Back in Air!

I got my ticket back in 2012, in the San Francisco bay area, while I was on an internship. It was intense, a lot of fun, and probably the most effort I’ve ever put into achieving a single goal in my life, but I’m really happy that I was able to finally get my pilot license. Unfortunately, I ended up moving to the UK not long after that, which was great for my career, but not so good for flying – general aviation in the UK is much less accessible, in terms of cost, licensing, and physical access to airplanes and airports. So I haven’t been flying since.

I decided that needed to change, so I booked 3 weeks off work to spend back in the US, and flying!

The Plan

After a lot of research, I decided to fly with Camarillo Flight Instruction, a flight instruction / rental place with good reviews and a very cheap Diamond DA40, based in a small town outside of Los Angeles. Would totally recommend them, especially for long trips. Feel free to contact me for a more information. Very helpful people and they reserved the plane for me for the 3 weeks I was there, with very reasonable minimum hours.

The Victim

A Diamond DA40!

It has a nice Garmin G1000 avionics system with TIS-B traffic (so FAA Mode-S radar sites will actually tell the plane where everyone else is), a KAP-140 autopilot, and standard range tanks.

I really appreciated having the TIS-B system, since we flew into some of the busiest airspaces in the US on this trip, where the risk of mid-air collisions is very real. It’s no TCAS, and only operates while in range of an FAA radar site (unlike a more advanced active interrogation system that interrogates other aircraft’s transponders directly), but it’s still highly effective especially in terminal areas where it’s most needed. There have been many times where it picked up traffic that blend so well into the background that I would have never seen if I didn’t know they were there.

The Flight Review

I spent the first week with an amazing instructor, Alec Ticherich who basically taught me to fly again. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect after such a long break, but as it turned out, I still remembered most of the theory, though the flying has definitely gone rusty, and landings very rusty. The week of dual flights were really helpful – not only am I confident flying again, I’m also pretty sure I am a better pilot now than I used to be.

We visited quite a few local airports on these training flights, including John Wayne – the second busiest airport in the LA area! That was definitely an experience. I had flown into San Jose International before, and even that wasn’t as busy. We also got a nice aerial view of Santa Monica and LAX along the way.

Overflying Los Angeles International
John Wayne
Santa Monica
Los Angeles. People, people, and more people.

I also got some cloud flying time! Flying by instruments has additional certification requirements for both the pilot and the airplane. I don’t have the training to do it myself, and have never done it before with instructors because the plane I flew before wasn’t IFR-certified. With previous instructors I’ve trained with we have always just cancelled flights if the conditions don’t look favourable. Here apparently they don’t cancel flights… we just get an instrument departure to go above the clouds, do what we need to do up there, and come back on an instrument approach. I’m very happy to finally have some experience flying in clouds (safely, with an instructor), and it was actually quite a bit easier than I imagined it would be with the G1000. It’s just like playing a video game!

Above the clouds. Gloomy overcast below, sunny above!
Like playing a video game!
Mountains blocking stratus clouds from the marine layer from moving into the central valley
Flying between layers

KCMA → KSQL

Flight log

My partner joined me at this point, but we weren’t able to leave on the day we planned due to a low overcast over the region thanks to the famous California marine layer. On the second day it still wasn’t clear, but it was becoming broken at 2500 ft, and the sky is clear over Santa Clarita, which was only about 10 minutes away. So we took off on our first flight into the San Francisco bay area. We decided to go to San Carlos Airport because it’s the closest small-plane-friendly airport to downtown San Francisco! It’s a very busy airspace, but I wasn’t too worried since I got my initial training at KRHV not too far south, so I was already reasonably familiar with the airspace and procedures. We decided to fly up to Livermore (see flight log link above) before turning into the bay area, to limit how much time we have to spend at low altitude avoiding SFO Class B airspace (Class B airspaces are airspaces protecting the busiest airports in the US, like SFO in this case, and they often don’t let us in if they are too busy).

The marine layer overstaying its welcome

We picked up flight following on departure (ATC providing advisory service to aircraft flying visually, on workload-permitting basis), and weather was as expected – we had to fly at about 2000 ft for a few minutes until we got to the clearing in the sky. We lost contact with ATC for a few minutes because we were blocked by hills. However, we were still able to hear airliners overhead talking to them, so we knew that if we did get into an emergency, we can get one of the airliners to relay a mayday call, and that’s always reassuring. We re-established contact a few minutes later once we were able to climb higher to cross the mountains near Fillmore.

Bye Camarillo!

Most of the rest of the flight consisted of a 215nm (~1:45) long straight leg flown by our R2-D2 KAP-140 autopilot. There wasn’t much going on in the central valley, but things got exciting again once we were handed off to NorCal Approach, and started our descent into the San Francisco area. As it turned out, they completely redrew the San Francisco Class B airspace since the last time I flew there! They were as busy as I remembered, but watching our navigation screen closely to not violate any airspace, we overflew Fremont, crossed the bay, and was handed over to San Carlos tower. We spotted the airport a bit late, and needed to do a steep descent (averaging about 1000 ft/min, according to the log), but we touched down right at the numbers and stopped with half of the 2600 ft runway remaining according to GPS track.

Being passenger in the front seat. Jesus is my copilot.
Into the Bay Area!

