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The Great Escape: A Journey Through HEL

sunny 10 °C

Good morning subscribers (and those of you that have found this by mistake, to you I apologise). There's not a lot to see in this post. If you have decided all this sitting around and doing nothing is a good time to read War and Peace, I would suggest you go back to that.

I just double checked and at the last update we were in Jakarta the morning after arriving from Batam Island on the Kelud. After waving the phone around at what I thought was the WiFi transmitter thingy to upload all the photos, it was about 10:30 and I was looking forward to a wander round the city. Passepartout Jack kindly agreed to have a copy of Lonely Planet Indonesia delivered to him which he brought to me in Thailand. I wondered if it was a bit of a waste buying a guidebook for such a vast country that I was likely to see so little of. My concerns were erased however when I read the description of the huge (132m) obelisk at the centre of Merdeka Square as architect Frederich Silaban's "final erection" and I knew my money had been well spent. It is known more formally as The National Monument and commemorates the struggle for independence from the Dutch. Sadly however, after waiting in a bus shelter for about 20 minutes for a thunderstorm to pass, I spent another 20 minutes trying to get somewhere near it but sadly there were wooden construction hoardings all around the square and a security guard eventually told me the site was closed. I managed to stand on a wall to get a photo and assumed that the closure was just due to the construction work and thought nothing of it. Next I tried to visit the museum of the National Bank of Indonesia which, according to LP claimed to have examples of virtually every currency on earth, as well as a history of the country "from a financial perspective". Sadly though when I got there I found this to be closed also. The museum is in an area called Kota, the old colonial heart of the city and my next stop was the main Fatahillah Square. Once again though I was turned away by security staff at the edge of the square. I went to a café to get some WiFi and found out that, while I was on the ferry and disconnected from everything, all tourist sights had been ordered to close for two weeks. Shortly after returning to the hotel, the media began to report that the government was poised to impose a state of emergency for the Greater Jakarta area, with the bulk of the measures to come into force at Midnight on Monday, just a few hours after I was due to leave! Although the restrictions weren't yet in place, I thought it would be a little hypocritical of me to be persuading friends and family back home to stick to the government's measures to slow the spread of the virus then go wandering around a city that was about to be shut down. I confined myself to the hotel for most of the day on Saturday, only leaving to go for a walk to a restaurant in the evening. When I returned to the hotel I learned that Emirates had announced they would stop flying on most routes by Wednesday 25th, with some exceptions including the UK and Australia. I was due to fly from Denpasar on Tuesday night.


The next day it was time for my first train journey in over a week! Madness! PT Kerata Api's train number 4, named along with some other services on the route as "Argo Bromo Anggrek" (Bromo Orchid) departed from Jakarta Gambir station spot on time at 08:15. Using social distancing as a perfect excuse, I decided to splash out on a seat in Executive Luxury Class, the best there is. As you can hopefully see from the photos, they have clearly tried to copy the business class airline style set up and in my opinion have succeeded fantastically! For the sort of money people pay for 1st class in the UK, this is what they should be getting! The seat is adjustable and reclines fully to turn into a flatbed with the decent, clean pillow provided. I got a good, hot meal and three drinks during the journey and there is an entertainment system which mostly worked! The 9 hour journey to Pasar Yuri station in the East Javan city of Surabaya passed in no time at all with lots of interesting and varied scenery along the way.


As I had a very early start the next day I booked a hotel right outside the city's other station, Surabaya Gubeng where I would catch the next train. Train 337 "Probowangi" departed on time at 04:25. No Executive Luxury Class here, just Economy. The train was busy at first but got quieter and quieter throughout the 7 hour journey to Ketapang terminus, just North of the town of Banyuwangi.


