Tag Archives: Transport

A Cruise up the Yangtze River – The Three Gorges Dam

Exhausted by the long train journey from Shanghai to Yichang, we barely registered our late arrival on board the river cruiser ‘President Number Six’, except to note with relief that we had our promised balcony. We awoke to the 6.30am cheery morning call, swiftly learning the volume function of the mysterious dials under the mirror!

Another ship was moored parallel to ours – you could practically step across to their balconies, so it’s a good idea to close the outside doors if you’re on a shore excursion – but it glided off before we’d made our first coffees, revealing a stunning vista of white cliffs and dark forest. After the hectic pace of the city tour, the peaceful riverbank scenery was delightful.

The first morning on the Yangtze river, another Resilience Handbook adventure

Far from being pestered to join in the optional excursions (priced at around 290 yuan, about £30 at the exchange rate then), we weren’t even allowed on the first one, there being no English speaking guide available. We’d already planned to try and avoid this trip, hoping that it wasn’t part of a compulsory package. Although a visit to the home town of Qu Yuan, a famous poet from the Warring States period, was tempting, we knew we’d need some rest before tackling the Three Gorges Dam inclusive excursion later.

Heading for the 3 Gorges Dam up the Yangtze river, the project supplies clean electricity and protects from floods, as outlined on a smaller scale in the Resilience Handbook

We were content to explore the ship and admire the view. The weather was still mild enough to enjoy sitting out on the deck, or sketching on the balcony; we began to move upriver. Our ship glided smoothly through the calm waters past ever changing views, through everyone’s stories, towards the Dam.

A shipyard on the Yangtze river; adventures broaden the mind and increase resilience, as outlined in the Resilience Handbook

Resilience Handbook author Elizabeth J Walker explores the Yangtze river

We discovered the ships always moored in parallel. Landing parties had to walk along internal gang planks through other cruise ships and over the bare decks of commercial barges before finally reaching shore.

Our group was promptly assailed by husslers, politely but insistently offering us T-shirts and maps of China. This, we learned from our guides, was the ‘maybe later’ market. The prospective vendors seemed to have some invisible boundary, and they were never a real pest. Their goods weren’t too bad either; I actually bought one of the maps, though I probably paid too much for it. Apparently you have to watch out for counterfeit money in change though.

A tour bus took us up the winding road to the Visitor Centre, thronged with Chinese tourists. We were introduced to the 3D model of the dam complex, touched briefly on souvenir shops, then ascended to the summit up four long outdoor escalators. We were lucky with weather ourselves, but an umbrella could be a handy item to bring.

escalator view 3GD

 

summit 3GD

The summit plaza itself was decorated with significant statues, murals depicting drowned cultures, and information boards. Stairs led to the viewpoint at the very top – for, of course, the view was the main attraction.

view of locks 3GD

 

Building this steel/concrete gravity dam, long planned, was finally started in 1994 and completed in 2012. The ship locks and lift were finished later; our vessel was too large to go up in the incredible ship lift itself. The dam is 1.2 kilometres across and creates a reservoir 600 kilometres long, reaching all the way to Chongqing. Its output is 22.5 megawatts; half the average UK power demand.

view of 3G dam

The landscape of the entire river was altered by this project, and over a million people had to be relocated. Many scenic features were covered by the 90 metre rise in water levels. Silt builds up in the reservoir instead of being washed downstream to fertilise the soils. Some endangered species, such as the Siberian crane and Yangtze sturgeon, may not survive the changes.

lock and earthworks view 3GD
The ship locks are in the foreground

However, having experienced the pollution caused by the coal fired power stations elsewhere, the clean air of the Three Gorges, where white mists replaced brown smogs, was a powerful argument in favour of hydropower. With the deeper channels, goods can be carried by ship instead of fleets of diesel lorries. Floods no longer threaten the densely populated Yangtze basin and the coastal towns.

These could be devastating. In 1998, over three thousand were killed and 15 million homes destroyed. In 1954, the floodwaters covered the entire city of Wuhan for three months; over thirty thousand people died and 18 million were displaced. The catastrophic flooding of Nanjing in 1931 claimed at least two million lives.

no thunderstorms on the summit
Great advances have been made in weather control!

The way back down was a gentler stroll down flights of stairs and through parkland, bringing us out into a charming market full of affordable souvenir trinkets. We hastened through this, back on the bus, ran the gauntlet of the map sellers and were welcomed back on board the ship with hot flannels and tea.

