Sunday, July 14, 2013

Hiking the Rheinsteig: "Sexy moves on the steep slopes" (and other gibberish)

Here's what the Internet tells you in English about hiking the Rheinsteig: "The Rheinsteig is a 320 km trail on the right side of the Rhine that links Bonn, Koblenz and Wiesbaden on mainly narrow paths with steep climbs and descents, leading walkers and hikers to forests, vineyards and spectacular views."

Here's what the Internet doesn't tell you in English about hiking the Rheinsteig: everything else.

The fine print -- where the trail starts and ends, and everything in between -- is only available in German. Which is why, when planning to hike a 30-km chunk of the trail last weekend, the only option was to cut and paste the German trail description into Google Translate and hope for the best.

That was the first mistake.

The second mistake was cutting and pasting the trail description into Google Translate, printing the translated version and heading out to start the hike without having actually read the thing. Had I done that, we would not have gotten lost (literally and figuratively) after the hike had barely begun.

We were on top of a hill, overlooking our starting point -- the town of Kaub -- a few hundred metres below. The Internet had gotten us that far. There was no need to pull out the trail description until we found ourselves standing in a spot with a castle on our left and a trail that branched out in three different directions on our right. Unsure which path to take, I pulled out the trail description and skimmed the first couple of paragraphs until I found the part about the castle.

"Here, keep to the right and sharp leaves the castle on the left," it read. "Built in 1220 as a castle, Kaub plant is one of the most important buildings and residential jam fresh military art and now houses a hotel."

Keep to the right and sharp leaves? Residential jam fresh military art? Google Translate had gobbled up the original German text and spat out Google Gibberish.

The rest of the description was no better. It ranged from indecipherable ("We walk through race pus tunnels" and "At the junction after crossing the creek, keep right leg above the creek and marched down trench") to pornographic ("By heat-loving forest with sessile oak, birch, pine and gorse plants first moves our way up to then perform sexy and just along the slope" and "Here, one can choose the right path, the first in Niederwald between boulders and heather descent writhes and sexy moves on the steep slopes along the Bacharach head").

Sexy moves on the steep slopes? This took lost in translation to a whole new level. The only sentence in five pages of text that seemed to have made it through with its original meaning intact was: "According to legend, the devil lived in Kadrichsberg." An interesting fact, to be sure, but one with very little practical value in terms of getting from point A to point B.

Back to the hilltop, the castle and the forked trail. We made an educated guess and took the trail heading to the right. It wasn't long before we found a Rheinsteig trail maker telling us we were on the right path. After that there was a trail marker every 50 metres, making it impossible to get lost and making the trail description (in any language) unnecessary.

It turned out that all we really needed to know was that one little English paragraph on the German website. Just climb and descend the narrow path on the right side of the Rhine leading to forests, vineyards and spectacular views (with a few sexy moves on the steep slopes thrown in for fun).

If you go . . .

Getting there: The Upper Middle Rhine Valley is the most famous section of the Rhine thanks to its rocky cliffs, steep vineyards, hilltop castles and fairy-tale villages. The 65-km long section from Koblenz to Bingen and Rudesheim was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002 due to its natural landscape and cultural heritage. Getting to the Upper Middle Rhine Valley from Bonn is easy. Take the regional train from Bonn to Koblenz (about 45 minutes) and then transfer to the local train heading from Koblenz to Frankfurt. Since the train winds its way down the Rhine, you can get off at any stop along the way and pick up the trail on the east side of the Rhine. We chose to start in the town of Kaub (40 minutes south of Koblenz). Expect to pay about 30 euros for a same-day fare. You can knock about 10 euros off the price if you book in advance.

Staying there: The hike goes from one small town to another. Not all of the towns have hotels so it's good to do a little research in advance on Google Maps if you're planning an overnight hike. We hiked 15 km from Kaub to Lorch and spent the night at a school that had been converted into a hotel in Lorch. The next day we hiked 15 km from Lorch to Assmannshausen and hoped on the train back to Bonn after stopping for dinner in Assmannshausen. Camping is also an option.

Eating there: Lots of decent and not-so-decent places to choose from. Mostly German-style food on the menu (ie. meat, meat and more meat). Pack your own meals if greasy, fatty food isn't your thing. Fun fact: many of the hotels along the Rheinsteig offer a "packed lunch" service for hikers. For $4.50 they'll let you pack up as much food from the breakfast buffet as you want so that you can have a ready-made lunch for the trail.

Hiking there: Detailed information is only available in German but it's easy enough to get the general idea using a combination of Google Maps and Google Translate. We used the German site to calculate the distance, elevation gain and loss and starting/finishing points. Use the drop-down menu near the top to search for hikes under "wanderung." If anyone knows an easier or more English-friendly way to find hiking information in Germany, please let me know!

