In this journal:
- riding a curved escalator
- a pornography studio size of a matchbox
- world’s tallest building reduced to rubble
Four hours of fast ICE train brought me into the northern metropolis of the country: Hamburg. Second largest port in Europe and the 16th largest port in the world, and the gateway to the entire central Europe, this city actually still sits a good 100 kilometers from the North Sea, which did not hinder its progression to importance at all. I met up with my old pal Jirina in her town, as she had settled herself down nicely with a neat apartment, a cute boyfriend, and a stable job. Unlike back in the days when we freaked out in the lush fields infested with kangaroos in Australia, we both changed, a lot, and arguably Jirina was the one that made herself the most comfortable, while I am just continuing the vagabond life, except I got much older.
We had a chat about Luke and Emily, who we both went for banana bonanza together with, and I visited them just earlier during this trip in Cardiff! Before I could tell her how unreal Ianto’s Shrine was, we arrived at the waterfront of Hamburg. River Elbe slowly drifted towards the west, as the sun lazily dropped towards the southern horizon. View from the so-called Landungsbrücken, landing bridges, was simply fantastic. Enormous freight ships and tourist ships crowded the waters, and hundreds of sea birds chased little kids holding french fries or ice creams like an eagle dashing towards helpless rats.
Behind the 14-story tall yacht under repair was a dense forest of cranes used to pull all the containers out of the even bigger cargo ships. Hundreds of people lined up for boat tours, and even more lined up by the side of dock No. 10. What is it? Jirina explained to me that this would be our pre-dinner snack, a beautiful creation named Fischbrotchen, fish bun. A simple yet large slice of fish is sandwiched between a freshly baked bread, washed down with some nice local glass of Astra. Astra is the local beer brand, and this mermaid-featuring company makes some very interesting drinks.
One of such marvels is the variety Kiezmische, which is 50% beer and 50% lemonade. Being a sucker for both, I found the harmonious blend absolutely godly. Even though RateBeer gave it 2.6/5, it will always be a 5/5 in my heart. As for Fischbrotchen, the original recipe demands pickled herring to be embroiled between the buns, but still suffering from the shellshock of Surströmming in Sweden, I elected fried cod and salted dry herring instead. Price was cheap, and the taste was oh-so-good. Fish with nice sauce and great bread, what can possibly go wrong?
Right underneath these landing bridges sits the Elbtunnel, a strange existence of two 2000ft tubes stretched across the river. Built in 1911, the tunnel required construction methods unseen before, as the pressurized working environment gave all the workers what now divers call “the bends”, and such decompression sickness killed 3 workers and injured hundreds more. Nowadays, these two long roads 80ft below surface and covered in beautiful tiles are open 24/7 to pedestrians and surprisingly, to cars during workdays too using six sets of enormous car elevators.
Right to the east of the landing bridges are the newly developed HafenCity, a city-rejuvenating project proposed in 2000. This area used to be the center of all the action, as it served as a free dock providing service to all the shipping companies with minimal taxes. However, as the European Union slowly coagulated into a massive single-economy zone free from border taxes within its area, it was growing ever so clearly that the docks were about to go bust, as it was completely unnecessary in the EuroZone. They needed a strategy to save the dying free harbor of Hamburg.
What came after was the biggest land redevelopment project in Europe. With its first stage completed in 2009, the entire region changed into a mix of office buildings and hyper-modern apartment complexes, like the ones shown above. Upon the project completion, which is estimated to be in 2030s, it would have completely redone the entire area and filled it with over 40000 jobs.
Within its boundaries sat the first place in Hamburg to ever been awarded the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site, Speicherstadt, German for Warehouse City. It is basically a huge island sitting on a large pile of timber with hundreds and hundreds of red brick warehouses. Originally the housing for all the goods traded in the customs-free port, these large buildings now have been converted into all kinds of restaurants, offices, museum and some remained as storage houses. In fact, this area still handles 1/3 of the entire world’s carpets!
The entire area is lined with small canals that used to be clustered by load boats, but now it is just a nice scenic backdrop for white collar workers or tourist photos. One of the most important sights, this little 1.5 km stretch of land built out of barebone materials in the middle of Elbe now is the new pounding heart of the city.
