Things I do – Train Cab View


This will be a short post, as there’s little to say about my latest hobby. It’s very straightforward: watching train journeys on YouTube.

The trend is not new – the Japanese, of course, have been doing it for years. The Norwegians took it to mainstream, dedicating an entire TV channel to the fantastic, 7-hour train journey from Bergen to Oslo, which later became the first Slow TV channel in the world:

Of course, you can hardly be a fan of Japan without turning just a little bit into a train geek – they’ve made this form of transport into a form of art, and I had always followed a few train otaku channels like AYOKOI. But on my last trip to Japan, I happened to be sitting next to one of the people making these videos, and became fascinated with the idea of simply watching the recording of a train journey on your TV. The immediate benefits are obvious: it’s calm, meditative, repetitive but not boring, and you don’t have to suffer the annoying commentary common to the documentaries like “The Great Railway Journeys“.

(this is the video from the trip we were on – I’m sitting two seats behind the camera, as it’s one of those panoramic trains with big front windows and no crew in front).

There’s also, of course, the other great enjoyment factor – you get to relive the journeys you’ve made, or imagine yourself making the journeys you wish you’d make. I can’t imagine a better way of “virtual travelling” than seeing the world through the train windows. My current favourite, for example, is this seemingly mundane journey on Haruka Express from Kansai Airport – one that tens of thousands of tourists make every single day on their way to Osaka and Kyoto. The Japanese train videos have the additional meditative element of “Pointing and calling” – the driver speaking aloud everything he’s doing in the cab.

 

Each type of train offers different sensations. Shinkansen drives are more quiet, monotonous, good for falling asleep. Subway trains, on the other hand, are fast-paced, with short, quick bursts of speed between stations:

 

There are many channels dedicated to gathering train view videos from all over YouTube – e.g. TRAINVIDEO – or you can just search for “train cab view”. I’m not sure where those videos originate, by the time I find them they’re already aggregated by somebody – I assume internet forums for train fans, or dedicated websites like TrainCentral. Most of them are from Japan, naturally, but there’s quite a lot now coming from Scandinavia, Alps and Russia, which are all equally spectacular. If you’re really into it, you can buy professionally recorded HD videos on Blu-Ray, e.g. here, but that might be a bit too obsessive…

So there you have it. Some people swear by ASMR or watching a burning campfire, but for me, train cab view videos are just the best.

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The river flows


To the casual tourist, overwhelmed by its splendour, Kyoto may seem like an everlasting, unchanging city, with its ancient temples, regular street grid, and restaurants and guesthouses older than most countries.

In reality, it is anything but. The city had been undergoing changes since its inception; even the first ambitious, Tang-dynasty inspired plan for the Imperial Capital was never fulfilled before reality forced its gravity centre east, closer to the river. Over the following centuries, wars and politics, fires and floods had shaped the city with a constant flux, making the remains of the past all the more precious.

And it is still changing now. The changes range from subtle to dramatic, and perhaps none more so dramatic in recent years than the massive influx of tourists from East Asia. Always Japan’s busiest visitor hot-spot, Kyoto has now become Asia’s Venice, at times stifled and overwhelmed by the tidal wave of people. Not only the Chinese – though they are by far the most visible – but Koreans, and ASEANians have joined this multitude; with its 1.4 mln population, Kyoto is relatively tiny by Asian standards – a mere fraction of places like Hanoi, Seoul or Bangkok, not to mention Shanghai – so it doesn’t take much for it to feel crowded.

The most immediate effects on the tourist infrastructure are drastic, but of course not all bad. Gone are the “busy” and “quiet” seasons – the Japanese may only care about Kyoto in spring bloom and autumn leaves, but foreigners come and go as they please. The influx of money is noticeable – new ryokans, shops and restaurants spring up everywhere, old ones get a new coat of paint and some badly needed update of decor. Enriched by increase in taxes, the city splashed out on fancy new boulevards all along the Kamo River. Knowledge of English language is now properly enforced: the “old guard” of native English speakers from US or Australia may have been more tolerant of the Japanese ways, but the new tourists had to learn English themselves, and they don’t have patience for the clerks and cashiers being unable to utter anything beyond a few platitudes. In a surprising twist, it seems the locals now welcome Western faces with relief and almost joy: such is the paradox of the casual xenophobia that makes the old, familiar devil appear better than the new one. And yes, some of the new wave can be famously rude, and each such trespass of manners is widely reported in the local media, but before the Chinese it used to be the Americans who bore the brunt of all that pointing and mocking, and let’s face it, compared to the Japanese anyone will seem rude and obnoxious.