Leaving the train was the first time I noticed the dramatic effect of the sudden drop in visitor numbers. Only a handful of passengers got off and I reckon I was the only tourist. There must have been enough cycle rickshaws for one each and almost as many taxis waiting, each with a glum looking driver. I felt bad not taking one but the walk to the ferry is only about 5 minutes. I had to buy a smart card and have it loaded at one counter then go to a second counter to provide ID which was used to print a paper ticket (making the smart card seem a little pointless) and have my card debited. I walked through the large, deserted waiting area and straight out to the jetty where one of the ferries (the Rajawali Nusantara) was just pulling in. Men in hazmat suits sprayed the wheels of the few cars that left the ferry with disinfectant, before, without warning turning the hoses on me and the other couple of foot passengers getting on! Up on the top deck it was possible to see the dozens of other ferries lined up, many made temporarily redundant by the virus. Although I had never been there before, it was strangely depressing to see the place like this knowing that it would normally be really busy with locals and holidaymakers. This article in the English newspaper The Jakarta Post describes the grave situation Bali faces. 80% of the island's GDP comes from tourism and the majority of the 4 million inhabitants will have little or no back up income. The gloomy scene was completed by the weather turning from bright blue sky to a torrential downpour as the ferry set off for the 30 minute crossing to Gilimanuk. The bus station was just a couple of minutes walk away and there was a minibus (usually called minivans here) waiting already. Clearly hoping for more passengers, we hung around and eventually left 12 minutes late with me the only one. More passengers were picked up along the way though during the 4 hour 125km journey to Bali's capital, Denpasar.


Concerned about the news with Emirates and things changing by the day, before booking a hotel I went straight to the airport to see if there was any chance of changing to that night's flight. When I got down to the Emirates customer service office however it was clear from the crowd that something wasn't quite right! A sign on the door of the office said that all Emirates flights would cease with immediate effect, no mention of the date of 25th widely reported in the press. I still hadn't received an email. When I got to the desk the staff confirmed that both my flights (Denpasar to Dubai & Dubai to Manchester) would be cancelled. That night's flight was going to run, but the connection to Manchester was cancelled. No alternatives would be provided and passengers were simply advised to find other flights. The only way to be put on the waiting list to board was to show another flight booking from Dubai (which I wouldn't end up using if there didn't end up being space). Cue a slight sinking feeling, but a transport problem is a transport problem to be solved and I was already relishing the challenge! While everyone was standing around shouting at the staff and shouting at each other, I managed to book seats on a route from Jakarta the following day with Etihad via Abu Dhabi. It was more than double the price of my original booking, but options were becoming limited. The UAE government had announced measures that would ground all planes by 25th so it seemed I would be on the very last flight from the UAE to the UK, one of the busiest and most lucrative routes in the World, for the foreseeable future. How exciting!


Feeling a pain in the savings account but glad to have a new plan I took a Moto taxi to a nearby hotel and once settled in, booked one of the many flights per day from Denpasar to Jakarta. By now it was around Midnight and I had been up since 03:50 to catch the train from Surabaya so I was pretty knackered. Tuesday morning - Checked in to both Etihad flights, sadly no window seats left. Being so close, the hotel ran a free shuttle bus to the airport so I took this at 11:00. At 12:50, my long and unwanted but necessary journey home began with Air Asia flight QZ7521 to Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport (CGK) which arrived on time at around 13:50. The Airbus A320 (I forgot to check this, had to look it up!) was only about a third full.


After landing I was straight on to the WiFi to check the status of my next two legs. Both running to time, so far so good. Had an hour wandering around the modern and very quiet terminal building before heading to the check in desks. I first realised something might be wrong, when the queue started going down very slowly, then when a group of Brits started shouting. I quickly refreshed the page I had open on FlightStats and both flights were running. To cut this already long story a little shorter: while I was in the air between Denpasar and Jakarta, the UAE government had introduced additional measures as a result of the virus, without any warning. The border had been closed to International visitors for several days, but passengers transiting through the airports (which make up a large proportion of passengers using Dubai and Abu Dhabi) were allowed. Unfortunately, with immediate effect, transit passengers were also banned. Only UAE passport holders would be allowed to board. Therefore a whopping great Boeing 777 departed with no more than about 20 passengers on board and I can only assume the connecting flight to London was equally quiet. Dozens of people there were in exactly the same position as me, having booked Emirates flights already and been abandoned, then booked the last remaining Etihad flights home. There was no Etihad representation whatsoever in Jakarta and the message from the airport's staff was the same - find your own alternatives. At 17:31, 4 minutes before I was due to take off, I got an email from Etihad advising me not to set off for the airport!

