Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Thursday, September 21, 2000 08:44:00|
North Atlantic & Eastern Europe 2000
This trip started off somewhat ominously. Continental Airlines was 3 hours late leaving San Jose on departure day, July16, so I booked for the next day as I could not make my connecting flight from Newark to Boston. The next morning the flight left right on time, but when I arrived in Newark two Continental flights to Boston had been delayed, and the flight on which I was booked was scheduled to be over an hour late. The place was a madhouse - one time I counted 48 angry people in line trying to get the one harassed agent to find them a seat on the only remaining flight.
The plane boarded two hours behind schedule, but there was still hope as it is a short flight to Boston and there was still two hours before my Iceland flight was scheduled to depart. We sat on the plane at the gate for half an hour before getting underway, then were stopped near the runway with news that due to bad weather in Boston, we must wait up to another hour. Eventually, a vehicle came to the plane to remove those passengers who wanted off. A short time after this we received clearance to take off.
On approach to Boston, with minutes to spare to make my connection, the tower sent our flight out over the ocean to circle while they cleared congestion. I asked the stewardess to have someone radio Boston to get the phone number of the check in counter for Iceland Air, and gave them a call - hoping that they too had been delayed. No such luck - I was informed Iceland Air flies on time, and that they were at that moment taxiing to the runway for their scheduled 9:30 PM departure.
After landing, facing a 24-hour wait in Boston, I went to talk to the Continental staff at lost baggage, where they also handle missed connections. Those people get to meet ALL the happy customers! It turned out every hotel in Boston was full, but they kept phoning until they eventually came up with a little place in Winthrop, just around Boston Harbour. They loaded me with coupons for cab fares, accommodation and food. The food part sounded great, as I hadn't eaten since breakfast on the flight from San Jose, however - although the guesthouse (Inn at Crystal Cove) was nice, it had no restaurant and nothing in the area was open. The maintenance man, who was the only one there, went a found a few beers, so we sat on the porch drinking dinner at midnight.
I slept late, then returned to the airport where I pick up a couple of books to read, and took full advantage of the generous food coupons for a big lobster lunch then lobster dinner later. The full service restaurant in Terminal E was excellent. As I was booked first class on Iceland Air I also had access to the first class lounge, so it made the wait comfortable.
Iceland Air, as advertised, left right on time. This is a killer jet lag flight, as it is less than 4 ½ hours long, and the time change is 5 hours. By the time the food service was done it was already starting to get light out due to the distance North. We arrived at Keflavic airport just before 6:00 AM.
My plan was to take an excursion from Iceland to Greenland, but as my arrival was two days late that was out, so I rented a car and drove around Keflavic looking for a hotel. They were full until about 11:00 AM so I drove back to the airport to see where to return the car, and where I would check in with Atlantic Air when I leave. It is fortunate that I did that, as Atlantic Air does not leave from Keflavic, it leaves from the airport at Reykjavik 55 km away - so back to the hotel to tell them I wouldn't be staying and on to Reykjavik.
It took several hours of exploration before I found the airport, then some time before I found the terminal I was to leave from and to locate a hotel nearby. This accomplished, I drove back to town and did a fairly thorough exploration on foot, accompanied by the odd food and beer stop. Very friendly people, but there really isn't a huge amount to see. The countryside is pretty barren - no trees. No one lives in the interior, so it can be seen only by air. There are lots of sightseeing flights available.
The next morning I boarded Atlantic Air (the official carrier of the Faroe Islands) for The Faeroes. It is a great little airline- lots of room, friendly attentive service, and it ran right on time. Rented a car again on arrival, checked the only hotel on the island the airport is on to find it booked up, and went exploring. Very mountainous islands - once again nothing grows above ankle height. Spent the afternoon exploring Torshaven, the capital, and finding a hotel. More exploring by car the next day, and back to a B & B near the ferry to Vagar, the island with the airport. I missed the first ferry due to the line-up, but caught the second one, arriving on time for the flight to Glasgow.
On arrival at Glasgow I expected to see our English friend Roger Nelson and Marilynn waiting for me, but no one was there. I check the flights - the plane Marilynn was booked on had arrived on time about an hour and a half before. After close to an hour Roger appeared - he had a fax to say Marilynn had been late out of Seattle and would arrive at 2:30 PM. We waited for that flight, and no Marilynn. After another hour we went to the KLM desk, and they confirmed she was not on the flight but that there was another at 8:20 PM. We asked if she was booked on it, and were told that they were not permitted to give out that information for security reasons! After much explanation of the situation, the woman finally said, "Well, if I was you I would definitely meet that flight".
