Archive for category Travel

The last time

I had an unexpectedly emotional departure from Brisbane last week. It was supposed to be a standard flight to Sydney, but became something a lot more.

When I first started travelling by air, flights to Melbourne were on 737s and to Sydney were 767s. I guess you knew you were going to the “big smoke” when you were on the really big plane (sorry Melbourne, you know I love you). As flight schedules changed Sydney started getting serviced by more 737 flights, but you could often still find yourself on a 767 depending on the time of day, etc. I would seek out the 767 flights, sometimes just for the sake of a change of scene from a 737.

Of course there was another, real, reason why there were fewer 767 flights on Qantas, but I was oblivious to that… until last Monday.

The original flight I was booked on got cancelled. I had a moment of disappointment that I wouldn’t be on the 767 flight I’d planned, but since Qantas has phoned me well in advance and sorted me onto the next flight I couldn’t fault the situation (it gave me some extra time before flying).

When I got my seat assignment I realised I was going to be on a 767 after all. I wondered if they simply pushed the plane from my original flight back to the time of the later flight. Anyway it didn’t matter, I was happy to get my ride on the Seven-Six.

While we were taxiing for takeoff, the captain made an announcement. He did the usual welcome, and then said something remarkable — I don’t remember the exact words, but I’ll paraphrase…

Thank you for your patience, I know some of you were booked on the flight that was due to go before this one, but that aircraft became unavailable. Luckily the airline had the option to use a bigger aircraft to carry the load of the two flights. It’s an option that we won’t have very soon, as this aircraft is due to be retired on the 27th of December. So unless you’re going to be with us again very soon, this could be your last flight on a Boeing 767.

The captain then went on to advise us our departure procedure, but honestly I wasn’t listening. I started looking around me, trying to soak up as much of the environment as I could. Then I thought to myself “it’s just a plane”, but no, it was more…

When do we ever get the chance to know that we’re doing something for the last time? I’m not talking about the extraordinary things, the once-in-a-lifetime things that you know right then you’re never likely to do again. I mean things that are a part of your life, things that… things that until they are gone you do not think you’d miss… or the things that you know damn well you’d miss if they weren’t there, but you just can’t imagine anything could possibly cause them to be gone…

VH-OGO

Upon disembarking in Sydney

Even as I write this, days later, I’m choking up.

When we arrived in Sydney I took a photo of my last 767, VH-OGO, which I saw again a couple of days later while I was waiting for my return flight to Brisbane.

Thanks to a captain who knows that there are still people out there who think that flying is more than just the cheapest seat, I got to know in advance that a chapter in my own personal logbook is ending… and as if I needed one, I also got another reminder that nothing should ever be taken for granted.

VH-OGO

A couple of days later… OGO probably about to make a return trip to Brisbane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started writing this on 7 December, the day that VH-OJA, Qantas’ first ever Boeing 747-400, was scheduled to make its last commercial flight as QF107 From Sydney to Los Angeles. Not only was OJA the first Qantas 747-400, it was the aircraft that set the stage for the “Kangaroo Route” by making a promotional flight non-stop from London to Sydney (a record-breaking run, and the record still stands). I wonder how many times I’ve flown on that plane, never knowing its history. I hope the people on that flight got an announcement similar to the one I got on my 767 flight.

On global roaming for data

Like most international travellers in the Internet age, during our recent travel through Europe I was confronted by the ridiculous situation that exists for mobile data access.  By ridiculous I mean ridiculously expensive.

Telstra SMS warnings

Warnings from Telstra when a customer connects to a roaming network.

Look, don’t get me wrong: the technology that allows GSM/UMTS global roaming is pretty magical[1].  But it’s not exactly new!  It’s not like mobile networks are breaking new ground in how this should be done!  As I understand it, GSM was designed almost from day one to support the interconnection of networks in the manner that global roaming requires, so why are we consumers gouged so aggressively for it?

Telstra goes to great lengths to warn their customers about the high cost of data when they roam overseas.  Nice.  So let’s say I want to buy one of these International Roaming Data Packs—how much does that cost?  On Telstra’s website I find the answer: in fact I find several answers, since it would be unreasonable to expect one simple, easy-to-budget rate from a telephone company.

The cheapest data pack is A$29, which gets you the princely total of—wait for it…

20MB of data.

Wait, what…?

Twenty megabytes?!?!?