The ship moved off soon after we returned; there was an indefinable air of tense excitement among the crew. By the end of dinner, we were in a holding position in front of the huge lock gates; the rain considerately stopped while we waited on the deck.

I thought we’d just move to the front of the queue but, in an amazing feat of pilotage, all three large ships entered the lock together. The great doors clanged shut, and the water began to run in.

lock gates open

 

We rose surprisingly fast – ‘up’ is not a direction usually associated with ships! In less than twenty minutes, we’d emerged from our concrete chasm and could gaze out over the landscaped working areas.

waiting in the lock

 

The second lock swung open and we moved through in a tight group. It took about two hours before we emerged from the fifth lock onto a broad, placid lake. The sharp line of the dam, crested by illuminated machines, retreated into the night, and we were on our way to the Interior!

 

RSD don’t do relaxing normally, but here they were in the hands of the cruise ship agenda. So there wasn’t much advance information about the shore excursions available, some of which are included in the price, but a little research shows these are usually much the same for all the cruises, differing slightly whether you are going upriver – as we were – or down.

It was a relief to find that our cabin – like most places we stayed – had a kettle. Remember to use bottled water for hot drinks. There is often more tea supplied than coffee, so if you prefer the latter, bring some extra sachets with you.

You can visit the Dam from Yichang; it’s about a 90 minute drive. It may be possible to book an excursion which takes you up the ship lift.

Next week – The White Emperor’s City

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London Trains

The news about the rail strike on the BBC condescendingly described it as ‘a dispute about opening train doors’.

It’s nothing of the sort. It’s about eliminating human workers inside the trains and ultimately on the platforms too. The driver, who one would hope is concentrating on driving the train, now has to ensure it’s safe to move off without any second opinion.

I suppose there would be a camera feed of the platform to his cab – unless it malfunctions. There’s unlikely to be sound. The cry of a mother to her runaway toddler, the eruption of an argument about to get violent, a lone woman traveller calling for help; all go unheard. The train moves off like a hopper on a factory conveyor belt.

It’s not just emergency response which will suffer through this shortsighted plan, underpinned by greed. The London train system isn’t just a transit tube for commuters. It’s a conduit for tourists as well.

On my return from Iceland, I landed at Luton Airport. From the ticket machines at the airport door to the unscheduled diversion which took me miles from my destination without warning, I found this system to be relentlessly user-hostile. As the commuters flicked through the small entry gates, I had to drag my heavy suitcase to the double doors. I’ve often observed that these are temperamental; luckily there were still staff around to manage them for me.

I have an Oyster card. I use it once a year or so. I have no idea how the amount of money on it relates to a train journey. I don’t want to show my credit card to a machine. I want to be able to pay in cash and ask some questions at a ticket window, but these seem to have vanished already. The new streamlined system only caters for travellers who already know it off by heart.

Communters are trapped in this system, but tourists have options. Machines can’t respond to unusual problems as humans can. The combination of ancient brickwork and automation will always look tawdry and sinister, never efficiently hi-tech. There needs to be the reassuring presence of knowledgeable and experienced people in recognisable uniforms.

Train and platform staff are crucial to the London tourist industry.

Readers of the Resilience Handbook may like to refer to one of the recommended reading books here. ‘Small World’ by Mark Buchanan, chapter 8 ‘Costs and Consequences’ (p131 in my copy), describes how transport congestion affects the expansion of airport hubs. If train services in London continue to develop down this dismal path, the third runway at Heathrow could well become redundant before it’s even completed.

I’ll be flying from regional airports in future, and I expect many other tourists will make the same decision. The network will shift focus.

Iceland Adventure

In the Resilience Handbook, I recommend going on regular adventures.  Travel by a method you don’t normally use, go to somewhere different.  It doesn’t have to be exotic – a week in a campsite is just as good for your resilience.  As a solo traveller, I prefer to use hostels.  They’re cheap, you can self-cater, and you meet interesting people in the communal areas.

The confidence I gained by hostelling around Britain enables me to explore further afield on a limited budget.  I did some research and packed appropriate clothes; there was very little I didn’t actually use.   Even an 18 kilo suitcase was a serious handicap on public transport though; it may be worth while paying the extra to fly from a closer airport next time.