For the next 4 hours I sat on the floor in front of the check in desks with about 15-20 others, all trying to get to Europe, all on our phones looking for a new plan. One problem we were all facing was that virtually any journey that involved a self transfer was impossible because going through immigration would either not be allowed or would mean 14 days in quarantine. SkyScanner and other similar websites were useless because of the thousands of people in Asia and Australasia left stranded by Emirates and Etihad all searching for options at the same time! Using airline websites directly was working though. The only journey via reasonable route with one change was Qatar airways via Doha but these had surged in price to over 100million Rupiah (£5,000). A couple of people near me, virtually in tears, paid up! As I half suspected, within hours, these had dropped back to less than £2,000. Still obscene, but I hope for their sake the never looked back at the prices!!! I eventually settled on a journey I found on the Japan Airlines website via Tokyo and Helsinki, having double and triple checked that it was a through booking with no immigration checks required. Japan was strictly enforcing self quarantine measures but only for arrivals not transit passengers and the Finnish border was closed to non-residents but transit passengers were allowed. I said goodbye to my many new friends from France, Germany, Sweden and Poland brought together by our shared monumental pickle and checked in to the airport hotel in the adjacent terminal 2. The hotel was very 70s in design and had mild sweaty foot odour and a damp feel. It was a very odd layout. There were around 80 rooms set over the same floor, right round the terminal building with a corridor on one side. The walk to reception was about 4 minutes!! Bed number 29 since leaving London!


I checked out as late as possible next day (12:00) and still had 7 and a half hours to kill before check in opened. I decided 2 hours was about the longest I could sit in a café per coffee, so I had two sittings with a wander round in between. I kept seeing people from the night before. Many had splashed out on the Doha option, some were staying put to wait for the foreign office to sort them out and one couple with a two year old toddler I was pleased to find out had booked exactly the same route as me after I told them I had been able to book it. They were on their way to (her) Mum's house in Stockport to self quarantine! They were really grateful that I told them about it and said I had saved them thousands as they were about to book the Qatar option for the three of them. This was really nice but I was now even more worried about it not working! Another small group had decided the best thing to do was get back on a plane to Bali, where beaches were now closed and the whole island was in an increasing state of lockdown. I thought this was really stupid, leaving the nation's capital to go back to an island that was shutting down and then expect to get help from there. Just a few days later, this article gives you an idea of what they are now facing. Recognise that red sign from my photo above!?

As check in time approached the nerves really started jangling! All day I was checking and double checking the situation in both Japan and Finland. From what I could gather, Japan was allowing transit passengers. The border in Finland was closed completely apart from to Finnish passport holders making essential journeys or those arriving that could prove Finnish residence. Transit passengers would only be allowed if they were transiting onto a flight to an EU nation of which they could prove residence. I had assumed the UK was included in this. I queued up in front of a group of 6 Brits who I had been with the night before. They were traveling business class and as a result had found an easier route home, going to Tokyo on the same one as me then direct to London. I got to the desk and watched as my passport was perused! A long time passed and a colleague was called! My heart sank! A shake of the head.... "Sir, you have recently been to Singapore, when did you leave?" With a Chinese visa unused but taking up a page in my passport I had already come across questions a couple of times on the trip so I had kept a careful record of my travel dates on my phone, which I showed them. They eventually found the exit stamp and then spent a while looking through a huge guide they had got on all the current restrictions. Eventually, to my massive relief the boarding passes started printing. Remember a fortnight ago when I left Singapore on the same day as Jack to improve my chances of being allowed into Australia? Well I couldn't possibly have known how it would pan out, but as it turned out that decision saved my bacon here. If I had left Singapore just a couple of hours later (and got an exit stamp for the following day) I would have got stopped. As the flight arrived in Japan after midnight, that gave me 14 days since leaving Singapore which was what was required. I hadn't even seen this restriction when I had been researching online. As I turned to leave the desk I gave a thumbs up to the group who all cheered, but when I told them what caused the delay they looked horrified! They had been in Singapore two days more recently than me. For the third time in three days they were denied boarding a flight they had just booked and were now thousands of pounds out of pocket. At 21:25 I finally left Indonesia on Japan Airlines flight JL726 for Narita International (NRT) in Tokyo, heading in completely the wrong direction, but I was glad to be moving again. The Boeing 787 was full mostly of Americans but also many Europeans using Tokyo as one of the last remaining transit points for flights home. Economy class was full when I booked so I had no choice but to pay for Premium Economy which gave me more leg room and a properly reclining seat which was very nice! The journey was around 7 hours.