Packs range all the way up to 2GB, which costs an unbelievable A$1800.  I have a Telstra mobile broadband service which costs around A$39 per month and has a monthly allowance of 3GB—that comparison puts the roaming data rate at almost 700% more expensive!

The kickers though are in the fine print:

If you use all of your data allowance, we will charge you 1.5 cents per kB you use which equates to $15.36 per MB.

This is the rate for roaming data if you don’t have a data pack.  An order of magnitude again more expensive than data in a data pack!  Let’s look at the SMS they sent though: “we’ll SMS you every 20MB of data” — which means, if you don’t have a data pack, you’ll get your first SMS alert once you’ve already spent A$307.20!  The next one is the absolute best, though:

Any unused data allowance will be forfeited at the end of the 30 day period.

Are you absolutely @#$%!$ kidding?!?!?  Seriously?!?  Let’s think this one through:

  • You have concocted an astronomically exorbitant rate for data usage
  • You’ve made me pay up-front for my expected use
  • If I get the estimate wrong, I’ll either pay through the nose at the casual usage rate until I decide if I want to buy another pack OR I’ll get no compensation of the up-front money I paid for data I didn’t end up using
  • You’re still collecting on my contract monthly plan fee, which includes domestic call and data allowances I can’t possibly use because I’m overseas!

The whole situation is unbelievable to me.  Unjustifiable.  If Douglas Adams was writing Life, The Universe, And Everything today I believe “bistromathics” would have instead been “phonemathics” (except that it doesn’t roll off the tongue as well).  I can just imagine it:

“Just as Einstein observed that space was not an absolute, but depended on the observer’s movement in time, so it was realised that numbers are not absolute, but depend on the observer’s mobile phone’s movement through roaming zones.”

It’s only a problem because mobile technology is so embedded in our lives today.  We tweet, we post pictures, we e-mail, we navigate, we live connected in ways that we didn’t even ten, or five, years ago.  I know this, because I did without mobile data even as recently as 2009 (when I was in the US and China for a total of seven weeks).  The ironic thing is that we are most likely to want to do these sharing activities, such as checking in on Foursquare and sharing photos, when we are travelling—and even more so when we are in new and exotic places, such as a foreign land.

I call BS on the whole international roaming data scam.  I defy anyone from a telecommunications company to explain to me why it can be three orders of magnitude more expensive to access bits in a foreign country compared to accessing those same bits from home.  It is nothing more than a money gouging exercise, and I reckon I’ve got proof:

Amazon Whispernet.

I have a Kindle, for which I paid about A$100 when the local supermarket had a 25%-off sale.  It’s the 3G and Wi-Fi version, and I take it with me most places I travel.  I’ve had that Kindle in the USA, New Zealand, France, and of course here in Australia, and in every place I’ve had Whispernet come on line and I’ve been able to at least browse the Amazon store.  Now, if roaming data really did cost what mobile networks say it does, how does it make sense for Amazon to make Whispernet available internationally on my Australian Kindle?  I mean, if I browsed the Store for half an hour before buying a A$2.99 book (pretty-much exactly what I did last trip, in France), the transaction would have cost more than it made!  To me, Amazon Whispernet is the proof that there is minimal cost in roaming data and that we’re being taken for a ride.

Needless to say, my phone has Data Roaming disabled.  I became a free Wi-Fi junkie—one of those pitiful souls hopping from one café to the next looking for open access points.  It wasn’t too bad when we were in Paris and Montpellier, but before leaving for the back-blocks outside Toulouse and Bordeaux I knew we’d need a better solution.  In a Geant Casino store in Montpellier I happened across a prepaid 3G Wi-Fi access box from Orange for about 45€, which included 500MB of data valid for one month.  It came in handy too, thanks to the GPS unit in the car getting confused about the location of our hotel at La Pomarede and us having to use Google Maps to find the right way.

Come on mobile networks, get with it.  Stop pissing off your customers and forcing them to do cruel and unusual things when they travel.  Just charge reasonable rates.  You’ll get more business, and guess what—happy customers.  Well, happier.

[1] By magical I refer to Clarke‘s Third Law: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

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A long time away

Back when I last posted here, I would never have imagined that within twelve months I would be in a new relationship, travelling overseas on holiday, and generally happy with my life.  And yet, that’s exactly where I am.