Why Iceland?  With its renewable energy and reforestation programme, it’s an ideal destination for the resilience explorer!  I’ve got extensive notes to go over, and a return trip is already on the cards.  I never did get a recipe for putrefied shark – but I know the history behind it now.

Here’s some pictures

iceland old harbour
The Old Harbour is quite industrial around the bus stop – then you walk round the corner and see the bay open out towards the sharp snowy hills
My kind of tour bus! Off into the wilds for the 'Game of Thrones' tour. Winter driving in Iceland is challenging; use tours, not car rental.
My kind of tour bus! Off into the wilds for the ‘Game of Thrones’ tour. Winter driving in Iceland is challenging; use tours, not car rental.
The landscape north of Reykjavik from the tour bus - there was a strong wind that day, whipping the powdery snow up into a white out later on!
The landscape north of Reykjavik from the tour bus – there was a strong wind that day, whipping the powdery snow up into a white out later on!
iceland murals 2016
Many ordinary house walls in Reykjavik are adorned with amazing murals – the streets are full of random sculptures as well.

I stayed at Reykjavik City Hostel which is a little out of town but well serviced by the 14 bus from across the road, which takes you all the way to the Old Harbour (Grandi stop the return journey is headed Listabraut).  It’s right next to one of the best heated pools in town, Laugardalslaug and there’s a lovely park behind it.

The Game of Thrones tour is run by Grayline.  All the tours, and the airport bus, collect you from right outside the hostel.  This was a relief as, outside the main town, the suburban roads are quite exposed for the walker.  It takes less than an hour to walk to the other side of the town centre from the hostel though.

Another good day’s winter wander – keep in mind you have only 6 hours of daylight before the cold dark sets in! – is Oskjuhlid wooded park.  The number 5 bus takes you to the artificial beach with hot tub at Nautholl, then you can wander past the site of the new Asatru heathen temple and head upwards through the dwarf birch and evergreens to the Perlan at the hill top.  It’s a challenge – the paths are often icy and you can’t see the landmark building for the trees – but the view over town is wonderful and the cafe quite reasonably priced.  An 18 bus goes from the main road to the Hlemmur – bus station – where you can catch the number 14 again.

Malta – Transport and Trees

We thought we had come well prepared for the challenge of hiring a car in a strange country after arriving late at night. We’d printed out a full list of Google directions to the hotel at the far end of Malta. Luckily my colleague, Linda Benfield, had also bought a map at Bristol Airport.  It was a very valuable last minute purchase!

The directions relied on street names. We found one later, sixteen feet up a wall in inch high letters, some of which were missing. Navigation was a challenge even with the Marco Polo map. Signage seemed optional, the names of towns changed as you got nearer and EU funding had inspired a proliferation of new roundabouts. There was even an extra tunnel to the ones depicted!

Hedgehog sign
Beware of the hedgehogs!

Being resilient, we had a torch to do map reading with, and made it to the hotel. The ‘Riviera’ sign lights up blue at night and is something of a landmark as you drive the the hairpin bends of Marfa Ridge. There was no need to worry about Reception closing, as a coach full of German tourists had just arrived.

Discovering it only took ten minutes to go from really close to our sought after destination in central Mdina, to being confused on Route One at the northern edge of the island was a revelation, and explained why we spent the first few days visiting sites at random as we stumbled across them. We were simply expecting too much distance.

Malta is a small island with a long history. Everyone knows their way around. If you’re able-bodied, there’s an excellent bus service – without, alas, the iconic yellow buses, which were stood down in 2011. Walking is a good option too. Some of the important Neolithic sites can only be accessed on foot. Remember the summer sun can be merciless in this open landscape; take water and a hat.

Land here has been cultivated for centuries and deforestation is a problem. On their arrival in 1529, the Knights of St John – soon to be the Knights of Malta – reported ‘an island without trees.’

Rural landscapes are divided into tiny vegetable plots, there is neither space nor water for many large trees. Although it was only 20 C in January, the impact of the summer heat was baked into the very stones.

The contrast with Buskett Forest Gardens was startling. Here, we found open water, running streams, cool and damp air. This reforestation project dates back to its use as a hunting preserve by the Knights in the 1600s. It’s now a Natura 2000 site. Native tree species from Malta’s once extensive forests support a variety of rare wildlife, including many migratory birds.

