Sunday, 9 June 2013

Virtual World Tour 2013


My previous post presented an itinerary to go round the world in 37 days. After a careful consideration of my financial means, I decided to do the proposed world tour – virtually. In the evening of 8 April 2013, I got on Tisza express in Budapest Keleti railway station to leave for Moscow. While sitting on the train at the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, I started to think about writing a diary of this virtual world tour. The diary, which would then be published on Facebook day by day until 15 May 2013, can now be read below.

Virtual World Tour, Day 1

Did you know that Lviv, a Ukrainian town our train passed in the morning, was the first European city to have modern street lights (fuelled by kerosene) in 1853? Though it was called Lemberg and belonged to the Habsburg Empire at that time…

As we arrived in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, everybody was talking about the presidential pardon granted to Mr Lutsenko, an opposition politician and on whether the release of Ms Tymoshenko, a former prime minister (and beautiful woman) who is still in jail, will follow.

In some sense, this story is part of the epic battle fought by Russia and the West for Ukraine’s soul since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russians have a vital stake in not letting Ukraine join the NATO because in that case NATO troops could be stationed just 500 km away from Moscow, the Russian capital. This would mean that Russia lost the strategic depth that saved it from the French invasion in 1812 and the German one in 1941.

The train has just left Konotop, our last station in Ukraine. We will be crossing the Russian border within 2 hours. The weather is fine.

Day 2

A dream has been fulfilled today as I arrived in Moscow. When I was a child (and I was a child in the 80s), I was fascinated by the millions of red balloons let fly on Red Square on May the 1st. At university, I was planning to travel to Moscow just for fun, and later for deadly serious reasons. It's been an honour to visit Russia's "ancient and holy capital" eventually as part of a world trip.

I had around 6 hours to get from Kievskaya railway station to Yaroslavskaya, so I could walk along Arbat street and Red Square. I even stopped at a restaurant to refresh my memories on what real borshtsch, a soup that I was once taught to cook, tastes like.

Now I am sitting on the Transsiberian Railway. We left Nizhniy Novgorod 3 hours ago. The weather is fine.

Day 3

The transsiberian express is crossing the Urals.
(The Trans-Mongolian Railway.
Directed by Inuk
Jorgensen. Nukki Nukki Productions, 2008)
Yesterday evening we crossed the Urals, the boundary between Europe and Asia, which is marked with an obelisk near the town of Pervouralsk. It is also marked by embroidered pillowcases distributed on the train: on the one side it reads Europe, on the other side Asia, so you can turn it over when you cross the frontier.

Later in the same evening we arrived in Yekaterinburg, the main town of the Ural region. It was in this town, in the Ipatiev-house, that the last Russian emperor and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in July 1918. The house was abolished in 1977 at the command of Boris Yeltsin, who was then first secretary of the local party committee, in order to stop the constant flow of monarchist pilgrims wishing to honour the memory of the imperial family. After the fall of the Soviet regime a church called "Church on the Blood" was built on the site.

It's early afternoon here in Western Siberia. We departed from Omsk in the morning and will arrive in Novosibirsk in 3 hours. The weather is fine, although somewhat cold: +1°C.

Day 4

Today I found it a real pity that my journey is virtual because otherwise I could have visited some good friends in Novosibirsk. Instead, I spent the afternoon in the city centre walking around one of Russia's most preserved Soviet-era memorial sites.

The train is now riding through the Kusnetsk Basin, an important industrial centre. It is one of the largest coal mining areas in the world producing 160 billion tons of coal annually. But it is extremely rich in other mineral resources, too: All elements of the Mendeleev table are said to be found there (except for the artificial ones, I would add).

The administrative centre of the Kusnetsk Basin, Kemerovo, is a sister city of Salgótarján, the centre of my home county in Hungary. My history teacher in secondary school had a funny story on how the relationship came into existence: In the 1960s, when Salgótarján was looking for a sister city with the same mining traditions it had, its officials mistook the Kusnetsk Basin for the much closer Donetsk Basin in Ukraine. When they realized that they chose a sister city more than 5 thousand km away, it was too late.

It is pretty cold. No wonder there have been some Yeti sightings recently in this area.

Day 5

Tonight I suddenly awoke to the news that the train was halted by an armed group called the Czechoslovak Legion. They rushed into the cabins looking for a gentleman called Admiral Kolchak. As they began to suspect me of being this guy, we arrived in Irkutsk and the dream ended.

Actually, Mr Kolchak's dream ended also here in Irkutsk in February 1920. He led one of the counter-revolutionary (white) forces in the Russian Civil War. After initial military successes, his white government in Western Siberia was forced by the Red Army to retreat farther East. While travelling on the Transsiberian Railway, he was captured by the above mentioned exotic group and handed over to the left-leaning Irkutsk authorities, who executed him.