I write this from a hotel room in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, having recently returned from Boeblingen (outside Stuttgart) where I spent a week attending an education event.  In a couple of days we will go by train to Montpellier in the south of France, then travel to Toulouse for my partner’s “cousinade” (family reunion).  After that, it will be Bordeaux for a couple of days, then by train to Amsterdam for a few days, then back to Paris for another few days before flying home.

On the technical front since I posted last, I have been spending a lot of time in my System z lab working on Linux and z/VM, as well as building a z/OS Parallel Sysplex (coz dat’s how we rollz, aw yea).  My current project is to build a set of self-paced workshops based on z/VM and Linux for the IBM Systems Symposium in Melbourne in August.

Life doesn’t suck anywhere near as badly as it did about 12 months ago — it’s still far from perfect, but part of what I’m learning is that it doesn’t have to be perfect.

I do promise that this will return to being more of a technical blog though. 🙂

Edited to correct the spelling of “arrondissement”.

Amsterdam trip report

I recently spent a week in Amsterdam, attending the Novell BrainShare conference there.  This visit to Amsterdam was unlike any I’ve made before: certainly unlike the last one, where I barely made it halfway from the airport to the city and was there for less than 40 hours.

Firstly my arrival was disrupted by the Iceland volcano.  About 45 minutes away from Amsterdam I noticed that the little diamond that represented our destination on the flight-map display had jumped somewhere into western Germany, and the plane’s direction had changed — we were now flying almost due south instead of following the gentle arc that traced almost all the way back to Hong Kong.  About 5 minutes later, the captain announced that due to volcanic ash we had been diverted to Frankfurt: “we’re 40 minutes away from Amsterdam, but they’re closing the airport in 20”.  To the credit of Cathay Pacific, however, they had arrangements for our “connection” to Amsterdam underway before we had landed.  Cathay’s airport manager at FRA boarded the plane almost as soon as the door opened, and made an announcement that we would be bussed to Amsterdam and what the process would be.  Once we made it into the Frankfurt terminal we only had a couple of hours wait before we got to shuffle ourselves to some waiting coaches for our unexpected bus tour of north-west Germany and north Holland.

The bus ride was uneventful — except that I don’t ever tire of seeing fine German automobiles at-speed in their natural habitat: the autobahn.  As it turned out, the whole event actually solved a problem for me: how to fill in the nine hours between arrival at Schiphol and being allowed to check in to the hotel (S thought I was being way too positive when I told her that).  It actually was not an unpleasant way to spend a day post-long-haul-flight.

After catching a train from Schiphol to Centraal, finding my hotel, checking in, and cleaning up from the trip, it was time to get a bit of rest before meeting the rest of the Australian contingent to BrainShare for dinner.  We dined at Restaurant d’Vijff Vlieghen, a fine restaurant that (unbeknown to me beforehand) is one of the best in Amsterdam for traditional Dutch cuisine.  I’m amazed I stayed awake through the five courses, but luckily my travel didn’t catch up with me until I made it back to the hotel.

I had Tuesday pretty-much to myself.  I did quite a bit of walking around, trying to push through the jet-lag.  Early afternoon I walked with a couple of colleagues from Novell to the conference venue to register, and had a late lunch afterward. By late afternoon I realised that I wasn’t over the jet-lag and decided to rest up for the start of the conference.

The next couple of days are a bit of a blur.  Keynotes, demos, technical sessions, product launch parties, beer, food, sunsets after 10pm…  It was an incredible week.  As far as the BrainShare content goes, even though Linux is just a part of the Novell “story” I was never really starved for something interesting.  I enjoyed the demos of SUSE Studio, and learned some things about the High Availability extension for SLES and the Subscription Management Tool.

I had a great time.  The crew from Novell that hosted me were fantastic, and every time I go there I fall a little bit more in love with Amsterdam.

Travel report: Driving to Sindelfingen

Since I’ve been back home now for almost a month, it seems silly to call these posts “travel updates”.  🙂

With the experience of visiting le Viaduc de Millau still buzzing in my head, I pointed my trusty Peugeot back toward Montpellier for the journey to Germany.  The run down the mountain back toward the coast was a really nice drive, but by the time I was back in Montpellier it was back to nasty busy city driving.  I think I made a little bit of an error: instead of following the path that Google found for me to get to the A9 (which was more-or-less back through the middle of town), I followed the first sign I saw that said “A9 NIMES”.  This ended up taking me on a Cooks Tour of bypass roads around the south outskirts of the city, past industrial estates and the consequent heavy workaday traffic.  The city path was very likely to have been quicker and easier.  Oh well.

