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A long-term friend in the UK is getting married next year, which means I have to find out a way to get to Newcastle via my parents house in York. Normally we go to the UK via the channel tunnel, but this time there’s a small complication because he’s getting married in August, when there will be some kind of sports event in London, so the city will be full to bursting point and beyond.
Fortunately my destination is Newcastle, far up in the frozen north where trolls live, so there are alternatives. Most likely is a train journey to Rotterdam, a peaceful nights sleep (optimism springs eternal) as we cross the North Sea by ferry and next morning, catch the train to my parents hom in York. Simple.

Except that the railway stations of both cities are some distance from the ferry terminals.

Okay, so take a bike: cycle from Rotterdam Centraal to the ferry, and from the ferry to Hull station, and while I’m at it, from York station to my parents house.
Look Rotterdam up on Google Earth. Can’t find a bike lane anywhere. Mutter dark mutterings about the claims of these blogs then realise the ‘road’ I’m looking at is a cycle lane. With a white line down the centre. Follow same from station to ferry port. Hooray for Dutch cycling infrastructure, and apologies to the above named bloggers.

Check Hull.

Oh, dear.

There’s only a few kilometres between port and railway station, but it looks as navigable as a set from ‘The Matrix’ and slightly more dangerous. The roads are a mess of dual carriageways, flyovers and roundabouts with enough space in the centre for a small farm, built when city planners knew cars were going to be the only way to travel*. There’s the occasional cycle lane for a couple of hundred metres, usually ending at road islands and dual carriageways.

Obviously the chief trolls don’t use bicycles very much.

I could give up and use a taxi through Hull, but that would mean I don’t have transport for the week or two that I’ll be in the UK, which would seem a bit silly for the sake of six kilometres, and nor would I be able to ride in Rotterdam.

The other alternative would seem to be finding a native guide, or at least a map.

So, if there are any cyclists in Hull who are versed in the secret ways of the Matrix, I’d be glad of any tips, decent maps, or better still, a local cyclist willing to guide me through hostile territory between ferry and railway station and back again a couple of weeks later.

Please get in touch through the comments or contact box. Many thanks.

*This was ensured by making lots of dual carriageways, flyovers and roundabouts so it was impossible to travel without a car.

Many thanks to Utility Cycling for the video.

Bearing in mind that the difference between the cost of petrol to society and the much lower price at the pump amounts to a government subsidy, how exactly will increasing speed limits on motorways from the current 70mph to 80 mph, and causing a 20% increase in fuel consumption, help to reduce the budget deficit in the UK?

Answer that one Mr. Hammond.

And then answer this one.

How to transport standard sized pallets on a Bakfiets.

This is a lot less wobbly than it looks: once the bike was moving it showed no tendency to tip. Keeping it moving up hills proved hard work though. Rolling downhill was fine except that the pallets tried to move forwards. Next time I’ll have to loop the rope around the steering coloumn to hold them back.

This is probably not reccomended by Workcycles of course: Bakfietsen are meant to shuttle children and the occasional plasma screen TV down nice clean cycle paths, not haul heavy lumps of wood along dirt roads.

I think I need one of these.

I think Japanese railway stations are designed by plumbers: they consist of tunnels with complex and sometimes contradictory signs pointing down other tunnels to various different sections and occasionally a set of steps to the mythical upper level where trains can be found. To add to the experience they like to make sure you go at least twice the distance you really need to, and put in several ticket barriers just to make sure you have actually paid for your journey.

We’re travelling to Tokyo on the Shinkansen (Lit: new railway), known outside of Japan as the ‘bullet train’, because the first trains had a nose shaped like a bullet. This is a bit misleading as they have new trains now with a nose shaped like a duck. The station is like a military compound, and we’re separated from the lower orders in the normal trains by high barbed wire fences and a lot of track -either to prevent a mass commuter invasion or maybe there are some very determined fare dodgers in Nagoya- and the trains are legendary, not just for their speed but also for stopping in exactly the right place. This is partly because they have to: the stations have very hefty barriers with gaps for train doors, so if they get it wrong no-one would be able to get on. Why Shinkansen passengers are less likely to notice the large drop at the edge of the platform than other train users I have no idea. Mind you, apparently for some people even that’s not enough: at one end of the ‘normal’ station there is a small platform separated from the rest by a sea of track, with a much higher barrier all around it and automatic gates which open when the train comes in. Why this one platform? Is it for some even more dangerous commuters?

Board train. On the back of the seat in front of me a small notice says ‘please do not run for your train’ which seems a little redundant as I’m already on it and being whisked efficiently towards Tokyo.

Travel on a Shinkansen is like being on an plane without wings, engine noise, ‘entertainment’ or intrusive security controls beforehand, but with legroom and decent sized toilets (Ceramic, not plastic, and spotless: are you listening Deutsche Bahn?) and a view if you’re next to the window, although as Nagoya to Tokyo is almost one unbroken sprawl, it’s not always worth it.

