It was a warm evening and we were enjoying a leisurely dinner at a table set next to the main canal in Gdansk, Poland. The setting was unique, the seafood was delicious, and the people-watching interesting, but the topic of conversation was the same that we had been having for the last couple of days: making lists of everything we wanted to do when we got home – gardening, woodworking, remodeling the bathroom, etc. That’s when we realized it was probably time to go home. And so we did.
It would have been far too easy to just book a flight from one of the European hubs, Amsterdam or Berlin perhaps, but that really isn’t our style. Instead, we started searching for a trans-Atlantic re-positioning cruise. It was a bit early in the season, hurricanes were still raging across the Atlantic, but we were able to find an amazingly inexpensive fare on a Norwegian Cruise Line leaving from Copenhagen for New York in just under three weeks. We’re wise enough to know that there are usually good reasons for cheap fares, and Norwegian certainly lived up (or down?) to that expectation, but just the thought of a reasonably comfortable berth, three meals a day and no decisions to make for two weeks overcame any qualms we had. We needed a vacation from our vacation.
We had eighteen days to spend wandering through Germany and Denmark, but really didn’t want to make it a marathon of one night stands in different cities. We picked three cities we wanted to explore and found some almost reasonable hotel rates. It was Europe after all, and ‘almost reasonable’ was the best we could hope for. We decided to start in Berlin with a visit to an old friend who was a classmate and fellow ESL teacher. In this day and age of instant communications – email, Facebook, Instagram, Skype, etc. – there is still nothing that compares to the delight of seeing your friend racing across the train terminal to greet you. You really can pick up where you left off ten or eleven years ago.
I admit to having been a bit intimidated by the Berlin metro system on first glance. We’ve used the subways, trolleys, and trains in almost every country we’ve visited, but I’ve never experienced anything quite as complicated as this one. Getting from “A” to “B”, even in a straight line, always seemed to require multi-level changes in several stations along the way. But that said, it was fast, reasonably efficient, and got us where we wanted to go.
With our friends in the lead, we managed to see the major tourist sites of the city, albeit from a city bus window, visit a couple of interesting and up-scale flea markets, and learn quite a bit about collectible fountain pens. And to cap off a day of sightseeing, we had the high honor of being the first dinner guests in their new apartment. We had caught them within days of taking possession, and apparently in Berlin an unfurnished apartment is just that – not only is there no furniture, but also no kitchen appliances, counters, or even a kitchen sink. I guess we were lucky that it had toilets. But candles on the small table set the mood, the food and wine were exceptionally delicious, and the conversation fascinating.
From Berlin, it was on to Bremen and another “Old Town” restored from the ashes of WWII. I think we’ve gotten burned out on seeing towns that are re-built as they were in the 19th century. To us, they feel a bit Disneyesque, as if they were restored just for the benefit of the tourists and their euros. Another symptom that it was time to come home?
It was getting on to the end of September and the weather was turning cold with occasional spits of rain and strong winds. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much relief in our AirBnB rental. The building hadn’t fired up its boilers yet, so the radiators were cold, and the rental firm wouldn’t respond to our plea for a little electric heater. After three months of temperatures in the 90’s, we weren’t prepared, either mentally or sartorially, for this weather. We spent a good deal of our time in department stores shopping for sweaters and scarves.
Hamburg was everything that Bremen wasn’t. Here we found a German city that had rebuilt itself into a modern shipping and financial center, eschewing the historic facades in favor of a style of modern architecture that defined ‘form over function.’ Office buildings ending in knife sharp edges and a concert hall built of fanciful glass walls and ceilings plunked on top of a brick warehouse are but two examples. Our days were spent wandering from the port docks to the top of the hill with its beautiful churches and old brick buildings topped with sailing ships and angels. And for the first time on this trip, we spent entire days exploring two very different museums.
For a number of years, I made a living just messing around with boats. That experience has left me with a weakness for wandering along waterfronts and visiting maritime museums wherever I can find them. Kit has always been kind enough to indulge my passion. The Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg is housed in the oldest remaining 10 story brick warehouse on the waterfront and is full to the brim, literally, with 40,000 ship models and artifacts. Each floor is devoted to a different era or specialty, be it marine fisheries research, merchant shipping, navies of the world, shipbuilding, navigation, historical sailing vessels, or German U-Boats. It was a fascinating five hours.