And then things got exciting again… and not in a good way. I was pretty happy with how the flight went, with a first time nervous passenger and all, and let my guard down while we taxi-ed to parking… and ended up under-estimating the length of our wings, and scraped the wing of another plane. Oops!

There wasn’t even a scratch visible, but a bunch of people were contacted, and a mechanic inspected at the wings (due to the wings being composite, which can potentially sustain damage with no visual sign on the surface), and fortunately there wasn’t any damage and both planes were still safe to fly. Could have gone much worse. Amusingly, I wasn’t the only one to taxi into a parked plane this month.

I taxied very carefully since.

KSQL → KMFR

Flight log

After 3 touristy days in SF, we hopped on an Uber and were soon back in San Carlos for our flight north. We were planning to go all the way to Portland in one day, but we departed a bit late, and were only able to make it to our fuel stop, Medford, by the time sunset rolled around.

We were also hoping to get a San Francisco Class B transition (clearance to fly through a controlled airspace without landing) so we can overfly downtown and see the Golden Gate bridge from above. Well, it turned out that departing on a Saturday afternoon is not conducive to getting a clearance – we were advised by San Carlos ATIS that SF transitions weren’t available because they were too busy. That meant we had to duck under their airspace and depart the way we came in – going east through Livermore. As soon as we were out of the SF area, we climbed to 8500 ft and headed straight for Redding. This is a bit of a nostalgic flight for me – my very first solo cross-country flight was from KRHV (Reid-Hillview in Santa Clara) to KCIC (Chico), and I took almost exactly the same route!

The flight to Redding was easy… and then we had to cross the mountains. Conventional mountain flying wisdom says it would be less bumpy if we flew in the valleys instead of over the mountains, but we would lose radio and radar coverage in that case, and without survival equipment on-board, that’s not really ideal. We would also lose our traffic advisory system since that relies on having radar coverage. Instead, we chose safety over comfort and overflew the mountains at 8500 ft. We still followed roads and valleys, though, and I was looking for potential emergency landing sites the whole time. There were quite a few airports and many lakes, so I think we would have been fine if the fan stopped, given the very fine weather this time of the year. We were handed over from Oakland Center to Cascade Approach while we were over the mountains, but we weren’t able to establish contact with Cascade until we popped out on the other side 20 minutes later! We were able to establish radio contact then, but they said we were still intermittent on their radar.

656BC, Cascade Approach, radar contact 3 miles… ah you just dropped off the radar again… oh you’re back!

Mount Shasta
A virga – rain falling from clouds and evaporating before hitting the ground.
Descending into Medford through a valley. TAWS (Terrain Awareness and Warning System) telling us we will crash into mountains if we turned in any direction.

We landed at Rogue Valley International Airport in Medford – pretty quiet for an airport that’s the third busiest in Oregon (busiest airport in Oregon is Portland International – our next stop)! We parked with Million Air FBO. No fees with fuel purchase, and the nice lady at the reception called all over town to find us a hotel last minute at about 50% discount, and drove us there in a very fancy van.

Runway 32
Rogue Valley International Airport. Space, space, and more space.

KMFR → KPDX

Flight log

We departed for Portland the next morning. There are quite a few airports in the Portland area that would probably be easier to fly into, but I’ve always wanted to fly into PDX (Portland International) since they were reportedly very friendly for small airplanes. I thought it would be a fun challenge, and it actually turned out to be quite a bit easier than I imagined it would be.

We departed Medford and followed the Cascade mountains all the way up to Portland. It was an easy flight from the southern end of Oregon to the northern end, and we were on flight following all the way into Portland.

United Flight 1513 (San Francisco to Eugene) on approach into EUG, overtaking us from below.
This is the closest call on our trip. We manoeuvred to avoid N3817D (a Cessna 182). I never actually saw them with our Mark I Eyeball because they were 1300 ft below, climbing into us on a collision path. They probably didn’t see us either because C182 has a high wing, and since they were a 1957 model it’s unlikely that they would have equipment that allowed them to see us on a screen. We’d like to think Cascade Approach would have told us about them at some point, but they were awfully close, and we didn’t get a traffic advisory by the time we started manoeuvring to avoid them. Since they have a registration on TIS-B, they were probably on flight following, too (or IFR).

Less than two hours later we entered Portland class C airspace and began our descent into PDX. Portland Approach told us to expect Runway 28R, which, from my research, is the runway they use for most general aviation flights because the FBO is right next to 28R, at the A3 intersection. Coming in from the south, our approach instructions were to overfly the field at or above 1500, and join right base for 28R. I tried to fly the approach as fast as I could (about 140 kt), because I thought they would have to merge us in with airliner traffic on final. That turned out to be unnecessary, as the only other traffic was an arrival on the parallel runway. It did make an interesting energy management challenge, though. Losing 1500 ft and about 140 kt from base turn isn’t that easy on a DA40 with those nice glider wings! Big slipping 270 degrees turn all the way (at a safe angle of attack to make sure we don’t stall and spin) got us to the runway, wheels on pavement just past the numbers.

Ross Island, on approach into Portland
PDX Runway 28R

We turned off the runway at A3 intersection, and were marshalled to parking on the Atlantic ramp, among all the private jets. We were definitely the smallest airplane there! Seems like everyone and their dog has a private jet there.

Marshalled into parking.
Our parking neighbours.
On the other side. Can you spot us?