Once I made it to the A9 for the trip north, I was able to settle in and enjoy the drive again.  The autoroutes in France are excellent, with a great smooth driving surface (in spite of the heavy-vehicle traffic they carry) and plenty of visibility and clearance for cars to be able to carry the 130km/h speed limit (again, in spite of the heavy-vehicle traffic, which is only permitted to do about 90km/h).  Mind you I ended up paying around 50€ in tolls while I was in France!  If it’s a demonstration of how tolling a road can lead to better quality, I don’t mind at all.

The traffic bogged down a bit going through Lyon, but soon opened up again.  I was starting to get a bit worried about the time: I’d left Montpellier three or four hours before, yet seemed to be only a third of the way there!  Night was starting to fall as I turned east onto the A36 — the car was at last actually pointing toward Germany!  A short while after that, I stopped for some dinner before making the last part of the drive.   I was not far from the border by this time, and it looked like I was making good time after all.

I hadn’t planned for my first drive on an autobahn to be at night, but that’s how it worked out.  About the only indication that I’d actually crossed into Germany was the change in the road signage!  The speed limit dropped to 120km/h, but a little while later I saw a sign that showed the 120 crossed-out.  This, I eventually worked out, was the only indication I would get that I was on one of the famous speed-unlimited autobahnen (well, the Mercs and Beemers and Audis rocketing past me were another indication).  Because it took me so long to work out what was going on, I almost didn’t get to go for a rocket myself — I had wound the Peugeot up to about 140-150 and was still getting passed like I was stationary, so I decided to give it a run.  In a few seconds the little Pug was at 195km/h, and seemed like it could have gone a bit higher, but slower traffic ahead meant I had to back off.  As it turned out, I didn’t get another chance to wind it out because we were in and out of roadworks for the last part of the run to Stuttgart.

Eventually I found the last motorway exit I had to take, and I was on the streets of Sindelfingen.  I had made it all the way from Montpellier, without a single wrong turn!  Before congratulating myself too heartily though, I had to find my hotel…  and this was a bigger challenge than I had thought.  I found it, eventually, but not before I’d driven up the same street three times (at least) and done at least one U-turn in front of the place without realising it…

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Travel update: le Viaduc de Millau

Seems like ages ago I watched that episode of Top Gear where they took a Ford GT, a Pagani Zonda and a Ferrari F430 from Paris to the Millau Viaduct.  At the time, I didn’t figure that I’d have any opportunity to see the bridge in the near future, but nonetheless subliminally noted it as one of those things to see, if I got a chance to, sometime in the next forty-or-so years.  As it turns out, the chance came up sooner than I thought: not only that, I somehow remembered about it before the chance went by!

As I was planning my drive from Montpellier to Stuttgart, I suddenly remembered “that stonking-great bridge somewhere in France that those pommie tossers drove those cars over”.  I really had no idea where it was — I couldn’t even remember the name of it.  Somehow, however, I managed to locate it — and found that it was only a bit over an hour’s drive from Montpellier.

So Google Maps told me at least, and my record with that site was not great.  When first I consulted the Googleplex for how to get from Montpellier to Stuttgart, I’m sure it said it would take 3-4 hours.  Just before I’d found le Viaduc de Millau, though, I asked it again and it said more like 8 hours.  More on that later…  but now I was contemplating making my 8-plus hour trip to Stuttgart into at least 11.  I was seriously considering giving up on the tentative plan to see the bridge.  Then I thought: how would I feel if I went home, knowing that I was so close and didn’t bother going?  I made my mind up: I was going to Millau.

I planned my departure the following morning to be a little earlier than originally scheduled, and packed the bags the night before.  The next day I got moving nice and early, right in the middle of Montpellier weekday-peak morning traffic!  It didn’t take long for that to clear, though, and I was on the A750 heading west.  The A750 joined the A75, and then I was heading up into higher altitude.  The diesel Peugeot I was driving ate up the twisting climb with no trouble, and before long the road had levelled- and straightened-out a bit.

I saw a tourist sign saying “Viaduc de Millau”, and realised I was almost there.  Then, I was there!

