visit old friends and beloved places. At the top of our list we placed Barry Stapley and Pedro Villalaz, two favorite fellow grad students at Imperial College from 1968 to 72; and our hideaway in southern Italy where I wrote most of my thesis. For extra thrills I threw in Berlin and Prague, cities I had never visited, plus a cruise on the Danube, something Yoshiko always wanted to do. And at the last minute a rendezvous with a high school buddy who has spent the last 50 years in Brno, near Prague. Ambitious, but I worked the pieces into a 22-day schedule optimizing 7day rail passes.
The original schedule
It took most of April to get all the planes and trains and hotel rooms in place. Being perhaps the last people on the planet without smart phones made the trip difficult, operationally: things like train passes, hotel bookings, boarding passes etc. are all designed to function on cell phones. For a brief period we did have Yoshiko’s relatively intelligent phone, but we did not organize roaming; and besides that phone got left in a castle in YYBS (actual name of a place in Austria). So we made do with all the crucial info on my ipad, with photo capture of documents as back up. Largely successful, though hazardous.
Once the plan was set, we had three months of nervousness as Covid-19 and airline crises threatened the whole shebang. I began to regret picking the cheapest flight to Berlin because it started us flying backwards to Toronto, the site of the worst delays and baggage foul-ups, where we would have optimally three hours to make a connexion but possibly miss it or lose baggage. Further, there was a second plane-change in Munich, designed I’m sure to give faltering Lufthansa some action.
However, we finally got started on 26 August. The delay to TO was an hour- an omen of things to come. And when we got to Berlin our luggage was late, because the MTL check-in desk would not allow Y to carry on 4 oversize bags. But it came on the next flight and we headed for town. At the Berlin metro ticket machine we received our first stroke of good luck: a girl standing there wearing the same colours as the ticket machine told us we could buy a 9-euro ticket and use it anywhere on German trains and subways for the rest of the month. An interesting person dealing with a dull job by reading a giant book on philosophy: welcome to Deutschland! We took her advice.
The Berlin metro system is wonderfully comprehensive and the most user-friendly one we encountered (Paris in last place). We quickly got to our hotel, strategically located in Potsdammer Platz, a once derelict area abandoned by the Soviets but recently intensively developed with fantastic architecture and museums and embassies (including Canada’s).
The major places of interest- the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, Tiergarten were within easy walking distance (says he, famous forced-march kommandant) and so we did them all, ending up in the collection of really modern buildings on the edge of Potsdammer square.
I really liked our hotel, Motel One Potsdammer- superior simple design, great location good price as part of a very large modern mall. For our first evening we tromped around the Mitte area behind the hotel, deeper into the old Soviet neighborhoods, now full of fancy restaurants and shops. We were into authentic German cuisine, a sort of oxymoron. On the patio of a typical venue we gorged on pig’s knuckle and beer. Gross!
In the first minutes of this feast, I had one of my hurricane-force sneezes, which blew a lens out of my glasses. Fortunately Y packed scotch tape so we stuck the lens back in. This fix lasted til I got fed up with further failures and bought some krazy glue.
One of many examples of one of us compensating for the other’s flaws; Y calls it ‘Two for One’ but for me its ‘Two half wits make One’.
On our second night we opted for a Turkish variant in the Neukolln area, an older neighborhood now buzzing with ethnic action: men, old and young gathered around small tables on the street, smoking stuff; myriad small street food niches serving Turkish fast-food. We sought a place, Azzam, where ‘people flock’ according to in our guidebook. I imagined a quiet, upscale hideaway. Instead, ten rough tables attached to a bustling open kitchen, no service, no cutlery: hummus, Mediterranean sausage, veggies pita bread. Earthy, pretty good, but except for the lively atmosphere not unlike what we get here in the souvlaki chains. In any case, we managed to stuff ourselves again…
On our return trip we flew back to Berlin from London, and stayed in the Mitte area at the famous Checkpoint Charlie endeared to American tourists, in another modest, modern hotel and experienced Turkish culture more intimately in a small bar full of Turks with Friday Night Fever, this time with lamb in stew and shisha format. Here again, hummus not as rich as the Lebanese version.
I love Berlin. Very modern, colourful, civilized, diverse. Reminds me of Tokyo, a great place to be.
Then on to Prague, normally a 5 or 6 hour trip. Unbeknownst, we were entering the early stages of a pervasive trend: train trajectory interrupted by construction work, delay exacerbated by German tourism policy allowing anyone to travel anywhere on German transit network thru July and August for only 9 euros ( 12 bucks!). Everyone did just that. Our train stopped about halfway to Prague in Dresden where we had to follow some cryptic instructions to walk 8 mins and get on a bus. The bus drove for about an hour to a hilly Czech town where we got another train. Delay an hour or two.
In Prague around rush hour we easily got a tram across the river to the famously historic Charles Bridge area. Our hotel somewhere here. I had a rough map. We walked among glorious medieval buildings…ah, there it is, the Three Storks Hotel. A guy rushed out to greet us, dragged us into a charming lobby. ‘Make yourself comfortable. A glass of Prosecco?’ Great. “ Let me see your reservation…hmmm don’t see it on our books…Ha, you’re in the wrong place, you’re looking for the Three Ostriches Hotel”.
How could we miss that? Fortunately the Three Ostriches was, were, nearby, at the foot of the Charles Bridge. A really old building, maybe medieval, rugs a bit frayed, but a good room, very pleasant staff. We decided to patronize its restaurant, outside in the busy square. Ostrich on the menu…I declined in favour of goulash, why not? Y tried spaghetti, which turned up as plasticised worms. The goulash was odd, not a heavy stew, just a strangely flavoured gravy. Not like my Mom’s!
Next day Y decided to explore on her own while I met my old high school mate, Don Sparling, who travelled in from Brno where he taught English language and literature since leaving grad school. At Nepean High in Ottawa he and two other guys and I formed the infamous nerd group, always at odds with the pop trends, lounging around reading poetry and drinking green tea. Formative years.
Don and I had a great time, as if we had not been separated by 50 years and 8000 km. Though he claimed otherwise, he knew Prague very well. We lunched by the river (I tried goulash again, confirming that the Prague version is odd) and then ambled all around the old city, on both sides of the river. Quite illuminating.
And Don had a fascinating personal tale. Toward the end of the Soviet regime people were allowed to view the file generated about them by the secret police. His was full of imagined events and spurious claims. It turns out the ‘secret’ agents were inclined to enrich their targets’ files in order to please their bosses. Don said he was beginning a novel where his real self encounters his secret police self. On the plane home I watched a hilarious German film, The Stasi Report, which follows a similar theme.
We concluded a fine day with tea in a marvelously domed room above the trains station. Don went home and I joined Y who had miraculously not gone missing.
Second night in the heart of the old town we sampled another version of gross out: roast pig leg. Equally gross but not so fatty. Then we went to a charming concert in the Cathedral St. Clement featuring Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Later we learned this sort of summer concert with holidaying musicians is a common tradition in Europe.
Prague lives up to its reputation as a beautifully preserved mediaeval city.
Down the Danube
Travel on the next day was crucial: we had to travel to Deggendorf on the edge of the Danube, about 2 hours east of Munich, to board our cruise boat by 17:00 at the latest. At the last moment, because of low water levels on the river, the meeting place was changed to Vilshofen on the other side of the Danube…… I had to figure out how to get there. Then there was another change: we were to meet at Munich train station by 15:00, two hours earlier, to board a chartered bus for the boat. Better for us, we could take an express train directly to Munich. So we thought.
We began about ten. Since we had a 7 day pass but 8 days of travel, I had paid for the Berlin- Prague leg, so this was our first day to use the pass, details happily stored off line on my iPad. Happily we were early for the train so I showed the train guy the pass details. I thought we should have a QR type ID thing- so did he. Not there. He madly pushed buttons for about 5 minutes. Aha! There it is. Saved.
Partially. We were on an express train. Good- until it stopped at nowhere and we were told there was a technical problem, and we were to transfer to a local train for a bit then transfer to another local train for Munich. Good grief! Boot express passengers onto milk trains that barely moved. The minutes dragged by. Our express train was supposed to get us to Munich with an hour and a half to find the bus. We crept forward at ever decreasing speed. I imagined $7500 in boat tickets slowly burning…
[Aside: the big problem with train delays is that the delayed train loses its place in the queue for track space, so the delays snowball into longer and longer durations].
Finally, the platform at Munich. We had 4 minutes to find the bus. The added glitch was that the boat guys had no idea how we would arrive at the meeting place. Their plan was devised for people coming on organized flights to Munich. So the boat guys would assume anyone missing at 15:00 got to the boat by other means.
First off the train, I bounded to the platform. Ooops, giant stumble, ripped a hole in the knee of my pants which I bore as a mark of heroism for the rest of the trip. We rushed into the station, asking a policeman where we might find the hotel where the bus was parked. Rushed thru the magnificent Sofitel hotel lobby. A sign for the boat tour- but nobody there. Pant, pant.
A casual American appeared. “ah, just in time for the second bus. We’ll wait a while to see if there are any stragglers.”
These moments of despair were soon to turn into absolute delight as we boarded the Avalon Artistry II on the Danube.
Our boat, The Artistry II
The Artistry II was not the boat in our original schedule. It apparently had a smaller draft than the other, so better suited to the low water levels. The good thing about the change was the Artistry II was a smaller boat, only 120 passengers max. The even better thing was that only 86 people got on board.
BTW the Danube was not as expected, not a broad river like say the Ottawa even- more like a wide creek.
In short order we met the fellow travelers, on board. They appeared to be mostly mid-western Americans, probably in the 50-70 range. After a warm-up from the captain, German I think, and tour director, a Serb maybe, we got our cabin, deliberately chosen at the rear of the top deck, adjacent to the aft lounge and poop deck. Great for its expresso machine and viewing the scene. Then we cemented our love affair with the boat: the first of many excellent meals. Don’t recall what we had this time. From buffet breakfast thru hot lunch to luxury dinner, every meal was excellent, roast lamb, beef, grilled fish.
And to make the meals doubly enjoyable, we were joined that first night by Janice and John, Janice a Hong Kong expatriate, and John claiming to be a direct descendant of Ghengis Khan, from suburban NJ. Together we formed the exclusive Asian ethnic clique.
Actually before Janice and John we met a garrulous Australian widow from a farm near Perth. Deeply political her first question was ‘does everyone hate Trudeau?’ A real ‘boat fly’ she made it a point to meet and interrogate every social group onboard. She claimed the Americans on board were largely Trumpists. Did not confirm.
Anyway that first dinner was exquisite and things only got better.
Overnight we were on our way downriver from Vilshofen to Linz, in Austria, where we did our first onshore activity. I was skeptical that the onshore activities would be anything more than some tourist platitudes and souvenir-buying opportunities. Wrong Again! The guide was really knowledgeable, maybe a university lecturer who spared no details about the Austrian collaboration with Hitler. In this discussion she asked ‘what makes ordinary good citizens join the likes of Hitler?’ I was tempted to say ‘look at Trump’ but thought better as our group might well have included those Trumpists.
Linz is a charming medieval town, with its castles, old Town, a stunning museum high above, and the world’s oldest cake, the Linzer Torte. Any time I tried it there was no doubt it was the world’s oldest cake…
After lunch on board we sailed to Mauthausen where we had an opportunity to tour the infamous concentration camp there. No thanks. We did one of our typical impromptu hikes- up the mountain side and down, the highlight being a stop in a Spar co-op grocery where Y bought about 4 packages of gendarmes that were on sale. Gendarmes, the standby staple: Y claims I allowed us only one per day during our 1972 tour of Europe. We were going out in luxury!
YBBS and Krems
Next morning we reached the ancient village of YBBS (yes that is its name) in the rich Wachau Valley, centre of Austrian wine-making. We did a brief tour of the old town, important at one time for its role in river commerce which involved extracting tolls from boats and their cargoes, like wine and salt.