We secured the airplane and walked into the palace they call FBO, and got a taste of the world of private jet travel… this is the fanciest FBO I’ve ever visited. Quite a big change from the FBOs I’m used to with an honesty box for parking fees outside, self-serve fuel, and the airport security code taped to the door.

The very nice FBO.
Atlantic FBO (Photo credit: Atlantic)

They charged us $15 security fee + $20 overnight parking, which I thought was very reasonable for a place like PDX (there’s also a handling charge if you don’t buy enough fuel).

Hi, can I have an avgas top-up for 656BC please? Probably about 20.
20 thousand?
No, 20 gallons.

KPDX → KBFI

Flight log

The next day we departed for Seattle, our last stop of this trip before turning back.

The departure from PDX was pretty interesting. We had to call Clearance Delivery first because it’s a Class C airport (*1), and a very helpful line technician told us that there is no run-up area next to the runways, and we should do our run-up on their ramp before calling anyone.

N656BC, readback correct, contact ground ready to taxi, and confirm you are a Twin Star?

This seems to be a common theme at PDX. Everyone thinks we have more and bigger engines than we actually do.

*1: You get an simplified CRAFT-style clearance, where they give you a departure heading, altitude, departure frequency, and squawk code. This is presumably because otherwise tower wouldn’t be able to release you until you are out of the class C airspace, since you would immediately be violating the airspace then (in class C and not having two-way contact with ATC). Tower will hand you off to departure on take-off, and you will already be on flight following.

Ground got us to taxi to 28R behind a Delta, I thought we were going to go after them, and finally get to practice wake turbulence takeoff procedure… But no, they told the Delta to line up and wait, and gave us an intersection takeoff in front of them with a turn to heading 320 to get out of the way as soon as we’re able. The Delta took off on our tail.

Our chaser.
“In 500 ft, turn right onto taxiway alpha, then use the left lane to turn onto taxiway alpha two, and your destination will be ahead.”
Bye Portland!
On departure.

Approach into Seattle was interesting due to the traffic density, but Seattle approach was very nice, and we were handed off to Boeing Tower at the Vashon reporting point (northern end of the Vashon island). Boeing is one of those airports with a bunch of local VFR procedures that aren’t published anywhere, so we asked for headings to fly, and they were very happy to give us headings. I found that to be a nice and stress-free technique for all involved at airports with complicated local procedures. I only need to dial the heading into the autopilot, and not have to worry about looking for landmarks. On the controller side, they can tell me exactly where to go, and they know I’m not going to suddenly decide to turn in random directions. We got in on 14R, and parked with Kenmore, which from my research is where most small pistons park. No fees with fuel purchase, and they have all the basic facilities and refreshments.

Vashon Island.
Seattle downtown up ahead.
Boeing Field Runway 14R. 737 Maxs chilling on the right on the Boeing ramp :D.
At our parking. Waiting for the SR22 to get out of the way (can’t see it in the photo, but they had just started their engine). Not going to taxi into them this time!

KBFI → KS03

Flight log

After a few days of Seattle weather and Nirvana, we headed back to the airport under a 3500 ft overcast. Not ideal, but doable, given that the terrain is flat, the weather is forecasted to improve, and there were plenty of airports to land at if things turned south. Flying at such a low altitude does mean the plane won’t be as fuel efficient, but we did carry a bit more fuel than we need, and the sky cleared up shortly after we went past Portland, so we were able to climb to 8500 ft then.

Overcast at 3500 ft
Clouds finally becoming sparse enough that I am comfortable climbing through a hole to go over.
That’s a lot of traffic near Portland and Hillsboro.

ATC was very busy and Seattle Approach wasn’t able to provide VFR advisory services until we were out of the area. Very happy with G1000’s traffic information system – would have been a slightly scary flight out of Seattle given the traffic density and not talking to ATC.

We decided to stop for the night in Ashland, a very scenic small town with a small uncontrolled airport just south of Medford. Why Ashland? Well, it’s conveniently located just before the crazy part of the Cascade mountains, and my intel indicated that it’s a pretty place for a fuel stop.

Ashland Municipal Airport

What my intel didn’t tell me though, was that it’s 4th July the next day, and apparently that’s a pretty big deal. We don’t have anything like that in any of the countries I’ve lived in, so we got caught a bit off guard (Canada does have Canada Day, but it’s not quite as crazy). It was interesting to experience some of the American-style patriotism.

We did not book hotel in advance because we didn’t know if we would be flying or not that day, and it was only on the way there that we realised most of the hotels were fully booked (my partner checked on the phone when we had cell coverage – not very often at 8500 ft!). I decided to continue to Ashland anyways, because we had a plane, and there’s always the option of just taking off again to find another town if we can’t find a hotel. Fortunately we did end up finding a hotel with vacancy, and it’s the prettiest hotel I’ve ever stayed in!

KS03 → KMFR

Flight log

Shortest leg of the trip – 10 minutes flight time.

We had a lazy morning in Ashland and had a nice walk around town before heading to the airport. Tried to use the self-serve fuel pump… and it was broken.

So we were in a bit of a situation. We landed the night before with just over 10 gallons left in the tanks. At our cruise setting that’s just over 1 hour. FAA’s legal minimum fuel reserve is 30 minutes for the kind of flying we were doing, but I don’t really feel comfortable cutting it that close, and always aim to have at least 1 hour of fuel in the tanks.