Irkutsk is older than many other big towns in Siberia: Back in the 17th century, there was already a settlement here that traded in gold, diamonds, fur, wood, silk and tea. In the 19th century it became a prosperous cultural centre for an idiosyncratic reason: a lot of Russian intellectuals were sent into exile here. Many of their wooden houses survive today.

It's snowing. In some minutes, we are arriving at Lake Baikal.

Day 6

When I sent my last message, I was hoping to reach Lake Baikal shortly. Instead of this, the train suddenly stopped in the wilderness. When it got light it turned out that a meteorite – frequent guests here in Siberia – hit the railway just ahead of us last night. We were told it would take one or two days until it was repaired.

This accident put my whole endeavour in danger. As my predecessor Phileas Fogg many times on his journey, I had to find alternative means of transport. Fortunately, the snowmobile season at Lake Baikal is still going on. So I rented a snowmobile with a Buryat guide to get to Ulan-Ude, the next big city along the Transsiberian. Lake Baikal is still frozen at this part of the year. So we drove on the lake in the first half of the journey and enjoyed the amazing view.

Lake Baikal is the most voluminous freshwater lake in the world, containing roughly 20% of the Earth's unfrozen fresh water. It is also the deepest and the clearest lake in the world. It is situated in a continental rift that still widens by around 2 cm a year.

In the early afternoon we arrived in Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia. Luckily enough, a train was arranged to depart to Vladivostok at 3 pm. I am sitting on this train now. We have just left Chita. Day is dawning. The weather is cold but clear.

Day 7

The sun has already risen here in the Russian Far East. The weather is cold and cloudy.

Yesterday I have been traveling through the Amur Region. Among Hungarians of my generation, the single most important idea this name calls to mind is the Song of the Amur Partisans, a Red Army hymn that was also popular with us during socialism. In fact, the melody dates back to 1828 and was sung - with different lyrics - by Russian soldiers in the First World War and then on both sides of the Civil War.

Just a couple of years ago, the Amur Region still offered some opportunity to get an idea of what it was like to march "through the woods and hills" like a partisan. The section of the Trans-Siberian highway between Chernyshevsk and Magdagachi was not completed until as late as 2010. If you did not want to drive through the forest you had to put your car on the train.

Now the Amur Region is about to make the Great Leap Forward: The area is going to be the site of the new Vostochny Cosmodrome intended to reduce Russian dependence on Baikonur in Kazakhstan. The first unmanned space launch is planned to take place in 2015.

Because of the meteorite incident I am 6 hours behind schedule. I am not going to arrive tonight to Vladivostok as planned.

Day 8

It is hard to imagine the Russian Far East as a Promise Land. But in the 1930s – of all times – some American Jewish families immigrated here to start a new life.

The Jewish Autonomous Oblast, their destination, was established by Stalin to provide a Soviet Jewish homeland as an alternative to Zionism. Another motivation was to reconcile the concern of Jewish communists for Jewish culture with Stalin's theory on the National Question: Stalin, namely, regarded a group as a nation only if it had a territory.

The Jewish population peaked in 1948 at around 30,000, which made up about one-quarter of the region's inhabitants. As of 2010, only 1% of the total population was Jewish. But in Birobidzhan, the region's capital, which the train passed yesterday afternoon, yiddish is still taught in public schools.

After leaving the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, the Transsiberian Railway turns southwards. My route will run in this direction in the next 4 days. I have just reached the Pacific terminal of the railway in Vladivostok. It's morning. The sun is shining, the temperature is -2°C.

Day 9

Vladivostok (Englishrussia.com)
To me, Vladivostok has always meant the arse-end of the world. But yesterday as I saw it with my own eyes, I realized that it is very much like New York: Both cities are located in a bay, both have an important port, skyscrapers, bridges and an international atmosphere.

I had some free hours before the departure of the ferry. As I was walking around I bumped into Sportivnaya Market, the town's largest market place. One of the sellers, after realizing that I was from Hungary, asked if I have some pálinka (the Hungarian eqivalent of vodka) with me. It turned out that he had served in Hungary as a soldier in the 1980s. He said he would give whatever I wanted for a bottle of the stuff.

To be honest, I was prepared for such a situation and could offer him a great variety of pálinkas. In exchange, I chose from his range of goods a fake passport made for an Asian lady. For one thing, one can never know, and for another thing, I liked the photo of the lady.

At 2 pm the ferry sailed for Japan. I left mother Russia to look for new horizons. The weather was sunny and not very cold: 8°C.

Day 10

My ferry trip has been quite an adventure although the Sea of Japan was smooth.

