Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Train That Doesn't Exist

Let me be the first to reiterate powerfully that I love trains; I would also hasten to add that since a peculiar childhood, influenced by a father who was totally enamoured by public transportation, I have collected, read, studied and loved timetables. It is a curious interest, perhaps, but no reason to move a couple of seats away from me in a waiting room.

There are many fine train rides, often collected in glossy coffee table books, labouring under a title like “The Greatest Train Rides in the World”, or some such other similar title; many are terrific, many are simply there because the author scored a free ticket to travel on the train and include it in their catalogue, some are simply ordinary, but take place in a strange part of the world.

They are all mildly exciting. Few, however, are part of a major European city’s regional suburban system, and are thus not always so easy to find. Having told friends about the run down the mountains into Barcelona, they asked at local stations to astonished disbelief, "There is no such train" they were told, but I knew better. 

The run from  La Tour de Carol, an unusual town lying astride the Spanish and French border at an altitude of about 1,400 metres down to Barcelona is a fine journey, and starts at the evocative and rather marvellous station, large for its current, rather dozy existence, but in days gone by, a busy centre of smuggling between the two countries. Smuggling of people, northbound from Franco’s ghastly regime and southbound from pursuing Nazis, of goods, mostly of an alcoholic nature and the rather pungent Spanish tobacco, was the mainstay of the local economy. And the station, sitting pompously on the border reflected the authorities’ attempts to subdue or at least profit from this trade.

It is also where everybody changes trains; railway tracks in Spain are 5’5 ²¹̷₃₂” wide, while their French counterparts make their railways travel over tracks that are a mere 4’8 ½”. Now the discrepancy of just over 9” makes travel cumbersome, not to mention dangerous if attempted. If you think that this is all a bit unnecessary, know that in Spain alone, four different gauges of railways exist in the country, this one being called the Ancho Iberico, if you were wondering.

We, however, only wanted a scenic railway ride, and fortified with a marvellous lunch at the Auberge Catalane (opens daily at noon for lunch), we were in time for the 1345 train to Barcelona. The train is not a normal one, and is awkward to find details of its running. It is, in fact, part of the Rodalies de Catalunya (route R3), and thus wobbles its suburban way for three hours down through the mountains to the coast.

The journey is terrific; there are 22 stations on the way, and for the first ninety minutes or so, they are picturesque Catalan hill stations, the train populated by market goers and hordes of hikers and bikers back from the mountains. The Pyrenees are truly stunning; unlike the Alps, Rockies and even the Great Caucasus, they have an almost human shape; rising up to 4,000 metres, that assume dizzying heights in a formation that seems to bend with the wind. They are beautiful, and in common with other distant and remote ranges are home to dozens of ancient cultures and languages, some living in adjacent valleys for millennia, yet with mutually incomprehensible lives.

The train journey is more than worth the €12 that one is charged for the privilege, and once in Barcelona, there are a choice of five different stations to alight, suiting all but the most persnickety. Our aim was to enjoy some tapas, wander the unique streets of the city and enjoy dinner at the Catalan restaurant El Glop in the district of Gracia.

Barcelona is an astonishing city; it is one that I believe could be detected if blindfold. Its streets follow a unique pattern of hexagonal corners, and the ambient noise of the city comes from the thousands of scooters that whizz around all day and all night. It is an exciting city for those who wait. Dinner time is, in the Spanish way, from 9.00pm onward, and arriving at midnight, on a Tuesday or Wednesday is not at all uncommon.

Dinner was wonderful, and a rabbit and some ox-tail stew washed down with a very pleasant Tempranillo seemed to sooth the soul.

A walk back through the town looking at its collection of eclectic and gripping architectural masterpieces, the Sagrada Familia, the Bullring, the Arc de Triomf and the superb (at night) Agbar building were all on the way to the hotel, was a fine end to the day.

And so to the hills in the morning; an hours’ walk to the train station to catch the return journey to La Tour de Carol (in Barcelona called La Tor de Querol) proved uneventful; other than the small matter of purchasing the tickets.

Although the train heads to La Tour de Carol, and indeed says so on the front, the ticketing office will only sell a ticket as far as Puicgerdá (pronounced Poo-chair-DA); and should one want to use a credit card, then the ticket office was of no use at all, and a machine had to be brought to attention and made to dispense the tickets. I am not sure why the Rodalies Catalunya pretend that the final station on their route does not exist, perhaps it is because it is in France, but needless to say, after a little confusion, a ticket was bought, the train boarded and the three-hour haul up the mountains commenced.

