Days Four and Five: Edinburgh to London

Travel requires lots of work on (sometimes annoying) logistics and other types of downtime.  The past two days have exemplified that. After getting to Edinburgh yesterday, the only thing I wanted to do was sleep and buy, cook, and eat food.

Today’s logistical endeavor was more interesting.

My first Central Asian destination will be Tajikistan, which requires a visa for entry. But because putting it first – before Kyrgyzstan  - was a late change in plans (I’m coordinating with other people, who I’ll be travelling with to each of those countries), I didn’t get the visa before I left, thinking I would do so in Kyrgyzstan. This left the embassy of Tajikistan in London as the only viable alternative source of that visa. So I went to London, where I could pay double (£40) the normal fee (which is still low compared to my others) for the privilege of submitting my paperwork at a time other than Monday or Thursday from 10 to 12 and it taking less than 5-7 business days. Specifically, I should be able to get it by tomorrow.

If you are unfamiliar with visas, they are magical stickers that go onto a page of your passport and let you into a specific country. Sometimes the country in question does at least some investigation into you before granting the visa, but in the case of Stanland, I have to believe they require them just to be difficult and get some of your money. In any case, visas require paperwork: for this one, an application listing an address in Tajikistan (i.e., any hotel), my employer’s name and address (I used Yale), and so on; a passport photo cut to a particular (nonstandard) size; a photocopy of the passport’s personal data page; and, of course, the passport itself, for the embassy staff to stick the special sticker into. In my case, I was told to email the embassy with my itinerary, since I didn’t have flight tickets or hotel bookings (I’ll be staying in various private homes, and I don’t want to spend $500 on a ticket when I may not get a visa!), so I “improvised” one for them.  All this required lots of running around in the surrounding Hammersmith neighborhood in London to accomplish: a photo store for the photos, an internet cafe to print the application and photocopy, a bank to deposit the fee, and a cafe to sit and craft an itinerary supporting the dates I had listed on my application.

All this is to say that I got an excuse to go to London, even if I’m turning right around and going back.  The East Coast train route from Edinburgh to London goes by the sea in the northern part of the route, with beautiful views, even in the rain.  It’s about the same price as flying, as well as taking the same amount of time all told, and is much more comfortable.

I finally met the person who I’ll be accompanying to Tajikistan.

Proving that it’s a small world, she (my Tajikistan companion, another recent Yale graduate) took me to a Sacred Harp singing in London (Sacred Harp exists in London?!) where I re-met another Yalie, who had just been at a Sacred Harp convention in Germany with one of my close friends.

Edinburgh at 6:45 am
Edinburgh at 6:45 am
View from the train in the north of England
View from the train in the north of England
These guys were playing in Lyric Square in Hammersmith.
These guys were playing in Lyric Square in Hammersmith.

This GPS track mainly shows the East Coast Line train route from Edinburgh to London, and if you zoom in, where I went in London, with straight lines when I was in the Tube.  It also has a curious blip at the end, where my supposed location jumps and the altitude data (not shown) says I went up to 20,000 meters.  From an engineering perspective, this kind of incorrect data probably can cause all kinds of problems if not accounted for in serious applications.



Posted from London, England, United Kingdom.

Day Three: Fjords and Flåm

We got up early to board the MS Njord, an “express boat”, to Flåm (pronounced “flum”) at 7:45, a trip that takes five hours at a top speed of 36 miles per hour (according to GPS). Though used by locals (it’s about the same price as a train ticket and makes several stops), the ferry is mainly for tourists. It weaves through narrow passages and ventures into fjords to give amazing views of the landscape – especially the steep slopes, often with waterfalls and snow near the top. A glacier, Jostedalsbreen, the largest in Europe, was pointed out in the distance.

Fjord, with Europe's largest glacier in the background.
Fjord, with Europe’s largest glacier in the background.
A representative view from the boat
A representative view from the boat

Flåm was once a village, but is now purely a tourist attraction, and a place to stay if venturing on more adventurous hikes. The main thing to do there, besides browse souvenir shops and a small museum, is to take the Flåm railway to a station called Myrdal. The 20-kilometer route takes an hour, passing through several tunnels and stopping for photos at a waterfall. It climbs from sea level to over 800 meters. From Myrdal you can connect to regular train service to Oslo and Bergen. We took this route, stopping at Myrdal for a couple of hours.

Our ferry, docked at Flåm
Our ferry, docked at Flåm
The train stops to let one pass the other way
The train stops to let one pass the other way
Along the Flåm line
Along the Flåm line

Myrdal is a train station, but not a town or even a village. Other than connecting train service, the only thing it serves is a handful of houses (apparently rented out) and an ATV track back to Flåm. At this elevation (about 860 meters), there was patchy snow cover (large patches of over a foot of snow), even though it’s the beginning of June. The natural beauty of the Norwegian landscape cannot be overstated.

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Scene just away from the Myrdal station
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A few steps down the trail

We were the only two people in evidence at the place, besides one or two workers at Myrdal station.  No one else had decided to stay there waiting for the next train to Bergen.  After getting cold wandering around, we were warming up inside the station when the electricity turned off, including lights as well as the displays that had been showing arrival and departure schedules. The employees were no longer to be found. Since the trains are electric, this seemed worrisome. Eventually, another train from Flåm arrived, and with it more tourists and an announcement that the Bergen train would be coming after all (by now, it was late). By this time it was about 9 pm, and two travelers were planning to wait for the 1 am train to Oslo – having thought that Myrdal was more representative of civilization, with restaurants.

The train back to Bergen from Myrdal, which originates at Oslo, re-descends to sea level, completing much of the descent inside of tunnels.

Along the Bergen Line
Along the Bergen Line

By the time we got back it was after 11 pm, but at this time of year in Bergen, it is light 24 hours a day. Although it’s not technically the “land of the midnight sun” until you reach the Arctic Circle (the sun does set here), it never truly gets dark.

On the GPS track below, you can see the boat route and more or less the Flåm railway route. The straight lines, including the long straight line from Myrdal to Bergen, are where there was no GPS signal – the tunnels along the Flåm railway, and the entire time on the Bergen line (the train car must have blocked the signal).

Eventually I will have to find a better way to post more of the thousands of pictures I’ve been taking.

Posted from Bergen, Hordaland, Norway.

Day Two: Bergen – Festival

It just so happens that the weekend I’ve been in Bergen is part of an extended International Festival here, which seems to consist mostly of concerts and shows, but also included the following random events, which I went to with Sophia (my girlfriend), who arrived here last night:

A circus workshop, mostly for small children:

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Sophia gives it a try
Sophia gives it a try

A lego building event (definitely for small children):

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In the city center of Bergen, there’s a famous street/wharf that used to be for fishing (and there’s still a fish market), but now mostly contains shops.  Everything is wooden, and sometimes you can climb stairs for a cool vantage point.

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Not to leave anything missing, Bergen also has a fort.  I’ve certainly never seen a fort next to a container ship, if that’s what this is.

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Posted from Bergen, Hordaland, Norway.