Darned windscreen wiper!  Actually it doesn't matter really, since there's no way a photo from a moving car could do it justice.

Darned windscreen wiper! Actually it doesn’t matter really, since there’s no way a photo from a moving car could do it justice.

You can see the towers of the bridge pylons in the distance: the seventh (and most distant) one is still over two kilometers away! The sign in this photo is for the tourist stop on the north side of the valley, which is three kilometers down the road, and the bridge starts just past the sign…

I tried to take a couple of photos as I was going over the bridge to get a sense of the height and distance involved, but it was a wasted effort.  Not only was the camera unable to focus on anything but the blurring side barrier of the bridge, but the valley floor below was probably too far away for a camera to be able to convey the scene from a car.  So I concentrated on driving the rest of the way over, and trying to enjoy some of the view.

On the north side (as the signpost said) there is an information kiosk and observation area, so I pulled off the road and stopped there.  The observation point turned out to be the peak of a hill accessed by a very steep climb up a bitumen path… but when I made it to the top, the pain of the climb was soon forgotten.

The bridge actually looked to me like it was from another world: it is so big, so high, so amazing and different, that it just doesn’t seem like it could have been made here.  It was truly an amazing thing to see, and it didn’t matter about the lung-bursting climb up the hill or the finger-numbing-face-freezing wind blowing up the Tarn valley or the drizzle of rain that just refused to go away — I could not bear the thought of having to leave there.

Le Viaduc de Millau.  I'm surprised I got these photos, I was beginning to wonder about my chances of frostbite thanks to the wind and rain!

Le Viaduc de Millau. I’m surprised I got these photos, I was beginning to wonder about my chances of frostbite thanks to the wind and rain!

I took a stupid number of photos, and stood for a while and just gazed.  I realised it was still (just) daytime in Australia and phoned home, but must have sounded like an idiot just banging on about a bridge.

Eventually I realised that I would have to leave in order to get to Stuttgart in a reasonable time, so reluctantly I set off back down the hill.  I went through the souvenir shop and picked up a trinket or two, along with a brochure or two that N might take an interest in.  Then, with even more reluctance, I got in the car and departed.  I wasn’t able to avoid the toll plaza — 12 euro (6€ each way) in tolls!  It was a small price to pay though — besides, I got to drive over it again!

The Millau Viaduct is a wonder of the modern world, and I am so glad that I didn’t talk myself out of driving up to see it.

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Travel update: On to Montpellier

There I was, standing in the Paris Gare de Lyon looking like an idiot staring at the trains on the platforms.  I was about to experience my first trip on TGV!

I took a few photos then loaded my gear on the train (big bag in the luggage space at the end of the carriage, smaller stuff in the overhead rack), then went back onto the platform to get a few more photos.  I’m sure I was still acting like a stunned mullet as I wandered around the station!

As departure time drew closer, I headed back to my train and got comfortable.  I faintly heard the sound of the doors closing and then, without a sound, the train started moving.  It picked up speed as it started to snake along the lines heading out of Paris: there were a couple of curves where I could see the front of the train as we went.  Even though we were still in the suburbs and the tracks were eight-wide, the TGV was moving at quite a pace as we headed south.

Some breakfast came by, and the next time I looked out I noticed that the other tracks were gone and we were moving a lot faster now.  At no time had I felt any great acceleration, I suppose for comfort’s sake they let the train wind up gradually.

Then we got faster still.  And faster.  And fasterAnd faster.

Again I have to reiterate: if you’re not a train-fan, you probably won’t appreciate how exciting, exhilarating and mildly terrifying it was for me.  I realised that I was actually on the ground at 300+km/h, and that if I was in a plane I’d be airborne by then!  In the dark the night before, I hadn’t been able to appreciate going through tunnels or passing under bridges at that speed.  The line ran near a highway at one stage, and I just couldn’t get my head around seeing the cars that I knew were going in the same direction as I was moving backward!

I could see trackside distance markers, and did a rough timing of our travel over one kilometre: “one-onethousand-two-onethousand … 12-onethousand”.  Math it out: that’s 300km/h.

I expected that the train would stop a couple of times, but there was only one stop (Nimes, about 100km from Montpellier).  The remaining run from Nimes down to Montpellier was fast, but not TGV-fast.  As we pulled into Montpellier, I gathered up my gear and got ready to leave the train.  My first TGV journey was over!