And let me say that the return journey was spectacular. While the southbound trip was wonderful, heading into the mountains gave one a sense of spectacle; they loomed ever closer, the population on the train thinned out, the stations became more rural and finally, almost poetically, we jumped into the scenery; Secret meadows far below us, cascading waterfalls of spring run-off thundering into the rivers, tiny and ancient houses perched precariously on the hills and the ruins of ancient fortifications punctuating the skyline. Terrific stuff, and when the six-carriage train pulled into La Tour (each carriage could carry up to 203 passengers, 58 seated, for a total potential passenger capacity of 1218), only 12 of us got off.

The lucky ones.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Wine Festival; your correspondent starts licking his lips ...

I realise that I have a lifestyle that borders on the unusual, and for that I am grateful. I am able to wander, see odd and disparate places, meet fascinating people and gather a treasure trove of useless facts with which I can pepper conversation for months.

March 2014, however, has been exceptional.

It has been a month of flying, North Korea, a stamp auction in Hong Kong and a day in Macau, selling a flat in London, a wine conference and speed tasting in Tbilisi and now a few days of rest in the South of France before the annual onslaught of the local Toques et Clochers festival.

Firstly, a word about the festival; imagine if you will, a small village of (perhaps) 450 souls playing host to a crowd of up to 30,000 for a day of celebration, duck sandwiches and wine. Copious amounts of wine, I might add, not just a child’s portion; enough to make some of the hill-folk loose all inhibitions about playing instruments that look suspiciously like Scooped Out Sheep in public.

The celebration is an annual event, and villages throughout the region that supplies the major winery Sieur d'Arques. Villages bid for the right to host the annual festival in a manner not unlike the competitions to host the World Cup or the Olympics, however with significantly smaller budgets. The winner will then have a couple of years to raise funds, establish numerous committees, create special weather prayers and wait for the event.

On the day itself, thousands of visitors, almost all of whom are local, will purchase a glass (€5), some tokens for wine (€2/glass and €10/bottle), and then head off into the madding crowd. Wine stalls selling their wares are everywhere, as are musicians, folks selling duck sandwiches and oysters, jugglers, drummers and thousands of folk. Knee-deep in wine, with laughter rising perceptibly in volume as the afternoon progresses but rarely a smashing glass and never a fight the event continues until the early hours of the morning.


It is impossible to imagine rivers-full of alcohol, glasses and thousands of people in the UK, for example, without conjuring up images of horror, but here in the Languedoc, the festival is charming, well organised, exceptionally amusing and held on the weekend before Easter each year. Make a note in your diaries.

It is, my friend Hubert says, the largest tourist event that isn't a tourist event that he has ever seen. And as a former CEO of a provincial tourist department for decades, he should know.

But then again, if Peter Mayle had written a book called A Year in the Languedoc, the economy of the south of France would be completely different. The region, known but unknown, is delightful. The centre of the Cathar religion in the 10th to 12th centuries, it still harbours mysteries and intrigue among devotees of mystery and intrigue! The Cathars, the Holy Grail, Mary’s escape from the Holy Land, The da Vinci Code, all mixed up with wine, fine food, delightful scenery and not a little story telling.

And so the festival, as far from Pyongyang as I can imagine, starts in four days. It is said in these parts that Don Perignon discovered his wine-making secrets here before moving to Champagne where they figured out how to bottle the stuff without it blowing up. Fanciful, I imagine, and probably as truthful as the DPRK’s Concrete Wall, but there you go, it is a good story. Nostradamus himself was supposed to have dwelt in a nearby village, but a little prodding of the museum’s curator, and a rather wistful comment of “Well, he might have stayed the night in the village once” comes a touch closer to the truth.

Sometimes it can all become overwhelming

However, it is true that the production of wine is no stranger to these parts.

Livy was recorded as trading non-sparkling wines with the Romans, and the first references to “Blanquette”, or “Small White”, came from the Benedictine Monks who made the first sparkling wines here in 1531. The other white grape of some substantial use here is Mauzac, which along with Chardonnay and Pinot are the grapes from which the delicious local Crement de Limoux is made.

All grist to the mill, and worthy of examination.

It is, perhaps, worth relating a little story about wine sales, and one that perhaps illuminates a great fiction of the world of mega-wine.

For several years, the Limoux winery Sieur d’Arques exported tankers-full of Pinot Noir to Gallo in the US, who sold this far and wide under the Red Bicyclette label. So popular was this concoction that new warehouses were built, and for all I know, special docking facilities for the ever-larger tankers racing this popular brew from the south of France to the US of A.