Arrive in Tokyo station, also designed by plumbers. We’ve been invited to lunch with an aunt and uncle of Beautiful Wife and we decide this would be easier if we leave on case in a locker. So off we go down escalators, up stairs through tunnels and what I’m pretty sure was a service corridor. No signs so we stop to ask directions. The lockers are down that ramp there. Off we go down that ramp there, take two more turns and just as we’ve travelled far enough to be on the outskirts of Seoul, we reach the coin lockers which are decorated with huge pictures of mount Fuji. Unfortunately they are also all full.

Back through the tunnels, up the ramp, up and down some more escalators, past the platform we just came from and twenty metres further to a local train platform. Get on train. Three minutes later, we get off the train into another underground station, which looks suspiciously like the place where the coin lockers were. Cross road, into a lift and up into a restaurant.

Lunch over, back onto local train, to the main station and on to another Shinkansen heading for Nagano. We get off in the middle of nowhere. It is supposed to be a ‘resort city’ for wealthy commuters to live the suburban dream and race into Tokyo every morning, except that it isn’t working very well and not many of the plots seem to have been sold. We get the solitary taxi on a vast and empty forecourt and head into the hills where Beautiful wife’s Grandma, (AKA Great-grandma-San) awaits.

Evening. We’re in a traditional Tatami room in the mountains, the night sky is unsullied by light pollution, and for the first time since we came to Japan there’s no traffic noise. The mountain air is cool and fresh after the city and there’s not a neon light in view. Underneath our window is a small pond with koi, at one end of which is a small waterfall.

Drift off to sleep trying not to need the loo.

Well, one mid-length flight, one very long flight and two train rides after leaving home yesterday (or maybe the day before: I can’t usually keep track of time where I am, let alone several thousand kilometres away) we’re here.

The plane journey was generally boring*. We changed plane in Helsinki and it was comforting to note that the Finns are as inefficient as the rest of us at times, for example by making sure that of the fifteen-odd immigration desks for ‘non-Europeans’ only three were open when two flights to Japan were just about to leave. This created a line of such exodus-like proportions it took five minutes to walk past it before we realised what it was for. As our plane would leave within the hour we used a combination of my British passport and a smile to get Beautiful Wife through the ‘European’ desk and to the gate.

In Nagoya we left the plane last, after stopping for youngest son to throw up on the floor, and were met by two airport staff with the news that one of our bags was still in Helsinki, but it would be sent on the next flight and sent to our address in Japan. Unfortunately, instead of a delivery this morning we got a phone call saying it wasn’t on todays flight and no-one knew where it was.

Still, at least we didn’t have to carry it all the way from the airport, and who needs more than one change of clothes anyway?

*Which in the context of flying 12km in the air in a tin tube, is a good thing, frankly.

We’re trying to organise ourselves to fly to Japan so my wife’s family can be reminded what she and the boys look like. I appreciate this won’t make us very popular in ecological circles, but I wasn’t thinking about carbon footprints when we met on account of her being so darn beautiful.

We checked out alternative ways to travel: eight days on the Trans Siberian railway sounds like fun but costs even more than the plane just between Moscow and Vladivostok and isn’t something to contemplate with three small boys, while cargo ships take about two months.

After listening to my whining for a bit a friend suggested we should go by bike, so I looked it up.

Google thought it would be a good idea to ride over the Alps and then take a ferry across the Mediterranean and Black Sea*. Google clearly thinks I’m fitter than I am. I told it to stop messing about and it came up with this one instead along the Donau/Danube to the Black Sea and then by ferry to Odessa, and across to the eastern end of the Ukraine. After that Google gives up: we’d be on our own through southern Russia, and Kazakhstan -Two places where I’m guessing there isn’t much cycling infrastructure- and then we’re almost there, just three thousand kilometres of China and a ferry to Korea and Japan.

Of course, we’d need a tent, and cooking things, and bags for the bikes, and bookings for the ferry, and several trains, half a dozen guidebooks, several hundred maps, and to learn the Hungarian, Romanian, Russian, Kasak and Chinese for how to say things like “Please” “Thank you”; and for that matter “Puncture (repair)” or “Bike Shop”

On the other hand it’d give us the ultimate answer to “what did you do in the summer?”, and given the length of school holidays we’d reach Japan in plenty of time for a cup of tea with Beautiful Wife’s family before starting off home.

Or we could just take the plane.

*Which it won’t embed, so you’ll have to follow the link.