But that is not the only thing that’s changing in Kyoto. The other change is more subtle, one that needs several visits to appreciate: the skyline. The modern buildings in Japan tend to have a lifespan of about 20-30 years. That means most of the current crop, built at the threshold of the Lost Decade, is now horribly outdated: bad taste renderings of post-modernist kitsch, gaudy monstrosities in raw concrete and ceramic tile. Luckily, this era is coming to an end. One by one, the old cubes are being replaced by buildings of the new style. Gone is stained grey concrete, shaped in random protrusions, patched with plastic or ceramic to look like a bathroom turned inside out. In its place are black panels, cold steel, wood trimmings. The gaudy arrogance of the 1990s is replaced with the subdued elegance, matching the old environment rather than shouting over it. It is all very heart-warming, though it does keep me wondering if in 20-30 years these new builds won’t look just as old and out-dated?

And then there’s yet another change – the cars. For some unfathomable reason – whether it’s the newly found confidence in Abenomics, prevalence of hybrid engines or changes in road tax – or all of the above – the Kyotoites ditch their fun and practical, colourful, small kei cars, in favour of massive, tank-like people movers, all shining chrome and black steel. Once cars like these would have been the domain of mobsters and celebrities, now they’re parked everywhere, sometimes dwarfing the houses they’re “attached” to. Quite what anyone may need these monsters for in the streets that are barely wide enough for two mopeds to pass, is anyone’s guess.

The smallest scale of change is also the most personal. Of the ancient couple making red bean paste sweets in Tominokoji street, only the husband remains fit enough to serve customers – the wife is now too frail and ridden with diseases of old age. Since they don’t seem to have any apprentices, inevitably one day we’ll find their small shop closed forever. And they’re not the only ones in Shimogyo-ku – these are the streets filled with tiny old shops run by tiny old men and women. Their passing marks the passage of time in the most poignant way. But despite all of this, the Kyoto – our Kyoto – remains, and, against the odds, thrives.

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The Year That Passed


Well, 2015 happened.

Farewell, Orca I

It was very much the year of two halves. By the time the calendar struck June, we’ve been to Poland, Japan, Germany, Luxembourg and France. We’ve sold the van, ended the journey (for now!), moved back to London, returned to regular office work…

Oh, and I published “Withering Flame”.

The Withering Flame

The second half was very much six months of winding down, settling down and slowing down. Not much happened as we returned to a settled, “normal” life. I put this blog on more or less of a hiatus, and I hadn’t picked up on “Shattering Waves” almost until NaNoWriMo. It was the first time I voted in national elections in UK, and the first time I didn’t vote in said elections in Poland. I joined the Lib-Dems out of pity… Plus, we helped some friends move to London – and got rid of an old sofa 🙂 Oh! And, we went to the States in October, for the first time ever.

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Times Square! No Photoshop!

As the year comes to an end, I’m starting to pick up the pace again. “Shattering Waves” manuscript is finished – a couple of months of editing from now, it will be ready for a Spring release. What’s more, for the first time since finishing Volumes 1-4, I’m working on two books at the same time – I’ve started drafting Volume 8, albeit at the stately pace of 500 words per day.

That means that even if nothing else happens in 2016, at least this will be the year I finally end The Year of the Dragon saga. Now THAT is certainly something to look forward to!

Happy New Year 2016 everyone!

 

 

Germany: Memories of a Nation (BBC Podcast)


germany[1]We traveled a lot through Germany lately: both its past and present borders. It is nearly impossible to travel around Europe without stumbling upon traces of Germany’s past glories and sins. From Riga to London, from a Hansa outpost on Aland to the Imperial Trieste, the German-speaking peoples have left an unforgettable imprint on the continent long before the atrocities of the 20th century; and having traveled first around the Baltic, then around Central Europe this year, I had plenty opportunity to ponder this grand nation’s history.

Brandenburger_Tor_abends[1]So the new BBC Radio 4 podcast series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, drew my attention instantly – especially since it’s headlined by none other than Neil MacGregor. A few years ago, the director of British Museum attempted to tell the story of the entire world in 100 objects. Now, he is retelling the story of Germany – in 30 objects. This new series is just as intrigWeltliche_Schatzkammer_Wien_(169)pano2[1]uing and engaging, and possibly even more eye-opening, since it brings out the little-known German art and architecture from the shadow of France and Italy. Holbein, Riemenschneider, Caspar David Friedrich are just few of the names covered, among subjects that range from Stasi to Charlemagne’s empire – with the Holocaust, naturally, underlying it all, as it forever must.