Later we sailed briefly to Krems, the so-called gateway to the Wachau Valley, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Here we opted for the Arstetten Castle excursion. We bussed across the valley and up into a heavily forested mountain to one of the principal palaces of the Habsburg empire. It was the home of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg, most famous for being killed thus precipitating the First World War. Costly claim to fame.
Now the impressive castle is a Hohenberg museum run by the current head of the family, an equally impressive woman. Really interesting displays of Hohenberg stuff. By a stroke of good luck, the head of the family- Elizabeth Herzogin von Hohenberg, Prinzessin von Luxemburg, von Bourbon, von Parma und von Nassau-was there and spoke to us at great length about her role in first, convincing European governments to let the family retain its extensive income-properties in return for renouncing their titles; and secondly, managing this commercial empire.
Other interesting detail: our somewhat eccentric leder-hosen clad guide was himself a Hohenberg. Quite entertaining guy, tho inbreeding almost visible.
Good luck ran out shortly thereafter: Y left her iPhone in the castle toilet.
Overnight cruising again, to Vienna. One thing I did not like was travelling so much at night. Maybe necessary, especially on a short cruise; probably desired by the great unwashed masses. But a big loss for a river-rat like me. Somewhat compensated for later by a long afternoon sail into Budapest.
Last of my several visits to Vienna was on the way to Istanbul in 2004. Loved it then. Loved it again. We did a long walking tour within the Ringstrasse, to the Opera, through the Imperial Palace to St. Stephan’s Cathedral. Excellent young guide again. After we continued with our own walk through the shops and alleyways. One of our neighbours runs a cigar shop somewhere here. Did not run into him…
At night we returned for a concert by the Original Vienna Salon Orchestra in an ancient chamber concert hall. Lots of Strauss and Leher, Mozart, some fine singing and play-acting. It turns out this sort of semi-pro concert is common in European cities, typically in churches, with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Einekleinenachmusik- a way of creating an income for musicians during the off season. It was fun, even with the guy in the next row silently farting.
On a couple of other nights, we had another form of concert: a rusty Australian singing oldies with guitar, and a small band of equally colourful seniors- I think touring musicians who were friends of the tour director.
Next on our list, Bratislava in Slovakia, and the most pleasant surprise of the whole tour. Another very competent guide, a perky young woman, possibly a student. She provided interesting insights into the character of Slovakia- for example that the separation from the Czechs was a case of political opportunism by guys who became the respective prime ministers rather a difference between very similar peoples. A highlight was the town’s oldest store, with a free sample of a sort of donut and local wine. There was a major festival in progress, with dozens of handicraft booths, a stage being set up for some musical performance I suppose, lots of beer and wine. I was so impressed with the city I bought a souvenir. Now I’m the only kid here with a Bratislava hat!
After lunch we began a long cruise to Budapest, last stop. Here the river took on new character, more like the Bow River flowing into Calgary: pastel green, fast flowing, banks lined with forest and an occasional castle. People were out enjoying a day of fishing or swimming or boating. At one point the river broadened into a great lake behind a massive dam. During the trip we went thru many locks, sometimes dropping as much as 50 feet.
Morning brought an end to our boat tour. Only 6 days but so packed with beauty of many different kinds that it seemed like a month. Our new friends Janica and John and many others had booked the tour extension which took them on a bus tour of Budapest ending at the Intercontinental Hotel. We figured out how to do our own tour on an On-and-Off bus.
On the tour director’s advice we did a full circuit of the city, about an hour, to decide where to get off to explore further. Like most days, it was very hot, so on the second circuit we decided to get off at the city centre and look for a cool drink. After a bit of wandering we ran across ‘the California Cool’ bar. I ordered smoothies while Y sought the loo. I turned to sit down, and behold: Janice and John! Their bus stopped at the same place for the same reason. Millions of people in Budapest, yet we run into our only two friends again. Must be some significant meaning in this…
Eventually we went back to the boat to collect our luggage and figure out how to get to the correct train station. Most European cities have several of them. Got to get it right. We took a taxi, pretty long ride for ten euros. Station very linear. We finally located our track for Vienna, and bought some lunch material for the trip. We were leaving at 15:55 for a change to the sleeper train in Vienna. We arrived at Vienna station in time for the connexion, crucial because we had reservations for the sleeper. But the sleeper was coming from somewhere else and arrived ninety minutes late. A frequent happening.
A really efficient young train lady, probably raised throwing cattle around in the Austrian countryside, got us into our cubicle, built for three people with beds that folded down from the wall. Later the train lady came back and muscled the beds into place.
OK for now but we had a problem. We were supposed to change trains for Milano Central station very early in the morning in Brescia- but we would not be in Brescia in time. No problem said the train lady. “This train is now going all the way to Milano, to Porta Garibaldi station. Good, but it would arrive after our reserved train from Milano Central to Pisciotta had left.
So in Porta Garibaldi, around 8:10, we had to find a later train, without having reservations. The station was absolutely packed with travelers whose trains were late. Really long queue at ticket wicket. Fortunately there was a train around 9:00. We found the correct platform, assigned at the very last moment (another frequent happening). A train came. We got on. Fortunately again, a train man came along and checked our ticket: we were on a train going in the wrong direction, the result of that last-minute assignment of tracks. He put us on a very slow-moving commuter train back to Garibaldi. Another visit to the ticket office. Another long queue. Perhaps by way of compensation the kind ticket lady took us by hand to the proper track and put us on the next train to Napoli- with minutes to spare.
We were now 2 hours further behind our schedule. And of course our train, a Red Express, began growing progressively later- it was Red but not Express- until we were 20 minutes too late to make the next connection. So we had to improvise again from Napoli to take a regional to Salerno then another express to Pisciotta, arriving three hours behind plan.
Late would not have mattered to us retirees, except our curious hotel, Agriturismo Valle di Marco, had registration hours from 2 to 4, and I had assured the owner that we would arrive by 3. At Pisciotta station the bar guy arranged for a woman- probably his mistress- to drive us to our hotel, about five km for 25 euros (subsequently we discovered the bus was 2). Then we had to interrupt the hotel owner’s evening to check in. It turns out the ‘hotel’ is a sort of agricultural co-op, with cute little cabins surrounded by all manners of fruit trees and other greenery. And served by a superb restaurant.
All’s well that ends well. We spent the next few hours eating Italian style- 5 courses, each a meal in itself- at a table with a wonderful view of the Mediterranean, wafted by a warm breeze under a moonlit sky. Impossible to describe the beauty of the three evenings in Pisciotta. Paradise!
Did I mention weather? Perfect from day one, on the hot side especially in Pisciotta. Next morning we enjoyed a fine breakfast of croissants, dark bread, fruit and cappuccino again on the restaurant terrace. Then we figured out the bus schedule. I had found the nearest stop, just down the road. For 2 euros each we reached the train station in a few minutes. Problem was, the schedule of this bus never synchronized with the schedule of the next bus we wanted, to Marina di Pisciotta. So had to wait maybe 40 minutes to bus down the steep slopes, on serpentine roads, to our old hideaway on the sea. But there it was! Modernized, built over and touristized a bit- but the old port and the sea wall still there.
We originally got to Marina di Pisciotta in 1972 through a series of happenstances. In London, I had finished collecting my thesis data- and Y had given up on English lessons. We wanted to escape English winter so we gathered a few friends and headed to Zermat in Byndon, my 1961 VW van, for a ski trip.
We wanted to head south for a tour of Europe, to visit my colleague Pedro in Milano, then Y’s sister in Vienna, then look for a place to languish while I wrote up my thesis. Pedro’s prof was on an academic visit at the University of Milano (tho it was shut down by strikes). Pedro had filled in for his prof to deliver a conference paper down the Italian coast in Palinuro, a tourist town not widely known outside Italy. Pedro recommended we look for cheap accommodation there. So after Vienna and Venice, we headed south.
On the coast, after Napoli, Vesuvius, Amalfi and then Salerno, the towns become smaller, often isolated on sharp peaks, loosely connected by treacherous roads- an improvement from Medieval times when they were joined by boat. Pisciotta is one of them, a medieval town high above the sea. But there was a narrow road down to its Marina. As we emerged on the sea wall we had the same thought: this is it, our hideaway. So as I started to turn the van around to look for a place to stay, some guy started shouting from one of the balconies lining the breakwater. He ran out of the building and started talking to me excitedly. Somehow I figured it out- as the local lawyer, he thought we were there to get a divorce. Not yet. Instead I asked him about an apartment. He had that too. So in quick order we had a place to stay for the next month, overlooking the sea, with few responsibilities beyond writing my thesis by day and helping our neighbours fish for sardines by night.
Our old neighbourhood, greatly moderized
Fifty years later began a search for our old apartment. We had a few clues, like the narrow stairways where our former neighbours lived. We chatted with a few locals, but found no conclusive evidence.
No matter. It was lunchtime. We settled on a seafood restaurant that highlighted octopus. We had a fine meal, then rented an umbrella and beach stairs and spent the afternoon lounging in the sun and sea. Paradise extended!
Repeat cycle. Bus, another exquisite meal on our patio, next morning back on the bus to Pisciotta itself, where we explored the ancient town. Hard to imagine people building a massive town on an isolated peak and then organizing the resources needed for everyday life. And they still do!
Repeat cycle, excellent seafood lunch and an afternoon on the beach. This time at the end of the day there was a religious parade, Ave Maria, with marching bands and half the town following as pilgrims.
After the bus extricated itself from the crowd, we were back at the station with an 80 minute wait for the bus to our cabin. We decided to walk. On a treacherous road with zany drivers. In the dark. No matter, I knew the way. Despite Y’s counterintuitive sense of direction, we made it in 40 minutes.
Yay, time for another fine dinner on the patio. The only problem we had with the restaurant was that it did not change the menu from day to day, so we had to choose from a diminishing array of alternatives. On the first night Y satisfied her passion for Italian spaghetti (first piatti, more than a meal in itself). I discovered the ravioli with a marvelous sauce and had it two nights in a row.
Alas, it came time to leave our paradise. A bus back to the station for the 09:54 train for Milano then Zurich to visit Pedro and Helga. PA announcement: rail strike, trains delayed. Why not?
Expected delay got progressively longer- 30, 40, 50 minutes by the time the train arrived. Uneventful trip across the enchanting Italian countryside, green field and slope dotted with charming little towns, some with modern versions of the traditional style. Uneventful until we reached the magnificent Milano Centrale, an hour late for our 18:00 connexion to Zurich. With thousands of Italians thrown by the rail strike into the same boat so to speak. Actually it was the same station hall, packed to the eyeballs. If we could not contact covid in this shambles we never would.
The next available train was at 19:10, for which we theoretically would have to get a new reservation. There were probably 200 tired people in the queue at the ticket office, with a red-headed fireball barking military orders to keep everyone in line. We decided if we were not served by 19:00 we would run for the train, come what may. We inched forward, not optimistically. Lo and behold at precisely 19:00 we were first in the queue. Quick decision: request the reservation or run for train. We went for the reservations, then raced to the train…which was 15 minutes late.
As you see, trains were uniformly late, no matter where we were. But the other regularity was the train people bent over backwards to help us back on track.
As we rolled up the beautiful route past Lugano and Bellinzona, unfortunately in the dark, the train man came along, looked at our pass and informed us that the QR was invalid. It was in fact a ticket for our first trip on 31 August. Suddenly I realized the QR I thought was the pass ID was actually a ticket for a specific train trip. Enlightening! We had traveled on 9 trains and only presented one proper ticket. Train people had not looked at our QRs at all. We could go on travelling forever on a 7-day pass! Tempting.
I sat down and finally figured out I had to press a little box on the iPad display to legitimize a ticket for a particular trip. From then on we were legal!