When the train did arrive, it was three minutes late.  I was amazed: over all those hundreds of kilometres, we only accrued a delay of three minutes.

I used a map in the Montpellier railway station to find that my hotel was literally a stone’s throw away.  I hauled my bags up the street and into what seemed like a dingy alley to the hotel and checked in.  My room had a dodgy double doorway onto the dingy alley, and I looked out at the street and watched a few cars go by.  I also got my first spectator view of French contact-parallel-parking!  That evening I met up with my residency colleague and a couple of his workmates over a couple of Belgian beers, and went for a stroll through the city after taking a slightly wrong turn when I was dropped off near the station.

The next day, since the plan to go to IBM didn’t work out, I had a chance to look around.  First order of business was to do some planning for the drive to Germany the next day, so I did some internetting before going to pick up my car.  The car was a diesel Peugeot 308, and I went for a bit of a drive to familiarise myself.  Thankfully the streets of Montpellier are a bit more forgiving than metropolitan Paris!  I managed to get lost a couple of times, but did my usual Zen navigation to get back on track (thank-you, Douglas Adams).

After the car adventure, I went for a bit of a walk around the old part of the city and took a couple of photos along Esplanade Charles de Gaulle.  Once again I saw that although large cities around the world are starting to become more and more alike (town square, shopping mall, etc.), European cities still have the charm of the “old town”.  I really like the narrow cobbled streets with people walking along seemingly day or night, and the food stalls and shops every couple of doors — real food shops, like a patisserie or coffee shop, not your chain-of-the-week like Starbucks or McDonalds.  Yes, I could really get the hang of Europe: I need to put more effort into learning more of the local language though.  I found myself too cautious about my inability to order from those patisseries and coffee shops to be able to enjoy them.  Dinner one night in Montpellier was Subway, and as I walked back to the hotel to eat I found myself looking at the local shops and regretting that I wasn’t confident enough to try.

The time came for me to leave Montpellier though, and start my journey to Sindelfingen in Germany.  My research on the route yielded an interesting fact: the Millau Viaduct is only a little over an hour’s drive from Montpellier…

Travel update: Riding the rails of Europe

When last you heard from me, I had arrived in my Amsterdam hotel.  The weather was a bit rainy, so I postponed the planned orientation walk and caught a bit of a kip, had some dinner, and made sure I was ready for the presentation the next day.

I’m not going to talk about the work stuff in these updates: for one, this is not actually a work blog so I probably shouldn’t anyway.  Secondly, it’s a bit on the boring side of things and I’d rather talk about the travel.  So, with that decided, let’s continue…

So Monday arrived and I did my presentation, then picked up my bags from the hotel and went to Schiphol.  I made use of the NS HiSpeed lounge (a little bit like an airline club lounge, but on a smaller scale) to have a refreshment before heading down to the platform for my train.  My final destination was Montpellier, France, but because of the time I thought I had to be there I had to overnight in Paris: so it was Thalys to Paris on Monday, then TGV to Montpellier on Tuesday morning.

I feel the need here to reiterate what I mentioned in the previous post: I’m a rail-fan.  When TGV was introduced in the 1980s, I made it one of my life’s goals to make a TGV journey one day.  I marked the goal halfway complete when a colleague and I travelled on Thalys in 2006: half-complete because we only went from Amsterdam to Brussels, which is not true high-speed (although I saw that it has been upgraded, and Thalys will run high-speed to Amsterdam from December 2009).

As I boarded Thalys for Paris that Monday night, I realised that my goal was about to become fully-complete.  I settled in as the train departed into the Dutch night, and started to enjoy the comforts of Thalys “Comfort 1”.  I hooked up to the Wi-Fi and made a couple of silly Facebook updates, and saw a nice little map feature they provided on their portal page:

My train was just south of Antwerp at this time...  Cool, eh!

My train was just south of Antwerp at this time… Cool, eh!

Due to the dark outside, it was difficult to get a sense of how fast the train was moving: the only way to know for sure was the occasional lit-up building or car that went by.  As I said, having travelled on Thalys before I knew that the best was yet to come (in other words, after we went through Brussels).

Eventually we pulled into Brussels, and my excitement built a little more.  The wait in Brussels-Midi station was almost unbearable!  Finally though, we got moving again.