All was well until a sharp-eyed accountant pointed out that they were in fact selling to Gallo alone, approximately 200% of the annual output of Pinot Noir grapes. Now interestingly, during this period, not a single customer, nor a single Gallo executive or wine taster, questioned the adulteration of their potion by the addition of the cheaper Merlot grape. A small fine was levied discreetly, one would not want this sort of scandal to hit the front pages, Red Bicyclette was relabelled and presumably launched to new heights.

Curious things, palates.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Wine Tourism Conference; your correspondent reports.

I try not to be silent for so many days, but honestly, a combination of Georgian hospitality and the fascinating people of the International Wine Conference have led to a temporary paralysis; one that I am happy to relate is now over, and I am ready to report.

It was the second conference that I have attended of the wine genre, and I can think of no good reason for having delayed participation in this astonishing industry for so many years. Wine folks are different; interesting, convivial and enthusiastic, albeit with a curious vocabulary, their deep interest into a subject that hitherto I have found merely engaging is motivating.

Wine Tourism is fun!

Wine conferences are fun; it is as simple as that. They are not related in any way to the dreary commercial gatherings held in grey motorway hotels, where hundreds of earnest folks gather to discuss the latest trends in snap-on technology or advanced metallurgical gains in beading. They are the jovial end of the business-meeting spectrum, and require more convivial surroundings for their deliberations.

And do not think for one minute that the discussions are frivolous; no, these are folks, deadly serious about their trade mind you, who gather to “enjoy”; their purpose is to find new and exciting grape varieties, nouveau-Wineries, debunk myths and enjoy a glass or two. Add to these darlings the niche-market of the travel industry specialising in culinary tourism and the result is quite magical.

Take Tim Clarke. A Larger Than Life character, and co-founder of the tremendously successful Arblaster & Clarke travel company, he wanders through life with an enormous grin matching his encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject. He is familiar with hundreds of wineries, their owners and products, the new trends in tourism and of course, can spot an indolent molecule of “leather or banana” in a glass of anything at one hundred metres. He is also an academic historian, and presented a paper to the conference about his role as a consultant to the Georgian government’s efforts to develop a wine-tourism industry; sadly, we competed for audience share, and I was unable to hear the speech, but have enjoyed reading it, and look forward to promoting their fine tourism programs to our clients.

John Wurdeman and Tim Clarke

Other papers delivered included such gems as “Wine as Culture. Case Study; Lazio”, “Chicken Soup for the Wine Tourist’s Soul” and “Using Sensory Analysis as Games for a Memorable Visit”. Real corkers, and held the audience in raptures.

There was, of course, a Grand Wine Tasting led by the delightful and astonishingly knowledgeable Master of Wine, Sarah Abbott whose acquaintance I had been fortunate to make a year or so ago on another wine beano in Georgia. She led us rapidly through eleven local wines, each delicious and each memorable (for a minute or two in my befuddled brain) that highlighted the diversity that epitomises the wine industry in this remarkable country.

Thus fortified, and by now knee-deep in wine, we boarded buses to go and drink more of the stuff. Three days spent in quite delightful and cosmopolitan company we struggled through eight marvellous wineries, including my personal favourite, the Alaverdi Monastery. These monks, and their predecessors obviously, have been making wine since 1011, a pedigree that is quite obvious in their production. They make wines that are simply outstanding and unfortunately rare. However, for those fortunate enough to make it to their home, which is itself a fantastic complex dating back to the beginning of time, the opportunity to taste their production is well worth the effort.

Needless to say, we ate well as well; Georgians are known for their tradition of feasting, and one can safely say that our hosts did not stint. Eating until the point of blowing-up is not a good habit for the long term, but over a couple of days, it seemed that over-indulgence became the norm. Tables groaning under the weight of the food, toasts, polyphonic singing, Georgian folk dancing and much laughter became the nightly norm. And as surely as day follows night, breakfasts while delicious, were considerably quieter.

And so one continues to wander in search of a crust; Gruelling Business Travel is an important part of a business life, and one has to say that the world of the culinary travel industry is not a bad gang to be a part of. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

And now for Something Completely Different

There are dozens of different reasons for travelling, and like the industry itself, can be divided into “pushing” and “pulling”.

Tonight, I find myself in Tbilisi, Georgia, at the beginning of the International Wine Tourism Conference. Now this might sound like a bit of a wheeze, and one has to admit that wandering the planet searching for new and exciting places to operate tours based on eating and drinking might not sound like “real” work, but let me assure you that it is serious business.