The series is half-way through now, and you can catch it on its podcast page here. Go hear it. Now.

Spring London Walks #1: Hoxton – London Bridge


Snapseed_0 East End Slums, Markets and Hipster Cafes.

(all pictures courtesy of Google Maps)

Hoxton-21. We start off with a brunch at Fabrique, a branch of Swedish bakery and cafe, just off Hoxton Railway Station. A hot brew in a tin mug and a sourdough cinnamon bun will put the necessary spring in your step!

Across the street you can see the gardens of the Geffrye Museum of the House, set in the 18th century almshouses of the Ironmongers Society. This juxtaposition of an ancient slum almshouse and a posh cafe should set the mood for the journey ahead: the contrasting history of the East End, its glory, downfall and phoenix-like rise.

Hoxton-3Hoxton started out as an affluent out-of-town location for Tudor-era manors and gardens; by 17th century, the estates began to break down, and be used increasingly as madhouses and almshouses. By Victorian era, as all of East End, it was covered with working class slum, albeit not as notorious as the areas south of it. There was still thriving industry and culture here, and Hoxton survived the worst of the slum era relatively unscathed, ready to enter the 21st century of gentrification; in 2002, Jamie Oliver opens the first of his Fifteen restaurants here, marking the rise of posh Hoxton once again.

Hoxton-42. Turn right into Cremer Street, past an organic cafe, and then left, onto the high street. This stretch of A10 is called the “Pho Mile”, and rightly so: dozens of Vietnamese restaurants, shops and cafes line the street. If you want Vietnamese in London, this is the place, although the choice may be overwhelming at first.

Nearer the railway bridge the Vietnamese diners make place for bars, clubs and pubs; we are in Shoreditch now, after all. The Grocery serves the local discerning foodie community with organic produce, but it’s not the only good shop in the area. We’ll get to the other one soon.

Hoxton-53. We’ve reached the lively crossing of Old Street/Hackney Road and Kingsland Road. On one side is the ancient parish of St Leonard’s of Shoreditch, known simply as Shoreditch Church. “When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch,” as the song goes. The Theatre once stood nearby, London’s first successful theatre, and many of its actors are buried in the St Leonard’s crypts.

Hoxton-6Opposite the church stands the massive former location of Wells & Co. Ironworks foundry and showroom: now a location of fashion shops and bars.

Beyond the church, on Calvert Avenue, stands an inconspicuous wooden box: Shoreditch’s first cafe, established in 1913.

Hoxton-74. Follow Calvert Avenue, entering the Boundary Estate: London’s first Council Estate. A far cry from the tower blocks of the 70s, these buildings were actually completed in 1900 in place of Old Nichol, East End’s most notorious slum. You can quickly see how far the area went from its humble origins, as you pass (and, hopefully, enter) Leila’s Shop and Cafe. If you haven’t bought your biodynamic veg, Norwegian smoked salmon and Neil’s Yard cheese on one of the street markets over the weekend, you can get most of that stuff at Leila’s.

Hoxton-9Round the Boundary Gardens bandstand, turn into Club Row, by the Rochelle School, cross the Old Nichol street. The Allpress Espresso on the corner serves good coffee and avocado-based brunches. Turn left here: the street leads to a large intersection of Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane.

Hoxton-105. If it’s market day on Brick Lane, you may as well end your tour here. Getting through will take a few hours, if you want to visit everywhere and eat and drink everything.

Once you’ve decided you’ve had enough, move on towards what looks like a cross between a stainless steel chimney and an old space rocket. It’s the minaret-like marker of the Brick Lane Mosque, or Great London Mosque.

The building served all religious minorities in the area throughout the centuries: established as the Huguenot temple in 18th century, then a Methodist chapel, then a Great Synagogue, finally, as the Jews moved out and Muslims moved in, it became a mosque.

Hoxton-116. Follow the Fournier Street, once the center of the Huguenot weaving trade; pretty soon you will reach yet another historic market: the Old Spitalfields.

There have always been markets in this area, just outside the London Wall. You didn’t have to pay the toll for entering the City, and many trade routes from East England ended before the gates. Old Spitalfields was first licensed in 1638. It is now an amalgam of uber-modern office blocks of steel and glass, and late-Victorian market halls. You can buy pretty much anything here, from “vintage” (ie. used) t-shirts to expensive single estate olive oil.