On the first evening, I spent most of my time in the game club. But I was not the only one who could not keep a poker face. The mood of the passengers was generally quite grim. We were travelling alongside the Eastern coast of North Korea, in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, as it were.

In the morning I realized that the fear of my fellow passengers was not idle. Shortly after the sun rose, the alarm was sounded. We rushed to the main deck and saw that a North Korean submarine had emerged from the waters. Around 30 soldiers came to the ferry but it turned out that they were only interested in its night club. After amusing themselves for a while, they submerged again.

But then came the real surprise. When I returned to my cabin, I found one of the North Korean soldiers there. She asked me not to tell a word to anybody.

With some delay, we arrived in Donghae, South Korea yesterday at 2 pm and departed again at 6. It is morning now. Japan is already looming on the horizon. The sky is cloudy, the temperature is 9°C.

Day 11

My new North Korean friend – Kyung Mi by name – caused me quite some trouble as we were approaching Japan on the ferry. As a defector of the North Korean army, she could surely expect to get refugee status. However, she insisted on remaining in hiding. But how can you hide a woman in a North Korean military uniform?

Collecting ordinary women clothes from my fellow passengers was the easy part. I told them this was my habitual way of bringing home souvenirs. The difficulty lay in providing Kyung Mi with papers. The fake passport I had bought at the market in Vladivostok came to our rescue: The lady in the passport looked quite similar to her.

With some luck, it worked. We managed to enter Japan and soon embarked on our 2000-km long train ride through the country.

Between Okayama and Aomori we travelled with the Shinkanzen, Japan's iconic high-speed railway. The first Shinkanzen line, which already operated at a speed of 210 km/h, was opened for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The mobility provided by the high-speed trains completely transformed the life in Japan. Besides speed and puncuality, Shinkanzen holds a safety record: Over its almost 50 years history carrying nearly 7 billion passengers, there have been no passenger fatalities due to derailments or collisions.

In the Northern corner of Honshu, we changed for a normal night train, which carried us through the world's longest and deepest undersea tunnel to Hokkaido. It's already morning. We will be arriving in Kushiro in an hour. The weather is cloudy, the temperature is 6°C.

Day 12

Because of its location in the northernmost and coldest part of the country, Kushiro is considered a mystical and exotic place in Japan. It is frequently mentioned in a certain sort of Japanese pop songs (enkas, sentimental ballads in traditional style) as a symbol of loneliness and longing.

In fact, there is nothing mystical or exotic in Kushiro. It has a port which, unlike other ports in Hokkaido, is ice-free all year round and serves ideally the purposes of commercial fishing. Japan's last functioning coal mine - closed down in 2002 - was also located here.

We spent most of our time in the retail and restaurant complex Fishermen’s Wharf MOO where Kyung Mi tried to introduce me to North Korean fashion and cuisine. She also told me she had an uncle in London and wished to join my journey to get there. Curious about further aspects of North Korean culture, I eventually agreed.

At 5 pm we boarded the luxury ship MS Vollendam to cross the Pacific Ocean. The weather was cloudy, the temperature around 5°C.

Day 13

We spent our first day on MS Vollendam exploring the ship. It was built in 1999 by Fincantieri, an Italian ship manufacturer. It has a diesel-electric propulsion with a maximum speed of 22.5 knots. With a length of 237 m and a beam of 32 m, it is somewhat shorter – but wider – than Titanic. In any case, it is similarly luxurious.

The vessel has ten decks, with passenger cabins on six of them. It contains 3 restaurants, several bars and lounges, a casino, a theatre and two swimming pools. It is decorated with a full range of artworks from pre-Columbian fetishes to Renaissance-era fountains. Most of the officers are Dutch but the crew is mainly Filipino and Indonesian.

All this comfort was disturbed last night as we were having dinner in the elegant dining room. Kyung Mi suddenly realized that some men at the neighbouring table were talking about her. She later told me she was afraid that these men recognized her. They must be, she added, Iranian nuclear scientists who had met her during a North Korean rocket test a couple of months ago.

At the moment, the weather is quite bad here with heavy rain, bitter wind and around 5 m high waves.

Days 14-17

In most of the past four days, we sailed east-northeastwards in the Northern Pacific, recently 200-300 km off the Aleutian Islands.

The sparsely populated island chain is of volcanic origin. It made its major contribution to the advancement of mankind in 1971 when the largest underground nuclear explosion of the United States was carried out on Amchitka, one of its westernmost parts. This nuclear test belonged to the events that gave rise to modern environmentalism: The Don't Make a Wave Committee – organized by activists who feared that the explosion might lead to serious earthquakes and tsunamis – would later become Greenpeace. (There were no earthquakes or tsunamis.)