That’s why we decided to turn back and backtrack a bit to Medford (KMFR) for fuel instead of continuing on our way and find an airport along the way, since that would involve flying into the mountains with 1 hour of fuel… not a very good idea.

We were in Medford 10 minutes later with low fuel warning in one of the tanks coming on as we landed, and got some fuel from Million Air (who we parked with on our way up a few days earlier). Being a full service provider at a larger airport, they didn’t have the cheapest fuel, but they were the closest, and hence safest option. After all, fuel exhaustion is by far the most common cause of engine failures in flight, and that’s not a statistics I want to be a part of.

Fuel at shutdown. About 50 minutes of reserve at cruise speed. Still very much legal, but this is the lowest fuel level I’ve ever seen.

Fuelling took a while because apparently their pump broke, too (?!), and they had to figure out how to pump the fuel manually…

KMFR → KMCE

Flight log

After our little unplanned excursion, we headed back towards the mountains and into California.

This time we decided to cross the mountains at 11,500 ft indicated. It was actually closer to 12,000 ft according to GPS, because we were using altimeter settings from Medford, and apparently the mountains had about 0.5 inHg higher atmospheric pressure at the time. On the flight log you can actually see the indicated altitude start deviating from the GPS altitude as we entered the mountains (Klamath National Forest)!

Near Mount Shasta

We decided to go so high because we lost radio and radar contact on the way up at 7,500 ft, and I didn’t want that to happen again. We did manage to maintain radar and radio contact with ATC this time through the mountains.

Of course, flying high is not without disadvantages. At 12,000 ft, air has about 40% less oxygen (partial pressure of oxygen, in more technical terms) than at sea level. We were monitoring our blood oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter. They are very useful for high altitude flying without supplemental oxygen, but as with all tools, it’s also important to know their limitations – they are much less accurate below 70% saturation or so, can be affected by extreme temperatures, and hyperventilating will make it show a higher number while actually exacerbating hypoxia (because hyper-ventilation takes oxygen away from the brain, and into extremities).

At this altitude my saturation fluctuated between about 85% and 90%, while my partner’s stayed near 90% (women tend to have higher SpO2). 90% is where I start thinking about hypoxia. 65% is where very significant mental impairment starts, and at 55% people lose consciousness (source). Keeping in mind that pulse oximeters become wildly inaccurate below 70% (most specify that their rated accuracy is only from 70% to 100%), 80% is probably about as low as I would go.

A few hours of amazing scenery later, we arrived at Merced, CA for our fuel stop – a small uncontrolled airport with a self-serve pump (that works).

Back in California. All flat!
At the pit stop. Merced Regional Airport.

KMCE → KCMA

Flight log

Our last leg took us back to Camarillo, arriving just after sunset (but before the end of twilight, which is when the FAA definition of “night” starts, so no rules were broken!). Beautiful arrival into CMA, but both my cameras have died at this point, so unfortunately not many pictures!

Crossing our last bit of mountains back to Camarillo (photo credit: Steph, my partner).
Camarillo at sunset (photo credit: Steph).
Back in Camarillo. First time I’ve been able to actually see our own landing lights.
Unloading. I’ll miss you, N656BC! Maybe we’ll meet again in another few years.

On this trip we covered a total distance of 1910 nautical miles (2198 statute miles), and 15 hours in air. The same trip by car would have taken about 35 to 40 hours, depending on traffic.

We returned the plane, spent a few more days in LA, and headed back to London. No more flying for me for a while, but now I am thinking about taking advantage of my recently re-gained proficiency to get that glider license I started working on ages ago…

Departing LAX. Felt a bit weird to be on an airplane and not flying it…

Solo Eurotrip, Budapest

Armed with the gift of the last of a book of 10 transit tickets from Japanese guy #1 and some amazing kebab from the Vienna Westbahnhof, I boarded the bus to Budapest (not using the ticket… the ticket is for intra-city travel only).

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It wasn’t a very comfy ride, but hey, international buses aren’t supposed to be comfy. These are not the buses you take to be comfy. These are the buses you take because you need to go from one city to another, and you want to do it as cheaply as possible, and don’t want to be robbed on the way (that rules out hitchhiking).

At least I got a first row seat?

Sitting next to me was Unknown girl #1. Did not attempt to talk to her because she had earphones in most of the time (which is the internationally recognized personal door sign for “don’t talk to me”), and also she didn’t seem like a tourist. I didn’t know if she spoke German or Hungarian, but I don’t speak either anyways.


One thing I love about this kind of travel is that you can almost get away with not doing any planning at all. Hostel hosts are usually very friendly people, and can tell you all you will ever want to know about the place.

I usually just plan for getting to the hostel, and leave the rest till I get there.

I stayed at Budapest Bubble. If you read the reviews on HostelWorld, you’d notice that they all mention this mysterious woman by the name of Anna.

Anna is one of the 2 people running the hostel, and she is amazing.

As soon as I arrived, she sat me down, gave me a map, and spent about half an hour telling me all about the city – fun places to visit, cool things to see, etc, and drew a very very detailed overlay on the map – where to buy stuff, historical landmarks, historical stuff, where to eat, where the bath houses are… everything! No independent research necessary! I wish I had taken a picture of the map. Alas, I didn’t :(.