I had about 4 hours in Tokyo and my semi-posh ticket allowed me access to one of the lounges with free food and drink. Once again, once the crowds from my flight dispersed, it really felt oddly quiet. Most of the few flights that hadn't already been wiped off their schedules were showing as cancelled and many that were running were presumably not full because of border restrictions.


Finally, I left the ground heading for Europe on Japan Airlines flight JL413 bound for Vantaa International (HEL), Helsinki. Another Boeing 787 and this time I had the ultimate luxury of not only having my slightly posher Premium Economy seat but also having the entire row to myself! I enjoyed a glass of champagne to celebrate the departure (I can't stand the stuff but it was free so why not?!) for the 10h 30m journey. It was probably miles off but I couldn't help but stare down at the snow dusted Siberian landscapes and trying to glimpse a train snaking it's way along. That all feels like a lifetime ago! (Note the route shown on the blog map above is nowhere near the actual flight route!)


Arrived Helsinki spot on time, another eerily deserted airport. This time I had just an hour to connect onto Finn Air flight AY1337 to London. Although almost full when I chose my seat online, I would estimate the Airbus A321 was only about a third full, probably due to the fact that, as previously mentioned, Finnish borders are currently closed so most would not have been able to travel. After so many long train journeys on this trip, one of the them 5 days long, you would think this would have been a doddle! But this time I was in a cramped economy seat (I had quickly got used to the luxurious premium economy!!) with a bloke snoring his head off in front of me and the 3 hour journey really dragged! Despite this the flight was still quite interesting as the weather was perfect so there were some great views. There can't be many short haul flights that offer views of 5 capital cities. From leaving Helsinki there were stunning views of all the islands and islets in the Gulf of Finland and then there were views of Stockholm, Malmö, Copenhagen, Amsterdam in the distance before the final, wonderful treat of flying down the Thames Estuary into London. I have only ever flown into London in daytime once before and I remember how amazed I was then at how people just continued to read magazines or play on their phones with such wonderful views of the capital outside. People pay thousands and thousands of pounds for 30 minute pleasure flights in helicopters for this! There were fantastic views of the Olympic Stadium, The Emirates (gits), The O2 and Canary Wharf, Wembley Stadium and Windsor Castle. There were also unusual views of the Eastern and then Western stretches of the M25. Initially I was a little annoyed at seeing the amount of vehicles when we are meant to be in "lockdown". But then I remembered that this would normally be the evening rush hour and actually it would probably be more like a car park on any usual evening!


Finally, 3 days after setting off from Denpasar and a total of 23 hours in the air, I touched down at a ghostly quiet London Heathrow. A lot has changed since I was last in the big smoke. For a start, it's not that smokey at the moment! When I set off I lived in the European Union, I worked for a company called Arriva Rail North (trading as "Northern") and society was functioning (or malfunctioning) just about as it normally as it always does. There were 6152 cases of a new type of Corona virus, mostly in Wuhan Province in Eastern China but there were also a handful in Europe and North America. The BBC's "Outside Source" that I watched on the flight from Tokyo that morning told me that more than a quarter of the World's population was now in lockdown and there were over half a million confirmed cases in 198 different countries.

With all the information I had been bombarded with on my travels over the last fortnight I was amazed that there was absolutely no sign that the UK was in the grip of a pandemic when I arrived at the country's busiest airport. Even as far back as Bangkok I couldn't even get into my hotel room without having my temperature checked. In fact the first time there was any sign was when I arrived at Terminals 1,2, 3 Underground Station where there were regular announcements pleading with people to avoid unnecessary journeys and practice social distancing. The message seems to have got through. The underground was very quiet and King's Cross station even more so. I had a little pang of sadness when I reached Piccadilly Circus and realised I was retracing my steps from two months ago when I had just left the Reform Club and had started my long journey. With a limited service between Leeds and Huddersfield, the quickest way for me to get home was to use the Grand Central service to Brighouse then two buses to Holmfirth. The 5 carriage class 180 from London had just 4 passengers on and I had both buses to myself!