Anyway we reached Zurich around 22:30, two hours later than planned. Fortunately I had told Pedro not to expect us at night, but to meet us the next morning. Unfortunately our hotel shut its doors at 22:30 so by the time we got there it was black. I knocked on its giant wooden door. A man appeared in the distance, looked at us, went away. What to do? I noticed a large black box next to the door. Digital registration. Very Swiss. And so was the protocol, all kinds of information, passport capture, etc., etc. Fortunately, yet again, a Spanish guest appeared, probably attending a medical conference, also attempting to register. So two highly educated people and their spouses managed to convince the digital machine to let us all off the street before midnight.
After another fine European breakfast we met Pedro and Helga at 10. Pedro was one of my favorite classmates at Imperial College, 1968-72. Helga was a flatmate in Mayfair. Then I introduced them to one another. So especially close friends since.
Not hard to spot them, they look like Pedro and Helga always looked. We set off on a fine walking tour of Zurich, a beautiful city that I really love. Nothing like having a local guide.
Eventually we ended up at a tour boat dock and started a trip down the river to the great lake, a side of Zurich I had enjoyed on previous visits, even taking a swim. We landed in delightful parkland and had a very Swiss snack, then finished our tour and took a tram to their apartment, the very interesting place I had visited at least once before. Designed by an award-winning architect it has some quirky and some wonderful features, like the semi-circular glassed patio off the living space. In a land of very scarce habitations they are fortunate to have such an exceptional one- mountains on one side, the city on the other. It is threatened by development of the building into condos but they seem safe for the present.
Later we went for a very fine dinner in a nearby medieval mill. Pedro had schnitzel, naturally, Helga a salad, Y schnitzel too… and me a cordon bleu pork. And lots of wine. We walked back thru the local forest to their place- then bid adieu.
A perfect day. Fine weather, memorable sights, and hours of warm conversation, as if we had not been apart for 15 years or so. This was the whole point of the Grand Farewell Tour!
Next morning, on to Paris. Uneventful trip across the glorious French countryside, past Basel and Belfort and the broad French prairies. I think we were on time, arriving at the Gare de Lyon in late afternoon to be challenged by the extremely user-unfriendly Paris Metro. But eventually it gets you there, in this case the Marais, long my favorite part of Paris. Around 1970 I visited another Imperial College classmate there, Maurice Goldberg, whose in-laws, Jewish refugees from WWII, ran a raincoat factory. At the time the Marais was quite run down, but in the interim it has blossomed into a trendy area full of restaurants and bars and fancy shops and fashion spots. But it was always full of historical buildings from the pre-revolutionary period and its aftermath. Glorious architecture.
Our Caroline claimed it has become the gay area. Probably right. The bars were surrounded by dozens of lively drinkers, mostly men, mostly standing in the street in dense crowds, some oddly sitting at tables but facing outward instead of one another. The place to be seen, I guess…
Our little hotel hid close to the Metro on a busy square, aptly named ‘the Pratik’ because of location and simplicity. Typical old style Paris hotel as I recall from my first visit in 1966. Rooms totted up with modern facilities, but still the steep narrow stairway-five flights for us, no elevator- and a tiny room making the big bed the only occupyable space.
We had a fine night wandering around the historical buildings and lively bar scenes, typically not able to make a decision on where to eat. Very late we ended up in a sushi joint run by a loud Chinese family. After our appetizer the waitress forgot about us despite our location so close to the sushi chef our ears were at risk. But we had a leisurely evening observing the local scene as others came and went.
Next morning, on the Metro again across the city to the Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar for London. Eurorail advised us to be at least an hour early to clear all the checkpoints. So after wandering around the famous Gare du Nord area we started the process two hours early. Good thing. Ticket check. French passport check. British passport check. Customs check. About 90 minutes in the queue. But finally onboard for the dash thru the Chunnel. Pretty much on time to St. Pancras station. Eurorail suggested a bizarre transfer to Paddington thru Liverpool station by bus and whatever- but I knew the stations were close, so by the Tube we were on time for the train to Tiverton.
The West Country
Unfortunately one update the Pratik hotel failed to install was functional internet, so my many messages to Barry, our host in the West Country, failed to arrive. We arrived on time in Tiverton station, but Barry was of course not there. I did not have a phone number or a precise address. But we found a taxi driver who knew the general area- Burlesombe. As we approached this rural outpost I started to recognize some things, particularly the church behind Barry’s, and then the house- Town Farm.
And there was Barry peering out of a window. Again, no trouble identifying Barry and Sue.
Soon we were settled into the ultra comfortable guest suite Barry had created from a derelict industrial farm for the visits of his kids and grandkids from the surrounding region. And then we joined Barry and Sue for a long evening of stories and wine and a Salmon Wellington that Barry forgot to put into the oven after carefully calibrating the cooking time and temperature. No matter, anything to extend the great time we were having.
In the morning we had a tour of the grand manor Barry had created out of a derelict cow farm. I had visited several times, from the very start, sometimes helping with the day’s task, so I marveled at the accomplishments- including a whole new building devoted to wine making! We visited some local shops and a market place- Y picked up more sausages. After a rest, we went to their favorite restaurant in Tiverton for the 5:30 specials. Excellent salted squid, ……
On the way back to Burlescombe Barry remarked that this might be the last visit for the 5:30 specials because he did not fancy driving in the dark. Maybe the specials can be advanced to 3:30.
Another wonderfully nostalgic visit, re-living some of our favorite memories, again making the whole long trip worthwhile.
Next morning back to London on a comfortable express to Paddington and a quick transfer to South Kensington and a hike to our hotel, the Montana, on Gloucester Road. Very familiar territory, a couple of blocks from Imperial and our infamous subterranean flat on Cornwall Gardens. Not unlike the Pratik the Montana was a modest makeover of older lodgings, in this case outwardly posh apartments. Rickety elevator. But a good room with modern facilities.
We had some lunch fixings- pork pies- so we headed over to Imperial to sit among the bustling students in fine sunshine. Imperial is much the same and greatly changed at the same time. Elec Eng building, Linstead Hall where we first met, student commons still there- but grand new buildings, new campuses and whole new schools in medicine etc. Sadly no trace of our beloved Professor Cherry in the halls of Elec Eng.
Royal College of Art, favorite haunt for vegge lunch and chicks
Once again, a lengthy march to find a place for dinner. Very late we chose a very humble Indian restaurant that had a decent set dinner. Pretty good.
In the morning, after what was now my de rigeur breakfast- croissant and latte- I set out to retrace my steps to Soho, where I regularly went to shop in Berwick market. Also the site of the Amalfi Restaurant where, as Y tells it, on our first date she sat watching me eat cannelloni, starving because she thought I was a poor student. Also the first occasion of a long march in search of a place to eat. Slow learners, both.
Despite the visible new developments I was largely able to spot the old haunts- the location of Foyles giant bookstore (now gone), Barry’s wine bar (also gone), the market streets, Liberty’s historic store, the film-making area, and so on. But something very new: in those old days there were a few Chinese restaurants in Soho, but now there blocks and blocks of them, maybe 50, across Shaftesbury street. Now we had a focal point for our dinner search!
Grosvenor Square, site of the US Embassy and famous ’68 riots
And then, the start of the trip home. A new experience, leaving from City Airport thus avoiding the long travel and hassle of Gatwick or Heathrow. Pretty good experience except- plane late. In all our flying events there was a problem with the plane we were supposed to board not completing its previous flight on time. Like the situation with the trains, each small delay snowballs into a major problem. So we arrived later than expected in Berlin.
By now we had mastered the Berlin transit system, which is ubiquitous and easy to understand, So on a S train towards Spandau and a U tube to Stadmitte station by around 18:00. It was cold and drizzlish, but we managed to find our hotel, The Wall, a modern high rise building with art works on otherwise austere hallways but very modern rooms- a fancy bathroom almost the size of our whole room at the Pratik. The hotel adjoined the popular ‘Check-point Charlie’ tourist site, esteemed by Americans, not far from our first hotel at Potsdamer Platz. We were also near ‘The Museum of Disgusting Food’, which did not bode well for local cuisine, but we found an interesting, intimate sort of Turkish nightspot with a one-man band/singer. Once again we gorged on some really rich stuff amongst a gaggle of Turkish girls being plied with drinks by the management, what looked like a bridal shower and some local heavies. Colourful!
In the morning we started the long trip to Montreal, back on the U and the S train to the massive Berlin airport. Really spacious, elegant, lots of wood framing.
First leg to Munich, a very busy airline hub, more or less on time, tho walking from our arrival gate to the exit one ate up most of the connexion time. I was determined to have a beer before departure- Munich, after all- and might have missed the flight because Y lined up in the boarding queue while I was guzzling. In the end, German and European beers not worth missing a plane; I prefer my imported Beck’s or Heineken.
Long 8-hour flight to Montreal, on an A350, large capacity but large leg room so as restful as possible. In the huge array of videos available I found a hilarious send up of the infamous Stasi secret police that terrorized East Germany. A suitable bookend to our trip largely behind what was once an Iron Curtain.
Back home, ten minutes early, for a warm welcome from Caroline. And our own secret police failed to find Y’s dozens of Gendarmes!
Our Great Migration East
Les Dicks Head East
Energized by our newish (at least for us) camping equipment, les Dicks decided to flock eastward this summer, the elders having conquered the West last year. So we sent a scouting party, Nana, Marc Andre, Isla, Sophie and Tenbo with the Rough Terrain camping trailer out in early July on the road to the Cape Breton Highlands, via the Bay of Fundy. Initial reports quite favorable- until a minor car problem around Truro. That fixed, the scouts reported excellent outlook at Hideaway camp at the northernmost point in the Cape- until the car just gave up. Suddenly the attractions of this isolated paradise became a great handicap: no garages, no tow truck, no taxis, no car rental = no fun. Car insisted on being towed at huge expense to Halifax. On the way Mark Andre found a pickup truck in Antigonish and the advanced party retreated there to await repairs.
Plan A was that as their holiday wound down, the Nanakins would head home, leaving the trailer somewhere for the colonizers- Ma and Pa- to pick up and do their own circuit of the Maritimes. So Plan B: the elders and Bingo packed up and zoomed to the rescue. Actually, we had a great time in a short stay together in Antigonish, before we headed for the Cape, leaving the Nanakins to await the eventual repair of the delinquent vehicle.
I enjoyed the views as we crossed the Canso strait between mainland NS and the Cape; they brought back fond memories of my trip thru the Strait in 2012 aboard the tall ship Solandt.
Advanced reports were right on- the Cape is spectacular!
The road up the west coast of the Cape, through Cheticamp, is quite beautiful, gradually climbing and becoming more tortuous up to North Mountain, a very high peak requiring a long, gradual climb from the west and a sharp descent on the east, confirming the advice that it is best to do the Cape clockwise. A bit after that dramatic ascent we neared Hideaway, on a hill by the coast, just past this local restaurant.
We retrieved the trailer from storage and passed a couple of days in this comfortable private camp, refreshed with really tasty fresh crab legs and lobster from the locals. Perfect hot and sunny weather, so Bingo and I found a place to swim, down a primitive road to the nearby beach, marvelously perfect and almost completely empty.
On the Nanakins advice we joined the Oshan whale tour late one afternoon. Actually we were supposed to be there in the morning but I mixed up left and right at the first turn- and we missed the boat, literally.
On the Oshan, a charming laid back local crew, some fellow passengers from TO with Siri Lankan roots. For the first couple of hours not much to see except spectacular rock faces, complete with eagle, as the skies clouded.
However, as we headed back to port, a siting! Pilot whale pod. Because we were the last tour of the day, we were able follow the pod for 20 minutes or so. Amazing animals.
Another day we headed for Meat Cove, as recommended. Long tortuous road past miniscule communities, at the end a fabulous view of a rocky cove at the northernmost part of the Cape, nonetheless occupied by a raft of campers including an ubiquitous Westphalia. More swimming for Bingo and me in strong surf, under a watchful eye.
After a delightful couple of days at Hideaway we were obliged to move on towards Halifax because there was no room on a friday night. So we completed the Trail eastwards. Some great views of the coast, but much less impressive than the other side of Hideaway. With 3 days to reach Halifax, we spent some time in Baddeck- a lovely town, great coffee shop cum bakery-then stopped early on the western shores of Lake Bras d’Or at Whycocomagh provincial park.
