Texas and the Deep South Road Trip Introduction – Sunday 18th October

Hello again. Two years have flown by, due to a job change I have a month of gardening leave so its time to resume the Woodlands to Woking blog. After the last train journey I’ve decided to change the primary form of transport to the great American automobile for a road trip around Texas and the deep south of the USA.

I type this at the wonderful Changi airport in Singapore waiting for my flight to Dallas Fort Worth, Texas. An exact 25 hour journey via Dubai with Emirates arriving 9:45 on Monday morning. Happily, I have been informed both flights are pretty much empty so I hope to be able to sprawl across 4 seats and arrive in the US of A refreshed.

The route I will be following is below and totals out at 3582 miles over two weeks. Not nearly as far Woodlands to Woking but this time I will be responsible for the vehicle and not just warming up noodles so a slightly daunting solo drive. Driving from London to Tehran or from Singapore to Shanghai are actually shorter car journeys. To state the obvious, America is a massive place.

Processed with Moldiv

Processed with Moldiv

During the trip will be avoiding interstates on the advice of Bill Bryson and getting to see a little of small town America I hope. I’ll also be avoiding chain restaurants and trying  as many local delicacies as possible. Which unfortunately mainly seems to be a large chunk of meat slowly cooked in a bbq served with a beer or whiskey. This will be hell.

Also with the inclusion of Austin, New Orleans , Nashville and Memphis I am very excited about some of the music that I’ll be able to listen too. Especially excited to be able to catch a live performance from Rebirth Brass Band, a band I’ve listened to a lot since watching Treme, a show about New Orleans post Katrina.

Hoping to also catch some sport, I have a ticket to one of the biggest stadiums in the world to see the LSU Tigers. I should be able to see some more, perhaps basketball , ice hockey or rodeo too.

I’ll be aiming to keep this blog updated every couple of days, plenty of pictures and hopefully amusing little stories.

If there is anyone reading this and they have a real need to hear about train trips, let me know and I’ll write-up a recent train journey into North Korea soon!

Cheers Tom

Thursday 19th September: London to Woking

Thursday 19th September: London to Woking
Train Ticket: 2nd Class – £8.10 bought on the day at the station
Scheduled departure/arrival times: 12:52 to 13:11
Actual departure/arrival time: 12:52 to 13:11

Last few miles, to complete Woodlands to Woking. First to get across London on the oh so expensive tube if you don’t have Oyster card. Tourists must be shocked getting to London.

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I meet some good friends and family in Clapham for a few catch up celebratory drinks. Great to see some familiar faces!

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I’d chosen the aptly named Railway pub as the venue for the evening and enjoyed some fine English Ale

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The next morning after being hosted by my good friend Mr Burnett, I made my way down to Clapham Junction for my last short ride to Woking. The very familiar South West train and 19 minute journey was on time.

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Once back, I wanted a photo by the Woking sign after completing the 19,000km trip. I had to ask three people before one agreed to take a photo, it was great to be home!

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What a ride.

Wednesday 18th September: Cologne to London

Wednesday 18th September: Cologne to London
Train Ticket: 1st & 2nd Class  – £79,  bought a month before at http://www.eurostar.com
Scheduled departure/arrival times: 12:43 to 18:12
Actual departure/arrival time: 12:43

I’d arrived in Cologne early in the morning as the sun was starting to rise. As soon as you exit the station you’re confronted by a magnificent black cathedral, which dominates the skyline. It is a true wonder of a building.

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I attempted to get a photo which fitted the whole of the building, but couldn’t do it. I needed a wider lens or a better vantage point. After a bit more gawking I decided to go and find my hostel to get rid of my bag.

Walking across a large bridge which spanned the Rhine, the cathedral behind me and the sun rising in front. Along the length of the bridge thousands of padlocks had been locked on to it as declarations of love over the years.

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I’d fancied a bit of luxury agin as it was my last night but was surprised to find that according to booking.com that 94% of all rooms were taken. This left the places miles away from the city, the extremely expensive 5 star suites and the places rated as awful. Back to hostelbookers, but found there was only one place left there too. I was told that one of the largest conferences was taking place that week, so everything was full.

The place I found was a proper youth hosteling place, which was full of children or German business men going to the conference but had left the hotel booking to late. It was the least welcoming hostel I’d ever stayed at and clinical as a hospital. Not a place you wanted to relax.

I soon dumped my bag and got out of there, back over the Rhine to the old town where I wandered for a few hours, having a coffee or pretzel or currywurst here and there. Drawn back to the cathedral, I went for a closer inspection.