It may seem like fun to have to identify new wine-growing regions, techniques and the relationship that they have with the local food industry; to identify those areas in the world that tourists, particularly those with an interest in the culinary arts may enjoy, would enjoy and find suitable accommodation, translation and collateral services that will make their trip memorable. But let me tell you, that is is tiring.

“Gruelling Business Travel”, I say.

It is, however, a very important segment of the travel industry, and tourism that devotes at least 50% of the focus of the trip that includes food and/or wine experiences is a $750 million industry; and that, is a lot of wine, accommodation, flights, transfers, guides, sightseeing and food.

So once in a while, actually, annually, the International association of folks who do this for a living get together and discuss the industry’s trends, developments and issues for a few days, and this year, the meeting happens to be in one of my favourite destinations in the world, Tbilisi, Georgia.

And so, awaiting the conference (including a paper that I have been invited to present), here I am in Georgia, my twelfth visit in eight years, simply fascinated by the development that I can see in front of my eyes.

There are four or five new global-brand hotels being developed, road and rail infrastructure growing, and most importantly, a three-year degree course at the major national university..

It is this, the recognition that tourism is a vital segment of the economy, and the resulting investment in the development of the segment by creating strong post-secondary educational programs that will ensure the success of the industry. Concurrently, of course, tourism will never develop into a vibrant economic sector in jurisdictions that do not offer such academic support.

And so, one has to take one for the team, and head out to taste heaven-knows how many wines for the long-term benefit of our clients. 

I shall report!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Pendulum that is North Korea.

The problem with image and perspective is that too frequently they are based on an extreme viewpoint of the issue at hand. Consequently, in subsequent discussion, one is tempted or even driven to take a position of equal but opposite enthusiasm on the other side of the scale.

And such is my problem with North Korea; it is a nation that draws such invective and hatred, that having seen that it is not all like that there is a temptation to illustrate life in the DPRK in rather more glowing terms that it is due.

It must be said that there are dozens of countries around the world whose governments act (from our perspective) in the most reprehensible ways. One, the Dominican Republic, has a particularly venal administration, home to billions of dollars of laundered drug-money, yet millions of visitors suspend their interest in the politics of their destination, and concentrate instead on the sunshine and the varying shades of umbrellas decorating their drinks. There are many such countries.

So let us be clear; I am hopeful rather than naïve, and although I was born at night, it was not last night.
The DPRK is fascinating; it is a country who has addressed their many problems through an extremely forceful offensive, a belief so complete in the correctness of the righteousness of the DPRK and their philosophy of Juche (self-reliance), and by sealing the country off to outside influences.

The Juche Tower in Pyongyang

Tourists, of course, provide difficulties. They are by nature inquisitive and eager to see as much as possible. Those who have reached the DPRK are completely aware of the nature of the regime, and are unprepared for the normalcy of day-to-day life both in the city, the towns and the fields. The picture is clean; peculiar, but clean. It is ordered, or marshaled, but alive. There are, among the country’s substantial “middle class” lives being lived, loves being requited, children growing up albeit in a parallel universe. I was surprised only by the size and life of the large “middle class”; middle, of course, being a relative term, and not a term of external comparison. Life included such mundane moments as bowling, going to the bar (segregated from foreigners) for a few beers, shopping, flirting and singing revolutionary songs at karaoke bars.

The real curiosity is the absolute unawareness of the outside world, best illustrated by the folks who, having found out that I was from Canada, expressed their knowledge of the country by saying “Ah, Ottawa”! Who would ever associate Australia immediately with Canberra, or Brasil with Brasilia. Not many ....

The DMZ does form a focus for the psyche of the North Koreans; it is an obvious symbol of the division of the country, and highlights the difficulties that their southern neighbours endure through the occupation of tens of thousands of US Agressors. They are patiently waiting for the peninsular to be reunited under the benevolent leadership of the Dear Leader, and its continued military presence is vital to  maintaining control.

 DPRK soldiers enjoying our visit.

The Demilitarised Zone, the DMZ

We are shown, at a point some 40 kms from the DMZ, evidence of the Concrete Wall. Between 1976 and 1979, the South Koreans with the urging of the American Agressors built a wall stretching 240 kms across the Korean Peninsula. It is between seven and ten metres high, ten metres thick, disguised on the northern side by landscaping that disguises the wall’s malevolent purpose. The wall houses tanks in each sector, ready to attack at the slightest provocation. Well-fortified guard emplacements dotted this barrier, and all were ready to fight.