Sunday, June 23, 2013


Bicycles, bridges, canals and storybook buildings

One of my favourite things about Bonn is how easy it is to get out of Bonn. Not that there's anything wrong with Bonn but the fact that several world-class cities are only a short train ride away makes it tempting to spend more time outside of Bonn than inside it.

Amsterdam, for example, is only a three-hour train ride away from Bonn. With access like that, how can you not leave Germany behind and hop over to the Netherlands for the weekend?

First impressions of Amsterdam: it's funky, it's cool, it's beautiful but beware the psycho paths in the cycle paths. Bicycle lanes are more dangerous than the roads. Pedestrians do not come first, cyclists do. So you'd better stop and look both ways before attempting to cross a cycle path or you will be greeted with an angry chorus of bike bells and/or nasty comments (at best) or be run down (at worst).

Final thoughts: Amsterdamn is so nice, we want to go twice!

Slanted street, straight houses

Fighting for space at the Amsterdam sign outside the amazing Rijksmuseum

Narrow street

Got the munchies? These hamburger vending machines will save you!

The crowds during Liberation Day weekend


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Chasing cherry blossoms in Bonn

This is Cherry Blossom Avenue in Bonn (or Heerstra├če as it's known locally). Each spring, this street is transformed into a tunnel of puffy, pink cherry blossoms. The trees were in full bloom this week and I headed out after work to take a few pictures.

Cherry blossom season is fast, fleeting and blindingly beautiful. Maybe it's banal to say the cherry blossom is my favourite flower. Maybe it's akin to admitting you like puppies and kittens (who doesn't?). But having a deep appreciation for life's transitory moments is something that resonates with me. And there is no more perfect metaphor for the fleeting nature of life than the pale pink cherry blossom. Blindingly beautiful and then gone.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

A tiny trip to little Luxembourg

My quest to visit all nine countries that share a border with Germany continued with a tiny trip to little Luxembourg last weekend. Seven down, two to go.

Luxembourg exceeded all expectations. Which isn't saying much considering that I had no expectations to begin with. It wasn't a place I particularly wanted to visit (apart from the nine-border-country challenge). I knew almost nothing about it (other than the fact that it is one of the smallest countries in Europe). And I had no clue what language people spoke there (Luxembourgish?). Just like watching a movie without first having seen the trailer, I went to Luxembourg without having read anything about it.

The good thing about having no expectations is that it's difficult to be disappointed. Luxembourg had nothing to live up to. It conjured up an ocean of emptiness in my mind. How could I not be pleasantly surprised by the city's pretty valleys, high plateaus, narrow streets and old fortress walls?

Here are a few things I learned about Luxembourg. The default language is French (handy for those of us whose French has lapsed but can still pull a few useful phases like "Un pain au chocolat avec un cafe au lait, s'il vous plait" out of our hats). The city's old quarters and fortifications are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is possible to see everything worth seeing in one day, on foot. And the glass doors inside the National Museum of History and Art are so spotlessly clean that they are rendered invisible (as evidenced by the bump on my forehead after walking full-speed into one of said doors. I'm sure someone has already leaked the security-camera footage to YouTube. Look for me in the 2013 Ultimate Girls Fail Compilation video).

It took about three and a half hours to get to Luxembourg from Bonn by train. We lucked out with cheap tickets that cost 18 euros each way thanks to the fact that the German rail system charges less for tickets the further in advance you book them. This rewards good planning but penalizes spontaneity. The trains ran on time on the way there but were delayed on the way back, which is consistent with my experience that German trains run on time only about 50 per cent of the time (German trains are not reliable or efficient. Do not believe the hype).

The train ride itself was uneventful, expect for the group of drunken soccer fans we met on the Koblenz platform when transferring to Trier. They were drinking beer and screaming soccer chants on their way to a game at 7:45 in the morning. I don't follow soccer but I know when a game is being played in Cologne or Dortmund because those are the days the trains are packed with police officers to keep the hooligans under control. It's not fun sharing a train with drunk soccer fans. They smoke on the train, they drink on the train and they're loud, boorish and aggressive. They block the aisles with cases of beer and they stand ready to fight at the slightest provocation. I always feel like there's about two inches between my face and a wayward fist when there's a soccer game on. Public drunkenness is also pervasive in Japan but it's a quieter, gentler kind of public drunkenness, especially on the trains where the only danger is a salaryman soundlessly falling asleep on your shoulder.

The other thing worth noting is that you don't need a passport while travelling between European countries by train. There are no border control officers because there are no borders. Or at least there are no borders that you can actually see. Not only are there no visible borders, there are no announcements to let you know you've left one country and entered another.