The course of the ship was radically changed last night. We were participating in the usual black tie event in the Frans Hals Lounge of MS Volendam as the first officer came to us offering a visit to the bridge. We followed him only to realize that the bridge was captured by the Iranian nuclear scientists. Armed with guns, they demanded Kyung Mi to design a ballistic missile able to carry the nuclear warhead in their possession. As it turned out, Kyung Mi had been a leading engineer of North Korea's missile programme.

The Iranians also hijacked the ship forcing the captain to turn southwards in order to prevent us from landing in Alaska, where they feared Kyung Mi might inform the Americans of Iran's nuclear secrets. We have been hostages for 24 hours now. The sky is clear, the sea is calm.

Days 18-20

Kyung Mi spent the first day of the hijacking working on the missile the Iranian nuclear scientists requested. Based on her design, the crew assembled the rocket overnight using junk found in the ship's hold. It only remained to be tested.

Friday morning the ship received a radio message saying that a white whale was sighted not far away from our position. The Iranians wanted to target the whale based on the coordinates given. I vehemently opposed the plan referring to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling but, as it turned out, Iran is not a party to this convention (in contrast to such whale-hunting nations as Hungary).

Eventually, the missile was launched from the ship's funnel. To check whether the white whale was hit, MS Volendam turned to that direction. As we approached the location in question Kyung Mi suggested to the Iranian scientists that the result of the missile strike should be inspected from a life boat instead of the ship so that the impact site would be better preserved. The Iranians agreed and boarded a life boat.

They rowed about 500 metres when a white whale emerged from the water. Besides its colour, it had two distinctive features: a human skeleton lashed to its back and our missile in its mouth. To the Iranians horror, it was swimming towards their life boat.

This was the last scene we saw. Freed from the hijackers, the ship turned back towards Alaska, where we should have arrived Friday morning. We are now 3 days behind schedule but Kyung Mi is already working on a solution. The weather has been severe but it is calming down now.

Day 21

Glacier Bay, Alaska 
(This is Alaska 2013. Holland America Line, 2013)
Kyung Mi has managed to transform the Iranians' nuclear warhead into a reactor that can generate electricity for the ship's propulsion. Thanks to this nuclear power plant, MS Volendam could double its speed and we could start catching up on our delay.

Yesterday morning we arrived to the harbour of Kodiak, an island in Alaska. Now a peaceful place, the island once saw an immense cultural conflict between its native people and the Russian settlers. The latter came here to harvest the area's vast population of sea otters for their prized pelts. The natives, by contrast, revered this animal and would never harm it. This led to wars and the near extinction of sea otter.

After crossing the Gulf of Alaska, we reached Glacier Bay, the world's largest UNESCO protected biosphere reserve. As recently as in 1794 there was no bay here: The first explorers of the coast banged into a 3.2 km wide and 1.2 km thick solid ice wall. In the past two centuries the ice has retreated by 105 km forming an actual bay. Such rapid retreat of a glacier is known nowhere else on earth. The glaciers seen here today are remnants of a general ice advance in the Little Ice Age, which reached its maximum extent about 1750, when general melting began.

It is early afternoon here. There is steady wind, but the sun is shining.

Day 22

This is your last chance during the trip to revisit your prejudices concerning Alaska.

Who said, for example, that Alaska is a cold place hostile to human passions? As a counterproof, here is the summary of two Baywatch episodes from season 8: "On a cruise to Alaska, a brush with death intensifies the growing relationship between Mitch and Neely." Then: "On a cruise to Alaska, Mitch and Neely realize they're in love." Unfortunately, season 8 ended at that point, so we don't know what else Alaska had in store for Mitch and Neely.

Or who said that an Alaskan city with a population of 8000 you have never heard of is the most boring place in the world? In fact the city of Ketchikan holds several impressive records. Get this:
 - the Salmon Capital of the World,
 - the world's largest collection of standing totem poles,
 - one of the highest ZIP codes assigned in the US.

We made a short port call in Ketchikan yesterday night and continued the journey. We are now cruising through the Inside Passage. It is afternoon here, the weather is calm and sunny.

Day 23

The Inside Passage is a coastal route for ocean-going vessels along a network of passages and straits which weave through the islands on the Pacific coast of North America. Due to the picturesque view, it is very much frequented by cruise ships like MS Volendam. The route touches some communities that are still inaccessible by land.

The most famous custom of indigenous people of this area is potlatch, a festivity during which the host demonstrates his wealth and prominence by giving away a lot of precious goods as gifts. Like the case of sea otter, this is another prime example of irreconcilable values that can lead to cultural wars. In the 19th century, the Canadian government found the potlatch to be at odds with the industriousness and thrift that underlay the "Christian capitalist" culture. It was also considered to be the main obstacle to the indigenous people's acquisition of property and advancement in society. The government showed so little sympathy towards the institution that it was officially banned from 1884 until 1951.