So there we are, back home after the most epic of #epicfails in the history of flightless circumnavigation! I have really tried not to whinge too much as I know that millions of people around the world are going to suffer terrible hardships as a result of Covid-19, if not directly from the virus itself then from the socioeconomic fallout, the effects of which could felt for decades to come in some places. I on the other hand have enjoyed seeing some of Asia's most incredible sights and experiences while they have been nowhere near as busy as they normally would. Knowing deep down from the moment I set off that the outbreak was likely to have some impact on the trip, I haven't actually been too upset about it all until I started to un-pick the hours of planning by cancelling hotels that could be cancelled and looking into getting my money back from train operators, cruise lines and now airlines.

So where next? Well, until a couple of weeks ago I was confident about being able to fly to Vancouver where the Noordam was due to drop me off and pick up the trip from there. But with Trump's apparent shockingly nonchalant attitude towards the situation and the fact that the USA already has more cases than China, it's looking increasingly unlikely. As soon as I failed to make it into China though to make myself feel better I started plotting a trip by rail all the way from Huddersfield to the "Hermit Kingdom" of North Korea. Yes, with the right planning it is possible to travel all the way to Pyongyang by train!! If that ever comes off I will leave the blog open so you can track (no pun intended) my progress. If you have had enough though, feel free to unsubscribe, I won't be offended (but if I know where you live, watch out!) I am now beginning two weeks of voluntary (Unbelievably the UK government are one of the few not making it mandatory for international arrivals) self-isolation. I'm not even going close to Emma! Can't wait for this to be over so the three of us can go for a walk!

(stock photo!!!)

So, how to sign it off? Well ever since it became clear that I would have to fly home I was considering putting a load of guff about how air travel is shite and how it will never be the same as travelling by train, how you never make the same friends and meet the same sort of interesting people. Sadly though, I have never felt the same sort of warm friendship of strangers and camaraderie as I felt during my 32 hours stranded in Jakarta airport. Having said that I stand by the fact that air travel will never have the same pleasures that rail travel has of being able to actually see the country you are visiting from the comfort of your seat. Those hours and hours of mini snapshots into people's lives and cultures you just don't get when arriving at a characterless airport in the middle of nowhere just never get boring. There is also the catastrophic environmental cost of air travel to consider and, while this trip may have only served to prove that traveling round the world without flying is tricky, it's getting easier and easier to travel great distances across Europe by train. More and more people are choosing to spend a day at either end of their holiday traveling to reduce the environmental impact of their trip. Whenever me and Emma have done it I just see it as a part of the holiday (although admittedly I think Emma just tolerates it!) Anyway this seems like a good chance to give The Man In Seat 61 a bit of a plug. Run by former British Rail station manager Mark Smith, it's an incredible resource for the flightless traveler. Through his clear step by step instructions backed up with photos he has a knack of being able to make a journey even as far as Singapore seem as straightforward as booking a weekend away in Edinburgh! I'm almost certain that without the hours I have spent trawling through this website alone, I wouldn't have attempted this trip.

So I'll finish with a couple of quotes. The first is the opening line of Michael Palin's Around the World in 80 Days, one of the books that first fuelled my passion for flightless travel. The second I feel sums up not just this trip but all the long rail trips I have attempted. Thanks for reading, I hope you have enjoyed it and I hope you and your families stay virus free!

"The compulsive urge to travel is a recognised psychical condition. It has its own word, dromomania, and I'm glad to say I suffer from it"!

"I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Robert Louis Stevenson

Posted by around129 02:37 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (2)

Le (not very) Grand Départ

overcast 10 °C


On Monday 2nd October 1872, Phileas Fogg made a bet (presumably drunk) with his fellow toffs at The Reform private members Club that he could circumnavigate the earth in 80 days. He set off for Charing Cross station that same evening, leaving his pals smoking on their pipes trying to decide what they would spend their £10,000 on.