Just before the camp ground I thought we should take a so-called ‘scenic route’ southward. After a couple of km we were stopped at ferry crossing. For better or worse, the cable ferry was about to land on our side, so we drove right on, no questions asked. As we shoved off the affable lady crew member requested $7. OK, support local industry. For the next 40 minutes of so we trundled along steadily deteriorating roads, past derelict buildings and crushed cars, unfortunately symptomatic of a native reserve. The co-pilot started to complain persistently that we were going in a circle. Finally, I gave in and we retraced the rotten roads back to the ferry. Another $7. The co-pilot was right. However, would have helped if the co-pilot was able to read maps…
Only scenic part was the affable lady crew member.
As it turned out, the damages were more than time and 14 bucks. Shortly after the second ferry trip we pulled into Whycocomagh camp, a rather open hilly place with huge campsites spread far apart. We could barely see anybody else. We pulled up to our pastoral home for the night.
What’s that smell? Something burning. Our trailer brakes, red hot! It quickly became apparent that somehow, probably as we eased off the really bent ferry ramp something caught the emergency brake trigger on the trailer, pulling it off and setting the trailer brakes. We drove maybe 5-6 km with the brakes fully on! Fortunately no real damage. Good thing we were not plowing down the highway.
Once again, Bingo and I found the the nearest swimming hole, and we splashed about in the cool ocean waters of Bras d’Or.
Next day we quietly exited Cape Breton, to pursue another scenic route down the meandering east coast highway rather than the expressway. Road two-lane, but surface good to mediocre, lots of very small villages and beautiful inlets. At our leisurely pace, we stopped in Sherbooke, which turns out to have a significant historic village attached. After closing, we toured through the classic hotels, shops, churces, blacksmiths and homes. Our private camp on the edge of a field bordered a modest river, where Bingo and I of course enjoyed our mandatory swim among the rocky rapids.
We enjoyed a fine country dinner nearby, featuring very good home-baked pies, from a Germanic kitchen I think.
Then, onward to Halifax. More small fishing villages and deep inlets. The NS coast is incredibly crenullated, and the road followed it. But we got to Dartmouth in good time- then began the always tricky job of locating the campground. Despite my normally fine skill at map reading and direction-finding I had developed a new ability to get things backwards- see our flawed search for Oshan whale-watch, above. So we wandered back and forth on old Highway 2 looking for Laurie Lake, about 30 km north of downtown Halifax. Once found, turned out to be a lovely provincial park, big lots among huge pines.
Once again, Bingo and I headed for the water. Laurie Lake is quite large. We were on the northern end, where the land ends in steep rocky cliffs that plunge into very deep water. Makes for great swimming- and diving. All the kids were hopping right off the high rocks. Getting out of the water and back up the cliff was a challenge, but Bingo and I mastered the task and had good swims every day.
Incidentally, in our campground a crew was filming some advertising for the Park system. The crew leader told me they spent most of their time doing ‘True Crime’ episodes for commercial TV…
From our base at Laurie we ventured into the city, remarkably easy to get to the very heart. Still really beautiful weather, clear skies, around 30 C. So the city shone at its best. We parked at the end of the waterfront boardwalk, which runs for about 2km along the harbour.
Quite thoroughly developed since our last visit in 92 or 93, with restaurants and museums and other entertainments set against the harbour activity.
The corvette Sackville we had toured in 92 or 93 with my Dad; boat-building heritage was on broad display, especially in the excellent Maritime Museum where we spent several hours, as Yoshiko especially wanted to learn about the great Halifax explosion in 1918; the statue interestingly paid tribute to Lebanese immigrants’ contribution to the city; and the mime, Rocket Lady, was tirelessly entertaining in the heat, really expressively funny, especially for kids and even Bingo. Naomi and family had seen her a week or two earlier, and she was still going strong…
We lunched on the boardwalk, walked the streets taking in the impressive variety of restored and modern buildings.
And we visited the Citadel atop the city, which I had never seen up close. Bingo was not allowed to enter the rooms on display (security risk?) but we had a good walk around the perimeter.
We had a great time in the truly charming city and our modest camp. Then, back on the move for another nostalgic visit, this time to Halls Harbour on the south shore of Fundy, which I had visited during an IBM conference at Acadia U around 2000. At that time, Halls Harbour was more a functioning lobster pound than a tourist attraction. But we enjoyed the boiled beasts right out of the sea at simple picnic tables.
Now there are crowds, and waiting times, and fancier digs- but still fine boiled beasts- the lobsters, I mean!
After this late lunch we tracked back through Wolfville to Windsor where we turned eastward to try to make a shortcut to Truro on a combination of rural highways, like 236, 202. Another geographical adventure, sometimes on huge rolling hills, sometimes in deep forest, always in the middle of nowhere. Nova Scotians are really spread out in small gatherings isolated from one another. Anyway, narrowly avoiding being lost in space we finally made it to Truro and back on the turnpikes to dash past Moncton, towards Sussex and down another lonely road to Fundy National Park. New Brunswickers are similarly spread out, separated by zillions of spruce trees.
We arrived in the evening, heading for our remote camp at Wolfe Point.
We were assigned to the RV section, on the plains rather than in the bush, surrounded by lots of friendly families from Moncton to Germany via Massachusetts. We spent the next couple of days hiking, first through mossy valleys along the coast to a spectacular waterfall.
Another time to the shores while the gigantic tides were out, where I spotted 2 rock formations that looked like a whale and a giant clam…
Again along the coast to fascinating coves.
Every where we went we were struck by the great views of Fundy itself.
When it came time to leave, we headed along the coast on highway 114, through the charming little town of Alma on the banks of the Alma river…
…first through isolated villages and farms on rolling hills, then through dense cottage country on the way to Moncton (missing Taro et al. by a day on the same road), and back to the Nova Scotia border. There, noonish, we stopped for the usual reasons at the tourist joint and then asked if there was a good seafood restaurant nearby. The tourism guy consulted the web and came up with “Diane’s Restauant”…OK, but that’s in Five Islands, out destination, not nearby Amherst.
However, that advice turned out to be propitious, as we will see later.
I think we ended up in a Macdonald’s or something in Amherst. Then we headed cross-country down rural roads towards Five Islands, on the Fundy coast. On the way, I diverted down even more-rural roads, to ‘Joggins’, an unlikely destination, but I had heard of it as a UNESCO heritage site renowned for spectacular carbon-era fossils.We got there in time for the last tour of the beach.
The tide was out, but the real attraction was the cliffs exposing rocks formed a billion years ago,in the Carboniferous Era, dominated by giant pre-coniferous trees. The abundant well-preserved fossils formed an important part of the foundation for Darwin’s early theory of evolution. We poked around looking for our own samples, then spent an hour in the really excellent museum full of amazing fossils and informative displays.
This fine little museum is one of several independent local initiatives designed to preserve significant historical information. We would visit a couple more in the area. The whole northern end of Fundy is a remarkable display of geological history, documented by 30 or so ‘Geoparks’.
Back on the rural roads we were soon in Parrsboro on the extreme end of Fundy Bay. A short bit down the coast towards Truro we were approaching our camp at Five Islands when, lo and behold- Diane’s restaurant!
We set up camp high on the hilly fields of the provincial park overlooking the very Five Islands.
Then we set off for Diane’s, a simple bungalow, distinguished only by a big sign and a really full parking lot. Inside, the maybe ten tables were full too. But a couple invited us to join them at their table-for-four. Turned out they came all the way from Truro, 80km or so, just for the steamed clams. On that recommendation, we ordered the same- a huge plate of totally delicious local clams. Worth the trip!
The next couple of days we hiked along the cliffs, went clamming on the beach. On one outing sharp-eyed Bingo spotted a porcupine high in a tree. His highlight.
Another time we went back past Parrsboro to a place with an unlikely name- Ottawa House. Turns out Parrsboro, a fine little town, played an important part in Canada’s early history. Ottawa House was the home of major business leaders in the mid 1800s, and at one time a Prime Minister. Now it is another locally-run museum, full of ancient stuff, on a beautiful site near another imposing island, Partidge. We dallied there, then visited another local geological museum adjacent to the old lighthouse in Parrsboro. Again, a fine little museum with excellent displays and geological samples.
Five Islands was a major discovery. Astounding scenery, great history, great food. We ended up there only because we were originally scheduled to be in Cape Breton at this time, before events dictated otherwise.
All’s well that ends well…
Next, the last phase. Back on the rural roads, past Amherst to Confederation Bridge and PEI (with a fine fish lunch at the Big Truck Stop on the way).
PEI was simply PEI…gorgeous scenery, friendly people, quiet life.
Stanhope was of course simply Stanhope. Some superficial changes, but still Stanhope.
On our second day Bingo alerted us to a familiar sound: the sputter of the Green Machine delivering Taro and crew to an adjacent campsite, spilling out his busy girls.
We did all the usual rituals: fast food at Shirley’s, now run by young Chinese guys, sign of the times; desert at the ice cream shop across the road; rainy day at a street festival in Charlletown; long afternoons at Tracadie Beach, now transformed by the tides, much beloved by the free-ranging dogs. There we spotted a hippie VW a few years younger than Taro’s.
Another ritual was a visit to Richard’s Lobster Pound and its restaurant. Apparently many others have adopted this ritual- there was a huge lineup at 1 in the afternoon. Half an hour to get to the kiosk window to make an order, half an hour to receive the order. People everywhere. I stood in line in the burning sun, while Yoshiko and Bingo found some shade. The guy behind, thirty-something, local looking, with a wife and new baby waiting in the car, was quite friendly, so we began to chat. Coincidentally, he was visiting from Springhill NS, through which we had just passed, where he managed a major international firm making batteries. He said he had a mech eng degree from U Moncton. I said my son had the same degree from Concordia. Oh, he said, I have a good friend, a neighbour in Acadie, who has that degree from Concordia as well. Lives near me but has been commuting to Montreral for work in aviation. Hmmm I said right away. Is his name Bruce?
Indeed it was Bruce! Bruce was Ami’s boyfriend via Taro for a couple of years a while ago, and became a close family friend. Small world, as it is said…
BTW the fish and chips was still great.
One new adventure was the beach at Blooming Point, across the channel from Tracadie, but which required a long circuitous journey guided by Taro. Fantaaastic beach, stretching forever, but empty except for us and a few other dog lovers.
Another adventure was our first visit to the Charletown festival for a performance of a one-man show about the author’s childhood in Newfie. Quite fun!
The Mom and I stayed 8 nights, all punctuated by the never-failing Stanhope sunset- and spectacular moon-rises as well because we had full moon.
Back on the road, homeward, uneventful except for another new discovery- the town campground in Degelis, just over the NB border on the magnificent Lake Temiscouta. Charming little camp, good stopover about midway from PEI.
Soon home after about 3 weeks on the road. No better welcome than a feast from the Mom!
On our last full day in Kashgar, Ariana and I bid fond farewell to Aziza and our truckmates, who were headed over the passes to Kyrgistan. After 22 intimate days on the truck, the parting is quite emotional, near tears.
Graham, encyclopedic about anything you want to know, with a grain of salt; Tom, the serious intellect, winner of the final trip-trivia contest on the truck (I am number 2 in the run-off); wife Jane, always a motherly ear for comments and reflections. After Kyristan they were off to a Dragoman hike in Tibet where some other travelers were washed away by storming streams; Ariana, alternatingly reflective and bubbling, an infectious smile and forceful laugh; Marion, an absolute scream, quick to jab with sharp-pointed wit, perhaps still in search of a second husband; Susan, also encyclopedic, but about pop music, including both artists and their words; Kelly, where lies beneath a Jersey-girl exterior an intrepid adventurer. Her offer of her brother as the second husband was a running joke on Aziza; Sandy, the traveling Silk Road encyclopedia from the Library of Congress; and the other Dennis, our driver, far from his Midlands home. His wife Jody, our substitute mother, was off somewhere diffusing the latest crisis.