It is morning here. We are sailing through the Strait of Georgia and are going to arrive in Vancouver within a few hours. The sky is a bit cloudy but the sea is calm.

Day 24

Thanks to Kyung Mi's invention of the nuclear powered cruise ship, we arrived in Vancouver this morning, almost according to schedule. Our crossing of the Pacific Ocean ended in this wonderful town, one of the most "livable cities" worldwide. After some walk in the downtown, we took a bus to Seattle, a major city on the other side of the US-Canadian border.

Once a logging community, Seattle has developed into a technology hub in the past decades. Boeing, which was founded here in 1916, established Seattle as a major centre for aircraft manufacturing after World War II. More recently, Seattle has become home to IT companies like Amazon.com, the world's largest online retailer.

Seattle has also been pretty successful on the leisure front. Starbucks, the largest coffeehouse company in the world, was founded here in 1971. Interestingly, the company was named after Starbuck, the chief mate of Pequod, the whaling ship that had chased the white whale we also encountered during our journey through the Pacific. (The Pequod was sunk by Moby Dick somewhere in the Pacific Ocean but I am not aware of any relation of Seattle to Hermann Melville's story.) Seattle was also the birthplace of the rock music style "grunge" with such representatives as Nirvana.

Unfortunately, we had no time to indulge in coffee drinking, online shopping or dancing to Smells Like Teen Spirit because our train to Chicago left already in the afternoon. We are sitting on this train now. The weather is fine.

Day 25

Empire Builder nearing the summit of the Continental Divide
in the Montana Rockies  
(Great Northern Railway postcard)
At the age of 18 I read the book of Jean Beaudrillard, a French postmodern philosopher on America. If I remember well, he found America’s main symbol in the emptiness of its deserts. And it is exactly this, the vast uninhabited spaces, which strikes me every day on this journey through the North American continent.

Today we crossed the Rocky Mountains through the Great Northern Railway, which was built by the railway tycoon James J. Hill in 1893. It was the only privately funded, and successfully built, transcontinental railroad in United States history. According to Hill, his railway was built "without any government aid, even the right of way, through hundreds of miles of public lands, being paid for in cash". How Margaret Thatcher would have loved this!

Other business models have also proved successful here: It was along this railroad that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid carried out the last great train robbery in 1901. Realizing that the outlaw way was dying, the pair headed for Argentina soon thereafter.

We have just left Fargo, the largest town of North Dakota. Believe it or not, my journey was partly financed from here. In the years 2008-09 I worked as helpdesk technician for a company, Ygomi, which is headquartered in Fargo.

Kyung Mi is already sleeping. The night is cold (-3°C) and cloudy.

Day 26

Yesterday morning we reached Minneapolis. The railway then followed the Mississippi river for 230 km seeing fertile farmland, riverbank towns, barges and restored paddle-wheel boats along the track. We passed Lake Pepin, the birthplace of waterskiing, which was invented by Ralph Samuelson at the age of 18 in 1922. Later we had the opportunity to see the beautiful sandstone rock formations carved by the Wisconsin River from the large panoramic windows of the Sightseer Lounge of the train.

Many of the first explorers of this region were employed by John Jacob Astor's American Fur Trading Company. Born in Waldorff, Germany, in 1763, Astor became the wealthiest man of the United States by the time he died in his New York home in 1848. His family would later found the New York hotel Waldorf-Astoria, which would inspire the name of a hotel and a metro station in downtown Budapest, themselves having little to do with fur trade.

In the afternoon we arrived in Chicago, the town where the word "scyscraper" originates from. We had more than 5 hours before our connection departed and we used the time to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. At 8 pm we attended the colour-light show of Buckingham Fountain, an allegorical representation of Lake Michigan.

Then we took a night train to Buffalo, a town on the eastern side of Lake Erie. We will be arriving there in some minutes. The weather is warm and sunny.

Day 27

As we arrived in Buffalo this morning, we were hoping to spend several hours visiting its sights, the art deco City Hall among them. Instead, we were arrested by the police as soon as we got off the train.

At the police station, we were told that a private person brought a charge against me for libel. It was not difficult to find out who that person may be. Three years ago I wrote an article about a famous Canadian common law case the facts of which related to Buffalo. Now it seemed to me that the plaintiff did not like my analysis.

As our interrogation by the police proceeded, however, it became obvious that my article was only a pretext. Our arrest was orchestrated by the CIA and the real target was Kyung Mi. They somehow got wind of her being a key figure in North Korea's missile programme and wanted to learn more about it from her. She remained calm and informed the Americans that North Korea has a doomsday machine: If a North Korean agent is under detention for more than 12 hours, North Korea's whole arsenal of nuclear weapons is automatically launched against the US without human aid and despite human intervention.