147 years, 3 months and 29 days later (and 31 years, 4 months and 6 days after the great Michael Palin), I'm attempting to do the same, admittedly by a completely different route and in a considerably slower 129 days. To be fair, Fogg had the sizeable advantage of being a work of fiction and Palin had a BBC film and production crew with him. I have forgotten to pack my copy of Around the World in 80 Days so I can't give a direct quote, but Fogg was also vocal in his dislike of tourists and tourism, preferring to travel for travel's sake or the challenge, rather than to actually see anything! I intend to see a few things on the way.

In Jules Verne's story, Fogg takes with him his "valet" Jean Passepartout (which I think literally translates as "goes everywhere"). I'm pleased to say I have my own Passepartout for the first few days of the trip, although I'm carrying Emma's bag, so again we are not sticking to the script!

The trip is the result of nearly 3 years of gazing at my phone and laptop looking at train, bus and ferry routes, cruise ship relocation moves and cargo ships wondering whether I could get away with something like this, financially, with my employer and with Emma of course! The first month or so was planned with fine detail. With 4 or 5 visas required for the first 3 weeks alone, just getting everything together on that side of things was a fiddle. Therefore it has been completely heartbreaking to watch the news and see everything fall apart over the past few days. It seems terribly ungrateful of me given the wonderful opportunity I have to be able to do this sort of trip, to be setting out this morning feeling a bit miserable. However given the timing of the virus outbreak in China, I feel entitled to feel at least a little pissed off! My planned route takes me right through the middle of Hubei province. Mongolia has closed it's border with China, but at this moment is continuing to allow trains through. The border with Vietnam is also open. However with the Foreign Office advising against all but essential travel, I would be in China without any insurance. There is no alternative without taking a flight, which defeats the object of the trip. I'm looking into specialist insurance and a 3 day dash across China staying as far away from the city of Wuhan as possible but I'll have to keep an eye on the situation.

Anyway enough moping. This was meant to be a transport blog! After a quick photo at The Reform Club, we took the Piccadilly line to King's Cross St. Pancras to meet John for breakfast. John is also starting out on his own travels to Moscow via Rotterdam and Berlin. All being well we will be meeting up again on Saturday. After suddenly realising our Eurostar was at 09:22 and not 09:47 (a good start) we made a mad dash to the check in gates and were relieved to find the security area quieter than usual! We are now safely on board Eurostar 9014 and have just arrived in France. Tonight we board the weekly Russian Railways TransEuropean Express direct to Moscow, a train I have wanted to catch for as long as I can remember. Another update tomorrow hopefully!


Posted by around129 01:58 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (4)

Not Long To Go!

7 °C


In the unlikely event that this attempt has worked... Hello! Welcome to my blog. I never understood the difference between a website and a blog, but a blog sounds more hipster and I'm not 31 yet you know.

Loads of people have asked if I was going to somehow do updates on my progress (or lack of, possibly). I was very reluctant for three reasons. Firstly I'm not sure my I.T skills or my 15 year old laptop are up to it. Secondly if it all goes tits up in the first 5 days it's a very public humiliation! Thirdly and most importantly I have read lots of travel writing during the last two years and much of it is conceited tripe. I will try to avoid the selfies with admiring locals followed by some amazing facts I (or you) could just as easily have Googled and try to make it more of an online diary. There will be detailed updates on bowel movements and probably a lot of photos of trains.

For those that don't know - My original plan was just to travel as far as possible from home by train, something I have fancied doing for years. Then I decided to go as far as I could by train AND bus. Then I found out about a cargo ship I could travel on to Australia and it quickly snowballed into a rough plan of getting round the world without flying. I'm setting off from London on Thursday morning (30th Jan).

So if you're interested in keeping track of where I am I think you can subscribe to this page by clicking the link in the top right corner. I assume that means you will get an email when I update it, but who knows, I'm learning as I go along!

I think this is already too wordy for a blog post so bye for now :)

Posted by around129 11:05 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (1)

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