The first time I traveled from Germany to another country by train, I had expected the conductor to make an announcement like, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have just left Germany and have now entered Switzerland!" And then all the passengers would applaud and say things like, "Oooh! Awesome!" But this never happens. Europeans are not partial to North American enthusiasm. The only way to know you've crossed a border in Europe is through your cell phone, which immediately receives a text message when you cross a border to let you know how much it costs to make and receive calls in the new country. If you want to know when you've crossed the border, you just have to listen for the symphony of ringtones when everyone receives the same text message at the same time.

And that's all I have to say about Luxembourg (although, technically speaking, only two of the above eight paragraphs are actually about Luxembourg).

Friday, March 29, 2013

You may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one

"Today we have not only an ecological crisis, we also have a kind of story crisis. That is to say there's something very wrong about the way that we understand who we are and our relationship with the earth." -- Continuum trailer

This is a film that needs to be made. This is a story that needs to be told. But best of all, this is a film that will be made because people believe it is a story worth telling.

Planetary Collective has spent the past three years working on Continuum, a feature-length documentary that tells the story of our interconnection with each other, the planet and the universe. Back in February, they put the project on Kickstarter in an attempt to raise enough money to fund the final push through crowd funding. I watched the trailer, fell in love with the film and decided I had to back the project. If all that was needed to make Continuum happen was a little bit of money from a lot of people then I wanted to be one of those people.

I don't know what excites me more: the film itself or the way Kickstarter has the potential to revolutionize how creative projects get funded. It gives citizens the power to support projects they like and it gives the filmmakers, artists and musicians complete control over their projects. It's democratic, it's participatory and it's refreshingly real in an era of manufactured pop stars and Hollywood schlock. We get to help make something great happen and, in return, we get to be part of that greatness.

Here's how the filmmakers describe Continuum on their Kickstarter page:

"We are in the midst of an ecological crisis of an unprecedented scale, with implications not only for mankind's social, economic and political spheres, but for the life system of the planet as a whole.

One of the fundamental factors underlying this crisis is our worldview: the way we see the world around us and our relationships to each other, the planet, and the cosmos as a whole. Our worldview informs our values, behaviour, and way of life in such a way that some environmentalists have declared the environmental crisis to actually be a 'crisis of worldview'. One dominant feature of our ordinary worldview is the misperception that we are separate from each other and the greater systems we are embedded within.

CONTINUUM is a feature-length documentary that explores this sense of separation and its roots in language, perception and our evolution. The journey will take us from the first stirrings of life to the emergence of a global brain; from the complexity and wonder of a single plant cell to the emerging biomimetic technologies that are changing the way we build the future; and from the appearance of modern humans to the planetary crisis we face today."

The filmmakers hope the documentary "will change the way we think as a species -- to stop seeing ourselves as separate from each other, from the planet and the cosmos -- and inspire us to work together to transform our planetary crises."

I can't wait to see this film when it's finished. In the meantime, I highly recommend watching Planetary Collective's first short film Overview -- which explores the perspective-altering phenomenon that many astronauts experience after being in space.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Hot off the press

Back when I was a student at Kyoto University's Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, my professor created a newsletter to highlight some of the impressive work being done by faculty and students in our program.

It was a project I was excited to be a part of because the point of the thing was not to be some sort of self-serving, jargon-laden, grant-justifying puff piece. The point of the thing was to be a place where we could share our stories with the wider world -- to shine a light on action both on campus and in the larger community. It was born of a genuine desire to bring our stories beyond the confines of the conference circuit. To build a bridge between scientists and the public.

The newsletter's third issue is now online. Articles cover a wide range of topics, from a forum on how to green university campuses to the role of young people in international biodiversity negotiations to the growing youth movement against nuclear power in Japan. My professor asked me if she could include a condensed version of my blog post on the UN climate change conference in Doha in the newest issue and I was happy to oblige.

It's not the most scintillating newsletter you'll ever read. But communication is a critical part of creating momentum for change and for that I salute it.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Awesome Austria

I've been in Germany for exactly one year now and the novelty of being transported to another country, climate and/or geographical zone by train still hasn't worn off. The smallness of Europe and the extensiveness of its rail network continue to amaze.

I'm not sure how much longer I'll be here but before I leave I'd like to complete my quest to travel to all nine countries that share a border with Germany, preferably by train. It's not that I have a burning desire to visit Luxembourg or Poland. But I like the sense of accomplishment that comes from making lists and crossing things off them. I also like circuitous challenges. And I like taking the train. Visiting all nine border countries combines the best of all three. The tally so far: Six countries down, three to go. Austria is the latest country scratched off the list.