Hoxton-127. There are several routes you can take from here, all leading South towards Aldgate. Along the Wentworth and Middlesex Streets you’ll find yet another market. This is the Petticoat Lane market, and it’s probably the last one that still retains its authentic character: serving local community with cheap, robust goods. Its latest claim to fame is the fact that Lord Alan Sugar started his business with a stall here.

Walk around the St Botolph Without Aldgate roundabout, to find yourself at the busy intersection, adorned recently with a wooden sculpture. The sculpture marks the spot of the Aldgate: one of London’s seven gates, and the flat above it where Chaucer had lived as customs officer.

The Aldgate was the oldest and most important of London’s gates: it connected old Roman capital of Colchester with the new city of London.

St Botolph was a patron saint of travelers, and as such, several churches just before the city gates have been dedicated in his name.

Hoxton-138. The narrow, winding street south of Aldgate is the Jewry: it runs along the old London wall, hence the curving shape. The Jews were first invited to London by Normans; their first abode was at the Old Jewry, near Bank. Exiled by Edward I, they returned under Cromwell and settled first around Aldgate. The importance of this “new” Jewry is indicated by the Bevis Marks synagogue nearby, United Kingdom’s oldest existing synagogue.

Hoxton-14After passing under the tracks of Fenchurch Street station (trains to Essex set off from here), pay attention to the left-hand side. Beyond the pillared facade of Grange City Hotel, in the courtyard, you will find one of the best-preserved fragments of London Wall.

Hoxton-159. The narrow street emerges straight onto the A100 thoroughfare, beyond which stands that most obvious of London’s landmarks, the Tower. It’s now up to you to decide where to go next: visit the Tower, or cross the Thames. The nearer crossing is the London Bridge, but the Tower Bridge is also just a stone’s throw away.

The monumental art deco building on your right is the 10 Trinity Square: the Headquarters of London Port, and for a brief moment, the headquarters of United Nations General Assembly.

Hoxton-1610. We are now across the Thames and it’s time to end the walk. There are far too many attractions here to continue: all must wait for another time. The London Bridge Station is a good place to ride off to wherever you came from, but if you can spare a while to have one last pint, direct yourself towards The Old Thameside, beside the replica of Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, sit on the terrace and watch the river traffic pass you by, just as it had been for the last two thousand years.

New Year’s Resolutions For Everyone


I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. Mostly because they weren’t a tradition when and where I was growing up, but also because they’ve always seemed a bit silly. You’re supposed to make plans, not resolutions. A plan means you’re being serious about something. A resolution is just a throwaway sentence you put at the end of the calendar. Maybe that’s why, according to a study posted on Wikipedia (and we all know Wikipedia doesn’t lie), 88% of resolutions fail.

So these are not my resolutions. These are proposed resolutions for anyone out there struggling to come up with something on the last day of the year.

4. See that place you’ve always wanted to visit.

Seriously. Stop posting pictures of exotic places captioned “I wish I could go there”. It’s 2013, and travel has never been that easy. The only thing possibly stopping you from seeing that place you’ve always wanted to see is in your head.

With no-frills airlines, the tickets are cheaper than they’ve ever been. The accommodation can be free: you can couch-surf, hire yourself out on a farm or volunteer for aid work. There are very few wars compared to any other point in history. Even places like North Korea and Burma accept tourists these days, if that’s where you want to go. If you really want to go somewhere, all you need to do is plan ahead. Save up. Make contacts. Research. And just go.

3. Think about what you eat.

This is the most universal and accurate advice I can give about eating. Whether you’re too fat or too thin, bloated or dehydrated; pay attention to your food.

Eating is one of the three most important things a living being does in its life. It always amazes me how little time people spend thinking about what they put in their stomachs.  If only we cared about food as much as we care about sex or entertainment, the world would be a far better place. And no, counting calories does not count.

Eat seasonal. Eat fresh, and as unprocessed as possible. Have a varied diet. Understand your food: where it comes from, what it does, how is one potato different from another potato, what meat is in your hot dog. If you can, convince your local shop to stock better produce. It may seem at first more expensive and time-consuming than your normal diet – but the investment will eventually recoup itself on time and money saved on doctor visits 🙂

2. Create something of your own.

There are 365 days in 2013. Put away one of those days to create something that you can call your own. Write a poem; learn a song; carve an abstract sculpture out of a block of lime wood. Make it yours, make it unique – something you can put your name on.