The title of the most prominent thing in the area, however, still has to go to the newly finished concert hall, Elbphilharmonie. This building was built literally on top of an original dock warehouse, and is the most acoustically advanced concert hall in the world. Originally scheduled to be finished in 2010 for 240 million Euros, it was finished 7 years after schedule with the cost of a whopping 780 million. The top half is a beautiful wavy hall designed as the new city landmark, and thankfully due to its beautiful appearance it became a beloved symbol of Hamburg after all the controversy died down.
The middle of the complex, a large plaza sandwiched between the old and the new on 8th floor, is a viewing platform. I took the only curved escalator I have ever seen and reached the platform, which boasted just about the best view in the entire city. The complex houses not just a large concert hall with its main, recital and smaller theatres, but also a spa, a Westin hotel with over 200 rooms, two dozen luxury condos, and bars as well as restaurants. It must be the coolest thing to check into a hotel in a plaza suspended half-way between the building after taking a curved escalator.
For dinner, Jirina chalked up some German food to welcome me. Unbeknownst to me, besides being a fantastic kangaroo feeder, she is an excellent chef too. This strange dish of sausage, potato mixed with kale, yes, kale, turned out to be really delicious. What I do not understand is that why she would stew the entire thing with 3 kilograms of kale, for over 6 hours. It turned out that the entire thing was seasoned by the sausage and cured ham, thus needing time for the entire pot to be permeated with saltiness. But damn was that a nice dish! I ingested way more than acceptable amount before realizing that it had to be eaten with mustard sauce. Of course, the nice dish comes with equally appealing German name that is so easy to remember that I definitely did not look up online by googling “what the fuck is that delicious kale german sausage thing”: Grünkohl mit Pinkel.
Next up is technically NSFW, as it is not advised for anyone under the age of 18 to read, so please skip ahead 3 paragraphs if you do not wish to have your day disturbed. In an area west of the landing bridges, called St. Pauli, sat the largest Red Light district of the entire Germany. Called Reeperbahn, this street is named by the locals as die sündigste Meile, the most sinful mile. Tons and tons of brothels, sex shops, pole dancing theatres, and strip clubs lined the streets. Up till 2013, there was even a handful of live sex shows every night. Needless to say, even though prostitution is legal, the area had quite a lot of other illegal activities associated with that, ranging from sex trafficking to drug problems. The street below is the epicentre of all the undesirable acts called Große Freiheit, the Great Freedom. Hilariously, the name comes from back in 17th century when the Lutheran Hamburg strictly prohibited non-Lutherans such as Mennonites and Catholics to practice their religions in the city proper, so this street, just outside town, was allowed to have religious freedom. Thus, a Catholic church sitting smack among the “action” still holds morning mass on Sundays as the sex workers are getting out of work literally next door.
However, there are a bunch of other less revealing businesses as well. Actually, there are more restaurants, normal bars, normal discoteques and normal clubs than sex-related counterparts. Most of the young people just simply congregate here because the area does not sleep at night, and there are plentiful of cheap food and alcohol, as well as a natural vibe to hang out on the streets. Thus, most of the crowds are here just for a night out, not to pay for a suckling. In fact, the Beatles started their career here before they got famous, performing in a bunch of bars around the area, that eventually honed their skills enough for a formal debut back in UK. John Lennon once said:”I might have been born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.”
And here you have Herbertstraße, the most exclusive street of it all, and I do not mean that lightly. Since it still houses the best prostitutes displayed in glass-casings, women and minors are prohibited from entering. For minors it is obvious, but for women they are banned from entering is because the prostitutes have special “penis water” that they would douse any women that may come across as threatening to their careers, just like what I saw in Osaka’s red light district. The tradition is held so firmly that even the Nazis could not contain it, so they built two walls on the two sides of the street so nobody would randomly see the goods while passing by. Jirina’s boyfriend and I took a walk in the short street, for this blog’s research purposes of course, and most of the women seemed to be Eastern European, but were indeed higher in “quality” than random girls standing on the streets outside Herbertstraße. Jirina had to circle around the block to meet us outside, and thus you can see quite a few girlfriends waiting in the above photo. The ban on women had led to quite a few riots by feminist groups here, and the gates had been breached multiple times, but the tradition kept going on till this day.