It was a very small hostel converted from an apartment. On this trip I have stayed in hostels with hundreds of beds, as well as very small hostels with only a few beds like this one. I can’t decide which kind I like more. Bigger hostels usually means better facilities, and more people available for meeting (so you can be more picky), whereas small hostels are usually cozier and you get to see the same people more often.

There were about 5 other people staying at the hostel at that time, and most of them decided to go pub crawling on my first night. I didn’t end up going because I wanted to actually get up early to explore the city… pubs are the same pretty much anywhere, right?

So I ended up staying behind, and just talked to Anna for a few hours. I love talking to hostel hosts. They are usually local, are knowledgeable about local stuff (because they are in the tourism “industry”), and speak English! It’s otherwise pretty difficult to get to know locals in cities like Budapest, where very few locals speak English (or any other language I understand… I need a C-3PO).

Apparently Hungarian is so hard to learn that knowing Hungarian is usually seen as a major accomplishment. Most European languages are from either the West Germanic family (German, Dutch, English), or the Romance family (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian), and they usually have enough common features or even vocabulary that if you know one language in the family, it’s relatively easy to guess stuff in other languages in the family. Hungarian is from a family known as Uralic languages (according to Wikipedia) which also includes Finnish and Estonian. It’s so different from English that although they also use Latin alphabet, I couldn’t guess a single word.

Anna had a t-shirt that says “I speak Hungarian. What’s your superpower?”

She was studying to be a kindergarten teacher, and shared a few stories from her practicum, mostly about kids fighting etc… and apparently running a hostel isn’t that much different from teaching in a kindergarten. Most of the time people are just drunk, but she said there’s one time a crazy Polish lady kept walking around the common area with a knife, and arguing with herself…


Next few days were all raining. Hard. I guess it wasn’t TOO bad that I didn’t get much rain till the final city on my trip? The rain sucked, though, and I didn’t end up getting to explore Budapest much.

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Budapest used to be two cities on two banks of the river (the Danube) – Buda and Pest. Nowadays the hilly Buda side is mostly residential, and most of the touristy places are on the Pest side.

There’s a pretty cool Citadel on the Buda side – a fortress on a hill built by Austrians in the 1800s. Hungarians don’t like it because it was built using Hungarian forced labour. When the Austrians left the walls were destroyed, and it’s now a touristy area, offering a good view of the Pest side of the city… when it’s not incredibly rainy and foggy.

I didn’t have a map with me, so I had to rely on a picture of the very helpful diagram on a sign at the foot of the hill.

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No idea what the words meant. Probably just something very important.

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At the top of the hill. Good reward for an hour of climbing –

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At this point it started raining hard, so I ran back towards civilization, while taking a shower. Food!

This is the Central Market Hall (“Nagyvásárcsarnok”). It is the biggest market in Budapest, and is actually frequented by locals (though there are also many tourists now).

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Bottom floor has a lot of fresh produce, and top floor is almost like a very big food court.

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It was incredibly crowded during feeding time, but the food is good and cheap!

Ok, it’s probably expensive by Hungarian standards, but still cheap by Western standards.

I had this –

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It’s stuffed chicken/duck/something leg. No idea how they made it, but there’s mashed-potatoes-like stuff between the skin and the meat. It was awesome!

Another popular Hungarian dish is the beef goulash (beef soup/stew). There is a famous German dish with the same name, but it’s quite different from the Hungarian version from what I heard. The dish originated from Hungary way back in the days. No pictures because it was too yummy.

Castle? Castle.

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And that’s more or less it… unfortunately. There was a continuous torrential downpour for the next 2 days, so I just packed up, took the bus back to Vienna, and flew back.

It’s a bit sad that such an epic trip ended in such an un-epic way, but I guess not having any rain until this point was more than what I could have asked for already.

Until next time!

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Solo Eurotrip, Vienna Part 2

Vienna is divided into 23 districts, and numbered 1-23 for easy reference (gotta love German simplicity). The first district, the Innere Stadt, is the Old Town, where all the historical things are. I believe it was the entirety of Vienna before the expansions in the 1800s to include the suburbs.

Unfortunately, unlike the old town in Prague for example, since Vienna has always been inhabited by the rich in each period, many of the buildings in the lnnere Stadt have been built, blown up, rebuilt, blown up again, then rebuilt again, etc.

One thing that stood relatively unchanged in the centre of the old town is St. Stephen’s Cathedral (it was built on the site of earlier churches, but it hasn’t been blown up yet in a few hundred years… so hopefully it will stay?).

It’s huge!

20150919_194535_NightAt the time it was built, it marked the eastern border of the Christian world, beyond which were the  Hungarians.

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Funny story – back in the good old days of rivalry between Catholicism and Protestantism, Catholics tried hard to convince people that their god is the true one because their god is obviously richer.

But it wasn’t until the plagues hit that people really started believing in them. They were able to accurately predict when the plagues would come and go, and people were amazed.

How did they do that? The church archives. Literacy was low, and people generally didn’t read, so no one remembers anything from more than a decade or two ago. Plagues came every few decades, and those smart church people found a pattern by studying the church records of history – plagues always worsen during months of high humidity (summers), and go away during months of low humidity (winters).

Of course they didn’t understand why at that time, but it didn’t stop them from making up some cool stories and prophecies, and converted the whole city to Catholicism.