This story helped: Shortly after 6 pm we were released. However, our train to Toronto had already departed by this time. As an alternative solution, we hitchhiked to St. Catherines, passing Niagara Falls on the way.

Now we are looking for a ship to cross Lake Ontario during the night. The sky is clear, the temperature is 11°C.

Day 28

Last night we were lucky enough to find in the St. Catherine's harbour Empire Sandy, originally a tugboat rebuilt as a tall ship, which was about to sail for a wedding cruise. After we described the significance of our journey to the young couple, Mr and Mrs Strangelove, they invited us to join the cruise and to take part in the ceremony as well as the reception.

Arguably, this was the most spectacular night of the world tour: Crossing lake Ontario on a wedding cruise aboard a three masted schooner! We landed in Toronto this morning just in time to catch the train to Montréal.

During the train ride, however, I received the following comment from one of my readers on Facebook: "Take the hydrofoil all the way to Quebec City! Canadian trains are ALWAYS late, because they have this stupid arrangement that freight trains have the right of way. Hydrofoil is slightly more expensive, but more fun and more reliable in terms of arriving on time. The hydrofoils operating on St. Lawrence river have previously operated between Kiev and Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine, but their operator emigrated to Canada and raised enough money to take some Meteor hydrofoils across the Atlantic. They are essentially identical to the ones that run between Budapest and Vienna."

Unfortunately, it was realized a bit later that the hydrofoil service on St. Lawrence river ceased operation around 2007. Nevertheless, my reader was still discouraging me from travelling by train all the way to the Maritime provinces and advised me to rent a car instead. As our train to Montréal is already terribly late and I don't want to run the risk of missing our ship in Halifax tomorrow, I have finally decided to heed his advice.

It is 6 pm here. The weather is warm and sunny.

Tour du Monde Virtuel, 29e jour

Seacow Head Lighthouse, Prince Edward Island.
(Road to Avonlea, Season 2 Opening Credits.
Sullivan Entertainment, 1991)
Hier soir nous sommes arrivés à Montréal en retard. Nous aurions encore pu prendre le train á Halifax mais, en suivant le conseil de mon lecteur, nous avons abandonné le chemin de fer peu fiable pour louer une voiture. Heureusement, nous y avons rencontré une compagne de voyage: L'orpheline Sarah Stanley, qui était envoyée par son père chez ses tantes Hetty et Olivia, dans la petite ville d'Avonlea sur l'île du Prince-Édouard. Nous lui avons offert la banquette arrière de la voiture.

Nous avons remonté le Fleuve Saint Laurent jusqu' à son embouchure. Ce fleuve constitue avec les Grand Lacs la voie navigable la plus importante d'Amérique de Nord: En utilisant cette voie, un cargo arrive de l'Atlantique á Chicago en environ 7 jours.

Nous avons passé la nuit à l'Hôtel Lévesque á Riviére-du-Loup. L'hôtel porte le nom d'un premier ministre indépendantiste du Québec, qui avait été négligé par ses collègues pendant des négociations á propos de la loi constitutionnelle du Canada en 1981. Les autres chefs provinciaux étaient parvenus á une entente dans un hotel d'Ottawa, pendant que M. Lévesque dormait dans une ville voisine. Le matin suivant, M. Lévesque a refusé catégoriquement de signer l'accord. Quelques jours plus tard, le Québec a annoncé qu'il utiliserait son droit de veto sur l'entente, mais la Cour suprême du Canada a statué que le Québec n'avait jamais possédé ce droit. Le Québec n'a toujours pas approuvé la loi de manière formelle.

Ce matin nous avons continué notre voyage vers Nova Scotia. Tante Hetty attendait déja Sarah à Avonlea. Cet après-midi, nous avons atteint Halifax. Nous venons d'embarquer sur le paquebot Silver Whisper, qui nous transportera par delà l'Océan Atlantique. Il fait beau.

Virtual World Tour, Days 30-32

For most of the past three days, we have been cruising on the Northern Atlantic. On Wednesday, however, we made a long port call in St. John's, the capital of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which is the oldest English-founded city in North America.

The city saw one of the greatest upheavals in recent economic history. For half a millennium, most of its inhabitants lived from cod fishery, the catching and processing of Atlantic cod. Waters southeast of Newfoundland are among the world's richest fishing grounds because that is where the warm Gulf Stream meets the cold Labrador Current creating upwellings that bring nitrates to the surface. In the late 1950s, however, cod fishing strayed from the sustainable path: Due to technological advancements, fishermen could trawl much larger areas in greater depth than before. This led to serious overfishing: Catches peaked in the late 1960s and by the early 1990s, Atlantic cod stock fell to 1% of its historical level.