For a special lunch, I headed to probably the most traditional restaurant around town called Old Commercial Room. Tracing its lineage all the way back to 1795, this place is famous for the Hamburg specialty: Labskaus, a hefty mix of a plate suitable for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The dish contains an unholy amount of food: a huge chunk of corned beef, two fried eggs, beetroots, potatoes, sausages, a chunk of rollmops (pickled herring), and onions. These all used to be longlasting food easy for storage on the ships, so it started as a prominent seamen’s meal, cheap and easy. However, things slowly took a turn as Labskaus slowly became a land luxury nowadays since fewer and fewer sailors exist and more and more modern ways of preserving food were invented.
I washed down a plate of over 10000 calories with a large glass of beer, and burped out into the cold winter air. The decor of the restaurant is absolutely fantastic, as the entire floor was plastered with pictures of groups of friends congregating here for meals, regardless of where they were from, how many there were, or which era it was. The price, like the meals served here, was also not something anyone with cardiovascular disease could take, so I simply felt glad that I had tried the famous dish, but once is enough.
Right across the street is the most magnificent church of Hamburg, Saint Michael’s, and its 123-meter tower is the most impressive one standing on the city horizon. A large statue featuring St. Michael defeating evil guards the door, and the internal Baroque decorations astonish hundreds of visitors each day.
However, the most impressive side of this church is its sweeping view over the entire city from its dome. From there, I could see as far as the North Sea, and there was almost nothing that could stand in my way between the top and the horizons. All the sights that I have introduced to you in this journal are visible from this place, and on a great sunny day like today, it is quite hard to beat!
And in the above picture, the most dominant spiral is the iconic St. Nicholas’ Church. During its heyday, this gothic church was the tallest building in the entire world. Even though it held its crown for only a few years, it had been the most respected religious building in town until ally bombings took out the entire nave. To the great accomplishment of German quality, the tall central tower remained structurally sound, and now has been converted into a WWII memorial. One could pay a modest fee and go up the tower by stairs or elevator, but since I had already been up the St. Michael’s, I opted to simply look up instead.
A bit further north, you would enter the river dock area, as a series of smaller locks connect the harbour of Hamburg to the much smaller Auβenalster River coming from the north. The area is filled with high-end shopping malls, monuments and public spaces. Artists lined the streets, so did beautiful cafes.
However, the most visually stunning building in the city has to go to Hamburg City Hall, or as they call it Rathaus, because Germans view all politicians as rats I presume. Built in 1897, this building survived the carpet bombing during the war, and its 112-meter tower is just a bit shy of the other highest vantage points in town. However, the Neo-Renaissance style elegance definitely boosted its popularity, and now the city council still functions in the below compound.
For one night, Jirina helped me book a reservation to visit one of the sights in Hamburg called Miniatur Wunderland, Miniature Wonderland in English. I was a bit confused as she insisted to let me book an 11pm slot so it would allow me 2 and a half hours at the model train exhibition. I had so many questions: why does a model train place open until 1:30am? Why would I need to make a reservation for a slot or there would not be any space? Why would I ever need 150 minutes there? And hold up, why is that one of the biggest sightseeing destinations in the city to begin with? Within 3 minutes of me stepping inside, all my questions were quickly answered.
It was almost a new world. From a complete recreation of the city of Hamburg, to the little parts of Swiss Alps, Nordics, a fully functional airport, it was absolutely humongous. The details are just insane, and more importantly, they captured the very spirit of the city in minute details. From the tiny porno shoot representing the sex industry of the previously mentioned red light district, all the way to the commotion of the landing docks during the carnival, every little square inch is presented with passion and accuracy. Many scenes can simply be studied, scrutinized, and discussed. They are not just small plastic models: they are a window to life itself.
Every 30 minutes is a day-night cycle in the entire establishment, and two full floors have been under this rhythmical chaos for 18 years since its debut in 2001. With over 400000 human figurines, 500000 lights, 15400 meters of railway tracks occupying over 2300 square meters of space, this is no doubt the biggest model exhibition in the world. No wonder it would take hours to see everything, since just taking a peek of the Hamburg section took me more than an hour, and that was just the very first section!
The amount of detail is just, insane. For example, everything has an interior, from cars to trucks to containers to ships and trains, all the way to houses and factories. Over 100000 vehicles of all kinds can move along the road, controlled by computers at the main center, and guided by special magnetic railings. When they approach the intersection, they would actually put on turning signals, more lawful than a lot of the real world BMW drivers, and follow the signal lights that actually change at certain intervals. Trains turn on lights at night, and more trucks come out at night to avoid the day traffic. Many “incidents” are featured to show the special parts of the area, such as a protest in the streets, a plane accident, a garbage pickup, all giving life to the seemingly crowded city. There was never a part that was boring, or remotely uninteresting, and if you pay even just a little attention, you would find clever Easter eggs or even hilarious details.