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Cologne Cathedral is a Roman Catholic church, World Heritage Site and Germany’s most visited landmark. Attracting an average of 20,000 people a day. I can understand why, I’ve seen some great buildings on this trip the Forbidden City, St Basil’s cathedral, great colonial buildings in Penang or the Winter Palace in St Petersburg but none (in my opinion) have the same impact.

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The quality of the workmanship and detailing all around the building is terrific but once you get inside it really takes your breath away. The height of the towers (157m) are easier to grasp. The vast stained glass windows all round the building come into play, with multi coloured light pouring through them. The sheer scale of the space is tremendous.

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If you can’t tell I really liked this building, it was awe-inspiring to say the least! I spent a lot of time there wandering around saying “wow”.

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In the evening I hit a beer hall and was laughed at by some locals, which was nice. I ordered a Munich dish and not one from Cologne. Which was cause for much scorn and laughter. The dish was a massive piece of roasted pork with a couple of sides as well. In complete contrast the beer they served in glasses about the same size as Russians serve there vodka shots in. Very strange.

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The next day I was heading back to Blighty with a mixture of emotions, really excited to see family and friends but a bit sad that it was all over so quickly. I left on the Thayles lunchtime train taking me to Brussels for the Eurostar connection taking me back to London.

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I did get my bit of luxury, I’d forgotten I’d upgraded to 1st for a few euros which meant some time in the lounge with free drinks, wifi and snacks. Followed by a big comfortable seat, waiter served lunch, alcoholic drinks and wifi all included. Well worth the six euros I think.

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Jumped on the Eurostar which was full and the most cramped train I’d been on since Thailand. I was reminded of an episode of Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days, when he arrived back in the UK and wasn’t impressed with his reception.

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On my table was a male and female Brit, let’s call them, MB & FB.

MB: “Is that the 650d?” (in reference to my camera)
Tom: “Yes”
MB: “First DSLR?”
Tom: “Yes”
MB: “Happy with it?”
Tom: “Yeah, I bought it because I was going on a big trip and wanted to try to take some good photos”
MB, accusingly: You’re a gap yearer?
Tom: No just a month and bit. I work in Singapore.
MB: I see. (back to newspaper)
FB: What was your trip? (emerging out of her phone)
Tom, excitedly: Singapore to London without any planes, I finish today!
FB: oh right. (returned to phone)
MB: Are you flying back to Singapore?
Tom: Yes, back in 13 hours.
MB: Well that’s much more sensible than taking the train. (returned to his paper)

I didn’t ask to take there photo’s. Every other person about I spoke to about my trip at least feigned interest and mostly it was genuine (I think).

Arriving in St Pancreas on time is great, it’s a fantastic building. Probably the best looking station of the trip. However, one last gripe, the queue to get through customs takes 20 mins and is reminiscent of an airport! Not good. This could all been done on the train, as it is on every European train.

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Monday 16th September: Stockholm to Cologne

Monday 16th September: Stockholm to Cologne
Train Ticket: 6 berth sleeper  – 112.50 Euros, bought a month before at http://www.Bahn.de
Scheduled departure/arrival times: 12:21 to 06:59 Tuesday
Actual departure/arrival time: 12:21 to 06:51

After about 2 hours sleep on the ferry and couple too many shots, I walked slowly to the hostel trying to clear the cobwebs. That was unsuccessful, but it was good to see the sun rising over Stockholm.

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I desperately hoped that I could get into my bed a lot earlier than the designated check-in time. The hostel was full and I couldn’t get in till 2pm,which was a long way away.

So I had a second crack at cobweb removal by hiring a bike and cycling round the city for the morning. This seemed to do the trick. Similar to Helsinki, Stockholm is made up by a lot of islands. A lot closer together though, as there all connected by bridges. Lots of cobbled streets, grand old buildings and interesting looking alleys in this cycle friendly city. The Swedes are an attractive bunch, well-heeled too. I felt as though I was cycling round the set of a Ralph Lauren advert.

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The big news in Stockholm was that the King of Sweden was throwing a party to commemorate his 40 year reign. He was opening up the Palace and putting on various music bands through the afternoon and evening. This meant a lot of people were walking round the city waving Swedish flags or wearing blue and yellow viking hats.

After a little power nap I walked into the courtyard of the very plush hostel, where a Lindy hopping dance lesson was starting before going to the palace to perfect newly learnt moves. I thought why not and accepted the invitation to join the class. I was a natural and I imagine I looked a bit like this after about 30 mins practice: Lindy Hop

We walked down to the Palace with a group of other Lindy hop students from the hostel. The concert was taking place in one of the interior courtyards. A big band was just starting and the crowd started dancing. Not dancing like we dance in England or Singapore at a concert, basically bouncing up and down with perhaps a shoulder shake. Oh no, the Swedes do things properly grab your partner by the hand then intricate steps, twirls and jumps.