We were shown this first on a map that a well-decorated military officer, complete with a rather vigorous pointer, used to tell the tale, and stoke his indignation. The, led to a balcony several sets of binoculars aimed toward the south, we saw a distant white line, a UN guard post and a highway with hundreds of cars whizzing by.

Explaining the Concrete Wall

Amazing, that such a structure was built so recently, and that none of us have ever heard about; clearly a military adventure of epic proportions, and one that lies at the heart of the danger large to be a dangerous and trigger-happy world of the DMZ.

Which would be alarming, if it were not completely untrue. There is no wall; the structure was mentioned in passing in a speech by Kim Il-Sung, and having been mentioned, became the truth. A complete fiction evolved, complete with complex props, and now, it is impossible to comprehend that none involved with this elaborate sham are unaware that it is all a figment of some fertile imaginations.

And so, climbing carefully back through the Looking Glass, we returned to Pyongyang. Driving up the traffic-less Unification Highway, past scenes of medieval agricultural activity toward the 21st century city that is the country’s showpiece and capital, glimpses of life Through the Looking Glass were everywhere.

Riding the Reunification Highway

Completely in thrall to their country and their leader’s accomplishment, their lives compartmentalised and in Pyongyang at least, comfortable according to their scale, for reasons that I cannot pretend to comprehend, life is well under control.

And so, as much as I enjoyed, and indeed was fascinated by the DPRK, I was surprised only by the size and life of the large “middle class”; middle, of course, being a relative term, and not a term of external comparison. Having spent five days in North Korea, I now feel prepared to return and see even more of their unique and parallel culture.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Monumental Pyongyang

It is no understatement to remark that Pyongyang wins hands-down in any contest involving size, number, variety and overwhelming number of monuments; they are counted by the dozen, and each has a remarkable symmetry and attention to numerical detail that starts as interesting and transmogrifies into the soporific.

The sheer scope of the DPRK’s adulation of their leaders, pride in their immediate and ancient past, and vision of the future is simply prodigious, and we went to see them all.

Some, it must be said, were extremely interesting. In fact they were all interesting in their own way, but wandering from one 20 metre-tall bronze statue after another lost its allure. At first, however, we were bright-eyed and attentive students, and trekked off to the majestic Mansudae Grand Monument.

This depiction of the Eternal President and Eternal General Secretary smiling benignly over the city, flanked by two massive reliefs depicting the heroism of the country’s soldiers in both the war against the Japanese and the war against the Americans is a fantastic introduction to the psyche of the country. WE arrived at the site, and purchased flowers (€4 per bunch) which we placed at the feet of the Great Leaders before solemnly bowing in front of the statues to show our respect. I don’t bow often, but I think I managed an acceptable angle of obeisance, and then proceeded to wander around. There were groups of locals around, and this was to be a constant factor of our sightseeing. Parties of workers making pilgrimages to the city to see the sights and have their revolutionary spirit rejuvenated.

Now I don’t want to sound as if I am mocking, because I am not. The entire country works on a delicate balance of sincere belief, a complete suspension of credulity, an almost complete and permanent news blackout and an ingrained wariness of outsiders; that, and the absolute certainty that the USA is permanently quaking in their boots with the fear that the DPRK may annihilate them when they are not looking.

So off we went. Next to the Juche Tower, the 150 metre tall monument to the “Juche Idea”, the philosophy of self-reliance that forms the backbone of their political belief. I have bought a book about the ideology, and intend to plough through, but I have to say that it is pretty heavy going. The tower itself is quite magnificent, and sports a rather dashing naugha-flame at the top. (€5 for the ride in the lift to the top).

Then, as our schedule never paused for breath, it was down to the centre of the earth, and a visit to the Pyongyang metro, the deepest such system in the world. It is very impressive, if a touch rattly, and capable of carry tens of thousands of passengers per day. Our destination was the local triumphal arch (much like every other arch of this genre), and finally lunch.

Food throughout the trip was good; clearly not the food that nourishes the local population, but food put on to satisfy their visitors, and satisfy us it did. A usual meal comprised of half a dozen “side dishes” of various salads, a little fish and/or duck, and then a soup with rice. Filling, healthy, universally tasty and sufficient to set us up for an afternoon’s worth of monuments, parade squares and a Viennese coffee house.