Every section is connected in some ways, and every meter of railway track is interlinked, so it is technically possible for a train to go from one end of Hamburg all the way to USA on the other side of the second floor. Thousands of tunnels and viaducts made this possible, and even though I am not exactly a train nerd, but it still made me pumped to see all kinds of carriages being dragged around the tiny bridges spanning meters of void underneath. In fact, because of the rails total over 15km, there are special “vacuum cleaner trains” that go around the tracks sucking up dirt that have fallen onto the model rails!
I was absolutely dumbfounded by this magnificent human achievement. It is just, simply, insanity. Over 900000 human hours put into the project, yet it is still ongoing, Monaco and France are in construction, and hopefully, they estimated, that it would be finally completed by 2028 with Sydney.
Besides the insanely detailed Hamburg city itself, with a tiny version of this model presented at the place where Miniatur Wunderland would be, there is also Las Vegas, Mount Rushmore, and some form of Sweden/Norway mashup. Funnily, all small people shorter than 120cm are free to enter, including kids, but if you are over 120kg, you will be denied entry due to “space restrictions”.
In the Scandinavia section, there is a large water area that all kinds of ships sail around, from container ships larger than a cupboard to tiny tug boats smaller than a matchbox. It seemed like all the ships were controlled automatically, with god-knows-what dark magic, but actually they were radio-controlled by people sitting behind the snowy mountains. Due to the ships not touching the “ground”, it is impossible to guide them through magnetic railings, so they had to be remotely controlled. Even though the original design actually covered the area with cameras and equipped the computers with software to automatically guide them away from colliding with each other, but it turned out that no software was currently powerful enough to effectively do so with just cameras, thus they had to use humans. Imagine your job title as “people who hide in fake mountains to radio control boats”!
Probably the most impressive part is the Alps section, which stretches from one floor to the other. Besides your typical inclined trains that plowed the steep hills of Switzerland, there is also functional trams that transport people from the bottom of the hills to the top. It is almost non-model like when you have to use binoculars to clearly see what is going on on the other side of the mountain!
In the Italy section, the prominent volcano of Pompeii, along with striking people on the streets, two of the most iconic Italian historical representatives, are clearly portrayed. Attention to detail, again, proves to be the distinguisher of excellence.
Many little side exhibitions are not just for show, though. They actually have functional purposes that can interest even the most grandiose people. For example, there is one little factory sponsored by a chocolate brand that actually make normal sized chocolate! It is almost similar to Charlie’s Chocolate Factory when one can see little workers process and wrap huge blocks of chocolates, and eventually the conveyor belt drops it to an opening. Jirina says normally during day hours the line for just this chocolate can get an hour long.
It is said that there may be over 1000 little details that are hidden throughout this entire exhibition, and I was only able to catch a tiny few. Because I only had 2 and a half hours before closing, there could potentially be thousands of Easter eggs that I have missed. Wait, didn’t I open this section by questioning why would anyone spend more than 10 minutes in this kind of boring stuff? Oh boy was I wrong, I could have easily spent 10 hours in this place, given it comes with a complete cafe and gift shop!
Yet nothing can compete with the absolute star of the show: the airport. I have saved the best for the last, but maybe I am a bit biased as an aviation enthusiast. I always love to watch the departure board whenever I fly, and planespotting has been on my list of favorite activities since the age of 3. However, given the large number of Miniatur Wunderland advertisements that feature the airport, I do not think it is just a nerdy obsession either. Mainstream commoners may not have as much enthusiasm in airline operations, but the sheer scale and marvel of model airplanes taking off indoors is just too cool to not be excited about!
Let’s put the enormous area dedicated to the airport aside, but just look at those accurate layouts! Outside the terminal you have parking lots, taxi ranks, bus docks, a high speed rail station, luggage processing, cargo terminal, fire station, immigration holding cells, and so many more! It also completely replicates how a real world airport works: after the plane parks into position, jet bridges extend to dock onto the doors, while luggage carts approach the planes to unload/load cargo, and fuel trucks fuel up the plane. For pushback, low profile tugs carefully lock onto the landing gear and slowly guide the plane backwards to a departure position. Holy cow how did they do that!? What more realism do you want!?