At this point, the Canadian government declared a moratorium on cod fishing. At first, it was meant to last only for two years hoping that the Atlantic cod stock would recover. In fact, the cod population has not rebounded ever since and the fishery remains closed. The collapse of the cod fishery caused dramatic economic and social effects including considerable depopulation of the region. Most recently, however, rich oil and gas fields off the coast of St. John's led to a new economic boom.

It was also in St. John's that Guglielmo Marconi is said to have received the first transatlantic wireless signal sent from his company's high-power station in Poldhu, Cornwall, in December 1901. This scientific claim is debated, however: The signals – three clicks – were reported to be heard faintly and sporadically, hardly distinguishable from atmospheric noise.

It is night here. There is steady wind and somewhat smaller waves than the ones used by Mr Marconi.

Day 33

Amidst dark clouds, strong wind and high waves, let me describe to you Silver Whisper, the cruise ship on board which we are crossing the Atlantic. It was built in 2000 by the Mariotti Shipyard in Genoa, Italy. It is less robust than MS Vollendam: It has a length of 186 m and a width of 25 m. It is also somewhat slower. Finally, it seems less luxurious to me.

On the other hand, it promises familiarity and intimacy. In this regard, the vessel does have some noteworthy features: Besides its sister ship Silver Shadow, it provides more space per passenger than any other cruise ship. With a crew of 302, it has a staff-to-guest ratio of nearly one to one. On its 10 decks you can find everything you would expect from a cruise ship (restaurants, lounges with dance floor, casino and a theatre hall etc.). On so-called enrichment cruises it also offers lectures from noted historians, bestselling authors, destination consultants and world affairs experts about the culture of the visited lands.

Silver Whisper provides one more remarkable service: In Silversea's own words: "On select voyages, Gentlemen Hosts are available as dance partners or dinner companions for single female guests. These interesting, amiable and distinguished men will often participate in other shipboard activities as well". I think I have found my next job!

Day 34

I spent most of yesterday reading contemporary North Korean novels on the veranda of our suite. I made pauses from time to time to watch the ever-changing colours of the ocean. As we are getting closer to the British Islands, cargo ships appear ever more often on the horizon.

In 1968, the shipping of commercial goods between Europe and North America was switched to the container system, invented in the US a decade earlier. Today, more than 90% of the world trade in commercial goods is transported in containers.

Container shipping has revolutionized world commerce. Before that, cargo that arrived in cartons, crates, bales, barrels or bags to the port had to be loaded and lashed to the vessel piece by piece. By grouping the cargo into containers, 30 to 85 cubic metres of cargo is moved at once and each container is secured to the ship in a standardized way. A container ship can be loaded and unloaded in a few hours compared to days in the old system. This has greatly reduced shipping times; for example, it now takes a few weeks instead of months for a consignment to be delivered from India to Europe. Because the cargo now arrives in sealed containers with no indication to the human eye of their contents, except for a code that machines can scan and computers trace, also less pilferage and theft occurs.

You may wonder why a lawyer from downtown Budapest writes so enthusiastically about container shipping. The reason is that I spent 2 years tracing those scanned container codes (and packing slip numbers) in a computer system. Have you ever heard of the famous port of Debrecen?

This is the last morning of our transatlantic journey. The weather is still cloudy and windy.

Day 35

By this time, we should have landed in Foynes, Ireland. Instead, the Silver Whisper is held up inshore. Here is what happened:

As we were approaching Europe, Kyung Mi became more and more relaxed. Despite her secret identity, she started to talk about life in North Korea openly at the dinner table. Of course, this raised the curiosity of our fellow travellers as well as the crew. In the end, she was asked to hold a lecture about North Korea in the show lounge of the ship.

She held the lecture yesterday evening while a storm raged outside. Everything went well until she came to the topic of North Korea's missile programme. At this point she warmed up so much that she began to galvanise the audience. When she made a joke about the possibility of hunting whales from a cruise ship with a North Korean missile, the listeners got into panic. Someone called the coast-guards to comb through the ship for explosives or weapons. The search lasted throughout the night.

How will we make it to London by tonight?

Day 36

The coast-guards did not find anything and at 9.30 am our ship was allowed to moor in the harbour of Foynes. The most hectic day of the world tour was ahead of us.

First we had to get to Limerick, a nearby town, where our train to Dublin departed from at 11 am. I knew we had no chance by public transport. In a desperate move, I hacked into the Oracle system that my former company used to support. I looked for the container numbers of golf cars recently exported to Europe. With the numbers in my head I went to the container ship that was being unloaded in the port. Kyung Mi followed me with a military toolkit...