Buskett Forest Gardens, Malta 2016
Open water in the forest

On Sundays, as we discovered, many Maltese families come here for picnics, and the car park becomes very full. We were hoping to find the famous cart tracks and caves, which were surely just at the top of that hill, but couldn’t find the way. Perhaps it was signposted from the other side of the plateau. I recommend hiring a guide!

 

 

 

Diary October 2015

The Resilience Handbook has been out in print for a busy two months now. Distributing and promoting has taken up most of my time – learning to sell books from a standing start! I’m just about to go on tour, heading north through the scary urbanisation of the Midlands to Hebden Bridge for the Food Sovereignty gathering.

poster for Food Sovereignty

I’m planning to stay on and revisit the wonderful people at Incredible Edible Todmorden nearby – I hear their aquaculture project is thriving. Then, taking the North Wales Expressway which I hear so much about on the traffic news, off to explore Welsh bookshops ending up with a visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth. I hope the weather holds!

No wonder we obsess about the weather in Britain. I’ve had to pack for wet cold, dry cold, unseasonable warmth and days of torrential rain. I could get all or none of these during a ten day walkabout! I’m afraid I drew the line at taking a spade to dig myself out of snowdrifts, as my neighbour advised, though that may turn out to be a false economy.

Packing wasn’t the only weather challenge this autumn. There were two weeks of cold wet weather at the end of August. My optimistic crops of sweetcorn and chickpeas went mouldy where they stood. The slugs multiplied alarmingly, not even bothering to crawl into hiding during the long wet days.

Once things dried out somewhat, I had to clear up the wreckage and deal with Mollusc World Domination. I replaced the stone slab garden bed paths with oven shelves and bits of fireguard; metal grids providing no shelter for them, nor for Ant City. I’m normally quite tolerant of ants, but this year they managed to destroy an entire courgette crop and most of the broad beans with their bug farms. Chemical warfare, however, is just not on the agenda.

The elderberry harvest in early September was upset by this weather; it took far more trips to collect enough for the crucial anti-flu syrup and we may not have a full winter’s supply. Elder trees can exert a great deal of influence over their flowers. They will hold them back as buds during rainy days, then open them like sudden umbrellas as soon as the sun comes out. Much the same applies to their berry clusters.

My friend’s bees didn’t produce enough honey to see themselves over the winter, so they will have to be fed by humans. I don’t know if this was the weather. Perhaps they are on strike against pesticides.

Right. Departure delayed to let the high winds abate, but not for too long or I’ll get entangled in Rush Hour. I just have to check out Knit for the Planet – who are the Woolly Angels? – and pack some wool….

London Transport

After my experience on the Road to Hell, I reconsidered my plan to drive to London that weekend. Clearly, more vehicles was not what the situation there needed.

I booked a ticket over the phone with Berry’s Coaches, a local firm. I boarded at Glastonbury Town Hall, read Private Eye and a newspaper, and was in Hammersmith before I had got round to the puzzles.

The new Underground trains were a little disconcerting. There aren’t any divisions between the carriages. You can see down the whole length of the train, how it twists and leans on the track ahead. With an Oyster card, a stranger in town has to take the fares on trust, but I’m always pleasantly surprised by its remaining balance. The entire return trip from Somerset cost me under £30.

Cheaper than the diesel for my somewhat rural camper van. No worries about overheating in traffic jams, finding somewhere to park or straying into the Low Emission Zone! I have to admit that the air quality in central London is greatly improved due to this policy, which excludes elderly diesel vans, even if it puts me to some inconvenience.

News is easy to come by here. If you’re not hooked into the direct feed of your smartphone, there are free newspapers everywhere.

I read about the London living wage campaign, to which many firms have already signed up. If workers could afford to live within walking distance of their jobs, this would reduce the commuter traffic.

Labour threatened to change the name of the House of Lords to the ‘Senate’ and move it to Manchester. This too would make a major contribution to reducing congestion. The frantic dashing of lobbyists between Houses would be offset by the regular travelling of the support staff.

Finally, such a valid reason for the HS2 that one wonders which idea has precedence here. If there’s a joined up plan, why not share it with us stakeholders who will have to pay for it?

Life in the Slow Lane

I don’t often drive to London or the South-east, but I had to travel to Hastings recently.

We came in on the M3 onto the M25 and down the A21. There were traffic jams on all these roads, sometimes over twenty minutes long. Once in Hastings, we navigated around the city at a crawl. On the way home, we paid close attention to the traffic news.