The afternoon was taken up with a visit to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which is truly a sight to behold. The war with the Americans (not, it must be noted the United Nations), is central to the direction of all. The fighting was brutal and continued for years, and much of the territory of what is not the DPRK was obliterated. Pyongyang itself, previously a city of some importance and a population of 40,000 was destroyed by the roughly 40,000 bombs that rained down on it. It is certainly a marvel on reconstruction that the city has risen in a period of economic stranglehold and almost permanent isolation and embargo.

However, the museum is terrific. At its heart is the USS Pueblo, the spy-ship that was captured by the Korean navy. They are terribly proud of this naval success, and to this day, the ship lies freshly painted and moored on the banks of the Taedong River. One can wander through it and marvel at the technology of the 1960s that looks so totally out of place today, but to the local population it symbolises their parity with the ever-vigilant enemy, the United States of America.

And then bowling, a logical way to wind up a day in a Parallel Universe; two games at the Golden Lane Bowling Centre proved to be a perfect antidote to the history lessons that we had enjoyed all day, and a fine way to see the local Koreans at play.

The Ghost Bowler of Pyongyang!

Saturday, March 15, 2014


The DPRK is, in a word, heroic. One senses this immediately stepping out of the station into an eerily quiet city centre. The population of the city is given variously as between 1 and 3 million souls, but it is always hard to figure out where they are. There are few motor vehicles, and surprisingly few bicycles. I was expecting to see bicycles swarming in the manner of Chinese cities of the 1980s, but no … the city’s streets were sparsely populated. In fact, they were so empty that one could not help wondering where on earth the 1.5 million Pyongyangers were all of the time.

We were met at the station by our guides; they had little difficulty in spotting us, and the redoubtable Mr. Kim Won Ik and the delightful Miss Han Hyang Hui whisked us away and off into the DPRK’s unusual capital.

The city is new. Obliterated in the Korean conflict, it has risen from nothing into quite a showpiece. Liberally adorned with massive statues of the Great and Supreme leaders, public buildings the size of small villages and as astonishing supply of museums and massive squares. It is not unattractive in an overwhelming sort of way, but for the casual visitor, alas, one is kept on a very short rein.

Accommodation for the first two nights was at the massive and uncompromising Yanggdko hotel, located on a protective island in the middle of the Taedong River and towering  47 stories above the city. There are 1001 rooms, although nobody could explain how this curious number came to be, all fairly chilly at this time of year, and by and large unoccupied; there are massive restaurants to accommodate the collective hunger of these visitors, a bowling alley, bars, a tea room and everything on a heroic scale. Puzzling at the curious number of rooms, I wondered if it was perhaps it is because 1001 is divisible by 143, I had the suspicion that that I was ebbing at least some way into this parallel universe. It was, however, a riddle, and neither the first nor last.

Awakening in the morning to a beautiful blue sky, I was unnerved by the silence. Listening from my 40th floor window, I could hear the wildly enthusiastic songs exhorting workers at a factory far below to pull their socks up and produce for the Dear Leader. These songs were an integral part of life, and all day we heard either the hysteria of encouragement (or should I say hectoring) or an endless selection of karaoke, offering a selection of revolutionary songs curiously written in the style of contemporary lounge music.

It was and is odd.

However, odd does not mean unpleasant, and nor does it invite patronising aphorisms. Pyongyang is the showpiece of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, and we arrived on Election Day; soldiers were dancing in the street wearing medals by the balconyfull, red flags were being waved, and a tide of emotion flooded the city. There was a palpable sense of hysterical passion although it did seem to be a huge waste of heroism, but true to form and the pundits, the Dear Leader received 100% of the votes cast with an astonishing turnout of 100%. There, “That’s democracy for you” our guides explained, “It is an expression of the love and devotion that all Koreans feel for Kim Jung On”.

Perhaps; anyhow, fortified by a delicious breakfast of eggs, bean sprouts, yoghurt and toast, we ventured outside to a day of sightseeing.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Train to the Edge of the Earth

As  you know, I love trains, and try to take a long-distance trip as often as possible. The opportunity to have both a long ride, and finish in the mysterious Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) was simply too much to ignore, and so a week ago, I found myself at Beijing’s Central Station trying to find Train 27 to Pyongyang.

Actually, that wasn't too difficult, it left from Platform 2. Two sleeping carriages stuck on the back of a domestic Chinese train bound to the border community of Dandong. They were North Korean, a fact that excited me further, and clambering aboard past the open, coal-fired carriage heater, I found my berth in a very comfortable four-berth cabin. As luck would have it, my travelling companion Al and I had the cabin to ourselves, and settled in for the twenty-four hour journey to the DPRK.