 

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The Graben has been one of the main shopping streets of Vienna for the past 700 years. For the past couple hundred years, the Graben and 2 adjoining streets (Kohlmarkt and Kartner Rd) have been where the city’s richest shop. Today they have stores like LV and Chanel. Back in the days they had their equivalents of those brands. According to the tour guide, nowadays most of the rich clients come from Russia in the winter, and western Europeans in the summer.


Another one of the most prominent landmarks in Vienna is the Hofburg Palace. Once the imperial palace of the nation, it now houses a few museums showcasing the city’s rich history.

In front of the palace is the famous Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square). There are two equestrian statues (men on horses) in front of the palace. One of them was more impressive than the other – the one that the artist successfully balanced on just the two hind legs of the horse.

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He was not able to repeat the feat with the second statue, which required additional support (tail of the horse). He also went insane while constructing the second statue.

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There were a few cool things inside the museums. One of them has all kinds of historical musical instruments, like a travel-sized violin, violins with a gazillion strings, and… what seems to be 2 guitars stuck together?

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Really cool armour with a built-in pole?

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I also visited the house of Mozart (in the First District), and also the house and clinic of Sigmund Freud. Sigmund Freud graduated from the University of Vienna, and stayed in Vienna until the Nazies came. He then escaped to London with most of his belongings (only possible because he had a lot of money, from one of his patients). Most of the furnitures in the museum were donated by his also-famous psychologist daughter, Anna Freud, and shipped back to Vienna (from London).

It was a small practice that only has a few pieces of furniture, and of course, plenty of penises.

Unfortunately, neither of those places allowed photographing.

I went back to the hostel relatively early, and met a few more people at the hostel bar.

Israeli girl #1 was from Tel Aviv. Apparently Tel Aviv is a pretty modern western city, except everything is super expensive. So they would often come to Europe to shop, because everything is much cheaper in Europe. It’s a lot like how many Canadians living near the border go to the states to shop.

But still. Vienna. Cheap?!? It’s one of the most expensive places I have been to!

She also doesn’t recommend visiting Tel Aviv, but Jerusalem is fun if you are into religion or history.

German girl #3 is studying medicine in Frankfurt, and is a violinist and a fan of Lindsey Stirling. Yay for Lindsey Stirling!

German girl #4 is a second year mechanical engineering student in Cologne (IIRC?), trying to decide what to specialize in. Apparently traveling is good for that? Their options for specialization are pretty similar to what we have here, and obviously I recommended mechatronics :D.

She spends all her free time restoring a car that has sat on her grandfather’s farm for decades, and hopes to finish by the end of the year. Way cool.

She is also allergic to the sun. Way uncool, but pretty cool in an uncool way. Did you know that some people are allergic to water and can’t even take long showers?

Japanese guy #1 worked for a company that acquires land for the government to build highways on. So when the government wants to build a new highway, they would tell the company to go buy all the houses and land along the way. And no, those people aren’t allowed to say no. Though apparently they do offer above-market $$ as compensation.

We also talked a bit about Japanese work culture. It’s a bit shit IMHO. Japan is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to work there. They strongly value seniority over merit, and many high up people don’t really know what they are doing. There are also many unwritten rules – like how everyone stays till very late even if they have not much to do, because they don’t dare leaving before their managers. And sometimes their managers don’t leave even when they have nothing to do, because they don’t want to seem unimportant (being able to leave on time = you are not important enough). So everyone stays very late. You get about 3 weeks of vacation just like in the US or Canada, but no one dares taking more than a week at a time, or 2 weeks in total. You will be jobless when you return if you do (he made a throat-slashing gesture), and since Japanese people typically stay at the same company for their entire career, it’s very hard for someone who loses their job in their late 30s or 40s to find another one.

And then there’s sexism. Women are expected to start a family and quit their job, so they are generally never promoted. There is also the unwritten rule that they should always bring tea and coffee (and sometimes lunch) to their male colleagues, even if they have the same job. That’s also pretty BS.

Egyptian girl #1 was born in Cairo, Egypt, and moved to Los Angeles when she was young, and now lives in Germany. She grew up just learning new languages for fun, and works as a translator now, speaking 5 languages – Arabic, English, French, German, and something else.

She specializes in translating legal documents, but enjoys doing live translations more. For example, she has been translating for refugees in Germany for the past little while (most refugees speak English pretty well, but not German). She enjoys the human contact.

Translation is not just about languages, and in fact, sometimes it’s not about languages at all. For example, many companies also contract her to do “cultural reviews” of videos and ads to be shown in a different country for example. People from different cultures can see and interpret the same things very differently, and it takes someone who has lived for extended periods in different countries to be able to see those things.

So she tries to move to a different country every few years. How cool is that?!

You may have noticed that they are mostly girls. It’s not an isolated incident, and I’m not intentionally avoiding contact with guys! Solo travellers tend to talk to each other, and it seems like there are many more girl solo travellers than guy solo travellers. Don’t ask me why, but yay for finally finding a hobby that is not 90% male? Only took me 20 tries.

Roommate for the night was Australian guy #4. He was in his 60s, and still travelling around the world by himself! He came all the way from Australia, and this trip has taken him through Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India, and Switzerland. I loved talking to him. He talked poetry. Loved his poetic descriptions of all those places.

For future reference, Zurich is very nice if you have a lot of money. Though it sounds more like a couple-y place than a place for solo travellers. Maybe I’ll save it till I become couple-y.