Speaking of adventure, after breakfast with Ariana I began the Great-Ticket Challenge. Since our arrival I had been interrogating the obscurantist clerk at the hotel’s front desk about my train ticket back to Shanghai. Under the cryptic Chinese train-ticketing system, one has to apply for tickets on line, then pick them up at the station or have them sent to your hotel just before travel. And for a return ticket, the pick-up has to be at the point in space and time when you start back. Well, after asking daily for the message with my ticket , I discover that a package did arrive for me- but the desk did not check the guest list and so sent it back! Jeez!
After more online enquiries I learned I had to go to the train station to try to explain the situation and collect a ticket. That began badly when the taxi driver ripped me off by doubling the fare.
I arrive at the neolithic train station to join a mob of 100 or so ticket-seekers not even allowed into the building. I the Foreigner push to the front to show the security guy a note in Chinese obtained online from China Travel claiming that I have ‘lost’ my ticket. He quickly delivers me to the ‘Question Office’ where through a heavy grate I try to make my case with the Chinese message. After some dithering, the ‘Question Person’ calls in backup: Translator 1. After some back and forth going nowhere, they call in Translator 2, another woman who after some debate emerges from the Question Cage and leads me through the queue to an actual ticket wicket.
Another debate focusing on ‘Where is your ticket?’
It seems I had to produce my ticket to prove I had lost it…
‘I lost it’ I answer.
‘Yes but where is the second ticket?’
No idea where this comes from. Maybe the note. Maybe written Chinese is as vague as Japanese. Translator 2 leaves me in the charge of Ticket-wicket Girl. I have to barge in front of a whole line of desperate-looking Uighurs. The puzzle limps forward. Enter Translator 3, who runs through all the questions again, with the same answers. But we are getting somewhere: Ticket-wicket Girl is tying some stuff, scanning her screen.
Momentary back-step- my passport number does not register because she thinks I am an American. My passport straightens that out by itself. More back and forth behind the grate. Pink ticket-like slips of paper start to appear. Translator 3 gives me an OK sign…Things are looking up. An exchange of 100 Y notes and I have my ticket!
I recede apologetically through the still-desperate crowd. They probably understand this bureaucracy intuitively.
It turns out I do not have a copy of my original ticket, which has evaporated into Zen-space, but a new one. This means that on every train I have to speak to the conductor, show a new Chinese note, get a confirmation that I have indeed used up a replacement ticket, and then a refund from the station where I get off. Surprisingly, this works. I must say the train people were quite professionally helpful in dealing with this conundrum.
From then on, the return trip was somewhat anti-climactic. I spent the day doing last tours of the markets, picking up some treasure, like unique Uighur square hat, Mao caps for the boys at home, and frocks for the girls. At night Ariana and I were joined in John’s Cafe by a several new travellers, university students from Norway and Shanghai and a couple of guys planning meetings with some sort of activists, it seems. Ariana started a game of guessing the nation attached to the myriad flags hanging from the ceiling. That and some fine local beer ate up a most pleasant evening, a gentle breeze wafting over this other-worldly environment.
Train Day 1 : Kashgar to Turpan Station
Next morning, after sending Ariana off for a flight to Heidelberg, I am back in the very-basic but laid-back train station with a few hundred fellow travellers. Soon we are on our way in a cosy compartment: a pretty young girl, a dad with his obstreperous 3 year old boy, super nosy and noisy.
Unlike pretty well every Chinese on board I enjoy the scenery.
After dark I resort to the musical episodes on my ipod to muffle the screams of my roomates and several new friends. Then I discover a gem: the dining car!
There is a picture menu so I order what looks like ‘beef and greens’ but turns out to be ‘fungi and greens’, with a bowl of rice. Delicious for 22 Y. Eventually the dining room blacked out, so I did too.
Train Day 2: Turpan Station
Awakening at my normal body-time, 6:20- it is still pitch black outside, except for a bright crescent moon and stars. As the sun slowly appears I see we are traveling through ragged mountains, sometimes following highway G314, sometimes not. Eventually the mountains give way to massive gravel plains. We are crossing the Taklamakan again.
Suddenly there are trees, and we are in Turpan Station, some 30 km from Turpan itself, before noon.
Here I must wait until 6 in evening until the train from Urumqi arrives to carry me to Shanghai. So I smartly look for a hotel for the afternoon At the first shabby place I meet a young Chinese couple, med students somewhere, who help me search. The second hotel is not authorized for foreigners, but we find a third marked with a big Olympic symbol, and I have a simple place- public bath- for 80 Y. Quite decent.
Happily, Turpan Station has lots of stuff- markets, restaurants, bars- for the over-laying travelers. The med students tell me food here can be good- or not. So I case a place on the street, and decide to risk its hot-pot, full of lettuce and bean sprouts and maybe pork.
The hot pot is delicious but as I finish up, the med students re-appear and tell me they are going elsewhere because they ate here and did not feel so good…
I apply the universal antidote: cold beer. It is very hot, fierce sun, high 20s at least. I am sitting in partial shade, in a cool breeze, overlooking the action on the main drag. I have more cold beer and a circular sesame bread from a street vendor. Perfect way to spend an idle afternoon!
Behind me the joint’s owner is quietly helping his 5-year old with her Chinese homework.
I am dozy. Suddenly, an emergency: a German guy has arrived by plane (!) from Urumqi- but his luggage has not. When he calls China Southern, a questionable airline, in English, the line goes dead. All the local forces turn to me for great wisdom: Denzo, Turpan Branch, is open for random guesswork. Not much else to offer.
The cafe owner tries to phone China Southern in Chinese. After some back and forth he begins a descending arc with his hands that ends up pointing at Turpan Station. I interpret this to mean the luggage will come by air from Urumqi and arrive at Turpan Station. Maybe he found this out. Maybe he is making it up. The German traveler heads to the Station. He returns. China Southern denies any knowledge of ‘so called ‘ luggage.
I return to my revery. The German traveller joins me.
After sleepy afternoon in the sun I am back at the station, and soon on my way East.
I am surprised to find my assigned train carriage more of a chicken coop than the expected compartment.
I guess the replacement ticket has dropped me a class or two. The thing is, we are in early October, the start of the Chinese New Year debacle, where all billion-2 Chinese have to go somewhere else. So I am lucky to have any ticket.
Six bunks separated by a narrow aisle. There are 11 of these units in the car, all apparently filled, people everywhere. As the last-arrival, I would get the ceiling-shelf- but a kind middle-aged guy offers me the middle one, just above his ill-matched wife. Mixed company: a guy who appears to keep reading the same page in a Chinese magazine for the next 2 days; a middle-aged woman, a younger guy possibly her son, and the now-divided couple. On a short reconnoitre I am pleased to find the dining car , a potential refuge. And a class-above compartment car where I will spend most of the next 40 hours by the aisle window watching the passing scenery and my fellow travelers.
Train Day 3: Turpan Basin to Shanghai
We are leaving the Taklamakan behind, more or less following the superhighway, over varying terrain. Here and there we pass what looks like remnants of the ‘Great Wall’. In fact many of these are apparently the remains of local fiefdoms, even different empires.
The train is very busy with people traveling somewhere, probably home, for the October festivals. There are a lots of young kids, many with just a mom, or even a dad.
At one of the myriad stops a young Uighur introduces himself in fluent English. He is taking his 12 year old sister to a Justin Bieber concert in Shanghai! 4,000km and 600bucks!
I am comforted that a Canadian is scamming the Chinese even more unscrupiously than they are scamming me.
The young Uighur, Eryan, is quite interesting, so we have many chats about Uighur culture and politics. It turns out he has run into trouble with a drunk-driving charge, subsequently being sent off for vocational training etc. I wonder now whether he was in fact a victim of the now infamous ‘re-education’ program that the Chinese have imposed on possibly millions of Uighurs, to tame supposed separatists.
Later he introduces me to a couple of fellow Uighurs, big tough looking fellows, maybe intent on some skullduggery in Shanghai. I contemplate providing them with some combustibles to be tossed on the Bieber stage…
I thrive in the dining room, first enjoying a fine fish, bass-like in a gentle sauce, 35 Y. Then over the next day and a half I experiment with the menu: some good rice soup; veggies, boiled egg and dumplings for breakfast (twice); a bunch of odd veggies and soup for lunch; beef bones and potatoes for supper. Unfortunately my Uighur companion and his sister cannot join me for these fine meals. I thought maybe they were too expensive on a Chinese budget; but no, the restaurant serves pork, so Muslims are not even allowed to enter. On board they have no alternative service.
Our train plods on, relentlessly, through the ever changing scenery. Essentially we are retracing our route on Aziza, the Dragoman truck, on rails instead of the highway, across the desert towards Gansu province.
Early fall, so colour is starting to appear in the trees and gorse.
Once again I pass the Rainbow Mountain range, but this time in different light, so I can see where the name comes from.
Characteristically, lots of isolated mountains, this one decorated with a shrine.
Somewhere near Lanzhou we follow the yellow river.
Late in our second night on this train we stop in Xi’an. I can see the great wall of the city, brightly lit for the holidays. I relive the fabulous summer night Kelly, Ariana and I spent riding the length of the walls on rented bikes, with delicate kites lofting overhead.
Train Day 4: The Last Stretch to Shanghai
On our final day we pass the deep gorges formed by a smaller river.
I got a glimpse of them in the dark on the train from Shanghai to Xi’an, three weeks earlier. In defiance of the enormously difficult terrain, life continues. Not visible here, but many of the isolated buttes were capped by crops of corn and wheat.
Obviosly there are times when a lot of water flows through here.
In spite of the risk, a town nestles on the floor of the gorge.
We follow another river, somewhere between Xi’an and Nanjing.
The countryside becomes more pastoral, dotted with peasant villages…
…soon transforming into heavy industry…
…and urban density.
Some suburban housing, not unlike what one would see in Japan.
As we approach Shanghai, the ubiquitous high rises.
And quite distinctly, a maze of canals large and small crisscrossing what seems to be land recovered from the massive Yangste delta.
Finally, around 4 in the afternoon, the centre of the great city itself.
At one of the earlier stops a young student introduces herself. She too wants to work on her English, so she can become a tour guide.She is a senior at Shanghai University, returning to school after a holiday at home in Zhangye in Gansu province. Towards the end of our journey I get her to help me secure the refund for this portion of the ‘lost’ ticket. Turns out to be easy because the train people are fluent in English. Another couple has the same problem so I follow them to the appropriate wicket in Shanghai station. All’s well that ends well.
Back in Shanghai, at the Manhattan Hotel again, I enjoy an upgraded room, with a sort of skylight instead of a real window. Refreshed, I am off to the nearby Bund for a magical evening with a few hundred thousand holidayers.
Towards the Roof of the World
One of our Kashgar activities was a day-trip to the heights of the Karakorum Pass and Lake Karakol on the Tajikistan border.
The Karakoram Pass is a 5,540 m or 18,176 ft mountain pass between India and China in the Karakoram Range. It is the highest pass on the Silk Road, the ancient caravan route, between Leh in Ladakh and Yarkand in the Tarim Basin. ‘Karakoram’ literally means ‘Black Gravel’ in Turkic
Historically, the high altitude of the pass and the lack of fodder were responsible for the deaths of countless pack animals while the route was notorious for the trail of bones strewn along the way. There is an almost total absence of vegetation on the approaches to the pass. (Wikipedia).
The Karakorum mountain range is the second highest in the world, with 8 peaks over 8,000 metres, including K2 (second highest after Everest), and the most heavily glaciated area outside Antartica.
We started late morning, following the deeply carved valley of the Karakash river, on a very tortuous and dangerous road which is understandably not on the map.
Spectacular scenery, a few isolated herding communities, lots of goats and sheep and camels, some horses, but everywhere massive construction projects- hydro but no road work, alas.