Kit’s museum of choice the next day was the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, roughly translated as the Arts and Crafts museum. It houses eclectic collections of everything from Art Nouveau furniture designed by Paul Gauguin, to an exhibit of old harpsicords, a complete Japanese tea house, and a few pieces of Expressionist artworks that survived the Nazi purge of “degenerate art”. The Islamic art wing included 13th century tile from Bukhara and a modern video display of the Pakistani TV show “The Burka Avenger.” The heroine, Jiya, is a teacher by day who dresses in Western style and doesn’t wear a veil, and is a warrior by night who fights oppression and female discrimination wearing the black burka. But perhaps the most memorable exhibition for us was an introduction to the Otto-phants of Harry Hirsch. I don’t know if anyone outside of Germany has ever heard of Harry Hirsch – an artist, musician, actor, and political cartoonist – but judging by the crowd, he must be one of the best known people in Germany.
From Hamburg, it was a quick train trip to Copenhagen – one that included a ferry across the Ostsee from Puttgarden in Germany to Rødby in Denmark. It was an interesting experience to be on a train rolling onto a ship. We spent just one night in Copenhagen, made memorable by the $75 spaghetti dinner, before boarding the Norwegian Breakaway for our voyage to New York. When you book a cheap cruise that is exactly what you get. Let’s just leave it at that.
So now we are home and feeling a bit of reverse culture shock. We had forgotten just how big and over-stocked an American supermarket could be. The lack of public transportation resulting in parking lots that take up acres of land, and the shear bulky size of so many Americans have bothered us more than ever before. In reality, little has changed here at home, but we feel that the trip has changed us, or at least opened our eyes to so many other realities.
All in all, it was a grand adventure that tested our stamina and occasionally our sense of humor. We had a chance to meet some fascinating people, see places that we had dreamed about for so long, and to explore a few culinary delights that we’ll never see on a menu here at home. Some of the experiences, like living with nomads in Kyrgyzstan, bordered on the magical. Others, like experiencing the repressive police state in Xinjiang, were depressingly eye-opening. For part of the trip, we traveled in a truck with 20 other folks representing five different countries, and never a day went by that we didn’t experience their support, humor and quite diverse opinions. I can honestly say that we couldn’t have gotten as far as we did without them.
So now, here we sit sorting through almost 1,000 photos and taking stock of the adventures and accomplishments of the last six months:
• 180 Days traveling
• 32,020 miles traveled
• 10 countries and 3 Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) visited
• Highest elevation: 17,060’ (Mt. Everest Base Camp); Lowest -505’ (Turpan Depression, China)
• Traveled by freighter, cruise ship and ferry, train, truck, bus, marshrutka, car, and airplane.
• We hiked mountain trails, walked into the vast and barren Taklimakan desert from the last fortification of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan, had a chance to ride camels across sand dunes and horses across rolling grasslands, swam in mountain lakes, explored bazaars and markets little changed in the last 500 years, and learned how to order two beers and find the bathroom in eight different languages.
• Our accommodations ranged from tents under the stars, yurts in nomad camps, guest houses where the water might be shut off at any moment while in the shower, hotels with plywood mattresses, hotels with wonderful swimming pools, and even the faded glory of an old Russian consulate on the frontier of China. But perhaps the best description of what we endured comes from our fellow traveler, Katherine Price, describing the ‘facilities’ we encountered along the way: “…so many toilets where other people’s previous visits were quite literally spread out for all to see that I think we all became champion squatters and breath-holders – it became a moment of celebration when it either flushed, or had a seat, or came with paper, or the door locked. On the rare occasions that we had all of the above, it was nearly overwhelming!”
Our final takeaway is simply this – if you’ve dreamed about it, just go do it. The road to adventure awaits you. Bad backs, worn out knees, and old age are just excuses. You are going to suffer these indignities whether you are at home or in some foreign country, and while they may limit your ability to hike as far as some young kid, they aren’t going to get any better with time. We don’t regret the moments of discomfort. We treasure the adventure of it all.
Mark Twain said it best, “Years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the ones that you did. So throw off the bow lines! Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore! Dream! Discover!”