Like it or not, we are rapidly approaching a post-scarcity economy. In a few decades the only things of value will be the ones created by human hands – everything else will be replicated by machines. Start preparing for that future. Make the year 2013 the year of creation.

1. Hold the whine.

We’re in the middle of a global crisis. There’s recession looming, and the year will likely start with US falling off a fiscal cliff and Japan failing its recovery.

But, to quote Harold MacMillan, “we’ve never had it so good”. Maybe not compared to the year before… but compared to everyone else in history. There hasn’t been a proper war in the West in almost 70 years. Even the Cold War is over. Despite all the bad economic news, we are still better off, on average, than our parents and grandparents. Progress in all ways of life, from gadgets to medicine, is astounding. Just think of all the new technology that’s just around the corner: 3D printers! Star Trek tricorders! A slightly thinner iPad!

So do the world a favour and stop whining. There are very few things about your current life that you can’t change. Move home. Change the job. Sort out the family problems. Do something crazy. Don’t get stuck in a rut, like a broken ox-cart. And if you’re absolutely, positively certain you can’t change anything in your life for the better – well whining won’t help, will it.

So there you are. I had a few more of these prepared, but didn’t want to sound too preachy. Take care y’all, and hope you all have a good 2013. I certainly plan to.

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Top 5 Inner-city Getaways


When it comes to spending free time, I’m a city boy through and through. Give me a choice between a sunny beach and a historically and culturally rich city, and I will probably… do both 😉 But if that’s impossible, I would much rather take a stroll down some narrow alleyways of an old town than suntan (especially if it’s 40C and the old town in question is fountain-rich Grenada)

That said, even I can get bored or tired of asphalt and concrete. When that time comes, I venture forth in search of some oasis of calm and quiet in the middle of the city. All good cities have them: either public parks, or temple gardens, or urban forests. But the ones that really remain in memory are places that have that little something extra; a spark of brilliance or a touch of history that makes them stand out from the rest.

Here’s a list of my top 5 favourite of such getaways: all five are free to enter, though not always free to get to. You will notice these are also one of the top cities to live in, according to various surveys. It’s no coincidence; the best governed cities have also the best public spaces. Continue reading “Top 5 Inner-city Getaways”

A different Vienna, part 2 – Gasometer: steampunk arcologies


Approaching the first of the Gasometers from U-bahn station

As you may have noticed by now, my visit to Vienna was a bit on the unorthodox side. Skipping the galleries and palaces (but not the cafes!), I’ve spent my two days searching for the weirder bits of the city.  After spotting some old Nazi Dark Towers, I then boarded the U3 line towards Simmering, alighting at the Gasometer station.

The station’s name spoils the surprise a bit, but then if you ventured so  far away from the city centre, you probably already know what’s waiting for you. A vertical brick wall, arcing to the left and right, forming a giant cylinder. One of those huge XIXth century coal gas tanks that every European city used to have. But this one is different; and not only because there are four of them in one place. Continue reading “A different Vienna, part 2 – Gasometer: steampunk arcologies”

A different Vienna, part 1 – the Flakturms, or “Don’t Mention Ze War!”


(I’ve been to Vienna last week. This is the first of my impressions of the city.)

Flakturm V looming over Hofburg Gardens

You’d be forgiven to miss them on the map. They are not marked in any way, other than the pale pink of ‘some building’. You’d be forgiven to miss them in a guide, as they are not listed under the main attractions of the city – of which there are many (except one of them, on which more below).

But you should not miss them while standing anywhere within quarter of a mile from these dread-inspiring constructions. Fifty meters tall and forty meters wide, these blocks of solid concrete stand out not just like sore thumbs, but like entire sole limbs, looming over some of the more picturesque parts of the city. Just try to go to Augarten park and ignore their existence (as does everyone else around you). It’s impossible. Continue reading “A different Vienna, part 1 – the Flakturms, or “Don’t Mention Ze War!””

Top 8 Ice Cream


I’m in between releases (Transmission is done. “The Shadow…” is coming soon) and my mind is exhausted by the work and the heat, so here’s, as they say, something completely different: a list of my favourite ice cream.

These are not the best ice cream in the world (although some claim they are) but for one reason or another these are the ones I either remember most fondly or like to eat most often.

8. Amorino (Europe)

Ubiquitous in the cities of Western Europe, this is a refuge of an ice-cream lover who is lost, tired and in dire need of frozen desert. Be it Strassbourg, Grenoble or Soho, Amorino delivers quality and low price to the hungry masses.

Continue reading “Top 8 Ice Cream”