A friend has asked for ideas on ‘how to start cycling’ for someone who owns a car but wants to cycle more for transport, especially commuting. Now, I’m not terribly well qualified for this as I never owned a car and only got my driving licence when I was twenty six because we were in a rural area and I mistakenly believed I ‘needed a car’. Here are my paltry suggestions, I hope more experienced people can add others:

  • Don’t panic: the streets look scary, but they looked pretty scary on your first driving lesson too, and you made it.
  • Get a decent bike: Yes, I know supermarkets are selling ‘bargain’ bicycles, but how much are you really going to use a bike to get around if you have to pedal to get downhill with a following wind? Especially if it doesn’t have lights/mudguards/luggage rack. And your ‘expensive’ bike will still work in ten years time: your car won’t.
  • Get at least one good lock.
  • Freeze your car keys: put them in a margarine tub full of water and put it in the freezer: that way you can get at them if you need to, but it’s a lot less convenient than having them by the door.*
  • Put your bike keys by the door.
  • If you feel the need for a helmet, get one, if the idea (or cost) of a polystyrene lid puts you off, don’t.
  • Explore: bikes can go places cars only dream of. Find regular routes you are happy with. In six months your mental map of the town will look different to a motorists, so you’ll send drivers down dead end streets.
  • Always hide after giving drivers directions.
  • Learn how to ride safely. learn about blind spots, door zones et c.
  • Please, stop at red traffic signals.
  • Wave at other cyclists.
  • Learn which sort of car to watch. Locally it is Taxis, old men in big cars (especially Mercedes) and young women. Other places are different. I don’t know why.

And of course:

  • Enjoy yourself, smile and wave at drivers, even when they are swearing at you. It’s nicer than shouting back and it makes them madder than anything else you could do.

*maybe not if they’re one of those new-fangled electronic keys…

The Xtracycle at our local ‘packstation’: these automated postboxes are being introduced as an ‘environmental’ way to get parcels, because they’re supposed to reduce truck movements. Of course they are often in places where you need a car to get to which rather spoils it, but at least I can be sure that at the 1.5 kilometres from here to our apartment are carbon free, thus maintaining my personal smug green glow.

I got an email from a friend this Monday saying they knew of a ‘very overgrown’ piece of land whose owner was desperate for someone to look after it; by Tuesday I had an appointment to go and look at the land, and by Thursday evening I was in. Considering you usually don’t get any information about land unless your great grandfather lived in the village, this is quite a shock.

The land is 13 Are, about 1300 square metres, which isn’t quite as massive as it sounds, but it’s still pretty big compared to a balcony.

It’s about 50% brambles and 100% south-west facing hill. The brambles are so rampant that I can’t get within about ten metres of the bottom edge of the property. But it isn’t overlooked by too many houses so I shouldn’t get into too much trouble with nosy neighbours with my strange permacultural ways.

Pictured is the all important privvy/outhouse. At least I think that’s what it was: at the moment it’s full of windows and shutters from some long-forgotten building project.

So this is where all my fancy talk about ecology and self sufficiency will hopefully become reality, and blog material.

Thanks to the horrendously complex German electoral system the Green Party have managed, via an coalition with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), to get themselves into the driving seat in our state of Baden-W├╝rttemberg. It’s not a great surprise: the natives have been getting thoroughly restless of late, mostly over a project called ‘Stuttgart 21′ to rebuild Stuttgart main railway station. The project briefly flashed into international news on September the 30th last year when police sprayed a peaceful demonstration with water cannon. This didn’t exactly get the population behind the project.

Stuttgart central station is a Terminus, so trains have to come in and reverse out. German Railways (Deutsche Bahn or DB) thinks this is so very last century. The track to the station also takes up a very large area of Stuttgart city centre, which just happens to be very wealthy, very popular with businesses, and very short on prime building land. DB’s idea was to build a groovy new underground through station so trains could arrive under the city, stop briefly to drop off passengers, and whiz off to exciting other European places with none of that annoying reversing business. By pure coincidence this would free up a very large area of prime development land right in the centre of Stuttgart.(I wrote an even more detailed post about this here)

Building a whole new station and several kilometres of tunnel would be a tad expensive, of course, but Deutsche Bahn (German railways) and the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came up with a nifty equation: the current terminus station has 17 platforms, so when that becomes a through station it will only need eight platforms because trains won’t reverse. And that’s obviously far cheaper. Sort of. If you say it quickly is sounds almost feasable.

Now the CDU is out, the Greens are in, German Railways (Deutsche Bahn or DB)paused in their attempts to turn the station into a hole in the ground, and everyone is expecting the Greens to stop them permanently. The question is how they’ll manage this when their coalition partners are cheer leading for the project, but there are a couple of possibilities. One is a referendum, if they can get enough signatures to make it legal. The other is the sleight of hand DB tried to pull a couple of years ago, which at the time I referred to as a POSAD: A Politically Over Simplified Accountants Dream.

After the water cannon episode last year news got out that where old people and children were injured and things were getting out of hand, so a mediator was called in before people started turning cars over. He told Deutsche Bahn to go and find check their shiny new station really could work with eight platforms at peak times. This looks very unlikely, so they’ll be told to go and redesign the station with ten platforms, at which point the whole business case falls to pieces. The report is expected in May.

I can keep you posted if you aren’t bored already.

Normal ramblings to continue next week.

I’m in Freiburg again this weekend but I’ll reply to comments next week.

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