Taking that as 'yes', Roger and I set off to find a pub in which to pass the afternoon, returning to find that Marilynn was indeed on that flight - 10 hours behind schedule. Roger then drove us to their place in Brampton for drinks & bed, where I slept 12 hours and Marilynn 13 ½!
The Nelsons were set for a ten-day whirlwind tour of England. We went to meet their daughter, her husband and the three grandchildren in Macclesfield near Manchester, then drove through Warwick, and on to London exploring Windsor and Eton on the way. After a night at their friends house near London, we caught the train into the city to ride "the wheel", or "London Eye". This is a huge wheel with enclosed clear Plexiglas cabins around it like a Ferris wheel, except passengers are inside. Each cabin holds about 15 people plus a guide who explained the sights. It takes 35 minutes to ride once around, reaching over 400 feet high at the top. It is great!
After travelling up the Thames by boat to Greenwich, we visited the now infamous Millennium Dome. It was interesting, but considering it loses about ten million dollars a month and cost over $800 million to build, it wasn't a wise investment. We returned to the car by tube and train, then drove to a little hotel in the Cotswolds. Simon & Brenda Grey (who visited Costa Rica with the Nelsons) were waiting for us at a pub for dinner. We were here three days, and explored Blenheim Palace where Winston Churchill was born, and which is one of the properties that Simon's firm manages, attended a game fair - an amazing event all about hunting & fishing - and visited Oxford. We left for Stratford-on-Avon for lunch with friends of the Nelsons, then for a night at a country inn near York where Roger & Sally's daughter and her husband live.
The next day we visited Durham, returning to Brampton via Newcastle, where we did a quick change and went to Greystone Castle for a Dixieland jazz festival - a bang up end to an amazing tour.
On our last morning Roger & Sally drove us to station to catch the train for Dundee, Scotland, where after wandering around town we boarded "Explorer" to head for points North. Our first stop was the Shetland Islands where we explored by Zodiac, foot and bus, then the same for the Orkney Islands. It is amazing how wealthy these islands once were, as shown by the castles, palaces and cathedrals. The huge cathedral in Kirkwall, Shetland, was built in the 11th century - same time and design as the famous cathedral that we had just seen in Durham.
We then sailed for the coast of Norway, making our first port of call in Alesund. As we moved up the Norway coast, exploring as we went, we landed on Torghatt Island, which has a mountain on it with a hole (actually a huge cave) straight through it. We did the hike up, through the cave, and down the other side. Our exploration of the Lofoten Islands was by zodiac, bus, foot and a large Viking ship on a lake where we all manned the oars, to the beat of the helmsmen. Our reward was a plentiful supply of mead - potent stuff! We were all greatly relieved to return to Explorer to find that the rowing training was not to help Explorer beat high fuel costs - they still had the engines going.
Some of the fjords were spectacular - vertical cliffs and very narrow. One fjord we explored had never seen a passenger ship before. At the head of it we were only 6.3 km from Sweden. We spent a day in Tromso, featuring a thorough bus tour and lots of time to walk around. - Marilynn shopped, I found a pub to stay out of the pouring rain. In this area you don't tan, you rust.
We made another landing in Lyngenfjord, north of the northern part of Sweden, where we bussed into North Finland to visit a Lapp camp. As with Eskimos who are now Inuit, the Laplanders now prefer to be called Sami. They served up some great reindeer soup, jerky and reindeer steaks in their tents. This was our last landing on continental Europe. I stayed up to see North Cape, the furthest point North in Europe, at 12:30 am. No sun, but it was quite light out.
Our next landfall was on Bear Island, where we explored sea caves by zodiac and landed at the only inhabitation, a Norwegian weather station where they had a post office. Next morning we received word we had a new granddaughter, Saisha. Later the same day we landed on the first of the Svalbard Islands, of which Spitsbergen is the biggest island. Lots of ice around and the sun no longer sets. Saw our first walrus, were up close to a humpback whale and saw a polar bear on the ice. No shore landings are permitted in Svalbard without armed guides in case of polar bear attacks - they carry flare guns, noise grenades and rifles. I stayed up until midnight to see the midnight sun, but we sailed into dense fog at 11:40 p.m. thwarting me! These fogs are common in the far North. Had a late night celebrating the birth of Saisha in bright light until about 2:00 AM. We were sailing alongside giant ice cliffs, but it was difficult to see them for fog.