And that’s all for Vienna! I booked a train to Budapest, Hungary, for the next day.

To be continued…

 

Solo Eurotrip, Vienna Part 1

Backpacking is a bit like playing a fantasy role-playing game (Baldur’s Gate anyone?) – you go to a small town, find an inn, order a drink, talk to a few people, try to get a few hints on where to go next to advance the story, and be on your way.

At the hostel in Prague I talked to a few people who just came from Vienna, as well as a girl on the hostel staff who travelled to Vienna often. They unanimously recommended Hostel Ruthensteiner, so that’s where I booked.

PS. If I forget to mention this later, yes, I highly recommend it as well.

It was pretty awesome.

There were 3 guys and a girl behind the counter, and they reportedly speak 12 languages between them. Of course, 4 people and 12 languages doesn’t mean 3 languages per person, because there are many overlaps. They all speak German and English, so assuming no more overlaps, that’s still 4.5 languages per person on average!

There was a Chinese family that checked in after me, and the blonde girl actually spoke pretty good Mandarin to them. I was impressed. I should have spoken Chinese, too, just to make their lives slightly more difficult.

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They call themselves a “musical hostel”. That sounded nice, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Then I walked in on someone playing Vivaldi in the common room. Pretty cool!

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There is a communal piano in the common room, and people play it continuously from 9am to 11pm every day (not when I took the picture, which was early morning). Anything from classical to crazy pop stuff. The piano really made the hostel a lot more Vienna-y. Favourite common room on this trip!


Roommates for the night were an older German couple (German guy #2, German girl #2) from Stuttgart, and South Korean girl #1.

South Korean girl #1 was cool. She was on a working holiday in Vancouver recently, and actually lived 2 blocks away from my old workplace in Yaletown (downtown Vancouver). How cool is that?!

She is on a backpacking trip to see all the small (and big) towns in Austria, and just came from Salzburg (a city in western Austria), and will be heading up to Munich for Oktoberfest in a few days.

Booking accommodation in Munich in October is a competitive sport, and many people book a few months or even a year in advance. South Korean girl #1 didn’t, so she planned on taking an overnight train there from Austria, spend a day there, and then take another overnight train out of Munich… dedication.

On the next day, everyone (besides yours truly) moved out, and a new batch of fresh meat moved in. They were South Korean girl #2-3 (travelling together), and South Korean girl #4. It was the most anti-social night of my trip.

South Korean girls #2-3 arrived early in the evening with a HUGE pink suitcase, and spent most of the evening in the room, doing I don’t know what.

They didn’t speak much English. The only thing they said to me was “where’s the towel?”. Probably their first time staying at a hostel.

I also felt bad for taking 5 minutes to understand what they were asking. Their pronunciation of the word “towel” is almost exactly how I pronounce “tower”, and I thought long and hard about towers in Vienna… Wasn’t trying to make fun of their accent or anything – I have an accent myself too (well, I suppose everyone does, but I’ve never lived in a place where my accent is mainstream, and I don’t even know if such a place exists!). I just had no idea what they were saying. Maybe that scared them? They never spoke to me after that…

On the next morning they spent about 2 hours getting ready, including about 1 hour on makeup. And about another hour getting ready for bed at the end of the day. I guess their standard going-to-bed routine involves applying pastes and stickers(?) of various colours and consistencies to their faces. No wonder they needed a huge suitcase – they have a beauty salon in there!

There was also South Korean girl #4. She was absolutely the most anti-social person I met on this trip. She didn’t even respond to “hi”, and actually holed up in her bed, inside her blanket, on her phone, and turned towards the wall. The whole time. I don’t think I saw her face at any point. Why stay at a hostel if you don’t want to talk to anyone?

Since roommates weren’t much fun, I decided to go on an evening walking tour to get an introduction to the city, and went to dinner with a few people on the tour afterwards.

Among them were Canadian guy #2, and Filipino girl #1-4. Canadian guy #2 was an electrical engineer from Edmonton, taking a one-month vacation to backpack around Europe. Filipino girl #1-4… I have no idea what they did, and they were about the same age as me. Got some cool travel advices for Philippines, though! Upon learning that I was travelling by myself, they were very impressed (really, it’s not that difficult!), and became extremely friendly… that was slightly weird.


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Vienna was, at one point, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire (even though at that point they were “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”). It was the place to be if you were very good at what you do, and have high ambitions.

Many famous musicians called Vienna home at some point in their lives – Haydn, Schubert, Strauss, Beethoven, and of course, Mozart.

“Mozart loved tight pants. Back in the days they didn’t have elastic material, so to make tight pants, they have to wear them while they are still wet, and shrink them.” – Tour guide.


 

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There were a bunch of people dressed up in period costumes trying to sell tickets to some concert, in front of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It was pretty funny. I don’t think anything screams “tourist trap” more than a bunch of people selling tickets in costumes.

I passed by the cathedral many times, and at one point one of them tried to show me what they were selling by flipping through a bunch of images of ballerinas and symphonies, probably from Google Images. Uh, yeah, I think I know what ballet is.


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Did you know that hot dogs are called wieners because they were invented in Vienna? Wien is the German name of Vienna. The first hot dogs were made by taking soft pork sausages from Frankfurt, and adding beef to make them stiff. So now hot dogs are called wieners everywhere in the world, except in Vienna, where they are called Frankfurters.