We did not see masses of pack animal bones- but we could see why that would come about.
We climbed higher and higher into the snow-covered Pamir Mountains…
to the edge of a mysterious lake, probably created by a dam.
Perhaps because of the altitude, the lake was shrouded in an effervescent mist. An ethereal band of white sand lined its edge, Soon we reached our destination, Karakol Lake, on a high mountain plain.
We passed through the Tajik/ Kyrkyz village of Karakol on the lakeside to, lo and behold, a tourist faciltity (!)
…where after some intense persuasion by the locals, Ariana and I rented horses for a trail ride.
Across the lakeside plain, we could see Pamir peaks reaching over 7500 metres.
Going back the way we came, we passed the mysterious lake which had lost its mist in the changing light…
…back through the rough range astride the raging Karakash.
Back in time for a well-earned Uighur dinner.
Something, maybe border closure delayed Aziza the Truck’s departure to Kyrgistan, so we got an extra night in Kashgar, 3 in all. What a blessing! Kashgar turned out to be a delightful place, full of Silk Road flavour- a highlight of the whole trip. Our hotel conjured up a stop among the sands for a weary 19th century traveler. The bar, John’s Café, was always full of people,, eating, drinking, chatting. Outside, the streets buzzed with activity.
We were towards the edge of the city, just off a main drag that ran through the commercial district, past the old city then across the river into the market, all within walking distance. Weather perfect, hot and sunny.
In Kashgar we are at the western extremity of China, virtually on the Kyrgistan border. Exciting, but a downside is that despite being roughly 4,000km from Beijing, everything operates on the Beijing clock. So in early October everything nominally starts when it is 9am in Beijing- when it is pitch black, maybe 4am on our body clocks. No point getting up at 6 or 7 as we usually would, nothing to do. Unofficially, Kashgar runs on its own time, a couple of hours behind Beijing.
A very visible aspect of central control in China. In addition here there is considerable friction between the local Uighurs and the Han, the Chinese majority group, visible as prominent police presence in public places and especially on the roads, ostensibly to combat separatists and terrorists, but increasingly directed at Islamic commoners. Most locals here speak and maybe write Uighur, a Turkic language, and no Chinese. Only the young speak both, and often English as well. It was great fun to reply to kids who shout ‘Hello’ with ‘Ni hao’ or even ‘yah xmu’, occasioning great gales of laughter.
Around the corner from our hotel were a number of good restaurants, including two real classics, both of which we took in. The area mixed old and new elements, an architectural wonderland, dominated by designs from much further west in Central Asia. At the time I remarked that even the country folk exhibit a better sense of design and quality finish than typically seen in China proper.
Parts of the old city showed signs of gentrification…
Some parts showed much more recent attention.
Like the Central Square, with a very visible riot-police presence.
Others, a more commercial intent.
Some, modern housing…
Here and there, enduring crafts.
Down the street, a school for small boys.
And in a park an odd anomaly- do Snow White and the Seven dwarfs figure large in Central Asian mythology?
And at various places, mosques in various life-stages.
The main mosque, now closed to worshipers but open as a tourist site…
It is not clear whether the state of this last one reflects recent policy or renovations underway on the edge of the old city. Chinese policy has become increasingly repressive of religious displays, especially in regard to Islam in Xinjiang.
For two days and part of a third I prowled the shops in the commercial district along the main drag, and especially the markets across the river.
The fabric and clothing markets were huge and fabulous. I was looking -successfully- for treasure for the stylish ladies at home.
Lots of fine food, of course. I had some tasty lunches at these street-side cafes.
Fortunately we were in Kashgar on a Sunday, so we were able to make the mandatory visit to the ‘Kashgar Bazaar’. We set off early into the nearby country, to a huge field already full of cars and people- and animals! This is the livestock market…
with just about any type of beast you might need.
Some really beautiful horses, some saddled for test-drives happening at great speed and intensity on the edge of the field.
And for those not pressed for time…
Here and there, men stood in small groups negotiating sales.
It’s a deal!
A sale heads home.
On the sidelines some really interesting crafts. One of the girls, Ariana I think, bought a harness made on site. Wonderful work.
There were also a lot of knife sellers around. Must be important. Kelly the Jersey Girl wanted a knife- for her own reasons, I suppose- but she did not like the price offered by a persistent seller. So she enlisted me, of all people, as the bargainer. Well, I turned out to be good enough at stone-walling, to the degree that I did the best job of bargaining in my life (apart from my marriage of course) and Kelly got her knife!
One night a few of us wandered next door to a very handsome building that turned out to be a gem, seemingly a survivor from the late 19th century. Great street food here too.
We ate well in a fine café atmosphere – excellent lamb choplets- and were amazed when the large doors behind us flew open to reveal a magnificent wood-carved hall full of very well-dressed women celebrating something. Fascinatingly unexpected!
Next night, the night before everybody except Ariana and I were to depart for Kyrgistan on the Truck, we repeated the experience. Our mentors chose a restaurant, the Allun Orda, a few steps down the main drag that featured the same classical architecture, dominated by sculptured wood over two floors joined by a marvelous staircase. We paraded in like pashas headed to a celebratory feast.
This time the large luxurious room is not full of finely-dressed women, but average types-and us. This time, at the more adventurous table we forego the choplets and opt for a bunch of lamb –kebobs, liver, and a selection of vegetables: roasted eggplant, mushrooms, leek, bean sprouts, tomatoes in ‘brown sauce’- and a mystery dish, the ‘Special Museum’. Unfortunately the dishes start at the other end of the table so by the time they get to me it is not clear what is what. ‘Special Museum’ goes back the other way so we do not even get a sample at our end. We are compensated by a delightful crispy chicken ordered by Kelly, always desperate for KFC. At the end, ‘Allun Orda Special Tea’, complimented by a rich honey. All wonderfully tasty. Total damage, $16.
A marvelous celebration of this last phase of my Silk Road epic.
Across the Taklamakan
Descending from the physical and spiritual heights of Heavenly Lake, we again sped through the centre of Urumqi, itself the centre of Uighur culture, that dominates the Xinjiang province. Uighurs, Central Asians who ruled the region for a few hundred years before the Mongol invasion, have been subject to increasing persecution by the Chinese government over the past decade, largely due to their adherence to Islam. More about that later.
Just out of Urumqi we left the superhighway G30 for a road headed southwest, into the Taklamakan desert, sometimes a widely divided superhighway, sometimes two lanes where the new one was under construction.
The plan was to cross the desert to Kashgar in three days, camping for two nights. However, the Chinese government’s fear of terrorist attacks on isolated tourists compelled us to stay in hotels, in Korla and Aksu. Tant mieux- both qite sharming, modern cities. We were descending through the edges of a major mountain range, the mountain range, the Tjan Shan, through magnificent gorges marked by signs of very heavy runoff, past huge dunes…
…back down into the Turpan basin, below sea level. The mountain ridges gave way to an infinite plain of sand and rock and scattered vegetation, also marked by signs of massive water flows.
At times we ran parallel to the trans-China train that I would ride on the way back.
Once again in the endless sands we were surprised by lush green oases …
…as we approached Korla, toward the end of the day.
More surprises, another modern city in mid-desert, and a really confortable hotel. One again we measured its quality by the toilet facilities: much above average.
We had a really excellent meal in the hotel’s large dining room. As it turns out, this day was driver-Dennis’ birthday. Earlier I had chased through all the pastry shops I could fine in search of a cake. Best I could do were large chocolate cupcakes. I astounded the shop-persons by taking a dozen. And so we feted our intrepid driver in style.
Back on the road next day (I think I breakfasted on those long fried breads from a nearby shop), more desert terrain, past a couple of not-so-charming industrial cities- Kuqa or Luntai no doubt.
Somewhere on this road we stopped for lunch at a roadside truck stop, as usual. As usual I got a ramen that needed hot water- but the system was not working. As I slouched bak to the truck with my useless lunch, a guy in an attached motel-like unit noticed my dilemma and invited me over for some water from his kettle. Must have been a trucker on a layover. I think he wanted to chat with a foreigner or something. I had to prod him to start the kettle. Then it worked so so slowly. I saw the truck had loaded up and was ready to depart, blasting its horn. Finally I had to get up and go- don’t remember if I got the hot water. I did get a few laughs on board.
Eventually, at the end of another day, Aksu, another modern town, a fine hotel, up to our standard.
Once again, a really enjoyable visit. I toured the place, to a modern square with attached shopping centre, what seemed to be a zoo by the river, a huge girls’ school.
On the way back I took a shot of some really beautiful dresses in a small shop- the lady in charge seemed to object to my violation of copyright,
I found most of our crew feasting in a small restaurant, and joined them. Excellent food, friendly crowd and staff.
Later, after dark, I wandered down the street in the previous shot to a market, really lively after 10pm.
More desert on the road to Kashgar.
Xinjiang is reputedly one of the poorest parts of China. Not evident in the fine cities- Aksu and Korla- where we stayed. However, on the road something different. Some pretty basic housing, and rag-tag villages.
In response to criticsm of its repressive social policy in Xinjiang, the Chinese government claims to have raised masses out of poverty. Recall that in many places we passed blocks of gigantic apartment towers, part of a massive program to relocate the rural folk in urban centres- but apparently quite empty.
On the third day we did indeed reach Kashgar, which proved to be one of the outstanding highlights of the whole cross-China trip.
Kashgar is a remote western outpost in the Uighur province of Xinjiang and it has managed to keep an exotic atmosphere under the ubiquitous march of Chinese modernity. This is mainly due to the ethnicmix of Uighurs, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kyrgy, and is amply portrayed throughout the old town, with blacksmiths, silversmiths, cobblers and others working in ways that have not changed for hundreds of years. The highlight of the week for the local populous and for the visitor is the massive Sunday market. 50,000 people migrate for the day into the town. This is a must for the visitor, as it exemplifies the daily life of the indigenous people – the noise, smells, the animals, the traders, the junk, toot, cloths, rugs, jewellery, tapes and ghetto blasters. Horses,cows, donkeys, sheep and goats all awaiting the inevitable sale. (from Dragoman guide)
Our hotel, located near the green oval on the left of the map above, mixed the modern and the historical.
We were of course in the historical section, in the back- but it was fun.
The restaurant bar and kitchen, under a tent-like canopy served as our common room. There were bunches of travelers passing through, college students, some sort of activists plotting interviews with clandestine parties. The food for breakfast and beer at night were excellent.
We were well set up for three wonderful days in Kashgar.
Next: Fond memories of Kashgar
Go West Young Man
Part 1: Outbound
After months of preparation, Yoshiko and I were ready to take this advice offered by Horace Greeley over a hundred fifty years ago. The rest of the quote reads: “There is health in the country, and room away from our crowds of idlers and imbeciles.” I don’t think he was referring to anyone around us, least of all the family…
As were to discover, the “health of the country” part is certainly very true in Canada.
On 7 July, an auspiciously bright morning, we piled the last bunch of stuff and our dog Bingo into the Volvo, hitched up our RT10 trailer, and hit the road. RT10 refers to its length in feet, quite short, and its “Rugged Trailer” construction. A large part of the preparation was a search for a vehicle strong enough to survive the rough roads we expected in the northwest. Our diligence paid off.
RT10 tent trailer and navigator
Our route took us up the Ottawa River to Mattawa, then west past Lake Nipissing to Sudbury, the path followed centuries ago by the “voyageur” fur traders in their canoes. We had not reserved a campsite ahead of time, a risk because campgrounds across Canada are typically booked solid over the summer. I decided we had better see if there was anything available around Sudbury, an area I knew well from my years of working in the provincial parks. I dialed up the Ontario park service, and was directed to ‘Fairbanks Lake’, a name vaguely familiar.
“ Where are you,” I asked, “near Sudbury?”
“Yes, quite close” replied the naïf on the other end.
“On the west side?”
“Hmmm…I don’t know, I’ll have to look at a map”.
“Near the highway?”