The next day we got a tip from a small Swedish ship, and broke through ice to get into a large bay where there were 5 polar bears and a cub, arctic fox, walrus and lots of bearded seals on the ice. The Swedish officers were invited on board for drinks as a thank you. At about 1:00 AM there was a zodiac tour of some towering cliffs in Hinlopen Strait where some 300,000 birds were nesting. Marilynn went in the zodiac, I stayed on board to chat with our friend the captain - Peter Skog. As it turned out, it was the right thing to do. He took the ship to within a meter of the cliffs, and I got some great video from the various decks. Then came the most amazing sight of the trip - there was a polar bear eating grass about 70 feet up the cliffs. The only way he could have reach this point was to swim to a landslide area, then climb the cliff.
Our next landing was abruptly shortened when a polar bear and cub were spotted nearby, but we got some good views of them from the zodiacs. Going around the northern part of Spitsbergen we were less than 600 miles from the North Pole - much closer than to North Cape. Landings were made at various historical sites - old whaling stations and Virgohana where an unsuccessful inflatable airship attempt was made to get to the North Pole in 1892, and we cruised by zodiac along the edge of towering glaciers. We called at the most northern permanently inhabited settlement in the world, Ny Alsund. It was from here that Amundson made his successful trip to the pole and back by airship - the first confirmed person to do so.
Our final port of call was in Longyearbyen, a coal-mining town and main population center for the islands. I was surprised to learn it did not get its name because of how long a year feels
there, but for an American by that name who started the mining. A tour of the area by bus was laid on - there were lots of wild reindeer in the area. The tour ended at the airport where Marilynn & I flew to Stockholm, Sweden via Tromso and Oslo.
Stockholm is an incredibly beautiful city, situated on many islands in an area with tens of thousands of islands. Our three days here were not enough, but we did take a boat trip around the city islands, a bus city tour, and walked the town for miles. The royal palace was particularly spectacular, and needs almost a day itself. We left by ferry (in reality a cruise ship, with restaurants, disco, bars, night-club with live entertainment, and comfortable cabins.) The first part of the trip, through the islands after leaving Stockholm but before getting to the Baltic Sea, really has to be seen - beautiful beyond description. It takes about three hours to get to the open ocean through a maze of islands. It would be a very easy area to get lost in, even by large ship!
We stopped at the Aland Islands in the late evening, then woke up in the morning on approach to Helsinki harbour. After checking in at our hotel we contacted friends we met on a Baltic cruise years ago, and have stayed in touch with, and arranged to get together for a great meal of Finnish food. The afternoon was spent (what else?) shopping. A new, big suitcase had to be purchased to put the purchases in!
In the morning I accompanied Marilynn to the airport in spite of the fact that her flight left a couple of hours before mine. She flew to Amsterdam, where she passed the long time between flights visiting with a friend, then flew back to Victoria to introduce herself to granddaughter Saisha. My flight was to Vilnius, in Lithuania. Thus ended the shopping part of the trip!
For the next week, the credit for the success of the trip must go to MIR tours in Seattle. I'd had a horrible time trying to find train and air schedule, get visas, and get hotel information - so I placed myself in the hands of MIR and they did it all. Their representative was at the airport to pick me up in Vilnius and transport me to a nice hotel. I explored the old city on foot, then took a city tour by mini-van. There was a really good two-floor pub right around the corner from the hotel - excellent food and grog at low prices. A fellow I was talking to turned out to be the owner. He took me on a tour of his businesses, which included a beautifully restored old hotel and another restaurant. The tour required the consumption of an incredible amount of beer, but he got me back to my hotel safe and sound. The next morning was a lot less jolly!
On schedule, a driver showed up to pick me up for the drive to Minsk. We cleared Belarus customs and immigration at the border in a record 20 minutes - warnings say it can take up to four hours - and arrived at my hotel in time for a lunch together. The next day I had a wonderful tour guide, who showed me the area around Minsk. Seventy km out into the countryside there is a monument to a village destroyed by the Nazis. The foundations and chimneys of the houses were rebuilt where each house was, and a bell at the top of each chimney tolls periodically. Quite an effect! There was more to see than I had expected, but it is a city of concrete high-rise buildings that had to be completely rebuilt after the Second World War. The distinct impression I got was that Belarus would very much welcome the Communist system back - wages are $40 to $50 per month, farms are still collectivised and only organized crime is doing well. It is a country stuck between two political systems, not going anywhere.