The overnight journey to the border was fast, smoothly run over perfect welded track and rushing past infrastructural development that quite astonished the mind; dozens of high-speed trains whooshing around in every direction, new factories, apartments, shops and a peculiar love for remarkably garish and bright neon light. North East China in 2014 is a happening place; and just how happening we found out by heading to the dining car, located three carriages within the domestic part of the train.

To get there, we had to pass between the DPRK Zone  and the China Zone, not a difficult transition unless someone had accidentally placed a rack in such a manner that we could not open the door. The train has a few short stops, and we took advantage of one to run down the train and jump past a protesting conductor as the train was pulling out, nearly a tragic miscalculation.

Then food was fine (ample food for about $10) and fueled by a selection of beer for ourselves and  our new friends, and perhaps two hundred shared words, we ran down the evening until after 2.00am. Then we realised that the train was not going to stop again, and we needed to get back to our berth, but at that point, lubricated by Pabst beer and the progress made in Sino-Canadian relations, we didn't really care. Our new friends were fun, incomprehensible and on their way home to Shenyang; they found us highly amusing, and as we found them rather humorous, a convivial evening was assured, and considerable amounts of beer consumed.

Finally realising that we should head "home", we found an official, and led him through the three carriages of sleeping Chinese, draped extravagantly over, under and around the seating to the final connection. Here he banged on the window for several minutes before one of our minders came, opened the door and, with a slightly disapproving look at our acts of sobriety, let us in, and back to the serenity of the Korean sleeping cars. And most comfortable they were.

We slept until the border, and rising somewhat slowly, looked at the ultra-modern station at Dandong; we remained for a couple of hours while the train was split, shunted, regrouped and slid once more into Platform 1. We waited, and I have to confess that he tension and excitement grew until we pulled out, and crossed the Yalu River to Shinuiju, the DPRK’s entry point.

Let me tell you that this was a very peculiar bridge; old, solid and pockmarked from artillery during the Korean War, a conflict that has completely shaped the psyche of the North Koreans, it linked the future with the past, the Chinese bank of the river lined with fifteen storey buildings, shops, cars and bright and the DPRK side quiet, rusting and almost ponderous in its decay.

Our immigration guards were all courteous, curious and thorough. They checked our books and magazines closely, but were mostly interested in why we were there and delighted to swap a local cigarette for a Marlboro, but refusing to take a pack. They sat for a while inhaling the excess of life that we were carrying, marvelling at our shirts and toothpaste and eventually with a smile and a shy “Welcome to Korea Pyongyang”, they waved us through, and off we went toward Pyongyang some four and a half hours and two hundred and twenty-seven kilometres away.

There is a time change of approximately two hundred years and one hour between China and the DPRK; life immediately slowed to a medieval pace, albeit one sped up by bicycles, and the small villages and their fields were covered by armies of workers wielding ancient implements and prodding piles of dry soil in hope of triggering a vague agricultural reaction. Everywhere were the signs of The Party; the focus of the entire nation’s drive is to the party and its leaders that are in high, if not mystical, esteem by one and all.

Pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jon Il are everywhere; smiling, pointing at the bright future and exhortations to the people to double and redouble their efforts to complete their tasks for the greater benefit of all. This background, the soul and the pulse of the DPRK became omnipresent as we met our guides, and were introduced to this mysterious and most surprising country.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Voyages into the Unknown

It is not often that I wake in the morning with a train ticket bound for a curious destination. I remember such a day some eight years ago when I boarded a train in Minsk bound for Odessa. As I recall, the train was fine, and the ticket looked more like a share certificate than a transportation voucher.

Anyhow, this morning I am in Beijing, and this evening will travel overnight to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, more properly known (here) as the DPRK: the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea.

I am not sure whether it is a Republic of Democratic Peoples, or simply a Democratic Republic of People; only time will tell. It is, however, exciting.

I am here in search of new and exciting places for my clients and readers to explore, and although I have been unquestionably sluggish in writing over these past few weeks, it is not from a lack of stories, ideas or any reason other than idleness. Writing is not always easy, and once one takes a break, like exercise, it is hard to start up again.

Since we last spoke, so to speak, I have been back to The Guyanas, to Georgia and to Northern Scotland. New ideas are tumbling out all of the time, and a couple are rather interesting. Ideas are always fun, and my friend Cameron Taylor and I have had many over the years; usually they do not progress beyond the second bottle, but every so often they turn into business.