Currywurst (pictured above) is a German snack commonly sold by street vendors, made by adding ketchup and curry powder to sliced (and sometimes unsliced) hot dogs. Yummy!


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And of course, like all other respectable German-speaking cities, alcohol is cheaper than water.

To be continued…

Solo Eurotrip, Prague Part 2

There are two types of paddle boats – one where each boat has one propeller shared between the 2 paddlers, and one where each boat has two propellers, driven by the respective paddler. Cheating is only possible on the first type because on the second type, a lazy paddler will result in the boat turning in circles.

We had the first type.

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I love paddle boats and I don’t know why. They make me happy.

Like almost all other major historical European cities, Prague is divided in half by a river. Vltava river runs through Prague, and offers a great view of many landmarks.

Boat mates were Israeli guy #1 and #2, and Canadian girl #1.

Israeli guy #1 and #2 were pretty young. They just finished high school and decided to go travel before the mandatory military service (I think?). Did you know that women are required to serve in the military as well in Israel? Conscription is pretty shitty, but at least they are not sexist about it (unlike most other countries, including the US, which still doesn’t allow women to hold some positions in the military). One of them does some software stuff, and wants to continue on with that in the military.

Canadian girl #1 works in the correctional services of Canada, in Ottawa. Her job is to answer phone calls, from inmates who are not happy with… pretty much anything. Apparently food requirements are common, and many people claim to be Muslim to get halal food, which is way better than regular food. And of course, being a woman, she also gets a fair number of wankers and heavy breathers…


At the end of the boat ride, one of the girls (Belgian girl #1) suggested we go to a famous burger place that’s known for their huge portions. I got ribs. Yeah. It was as good as it looks.

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Belgian girl #1 is studying tourism in a small town near Brussels, can speak 4 languages, and reportedly has an amazing fuck buddy.

I originally planned to visit Brussels on the way from Lisbon (since I planned to go by train). Didn’t happen unfortunately since I found out that the train ride would cost a few arms and legs, and involves running through Paris in 55 minutes to get from the south train station to the north train station. Definitely on my list of places to visit, though, especially if I end up back in the UK. It’s so close!


20150916_195031_HDRThis was supposed to be my last night in Prague. I went back to the hostel and tried to book stuff for the next part of my journey, and had a bit of a scare – I originally planned to head to Budapest next, which, despite the refugee situation, I thought would be easy since people are trying to get OUT of Hungary, not INTO Hungary.

What I didn’t realize is that if trains aren’t going westbound from Budapest, there won’t be trains going eastbound into Budapest either. Law of Conservation of Trains!

As a result, all the buses were fully booked (those buses don’t usually require advance booking), and I actually had no way of getting into Hungary. Even the flights were crazy expensive.

So there you go, the danger of impromptu travel. On the other hand, since I had nothing already booked in Hungary, I was able to just look at a map, and pick another city/country to go to.

My options were Vienna or Krakow (Poland). I really wanted to see Munich or Stuttgart, but it’s pretty much impossible to visit those cities (or any German city really) at this time of the year, thanks to Oktoberfest.

I also thought about just flying out again and into Russia, to either Moscow or St. Petersburg. Then I found out that Canadians need to apply for visas to enter Russia. Totally unacceptable. What kind of countries require Canadians to apply for visas!? So no Russia.

It was a difficult choice between Vienna and Krakow. Vienna is very cool with all the musical stuff and history, but Krakow had Nazi stuff and more WWII history.

In the end I decided to go to Vienna just because I still wanted to go to Budapest eventually, and it’s easier to get there from Vienna than from Krakow (3 hours bus vs overnight sleeper train).

Roommates for the night were Slovaskian guy #1 and American girl #1. American girl #1 was amazing. She grew up in South Carolina (or was it North?), decided she didn’t like where the US is heading as a country, and moved to Stuttgart (Germany) by herself, and now works there and speaks fluent German. She was one of the volunteers welcoming refugees at a train station in Stuttgart. It’s one thing to read about those kind of things on the news, but actually meeting someone who was there makes it so much more real.

On a totally unrelated sidenote, her looks, voice, manners, and even political views were EXACTLY the same as those of a girl I had a huge crush on years ago… it was uncanny!

Slovaskian guy #1 was loud, obnoxious, and racist (against Syrians, regarding the refugee crisis). He mostly argued with American girl #1. “Arguing” is perhaps not the right term to use here, since it consists mostly of him saying the same racist stuff and lies over and over and over again, and without any support. It was ugly.

Slovaskian guy #1 is hereby declared non-beautiful. That’s another shitty thing about hosteling – you get to room with crazy people once in a while. That said, in my few weeks travel and rooming with 20-30 people, there was only this 1 crazy guy. Overwhelming majority of people I’ve met on the trip were amazing. Still worth it.

I spent the next day on my laptop being anti-social at the hostel, booking and researching stuff… said goodbye to everyone and departed the next morning on a 5 hours bus ride to Vienna. Back to just me + backpack. Another friendships reset!

If you are ever in Prague, I highly recommend Hostel One Home. Most enthusiastic and friendly staff ever. And free traditional Czech dinner every night. FREE DINNER!! It’s also on the main road, and walking down the road in front of the hostel takes you straight to the old town square, where all the interesting things are.

To be continued…