“Yes, just off it”.
Near Sudbury, just off the highway? Ha!
Fairbanks must be a sort of penal colony for wayward park employees. We drove for half an hour west of the city to a side road leading to a derelict mine, then bounced for 22 kilometers over one of the worst roads imaginable, as the sun slowly sank. Fortunately we found the campsite, a mosquito haven for incorrigible fishermen.
Happily, the lake was quite pretty, our first raising of the tent, and first night in it went well. But at $58, no services, $12 reservation fee, no bargain!
Next morning we bounced back onto Highway 17 north of Lake Huron towards Sault Ste. Marie, stopping briefly at Aguasabon canyon, which empties into the lake.
On quite good roads, very little construction activity, we made good time towards our target, Wawa on the shores of Lake Superior. The terrain between the Sault and Wawa is quite rugged, typical Precambrian Shield, up and down over towering rocks: one of the really prettiest parts of a trip across Canada. We stopped at Rabbit Blanket (must have been a fur trader camp), where Bingo and I had an icy dip on a beautifully pristine beach.
Lake Superior at Rabbit Blanket
Next, another day of rugged rocky hills north of Lake Superior, one of the most daunting parts of a cross-Canada trip, especially in winter. This road was only completed in the late 1950s, largely following the iconic CPR route cut through the wilderness in the 1880s. We had a stop in Marathon, a favorite town because in 1980 our VW van broke down there on a Canada-crossing, and we (including 2 year old Taro, no dog) had to shack up in a gas station awaiting parts from Thunder Bay
Good time on good roads once again, so we were at Kakabeka Falls outside Thunder Bay for the night. Very pleasant campground, pretty good services. Noticeably though, prices for everything in this not-so-isolated region very high.
From Thunder Bay the road is much flatter until the hills around Lake of the Woods. We drifted through Kenora to get a taste of this famous resort area: may lakes including the huge Lake of the woods itself, lined with elaborate cottages largely owned by Winnipegers and Americans, very busy. We ploughed on over the border to the surprising lakes and forests of Whiteshell Provincial reserve on the eastern edge of the prairies. Here we stayed in the very comfortable municipal RV park on Falcon Lake ($22, full services). A very different population, mostly farm and townspeople spending their holidays with huge mobile homes and tons of ancillary stuff.
Falcon Lake RV camp
Bingo and I had a swim here too.
Around this time Yoshiko started expressing a serendipidous passion for Ukranian food. I thought we might see some roadside fast-food joints flogging perogies- but not so. This time we skirted Winnipeg on the circle bypass; I promised we would visit the city on the way back. So on the increasingly flat prairie we were soon in Saskatchewan, stopping, at just over 2500 km from home, outside Regina at a rustic private camp, the ‘Comfort Plus’ in White City. Kinda dusty place on edge of rural road, we were squeezed into the last possible site. Above ground pool closed, but there was friendly little dog park.
Next day, resuming our practice of meandering through towns on the route to get a feel for place and people, we did a quick tour of Regina, past the Parliament Bldgs, out on to plains blanketed by multi-coloured crops- wheat, canola, flax, lentils, etc. I was surprised that as we approached the Alberta border in the afternoon, the flat farmland gave way to rolling grasslands with occasional water-filled sloughs. I thought we would see some antelope but not so, only free-ranging cattle and horses.
By a stroke of luck, at a pee stop in the comfortable Alberta visitor chalet at the border we discovered a second ‘dinosaur park’ on our route, just outside of Brooks. I had already been to the other one in the wild badlands near Drumheller, north of Calgary, fantastic place. Fortunately we were able to reserve a site for the night.
Incidentally, the borders Alberta and BC were the only place we encountered visitor sites. Those at east and west borders of Ontario were closed tight. No sign of them elsewhere. As well, a great paucity of signage everywhere (distances, intersections, other key info). Cutbacks? Maybe the smartphone-GPS generation does not need signs? Cost us digital-illiterates lots of backtracking.
Great discovery, Dinosaur Park. Comfortable campsites nestled in the badlands. Spectacular scenery.
Turned out the park had fossil tours, so next morning we joined a small group headed into a restricted area in one of the richest fossil sites in the world. Our guide introduced us to ‘microfossils’, minute records of some of the earliest forms of life. Some of the small kids in our group were precocious dinosaur experts, mastering the terminology and the search. Yoshiko and I did not find many microfossils, but we did find some dinosaurs remains.
All this time Bingo the reluctant traveler was only getting a taste of the adventure at our bi-hourly stops and in daily walks. However, when he did get to prowl about, he was a great star, guaranteed long ear-rubs and shameless idolatry. Piles of little kids at dinosaur park. One little girl, Isla’s age, rushed over to Bingo, asking if she could pet him. As she reached out to him, she stumbled and scraped her knee- so Bingo sidled over to nuzzle her. She cleared her tears and broke into song: “Old Macdonald had a dog, B-I-N-G-O was his name…”
After our fossil hunt we started late for Calgary and the Rockies. Once again, we skirted the city on a circle road that went on forever. Busy traffic in early evening. Finally we were headed up the Bow River Valley towards the entry to Banff Park. There we discovered the expected: all the campsites packed solid. We were told there might be something available along the Kananaskis Trail, a whole new outdoor area developed by the Alberta government in the 1980s. In fact, a really beautiful range of mountains and foothills parallel to the Rockies, not as well known but equally impressive. Anyway, we rolled along, tens of km, seeking shelter at one camp, being told to try the next one, same result. Eventually we were told there was an ‘overflow’ area down the road. Darkness was approaching. It was actually getting chilly, storm clouds appearing. Following vague directions, we finally found the purported ‘overflow’: a parking lot at the base of a hiking trail for Elbow Pass. No one there. But there was pit toilet and a mountain stream, all we needed. Actually a beautiful site. So we raised the tent just before a light rain began.
Later, we had violent wind and rain lashing us, and the temperature dropped to near zero C. Happily, by morning clear air and bright sun on the mountain tops. We folded camp and descended to Banff village for breakfast.
Banff is of course overrun with tourists, no longer Japanese nor Chinese but now Korean. Pervasive development. Much changed even since my last visit around 2004, hardly any sign of the small town of my first visit in 1965.
After beginning what would be a regular duty- finding a Tim Horton’s with Wifi and checking in to report progress, etc.- we spent a bit of time around the refurbished Banff train station, specifically re-affirming that local campsite were totally full- except for the Banff overflow, far up the old highway almost to Lake Louise. We headed there, past old hiking haunts at Castle Mountain and Johnston’s Creek, where we would have liked to stay. Not only were the campgrounds full, the roadsides were jammed with the cars of hikers. Not even worth stopping.
However, Banff overflow turned out to be quite pleasant: lots of space in what appears to be a clear-cut/fire zone. Maybe a back-fire site. Anyway, decent facilities, lovely view.
And wildlife! Next morning, very chilly again, no one up when Bingo and I got out to do our walk. I made the mistake of letting Bingo run free. We meandered across the largely empty campground until I looked up to see Bingo frozen in his hunting pose, eyes fixed forward. I followed his line of gaze…to a huge Elk buck, 30 meters away, returning Bingo’s interest. “No, Bingo” I shouted pointlessly as he started towards the buck. In a flash the two of them were racing through the camp, with me a distant third, still yelling. The buck and Bingo headed off into the forest, into some thick bushes. I followed and immediately plunged into an icy creek obscured by the brush. Staggering out, I imagined Bingo and buck disappearing into the wilderness. But just then Bingo came bolting back out with the buck behind. Happily, end of chase. Lesson learned by both of us.
Tellingly, a lot of campers were not prepared for inclimat weather. A Spanish-speaking group camped near us had to cover up their simple tents with tarps and don all the clothes they could find…but the fierce sun soon warmed up the day.
Later we traveled up the Bow Valley to Lake Louise. There the crowd density is such that there are warnings 10 km outside town that the parking lots at Lakes Louise and Moraine are full, so road access blocked. Apparently one has to arrive before 7am or after 4pm to find the roads open.
Overwhelmed, we moved on over the Kicking Horse pass to a favorite place, Field and Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park.
People everywhere, on the trails, in the gift shop, on the lakeshore, on the lake, cars parked on the roadside for half a kilometer. I was shocked to see people lined up to rent canoes at $95 and hour! We meandered through the handsome resort, where a wedding was underway. Bingo was a big hit, almost included in the wedding shots. I am sure most of the tourists were not aware that on the far side of Emerald Lake lies the famous Burgess Shale fossil grounds, the world’s foremost source of remnants of the earliest forms of life on earth.
The other local wonder is the spiral train tunnel, wherein the CPR mainline circles back on itself twice to smooth out the drop from the Kicking Horse pass to the river flats at Field. We were able to watch two trains appearing to eat their own tails while negotiating the double spiral.
Two trains in the spiral tunnel, Yoho
Late in the afternoon we made a second assault on Lake Louise. We were fortunate to find a space in an overflow and spend some time on the Louise lakeshore.
Yet more people. On the paths, in the cafes, on the lake, everywhere. Canoe rental, $110 per hour! No shortage of really loose cash…and loose screws.
Another cool night, maybe 5 or 6 C in the overflow camp. Comfortable in our little house without any heating. Bingo under control.
Next morning we set off at a leisurely pace for Jasper, taking in the sites.
Bow Lake, Bow River Highway, wildflower, Sunwapta pass
Incomparably beautiful Bow Lake, rough rock cuts, wildlife including roadside bear, the high Sunwapta pass marking the divide between the north flowing Sunwapta and Athabasca Rivers and the south-flowing North Saskatchewan. Certainly among the most beautiful 200 kilometers of road anywhere in the world.
I had traveled the Icefield highway, between Jasper and Lake Louise, by bike in 1965, in early September when there was almost no one around except bears. Actually, I only got to Bow Lake on the bike. Heavy rains started so I joined two young guys I met, physics students from the UK, to rumble down to Banff by car.
We started from our Banff overflow camp with about a half-tank of gas, I figured more than enough to get to Jasper. However, with all the high climbs and extra weight of our trailer, I started to worry we would run short in the long stretch of no-gas road. I decided we better head to Jasper directly, and come back later to sight see, without the trailer. It got rather tense, especially over the very long and very high Sunwapta pass. In a sweat, we crept into Jasper, filled up and dropped the trailer in the Jasper overflow (everything else full, of course). The Jasper overflow is a lot more ragged than the Banff one, basically an abandoned gravel quarry between the Edmonton highway and the Athabasca River, no proper campsites, minimal facilities (a couple of pit toilets). Not even potable water. Bingo and I hiked about a kilometer to the fast flowing Athabasca to fill our jug. By morning the overflow was packed solid with campers.
Fortunately, a beautiful view.
Jasper is increasingly busy with tourists, but still less overrun than Banff. It retains some of the flavour of a frontier mountain town. It is really on the edge of the great northern wilderness. In the shot above you can see the telltale red strip left by a recent wildfire that surrounded the town. I think there are still strong restraints on further development to preserve its character. I much prefer it to Banff- so we spent more time here and could not resist returning later in our trip.
We were discovering one of the really great benefits of traveling northwest in the summer: seemingly endless evenings. No longer necessary to scramble to campsite to get dinner done by dark. Typically, on this evening we resumed our exploring back on the Icefields highway up to the Athabasca Glacier.
Icefields, Athabasca Glacier
Here, another sign of change since my earlier visit: the glacier has shrunk maybe 200 meters!
We made our way slowly back to Jasper, taking in Sunwapta Falls and its gorge, other scenery…
Sunwapta Falls and gorge, salamander snow
…and visiting all the small campsites along the road, for future reference. Back in Jasper around 8:30, we made another important discovery: the Dead Dog Pub Sunday night special- steak dinner for $11.95. With a cheap pint of Keith’s, a real treat!
Next morning, the start of the trek north, on the road to Prince George- Highway 97. Lunch at Mount Robson in bright sun.