We ended with a meal of tasty local food in a beautiful restaurant, then I was put aboard my train car for the overnight ride to Kiev in the Ukraine. My guide had given the train car attendant instructions to look after me well - which she did. I had purchased all four bunks in my sleeper compartment, which gave me the luxury of stacking mattresses and blankets on my bunk for comfort. The bathroom was at the end of the car - very smelly indeed. One entered only out of desperation! The train left just before 9:00 p.m. and at 3:00 am the attendant woke me to get ready for Belarus customs and immigration. The young man who did the checking was very pleasant, and spoke quite good English. He rode the train to the next stop, so we had a long talk. He confirmed that the train car lady told him I was a VIP to be bothered as little as possible! He plans to leave Belarus - he has a degree in engineering and can't make a living here.
After he got off, the next stop was Ukraine customs and immigration (now 4:00 am) - a different story altogether. They spoke only a couple of words of English, one of which was "medical card". Apparently, some type of medical card is to be purchased before entering the Ukraine at an embassy. I shrugged and said I didn't have one. The first fellow was soon joined by two of his co-workers, who indicated in gestures that I would have to get off the train and go back to Minsk by bus to get a card. This was obviously the lead up to a bribe, so I got down my suitcase, put the few items I'd unpacked in it, and indicated I was ready to go. The train lady was having a fit! When the train lurched and started to move, the three guys got up and left, the last guy throwing my passport into the compartment from the hallway. That was the last I heard of medical cards. These guys were amateurs in the bribe business compared to in Africa!
MIR's people had a driver waiting for me at the door to my sleeping car when I got off in Kiev. The hotel was a big improvement over Minsk, where the old intourist style hotels have the sink and shower drains running onto the bathroom floor. This one was quite modern. The next day there was a thorough city tour - there is quite a bit to see here. There are some particularly beautiful orthodox churches. The following day I walked the city on my own, exploring and trying out restaurants & pubs.
The flight from Kiev to Chisinau on Air Moldova was a pleasant surprise - right up there with Atlantic Air! There were only 5 passengers on the plane, so lots of room and food. The hotel standards were down again! Went for a long walk in the main part of the city after checking in.
The tour the next day covered most of the places I walked to, plus a couple in the neighbourhoods - really nothing here to see. It is a thoroughly depressing place - they say unemployment is 80% since the factories that supplied Russia have all closed down, and they are praying for a return to communism and the Soviet Union.
While passing an open-air restaurant/ bar in a park I asked the guide where I could get me shoes shined. She looked at me blankly and said there was no such place. I expressed amazement that with 80% unemployment that no one had invested in a couple of cans of polish, a brush and a few rags. If people had money to sit and drink beer, they could pay for a shoeshine. No one would think of that in an ex-communist country. They are totally used to the government looking after everything for them, and simply doing what the government asked.
The tour people were hard pressed to make the tour 2 hours, even by walking through every city park that I walked through he day before. I was glad to leave - even went to the airport four hours early!
Another good Air Moldova flight took me to Budapest, Hungary and the Hilton Hotel in the old castle area, where they laid on a beautiful suite for me for only $79. It was deluxe, and really welcome! Friends we met in Hungary drove from Vac to have dinner with me that night at the hotel, and in the morning I was off by air to Skopje, Macedonia.
The first day I walked the town, visited a friend of a friend at the Canadian Embassy, and tried the Yugoslav Embassy to see if my visa had been approved. There was a mob outside the gate, but they let me in right away (my height stuck out over the mob) and said they would see what they could do. I never did get back to them.
The following day I hired a car and driver to take me to the Kosovo border, but he got the directions wrong from the desk clerk who called him, and took me to the Yugoslav border 60 km away. We finally arrived back at the Kosovo border (it is in the other direction) after passing hundreds of trucks waiting to cross the border. The wait is about three days. They are lined up the whole 22-km back into Skopje.
There is a town just on the other side of the border called Deneral Jankovic that I wanted to go to. The driver would not cross the border, as he has a Serbian last name, and two of his colleagues who have Serbian last names were shot in Kosovo - so I walked across. Just to see what would happen, I ignored all the border posts, soldiers and check points (the place is in utter chaos) and walked purposefully across the border and down the road. On the way back I did the same thing. No one said anything going either direction. The driver couldn't believe it!