One, a symposium called The Traditional Way to the Future, is such an idea. Transmogrified from the bar-idea stage to reality and public launch, this meeting will prove to be rather interesting. We will be looking at a number of unrelated disciplines ranging from Medicine, Wine Making, Justice, Engineering and others, where old and ancient knowledge is being incorporated into contemporary research. It is simply a practical exercise in the old adage that “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”, and will seek to bring practitioners together in a single forum to look at the power of our cumulative history.

This program, in conjunction with our colleagues from Living Roots, Ia Tabagari and John Wurderman, will take place in Tbilisi, Georgia in November 2015.

Two months earlier Cameron and I began working on a second project in Scotland that will highlight the history of two of the founders of the Canadian Pacific Railway whose roots are in Forres and Dufftown, two small communities in the country of Moray. The program, to be marketed to retirees of the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway), promises to bring the deep connections between the regions and the growth of the Canadian Dream, to light.

Which brings me to the DPRK.

For some reason unknown to me, from time to time an unseen hand plucks me away from my sensible life and points me in the direction of the completely unknown. This is actually getting harder, but this month the Unseen Hand has directed me to visit the Hermit Kingdom, and I am excited. I will, of course, be writing in considerably more detail about the visit in the next week or so, but as a start to 2014’s odd destinations, this one is a winner.

Also on the agenda are visits to Adak in May, and in July to the remote island of St. Helena. The Unseen Hand is really having its way with me.

For now, however, it is a sunny morning in Beijing, and I have to pack for the train!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Travelling in the Off Season

The first thing to recognise when thinking about travel and the seasonality game is that it is exactly that; a contest between the travel supplier and the consumer. There are often no winners and no losers in this game, only contestants, but there are some very basic rules to follow when mulling over your travel opportunities.
Firstly, and the most important point of all, is that the “Peak Season” is not the best time to travel; it is the time that most people choose to travel, or have to travel, and thus the period that the prices for everything from transportation to accommodation are the highest, and the lines for attractions are the longest.

Nobody ever said that the best time to visit London was in July or August, or that the Mexican Riviera is at its peak of attraction coincidentally during the school holidays. No, the truth of the matter is that seasons are determined above all by school vacations; airlines know when school breaks are and position their inventories accordingly, hotels, resorts and attractions do likewise, and consumers all know as they plough through airports during these seasons that there has to be a better way.

And, of course, there is. For anyone unencumbered by the school calendar, there are nine other months to travel, more economically, and more importantly with space and without the clutter of mass tourism.
There are plenty of destinations to choose from; for those with an inclination to travel independently, Europe, as always, offers many opportunities. Spending time exploring Southern Spain will delight; from the coastal resorts of the Costa del Sol, it is a short drive to the iconic destinations of Granada and Cordoba; Seville, the centre of the flamenco history is a charming city to spend a few days, and pushing even further west, the south coast of Portugal will offer off-season visitors wonderful beaches (if chilly waters), gorgeous countryside coming into blossom from late February, and towns unsullied with the crowds.

The south coast of France, from Barcelona to the Italian border is also a most charming destination. Delightful country hotels will run from €70 - 170 per night for two, and combined with the low season airfares and moderate car rental rates can combine to make a most attractive package.
Rome, the majestic and deeply moving capital of Italy can be yours in the off season to explore with now queues, restaurants that do not hurry you away and private guides to help you explore the nooks and crannies off the beaten track. Why wait for the crowds when you can have the city to yourself?

Off course, the weather won’t be idyllic, but then again you won’t need the sunscreen. Southern Europe in the winter is unpredictable, but expecting daytime highs between 10 and 15˚ and anticipating some rain will stand you in good stead.

If you prefer escorted tours, there are many to choose from; the traditional European coach tours, ranging from the pan-Europe three-weekers to a variety of regional tours are available; the river cruises will start again in March, but the weather in the north, and the subsequent effects on the major river systems should not be underestimated; high waters can force the operators to change schedules and miss ports, and in extreme cases, idle the boats should the water levels rise too high for the locks.

Finally, there is a wonderful selection of small group exploratory tours throughout Europe, all seeking to really get to know a small part of Spain, Italy or even Morocco.

Then again, one needn't travel so far afield; the USA is a huge and fascinating country, and offers such diverse opportunities as the Charleston/Savannah corridor, and the stunning countryside and attractions of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. For those hankering to sample the music and food of the Deep South, March to May is really a fine time to travel, and staying away from the oppressive heat of the summer is a pretty good way to ensure the best possible trip.

There are endless destinations to try, and if you can drag yourself away from the school calendar, and head away in the “off season”, the rewards will be terrific.