Mt Robson, one of the tallest mountains in Canada
The road to Prince George, still Highway 97, follows a valley between two moderate mountain ranges. The other time I traveled here, to a conference, the fall colours of the deep deciduous forest were spectacular, significantly bright yellows instead of the red maple we see in the east. Apart from the scenery, the day’s highlight was a long shopping trip in Prince George, in a ‘Save on Foods’. Great selection, decent prices, surprisingly better than Thunder Bay in mid-Ontario. After PG, a straight road through the vast boreal forest, stretching on forever…
Boreal forest, stretching forward almost for ever…
Nothing on the road til we hit Halfway House.
A classic road house. Bunches of muddied heavy machinery lying around- we were in major gas drilling country- signs on the door requiring proper clothing, and removal of muddy boots. A too-friendly guard husky. Inside, lots of coffee, a table set up for a robust buffet, and a large hotpot full of stew as an alternative to coffee. Man-size toilets. We lingered with our coffee over a surprising collection of books for sale, on serious topics like local wildlife, the Rockies, butterflies etc. I got a great one on the building of the Alaska Highway. Yoshiko got a couple for kids. And only $10 each.
In late afternoon we made camp in deep bush at Whiskers Point on McLeod Lake. Swimming was pretty good among many locals enjoying the warm sun. There was a dog beach here. Me and Bingo also had a late evening hike along the shoreline of this large lake- and repose by our campfire, suddenly terminated.
Back on the road of course, headed into the Peace Country. Another interesting surprise: the Northern Rockies. Never thought about it but they continue past Jasper into the NWT- and quite spectacularly.
Pinepass, Peace River country
We descended into deep valleys before going over the back of this rocky ridge via Pine Pass, onto the Peace River Highway. In fact, the legendary Peace River itself started about 70 km further north, exiting the giant Williston Lake near Hudson’s Hope. Instead of heading there and onward to Fort St. John, we chose to stay on the Highway to iconic Dawson Creek. Passing through Chetwynd, we wondered at a string of elaborate Chinese-style sculptures lining both sides of the road, maybe 50 of them. Must be a story there.
Chetwynd sculpture, Dawson Creek
Yet another surprise. I always imagined Dawson Creek, frequently in news of the north, as a log outpost surrounded by impenetrable bush. Lo and behold, a modern town on the open prairie. After a mandatory stop at Canadian Tire (what greater symbol of our civilization is there?) and an ice cream shop, we headed north, at Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway. Soon we crossed the mighty Peace outside Fort St. John on the bridge that replaced a famous one moved from Tacoma after it destroyed itself in 1939- and then destroyed itself again 30 or 40 years later.
Peace River Valley
We headed for Beaton camp on the north side of Fort St. John for the night. This part of the Peace Valley was marked by huge rolling hills. We rolled up and down as darkness loomed. Did I mention lack of roadside signs these days? As we powered up to the peak of a steep slope, suddenly the pavement ended: the road continued precipitously downward in dirt ruts, almost a cliff. The guy ahead failed to stop, ending up at the bottom half a kilometer away. Just in time I braked. At my immediate left, a sign: Beaton Park.
No swimming here- grungy water filled with some sort of algae. But after dark we headed back over the hills back into Fort St. John, to the really wonderful community centre, a great pool, hot tub and water slide among the facilities. For a couple of bucks we had a relaxing swim. This kind of centre turned out to be a common feature in the smaller northern towns. And another common feature, really friendly people.
Next day we did the next ‘250 miles’ of the Alaska Highway, through a lot of gas drilling sites and really minor gas stops to Fort Nelson. We had left the Peace River valley, running east of the Rockies in rolling foothills.
Alaska Highway north of Dawson Creek
Fort Nelson camp
Fort Nelson was pretty much like Dawson and St. John, modern little towns. We were getting grubby so we opted for the ‘Triple G Hideaway RV Park’, which offered a Laundromat. I think the ‘G’s stood for George, Gloria, and Gaston or something like that. We were lucky to get a place in this sea of gigantic road barges. In fact we had to fit in between two touring caravans of 20-30 of these RV beasts full of Elderhostel-type retirees from all over North America. The camp had a big restaurant featuring a substantial buffet dinner each night. We did not indulge.
On local advice we signed up for two nights so we could do a day trip 300km further up the Alaska Highway towards the Yukon to visit the Liard River hotsprings. Wise move. Fantastic scenery, once again in the northern Rockies, even more rugged high peaks, sharp rock cuts, tight switch backs, rushing streams and big lakes.
Northern Rockies Lodge
Without the trailer, driving the switch backs was real fun, especially as the co-pilot was asleep. Lots of wildlife though, kept the watchdog alert. We made good time, got to the springs by noon.
Another revelation! The Liard River is historically important, but never heard of the Liard River Hotsprings. A Provincial Park, free for the public, very simple but very comfortable access to quite hot sulphurous springs ‘discovered’ by workers building the Alaska Highway in the 1940s (probably already known to natives). We had a delightful soak before heading back to Nelson in the late afternoon.
North of Nelson we left the Alaska Highway (still #97) for the Liard Highway towards the Territories. More endless boreal forest. Decent road surface til we got to the NWT border. Gravel! For 40 km. Mostly loose, dry and dusty. Almost no traffic, just the odd truck or camper. Winding trail through mixed forest and rocky outcrops. We were counting on gas at Fort Liard, so we were relieved to finally hit a bit of pavement on the edge of a modest indigenous community of clapboard homes. No real gas station, but a depot of large tanks with a single nozzle and attached card reader. Simple but effective. Turns out the indigenous Band communities manage these sorts of facilities as a collective. This one was open to non-members (apparently!). Good thing- only gas anywhere.
More gravel on NWT Highway 7, about 100km to Blackstone Camp, our first visit to a Territories park. The NWT road map gives a visitor a good feel for the scale of things in these parts. My map is about 3 feet square. The bottom 4 inches easily contains all the passable roads!
Highway 7, NWT
Up #7 towards the Liard River and Blackstone campsite
I quite liked Blackstone. On the banks of the Liard River, directly across from Nahanni Butte in the lower Yukon, maybe 20 rustic sites, heavily forested. Excellent facilities, including charming museum. The Territories have made a huge effort to encourage tourism with a string of well-equipped camps. We were introduced to a prominent feature: charming women in charge throughout. There were bugs of course, more manageable mosquitos rather than blackflies. Bingo and I had a long hike by the river; I had a brief swim in the silty Liard, dragged fiercely downriver by the current.
Nahanni butte, sunset on the Liard River
But our first disappointment- we could not get across the river to the Yukon, accessible only by air. If I had known, we would have continued past the Liard Springs to Watson Lake and maybe even Whitehorse. What’s another 1000km. Next time.
More gravel, another 200km to Fort Simpson, where there was a deceptive stretch of pavement. We had to cross the Liard on a basic ferry, the Lafferty.
Fort Simpson where the Liard joins the Mackenzie…
…is the stepping stone to the famous Nahanni River wilderness and much of the western hinterland. It is also the starting point of the Mackenzie Highway that runs about 200km down that river, then yields to winter road that runs another few hundred km to Norman Wells and Great Bear Lake. Far out, literally!
In the Nahanni hotel we had a decent fish and chips and fried chicken before going back to rejoin the highway, now NWT #1.
More gravel! Another 250 km to Fort Providence. Sometimes loose and dry. Sometimes muddied by light rain. Sometimes one continuous pothole. Fortunately little traffic to scatter up stones. Maybe not so fortunately, our gas mileage was below expectations. And gas stations marked by road signs turned out to be phantoms. Theoretically we had enough to reach Providence, according to my ‘km to empty tank’ display. I was watching it carefully and trying to match its readings to the sparse mileage signs on the road. Did not look good. I considered leaving the trailer to go for gas. But we persevered, in a sweat. Last 45 km paved, so mileage better. Up one side of the magnificent bridge over the Mackenzie…
I was counting on coasting on the downslope…but no, a red light protecting non-existent construction workers. I ran it and coasted a bit. Last few km, running on fumes, a Shell logo in sight, there at last.
What’s this? Gas pumps all covered in plastic bags. As I tried to work one, a local comes out; “we ran out of gas an hour ago”
“Try that Band pump over there”
Wheeeuw. Not only our saviour but 14 cents cheaper than the $1.56 at the Shell.
That night we spent in the open poplar forest of the Fort Providence camp, on a high cliff along the Mackenzie River shore.
Here again, pretty good facilities- but suspended in seemingly stalled repair; and a local woman manager, charming but seemingly not in total control.
Full of gas, next day we headed for Yellowknife, 300 km up a very straight, lonely Highway 3. Largely a very good surface through a huge buffalo reserve. Not much traffic: everyone was in Yellowknife for its annual folk music festival which was winding up as we arrived. In fact, it looked like all of Yellowknife had been wound up. Empty streets except for homeless stragglers. Apparently the city shuts down on Sunday. Almost nothing open. A lot of permanently shuttered stores
I did find a really good bookstore, shortly before it closed for the day, while Yoshiko was scurrying about the streets trying to find a public toilet…
This night it was the ‘Fred Henne’ camp, close to downtown, on a rather rocky outcrop adjacent to the site where gold was first found and became Yellowknife’s raison d’etre. Bingo and I hiked over the mine site that evening, the sun still refusing to go down at 10pm.
Yellowknife is pretty much a rock on the water, the rock providing its wealth, the water the means of gathering it. Still has the air of a frontier outpost.
Yoshiko’s desperate search for relief had another positive result- she ran across a liquidation centre full of interesting stuff, not just another of her thrift shops she assured me. Sure enough, a depanneur-sized store in a semi-derelict mall packed with esoteric machinery and mechanical bits and boots and clothes and CDs and just about everything else, including a jolly rotund liquidator happy to demonstrate his wares. We had a great time poring through the piles. Eventually I asked if he had any CDs with local fiddle music (a talent in these parts). He said he’d look. After a while an odd assistant- looked like an Afghan refugee- brought me a CD by a Fort Simpson musician. $1. Then the liquidator found another by a local band.
“Here, it’s yours” he said.
“No charge?” I said, “At this rate you’re going to go out of business”.
“That’s the plan” he replied…
A highlight in an otherwise disappointing town. To be fair, our visit was short, on a Sunday. With more time we could have explored the long string of remote camps on the Ingraham Trail north of town, to the edge of the winter road that leads another few hundred km north to the diamond mines.
More gas, about $1.45 litre here, then back down the road, over the Mackenzie to Hay River, to the Hay River camp at the edge of town, on Great Slave Lake. Really great camp nestled in the mixed bush, excellent facilities, run by a pair of charming and very competent women. A favorite stop.
Until the roads came to the north in the late 1960s and 70s, Hay River was the end of the line, the railhead where food, machinery, building materials, everything, was transferred to barges for a trip across the lake to Yellowknife or down the Mackenzie to the Arctic Ocean. From our camp the lake looked like an ocean. Next to the beach, several large lake boats reposed in retirement.
Great Slave Lake with ornamental eagle
Retired Northern Transportation workers
Great Slave sunset
I had a swim in pretty clear water, not as cold as Lake Superior. In the evening we discovered the dining room at the Ptarmigan Hotel, minutes before the kitchen closed. Fine crispy calmari, excellent whitefish and tuna steak, prices quite reasonable.
Another long, straight, lonely road, Highway 5 to Fort Smith. This was one of the roads I worked on as a summer job in 1963 and 65. At that time the contractor was preparing a basic road bed, a lot of clay with a gravel topping, through near-virgin forest. We were only about 30 miles out of Fort Smith. About the same time the NWT government cut a winter road (over frozen muskeg and rivers) to Hay River to bring in a dismantled sawmill for Claire Lake, south of Fort Smith. Otherwise, until the 1970s everything had to be brought in by air, or barge from the Peace River.
Now there was a fine road surfaced with pulverized granite, very durable. Not much traffic but not entirely empty: lots of buffalo. Almost all the 200 km are in Wood Buffalo National Park, a giant reserve where these magnificent beasts have been revived.