The information I had gathered from various sources indicated that it was too dangerous to try driving from Macedonia to Croatia through Kosovo and Montenegro, even though I had drivers willing to do the trip. The Canadian Embassy, who already had the case of two Canadians arrested and beaten, formally requested that I not go that route, so I purchased tickets to fly to Dubrovnik in Croatia. The embassy phoned a number of hotels for me, and as many hotels were full, guaranteed a room at one for me at the embassy discount. The had tried eight hotels before the found one with a room.
My seatmate on the flight was an American working for a humanitarian outfit in Kosovo. He loves it there. Yugoslavian officials are not allowed in and there is no law except that of the UN and NATO, so no traffic police or anything of the sort. He says he gets worried letters from his parents, and has trouble explaining that in Pristina, where he lives, he has a nice apartment, eats in excellent restaurants and is driving a vehicle he could never afford in the US.
My flight was to Split then Zagreb, where I was to change planes for Dubrovnik. My seatmate said he was going to Dubrovnik as well, but renting a car in Split and driving down - so I contributed to the car rental and got off the plane in Split. Within a short while we were swimming in the Adriatic. It was a beautiful drive down the coast. He had nowhere to stay, so drove me to my hotel and got the last room there.
The hotel was right on the ocean, so after a morning swim I hired a car and driver to take me on a tour of Montenegro. There was no problem at the border with not having a Yugoslav visa, as Montenegro is going very much it's own way these days, and to benefit their tourism don't recognize the need for a Yugoslav visa even though they are part of Yugoslavia. I was also very surprised to find they don't use Yugoslavian currency - the official currency is the German Mark - right down to small change.
The coast and inlets in this area are stunningly beautiful, and the day went well. We were stopped at some police road checks, but there was never a problem. In an area where it is Muslim against Orthodox Christian it was interesting to have a Jewish driver! He certainly seemed to know everyone, at any rate. I was never required to leave the car for any formalities.
My last day in Dubrovnik I spent in the old town. It would have to rate as the best old city I've been in. The enormous city walls are still in prefect shape and present a formidable defence.
Most war damage had been repaired by UNESCO, although a couple of blown up buildings have been left as reminders. This is one of the places I would put away up on the list of locations to return to. Prices are low, as this is the first year tourist have started returning, and the area has an enormous amount to offer.
From Dubrovnik I flew to Zagreb, where the hotel found a driver/guide to give me the grand tour. The next afternoon I took the train to Ljubljana in Slovenia, where a fellow I shared a train compartment with took me to a hotel he recommended. He had his car at the station. The train fare for a first class return ticket from Zagreb to Ljubljana and back was exactly the same as the taxi fare from the Zagreb airport to town! If I'd known, I have gone on to Zurich by train from Ljubljana, but I'd already purchased the plane ticket.
Ljubljana is a beautiful old town, set along a river. The next day was spent walking it - something that can be done in a couple or three hours - it is not a large city, then the following day I returned to Zagreb by an early train. After checking back into the hotel I called the same driver I'd had to take me through the countryside to visit various castles, some in remarkably good condition. The country was great - we picked fresh grapes, apples and plums off roadside vines and trees, and had a magnificent meal at a country restaurant specialising in local cuisine.
In the morning, the same driver took me to the airport to fly to Zurich, where friends Marilynn and I met in Burma, Matias & Yvonne Weckherlin, picked me up at the airport. We spent a couple of days together, visiting some of the towns along the headwaters of the Rhine, and taking a boat trip down the river to the town of Schaffhausen. There a taxi transported us around the area, including to the impressive Rhine Falls. Returning to the car by train, we headed back to Zurich in the late afternoon.
Unfortunately, on my return flight from Zurich to Newark, the plane was completely full and I had a seat I couldn't get into. This set a new record, in that I had to stand for an eight-hour trip. A person with an aisle seat traded places with me about four hours into the flight, so with the armrest up I could get my legs out into the isle while sitting. It at least provided some relief - but was a memorable flight for all the wrong reasons.
Everything is now finalized for the next trip. We leave for Istanbul on October 28 and return to Costa Rica on the 6th of December from Frankfurt. We arrive in Frankfurt the day before from Delhi, India, and decided to spend one night there to break the trip, as the flight to Frankfurt from Delhi alone is almost 9 hours.