In ten minutes we were riding on the road to Limerick in a Villager 2+2 LSV golf car. It was so amazing that I could have crossed whole Ireland this way. But we only had time to declaim a limerick, a humorous sort of poem bearing the town's name, before we got on the train. The declaimed limerick has a deep philosophical meaning:

"A solipsist aired his contention
To peers at a recent convention.
He cried, It's quite clear
That you're really not here,
But you bastards just don't pay attention."

We arrived in Dublin in the early afternoon and took the ferry to Holyhead, UK. From here, we travelled by train to London, which we reached after 9 pm.

We received a warm welcome from Kyung Mi's uncle. As we were talking about the world tour during dinner, however, I realized that something is wrong with my schedule. I had calculated the journey to last for 39 days from the travellers' point of view. Now, this has been the 36th day and in another two days I am going to be at home. Is it possible that I have surprisingly gained a full calendar day, just like Fogg, despite the careful calculations?

That would be a dénouement of Vernean proportions!

Virtuelle Weltreise, Tag 37

Dresden, Frauenkirche
Früh am Morgen habe ich von Kyung Mi Abschied genommen, um mich auf den Weg nach Brüssel zu machen. Ich bin mit dem Eurostar über den Kanaltunnel gefahren, d.h. über den Weg, der England mit dem Kontinent in einer Zeit verknüpft hatte, wenn es gerade angefangen hatte, sich von ihm seelisch zu entfernen.

Als ich in Brüssel angekommen bin, habe ich mich schon fast zu Hause gefühlt. Nicht dass ich je in Brüssel gewohnt hätte, aber etwa da fängt der Teil der Welt an, den ich einigermaßen schon kenne. Ich konnte darüber nicht lange grübeln, weil mein Zug nach Frankfurt fuhr ab.

In Frankfurt hatte ich schon einige Zeit. Und ich wusste ganz genau, wie ich sie verbringen sollte. Entschlossen ging ich ans Meinufer und spazierte 2 km den Fluss entlang. Als ich zur Schönen Aussicht 16 gelangen bin, habe ich erblickt... einen Zweckbau im Stil der 1950er Jahre.

Hier hatte das klassizistische Wohnhaus gestanden, in welchem Arthur Schopenhauer vor seinem Tod in 1860 gewohnt hatte. Er hatte schon seit 1833 in voller Abgeschiedenheit in Frankfurt gelebt. Er war einer meiner Lieblingsphilosophen bis ich vom anderen meiner Lieblings­philosophen, Oswald Spengler, erfahren habe, dass er mittelmäßig und "schwach bis zur Borniertheit" gewesen wäre.

Aus Frankfurt bin ich nach Dresden gereist. Ich finde es symbolisch, dass ich am Ende einer Weltumrundung Dresden besuche, das ich schon zweimal in ganz verschiedenen Etappen meiner Lebensreise berührt hatte. Ich war hier zuerst als Kind in 1988, als die im Bombenanschlag von 1945 zerstörten Gebäuden noch in Trümmern lagen. In 2007 sah ich Dresden und die indessen wiederaufgebaute Frauenkirche als junger Mann wieder. Und jetzt kehre ich als Weltreisender zurück!

Ich liege schon im Nachtzug nach Budapest. Die Erinnerungen lassen mich jedoch nicht schlafen. Das Wetter ist angenehm.

Virtual World Tour, Day 38

My world tour ended this morning. At 8.35 I arrived back to Budapest-Keleti where I departed from on the evening of 8th April.

Here in Budapest, 37 days have passed since then. When I prepared the itinerary of the world tour last December, I somehow calculated the total duration of the tour to be 38 days and wrote this into the title of the blog post. It is funny that I had to go round the world to realize that I had made a calculation error. Anyway, it is now corrected. The bottom line is that the world can be circumnavigated within 37 days.

Just like Phileas Fogg, I spent one day more doing the tour. This is because, going towards the sun, each day of the journey lasted less than 24 hours (by around 40 minutes on average). In the course of the journey, these losses added up to 24 hours. This means that Fogg and I actually did not gain an additional day but lost a portion of each day so many times that they grew into a full calendar day.

At first I was happy that I had managed to complete this trip. But after a while I felt emptiness: How will I spend my days now that I do not have to write the diary? In addition, my boss informed me that she would cut my salary because of my obvious lack of motivation.

In full despair, I called Kyung Mi. After I described to her my situation, she asked: "Do you have a hobby?" "I have no hobby, dear." "Some other source of money..." "I have no other source of money." "I pity you, then, Zoltan, for boredom in poverty is a sad thing." "They say so, dear." "Zoltan" asked then Kyung Mi lowering her voice "do you wish at once a hobby and a source of money? Will you work for the North Korean intelligence service?"

Mr Fogg was asked an easier question.

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