Not that crossing a conveniently located country off an arbitrary list was the only reason to go to Austria at the end of February. There were other reasons too. Like the Alps, a shitload of snow and a joint birthday celebration.

I had a two-point plan to celebrate my birthday at the end of February. Sergey, who shares the same birthday, had a zero-point plan; he was up for anything. I wanted to trade Bonn's dark, soggy lowlands for somewhere more sunny, snowy and mountainous while, at the same time, setting foot in another German-border-sharing country. Austria was the obvious choice. Having settled on Austria, the next step was to find a place that offered every winter sport you could think of but mostly cross-country skiing. If you type "where in Austria can you find a place that offers every winter sport you can think of but mostly cross-country skiing?" into a Google search, you will not find a match. But if you type "cross-country skiing in Austria" into a Google search, you will find a place called Seefeld in Tirol.

Seefeld in Tirol claims to be the best place for cross-country skiing in all of Europe. Which seems like hyperbole but turns out to be fact. Seefeld in Tirol is located on a high plateau in the Austrian Alps with 279 km of groomed cross-country ski trails (154.3 km of trails for classic skiing and 124.7 km of trails for skate skiing). Basically it was a cross-country-skiing paradise. Which, for reasons I don't understand, seemed to attract a mostly older crowd. Like much older. Like 65+ older. If having an appreciation for silence and solitude on skis makes me old then so be it.

There were five villages within skiing distance so you could leave from Seefeld in the morning, ski all day, stop for lunch at one of the huts along the way, pop out in a different town and take the bus back. (Provided you didn't mind waiting for the bus, which ran only once an hour or sometimes not at all. But being in civilization, you could call a taxi to take you back.)

While skiing in Austria was incredibly beautiful, I wouldn't exactly call it a wilderness experience. The trails weaved in and out of forests but there were huts serving hot food and drinks every five kilometres or so. It was all very civilized. I especially enjoyed the complimentary blankets for coffee drinking.

Next weekend: A little trip to the little country of Luxembourg.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Gone skiing

I'm heading to the Austrian Alps for a birthday bonanza of skiing, skating and snowshoeing! Back online next week.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The end of the backyard ice rink?

This is not a story about hockey. Hockey is a game and this goes deeper than that. Strip hockey of its teams, its salaries, its sticks, its pucks, its rules and its regulations. Take all of that away and you are left with what makes hockey possible in the first place. This is a story about ice.

Ice is a part of our collective Canadian consciousness. When I think about the winters of my childhood, I think about the hours spent skating on the tiny ice rink my dad built in our backyard. It was a simple bit of engineering with magical results.

My dad would wait until mid-December for temperatures to drop. After enough snow had fallen, he would clear an area of the backyard and use the snow to make banks around the rink. He repeatedly sprinkled water on the sides of the banks and on the edge of the grass in order to seal the area around the edges so that the water wouldn't leak out. After it had been cold enough for the ground to freeze, he used a hose to build up a base of ice.

Once we had a couple of inches of ice, he would "Zamboni" it by filling a large pail with warm water and flooding the rink. The warm water melted the surface and filled in all of the cuts from earlier skating. It probably took a week or two, depending on the weather, to create a good surface. Of course, thaws and rain would melt the rink but my dad would rebuild it as soon as it got cold again.

I couldn't get enough of that backyard rink. I would skate every day after school and go back out again after dinner. The sound the edge of the blade makes when it scrapes across the ice is etched into my bones.

The backyard ice rink is part of our narrative. But for how much longer? Will future generations of Canadian children be able to skate on homemade outdoor rinks or will it be a story we tell them about the way things used to be?

Climate change is transforming the world as we know it. This is not an exaggeration; this is a fact. Research shows that Canada's average winter temperature has increased 2.5 degrees Celsius in the past 70 years. According to Environment Canada, last year was the third-warmest winter in Canadian history.

Scientists in Montreal were the first to connect the dots between climate change and a shorter outdoor skating season. They looked at data from weather stations across Canada during the last 50 years and extrapolated that "at current rates, within four decades there will be very little to no outdoor natural skating in Canada with the exception of Winnipeg."

This prompted a group of geographers at Wilfrid Laurier University to create RinkWatch, a website where users can enter information about their rink's skate-ability and where researchers can track climate change. Associate professor Robert McLeman is hoping this will help people better understand large-scale environmental issues by placing them in their own backyard.

As he told the Ottawa Citizen, "When you talk about climate change and global warming, it's one of those big-picture ideas that people have trouble relating to on a personal or individual basis, so we thought, let's get kids and families to collect data about outdoor skating and use that as a bridge to pull them into citizen-engaged science."

It's great to see scientists who understand the importance of getting the public involved in their work. They're not just working to address climate change, they're working to make it matter to all of us. It's about making us less complacent by making us care.