A crane broke down in the anti-clockwise carriageway just north of the M3. Traffic was at a standstill in all three lanes, and eventually the gridlock seemed to stretch all the way up to the M1. Luckily, we were on the other side, and it only took us four hours to win clear of the congestion.

While on the M25, all we could see in front of us was row upon row of tail lights, four cars wide, stretching to the horizon. From the side, more vehicles edged into this choking stream. Lanes full of cars trying to leave lined the slip roads. Lorries, run out of legal driving time, were beginning to park on the hard shoulders.

The air was thick with fumes as gallons of precious oil burned away in this insane exercise. Has no-one told you people that this is crazy?

It wasn’t freight traffic causing the problem, but thousands upon thousands of people in cars. As it was early evening, one would have to assume that they were coming home from work.

Developers are allowed to create residential deserts, devoid of any meaningful employment. Companies working within London – and other cities – take no responsibility for bringing in thousands of workers daily.

The whole situation is driven by greed and need. There is a lack of joined up responsibility here which urgently needs to be addressed.

A community transport hub

Imagine not a simple bus shelter, but a small building in every village, at every key location in towns and cities. It’s furnished with cushioned chairs, magazines and a water dispenser. The place is kept clean and maintained by a rota of local people. The solar panels on the roof provide power for lighting – including the ‘Stop’ light outside so that the bus driver knows there are passengers to pick up.

Buses come every hour at most and there is thoughtful scheduling of connections. No matter how long or awkward your journey, you never have to wait more than an hour to catch your next link. Fares are cheap. A day pass costs scarcely more than a single journey. A conductor helps you on with your luggage, and can advise you about other services.

There are lockers in the building, operated by tokens or small coins, where you can leave your shopping and go for lunch. Or lock your bicycle to the racks outside and store your wet weather gear to catch the bus for the trip to work in town.

Shoppers are transported directly into the town centres. The independent shops do well, local produce sells and is encouraged, money stays within the community. Many new jobs are created.

There is a community notice board at the hub, with news of events, official meetings, items for sale or wanted. At busy times, a local business brings a small mobile stand for newspapers and refreshments. There is a roll-out awning on one side of the building to protect a weekly produce stand, or a sale in aid of some project.

The buses are partly run on electricity, and there is a charging point close to the hub, perhaps powered by the community windmill. The surplus is available to local disabled people to charge their small electric cars.

A network of bicycle tracks links these hubs. They often use different, traffic free routes with the occasional shelter along them in case of heavy rain. Footpaths sometimes follow these routes, sometimes diverge into wilder, more scenic areas.

Where does the land come from for these hub buildings?

Car parks.

© Elizabeth J Walker 2014

What do you need from transport?

You need to get yourself, possibly your family of young children, an elderly relative, maybe a dog, from here to there. You don’t want it to be prohibitively expensive, you don’t want to have to wait around in the rain or lug heavy bags a long way.

A car was the answer! Everybody got one, and then two, even three!

Then you begin to fall out with your neighbours over parking. The cost of running a car goes up by the day. You are getting unfit because you drive everywhere, so you consider a bicycle. The roads are too dangerous because they are full of cars. You think about the bus, but they are costly, infrequent and often unreliable or non-existent in rural areas.

Depending on your car means depending on oil, mainly from other countries. The news is full of the trouble and deadly conflict caused by arguments over who controls these fuel resources. You hear of the vast areas of pollution surrounding extraction sites.

Always the price you pay for fuel rises, and a disruption of supplies brings your entire lifestyle to a stop – this is not resilient!

We are addicted to the use of oil. It will not be easy to cut back, but it must be done. Local initiatives are the key to encouraging government and business to get involved. They will not do so without public pressure, both political and by the use of your spending power.

Change is happening slowly, but it needs more people to engage with the process. Here’s a couple of good places to start.

The Urban Walking route planner gives you a route map between any two points, including your journey time, calorie burn, step count and carbon saving. It’s quick, free, healthy and green!

Sustrans is a charity enabling people to travel by foot, bike or public transport for more of the journeys we make every day. They work with families, communities, policy-makers and partner organisations so that people are able to choose healthier, cleaner and cheaper journeys, with better places and spaces to move through and live in.

 

© Elizabeth J Walker 2014