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The band apparently was a big favourite of the King’s and without much fanfare or security presence he watched in the crowd with everyone else. Couldn’t imagine Queen Lizzy doing that.

A quiet night and a lazy morning blogging meant I was refreshed the next day as I continued to my next stop in Germany. It was a grey, wet morning as I left from the Central Station on a tilting express train down to Copenhagen. The train was packed and was very much a commuter train with people hopping on and off or catching up on sleep. Not a chatty place.

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I had just over an hour wait once we had arrived in Copenhagen. A couple of people had recommend the hotdogs with the works served from little stalls in Denmark. I was disappointed not to find one. Soon I hopped on the overnight train heading to Amsterdam but I was getting off a couple of hours earlier the next morning in Cologne.

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I was sharing a carriage with one other for once, a young man studying in architecture in Milan who hailed from China via Brisbane. He had the same camera as me so we had a good chat about camera functions.

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I got one last great train sunset while peering out the window. I’ll miss those.

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We crossed an impressively huge bridge, which must have been one of the longest in the world it went on for miles!

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Once it was dark, I went down to investigate the German Dining Cart and had some good food, bread and beer. Also met a friendly American couple who seemed very interested in my trip. So I bored them to bed.

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After pretty poor nights sleep, we arrived in Cologne a little ahead of schedule, just as the sun started to rise.

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Solo travelling advice: The importance of appearing happy. . . 

Over the course of this trip, being a relatively sociable chap I’ve spoken to a lot of people. Quite a few expressed major concerns over doing a trip by themselves. Some because of safety concerns but for a lot of people they thought they would get a bit lonely. This post addresses those people. 

If I was to give one piece of advice to someone embarking on a solo trip for the first time it would be SMILE. Very simple but very easy to forget, especially when things aren’t going your way. Regular smiling will make your trip so much better. Gain eye contact, smile, get a smile back and go from there. People will talk to you. 

Going on the principle of you reap what you sow.  Be friendly and approachable with people and they will probably treat you the same way. A smile goes an awful long way, whether asking for directions, dealing with cranky immigration official or you just want to have a chat with someone. Your chances of getting what you want are also vastly improved if you start with a friendly look on your face. 

Don’t take this too far, if you’re sitting on a 6 hour bus ride with a massive shit eating grin on your face people will think you’re mad. Quite rightly, no one should be happy on a bus. 

The other advice if you want a sociable time while travelling by yourself.  Be approachable, lose the big sunglasses, headphones and smart phone permanently 6 inches in front of your nose.  No one is going to speak to you if you sit in the corner of the bar, train or hostel like that. I met a couple of people who complained of loneliness but they nearly permanently spent their time int hat state. 

Finally, if you do find yourself in need of a chat stay in a hostel, there so much easier to meet people than hotels. Get a private room if you don’t fancy a dormitory, but you will be able to meet people in a similar situation there. 

One last tip, take a good book, you’re never alone with a good book.

Saturday 14th September: Helsinki to Stockholm

Saturday 14th September: Helsinki to Stockholm
Train Ticket: 2nd Class  – 33 Euros,  bought on the day at the station
Scheduled departure/arrival times: 17:02 to 19:12
Actual departure/arrival time: 17:02 to 19:12

Ferry ticket: 2 bed interior cabin – 49 euros, bought online a month in advance. 
Scheduled departure/arrival times: 20:55 to 06:39 
Actual departure/arrival time: 21:03 to ???

Upon arrival in Helsinki I was very happy to be back to an alphabet I understood and easily made my way to the hotel. I’d treated myself to a bit of luxury (by my standards) after a couple of rougher places in Russia. 

It announced itself as a design hotel. The word design is important in Helsinki, it’s all over the city (and Stockholm too) and is obviously an important industry. Which results in a disproportionate amount of men with colourful chinos, not quite long enough to reach their shoes, sporting creative facial hair. Plus the words bespoke and boutique being used as often as possible, everywhere. 

I had a lazy afternoon before exploring in the evening. It was a Friday and most pubs and restaurants seemed pretty busy. Before long I’d got chatting to a group of friendly Helsinki’s, who took me along to a few bars around the city. A fun night, they drunk fast and liked a fisherman friend flavoured vodka. 