I read an article by a UK travel reviewer when the TGV first ran.  He described a dramatic surge of acceleration as the 1k5V standard French pantograph was lowered and the 25kV circuit was activated on the high-speed line to Lyon.  I didn’t experience any such hard surge, but as we picked up speed out of Brussels I just knew that something was different.  I guess I was seeing enough points-of-reference outside to know that we were moving much faster than before, but whatever it was I could tell that now we were really moving.

I sat and enjoyed it all for a while: the surreal feeling of approaching the continuous lights of a stream of traffic on a road or highway impossibly fast, and realising that the train was actually going to pass over it…  and then the lights were gone as the train flashed over the highway.  The thrilling hum and vibration of the train itself: not disturbing at all, just the feeling of being on board a piece of machinery that was working hard.  After a while I checked back on the ThalysNet map, and realised that the map was clickable…  I clicked, and was rewarded with an enlarged view, with a speedometer! I refreshed the view a couple of times to make sure it wasn’t something static…

 

 

 

 

I did see refresh and get one that said 300km/h, but it looked a bit staged ;-)

I did refresh and get one that said 300km/h, but it looked a bit staged 😉

 

I refreshed each time I felt a large change in speed (and before anyone asks, no at 300km/h you can’t tell a change of 5km/h), and saw enough change in the display to be confident that it was a real representation of the train’s speed.

Unfortunately the journey had to come to an end.  I’ll write a separate post about the terrible experience I had as I arrived in Paris, but once I got over that I worked on the task of getting myself from Gare du Nord (where Thalys operates from) across town to Gare de Lyon (where the southbound TGVs run from, near which I’d booked my room for the night).  I ended up managing very easily to find the way to the RER station, buy my ticket, find the right train — a direct train, where my research had told me I’d need to change trains — and hop off at Gare de Lyon.  After a little mixed-up street navigation (unbeknownst to me I’d left the station from the back entrance, and ended up walking all the way around to the front) I made it to my hotel, checked in, and negotiated an old-style elevator (with a swinging outer door!) to my floor and my room.

The next morning I went for a little walk.  I realised I was quite close to the River Seine, so thought I couldn’t go home without seeing it.  What can I say: yes, it’s a river.  I thought I’d be able to see perhaps just the top of the Eiffel Tower, but there were too many buildings in the way.  Back to the hotel then, to check out and go to the station.

When I got to the plaza in front of the station, I had to pause.  There I was, actually standing in front of Paris Gare de Lyon!  Okay, a railway station… but which railway station!  This is where TGV basically started it’s first passenger services.  I was having another one of those dream-about-to-come-true moments.  Then I went inside and saw a real TGV! If you’ve seen the movie Cars, you’ll know the scene at the end when the Michael-Schumacher-Ferrari drives into Luigi’s Casa Della Tires and Luigi ends up fainting (“a REAL FERRARI!”).  For me, seeing not one but at least five TGVs was much like that.  Okay, they aren’t the old TGV Orange that I knew when I was a kid, and the design is a bit updated, but they’re TGV and they’re where modern high-speed commuter rail began.

Next update I’ll describe more of my TGV experience, as well as my first European drive!

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Travel update: Arriving in Europe

Time to fill in a little bit of detail from my travel so far.

I arrived in Amsterdam on Sunday morning, and decided that rather than get bounced by the hotel trying to check in too early that I’d fill in some time at Schiphol Airport.  While I was there I had a chance to reflect on the flight over from Hong Kong.

My stop in Hong Kong turned out to be just long enough to create a risk of me missing the flight.  I was sitting in a comfortable chair in the lounge and getting occasional snacks and drinks, and successfully dozing for ten or fifteen minutes at a time.  Our boarding time was delayed by about an hour, and whether I became just a bit more relaxed because of the delay or because the noodle dinner I had settled in my stomach I ended up falling into a proper sleep.  Like many airlines overseas, Cathay Pacific doesn’t make boarding announcements in their lounges…  I awoke to find the departure monitor flashing “Final Call” next to my flight.