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On Saturday, the train departed in the evening so I had day to look explore. After a lots of culture in Moscow, I wasn’t in the mood for museums or guide books. So just ambled about the city that is pretty compact and obviously a prosperous place. The cobbled streets filled with people shopping or drinking coffee. Coffee is big business in Finland, they drink the most coffee per person in the world. 

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Down at the harbour front, which was a busy market on Saturdays,  I jumped on a tourist cruise for a couple of hours. It made its way round the islands which make up the city. The weather was beautiful, blue skies, sunshine and a little breeze to keep things cool. 

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Soon it was time for my train to Turku, where I was headed to catch the ferry to Sweden. First double-decker train of the trip.

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It was a comfortable train with free wifi again, across southern Finland. There were good views of countryside with a scattering of red wooden farm houses. 

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The train station is right next to Viking Ferry terminal, where I waited for a little while as the crowds of people increased. The saturday night ferry is a booze cruise with most people booking a return to Turku to take advantage of excessive duty-free drinking for the night. 

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As we boarded, the sun was just disappearing for the day.

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The ship was pretty much brand new and I was impressed by the little cabin I had. Big TV , a functional, clean bathroom with 2 comfy beds. Had a little picnic in my cabin for going for a look around. They boat has a vast duty free shopping level, plus nine bars or nightclubs and the atmosphere had picked up.

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I was bought some more fisherman friend  flavoured shots by some friendly Finn’s, one thing lead to another and I got back to my cabin very late. Before I knew it I was getting shouted at by a crew member that the boat was heading back to Turku very soon and I needed to get off the ship in Stockholm. 

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Friday 13th September: St Petersburg to Helsinki

Friday 13th September: St Petersburg to Helsinki
Ticket: 2nd Class – 86.11 Euros, bought the day before online. 
Scheduled departure/arrival times: 11:25 to 14:01
Actual departure/arrival time: 11:25 to 14:01

I didn’t have a great start in St Petersburg, getting into the hotel proved problematic. I found the street with relative ease after picking up for tips on finding roads in Cyrillic in Moscow. The hotel was nowhere to be seen though, after asking a few people and drawing blanks, I gave them a call. 

“Hello, I have a reservation and I think I’m the right street but I can’t find the hotel”
“What hotel do you want?”
“Well the one I’m calling, is this Hotel Arca?”
“I don’t know”
“What? Where are you?”
“St Petersburg”
“What?!? I’m calling the number on Hotel Arca’s website, are you there?”
“I don’t know, can I get someone  to call you back who is speaking English better”
“Yes”

They hung up and I realised that I hadn’t given my name or number so wouldn’t be getting any call back soon. So rung again, gave my number and got a call a few minutes later. 

“Morning,  thanks for the call back, I have a reservation and I think I’m the right street but I can’t find the hotel”
“Sorry, I don’t speak English”
 “Why did you call me back?”
“I don’t understand, I go.”

They hung up and I was annoyed. The joy of travelling. Around this time shops were opening and after a few attempts a kind soul guided me down an alley, through an unmarked gate and into a courtyard where there was another door which finally lead to the hotel. I dropped my bag and went for a stroll.  

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St Petersburg is a grand old city with loads water, living up to its nickname of ‘Venice of the North’. There is lots of renovation work going on as well so things will probably get better. 

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One of the big tourist draws is the Hermitage, a museum which holds the largest collection of paintings in the world. 

They have all the big names, even I had heard of them. Halls of Rembrandt’s, rooms of Picasso, walls of Monet’s plus a couple of Da Vinci’s. 

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In total they have over 3 million items, thankfully only a small amount of these are on display, lot’s sculptures and historical artefacts to look at as well as the paintings. 

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The building itself is pretty awesome, with massive hallways, ballrooms and throne rooms all decorated in a lavish fashion. 

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After a few hours though I had enough, but you can spend days there. I continued my stroll, before heading out for an evening of vodka and dried horse meat!

The next morning I set off to Helsinki, I was on the Allegro, a tilting express leaving from the Finland Station. The shortest train ride of my journey yet. 

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The train was great, very new and clean. The first train of my trip that didn’t allow smoking and actually enforced it. The speed was displayed (we got up too 195km per hour), free wifi and chilled water. Plus a little children’s play area at the end of the carriage. 

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After an hour we pulled up to the border and the officials came on the train to do the formalities quickly with hand-held computers. The Finnish scenery was great, farmland, forest and occasional lakes of crystal clear water. 

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Before I knew it we were pulling into Helsinki, bang on time with me hoping for an easier time finding my hotel in this city.  

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