The terminal building of Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport is shaped a bit like a big letter-Y with an upside-down capital-T overlaid.  You guessed it, to get to my flight I had to go from the tip of one arm of the T (where the Cathay Lounge is located) to the fork of the Y (where my departure gate was).  Doesn’t sound like far, does it: perhaps I didn’t mention that this munged-up T-Y shape got stretched out in the middle and is about three-times longer than it is wide…  As I fast-walked along travelators, I kept looking at monitors and expecting the dreaded “Gate Closed” to appear.  I drew closer to the gate, and could see no queue of people waiting to board–now I knew I was pretty late.  I saw someone in a green uniform starting to walk away from the gate toward the main terminal building (toward me), and as I got closer I saw that she was carrying a card with my flight number on it in large letters.  At this point I relaxed: they’re still looking for the latecomers.  I waved at her when I realised this, and when I reached her she asked my seat number.  It looked like I would be okay.

When I finally got to the gate I saw that I did actually have a bit of time available: the queue was actually on the aerobridge waiting to actually get on the plane.  It took at least five minutes in the bridge before I was on the aircraft, so it wasn’t like I was keeping them from closing the doors.  Still, a bit of panic to teach me to be careful about being inattentive in an airline lounge.

The flight was bad.  Actually I take that back: in the context of other long-distance flights I’ve taken it compares badly, but really it was probably just your normal Cathay Pacific long distance economy-class flight.  Cathay’s seat in Economy though is weird: it’s actually a little enclosure, a bit like a discount version of the Qantas Business-class cocoon.  What’s weird is that the seat doesn’t recline, instead the seat cushion slides forward and back.  The bottom of the seat back is attached to the back edge of the seat cushion, and the top of the seat back slides in runners in the seat frame.  So the angle of the seat back does in fact change, but for someone tall like me instead of being able to actually recline with a straight back I got curled up by the crazy thing.  The only good thing about it is that it eliminates that feeling of intrusion you get when you want to sit fairly straight but the person in front wants to recline all the way back.

The arrival into Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport was uneventful.  The reason we were delayed from departing Hong Kong was actually so that we didn’t arrive too early to be allowed into Schiphol; the flight time was about an hour shorter than scheduled.  So even though we left late, we arrived on-time (if not a bit early).  The arrival hall in the airport was a mess however: I’m sure that they put us into the smallest passport hall in the place, and our full 747 from Hong Kong arrived at the same time as a United flight from the US.  The place was packed–they had to switch off the escalator into the hall to stop people from getting jammed into this room like sardines.

After I made it out to pick up baggage I waited another 10 minutes or more.  I had thought that the length of time it took to get through passport control would have given plenty of time for the bags to get off the plane, but it wasn’t so.  It took almost an hour to get landside–perhaps the messiest arrival at Schiphol I’ve ever had.

I decided to save some time for the next day and went to pick up my ticket for the train to Paris.  The airport terminal is actually built behind the railway station–if you were to arrive at Schiphol by taxi for the first time, you’d be tempted to think that the taxi driver misunderstood and took you to the train station instead of the airport.  Entering through the front doors, you have to walk past all the railway kiosks and ticket machines and timetables before you get to anything that even remotely looks like something to do with air travel.  I’m a train-guy though, so I like it that way. 🙂

I am so much a train-guy in fact that after I had some breakfast I decided to throw my bags in a locker and hop on a train to fill in some time.  I went to Utrecht, which I thought would be an hour or so away and would fill in a nice chunk of time, but actually only turned out to be 30 minutes away.  On this little trip I saw some Dutch countryside and was stunned at how green it looked.

When I got back to Schiphol I picked up my bags and got the airport shuttle to the hotel.  “Yes, sir, your room is ready”–how wonderful those words can sound when you’re tired and filthy from a long plane ride!

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Back in the saddle again…

This post comes to you from the Cathay Pacific lounge in Hong Kong airport.  Around 8 weeks have passed since my last post, and I’m pretty disgusted with myself at how little (read: not at all) I blogged when I was in the US and China.  In fact, by the looks of things the site has been down for most of the time anyway, which is also pretty disappointing.

I’d love to break my blogging drought now, as I have about five hours before I board my next flight, but I have a splitting headache which I’m sure you understand is not conducive to effective computer usage (which is a shame, as the Wi-Fi here is excellent).  Maybe later.

By the way, what brings me to Hong Kong?  I’m going to Europe for my remaining ITSO Workshop presentations.  Amsterdam on Monday, then Montpellier (France) on Tuesday.  I make some things up for a few days, then London next Monday followed by Milan on Thursday, then flying home via Rome and HK (again, three fortnights in a row).

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