Most of the planes are fleet-accurate, but some of them are rather unrealistic in the ways that United 737’s would never be on the continent of Europe, but that would be an extreme nitpick that even I would not dare to say it aloud, fearing that being so nerdy and judgmental would land me no girlfriend for the rest of my life. There is also a relatively accurate departure/arrival board, featuring all the upcoming landing and take off scheduled for the airport. Some are rather hilarious for a geek like me such as ANA’s flight to Osaka would be quite financially improbable from any European location as a foreign carrier. Also Air France would not fly from a German airport to Los Angeles, given the protective environment of the German aviation industry. Oh no, I am nitpicking again, why can’t I just enjoy the nice things?
This level of complexity obviously requires human control and monitoring, so two staffs are in charge of its operation, from scheduling to traffic planning, and the easier parts are mostly done by automation. Some flights are jokes prepared for the casuals, such as the Millennium Falcon, or a big buzzing bee, which of course come with the appropriate take off/landing sound. And instead of taking off with a traditional incline, these joke flights take off with vertical trajectory. All-in-all, this is still the most impressive model I have ever seen.
Underneath the runway, a small system of long hooks can connect to the landing gear of the plane, and then they would slowly accelerate the planes while raising them higher, creating the illusion of taking off/landing. A trap door is fitted on both sides of the runway, and the plane would disappear into the back for further scheduling of “landing”. It is a marvellous system, and I really wish I could go to the back and see how many of those planes they maintain in the back: there must be hundreds sitting behind the wall!
Finally, upon closing time, we were all kicked out of the premise as I was struggling to leave. There was simply way too much to see, and not enough time for me to planespot the whole day. Day-night cycle really brought out a lot of hidden details planned into this world of its own, and I promise that next time I would spend a whole year in this Wonderland in Miniature!
Frohes neues Jahr!
Of course, I was just not in Hamburg to gawk at model airplanes. (Well, now I know how great it is here, maybe I wish I did.) Jirina helped me celebrate another German new year to welcome 2019. What is first up to taste is the strange pastry called Berliner, which, incidentally, does not originate from Berlin. A sweet, heavy dough filled with custard cream and topped with sugar, this kind of Berliner is basically hospitalization on a plate. Needless to say, I only ate 22 of them, in one day.
Interestingly, for John F. Kennedy’s famous 1963 West Berlin speech, he uttered the line “Ich bin ein Berliner”, which many misinterpreted as “I am a Berliner(the pastry).” Because he said the indefinite “ein”, so it is like saying “I am a Berliner” instead of “I am Berliner”. It turned out to be an urban legend, though, as it is just a minor difference that barely made any difference.
For New Year’s Eve, everyone congregated in Jirina’s house for an enormous feast of the year. I made 50 Chinese dumplings, for vegetarians as well as for meat-lovers, and everyone else also made tons of other food from around Germany as well as the globe. Even though I did not know any of the other guests, it was great fun getting to know their stories of how they ended up in this bustling and energetic city. We discussed about food, history and travels, as everyone in Europe basically had enviable accessibility unparalleled in any other part of the world. Jirina’s apartment is also just an easy 15 minute train ride to the airport, making it my wet dream to live there!
As I experienced in the past years, especially last one during C.A.T. with Cathrin, Germans have one of the weirdest traditions to celebrate new year with: they watch this bizarre British comedy sketch that is played for loop nonstop called “Dinner for One.” It talks about an elderly upperclass women and her butler celebrating new year, while the butler had to substitute for the guests who had all passed away. It is weird to watch once, and plain ridiculous to watch every year. I can never understand the Germans.
We finally went out to the big park next to the apartment for the final countdown. The entire city was covered in the raucous fireworks, as Germans love explosives more than anyone else 😉 . Nonstop bangs echoed on the surface of the lake, and we pulled out our own. A few cigarettes later, our little piece of sky was covered with white, red, and green, welcoming the advent of another brand new year. We had our bottles of beer smashed together for the new cycle, and everyone sat down by the shore, and slowly watched the flashes in the sky as 2019 began…
For the first day of 2019, I opted for a little excursion on my own, towards the little riverside suburb of Blackenese. Sitting at the end of the metro line, the entire place felt like a little island of community sitting on a cute little hill overlooking the vast expanse of the river entering the sea. Just across the river, if you squint really hard looking at the photo above, you will find Airbus’ second largest manufacturing facility right behind Toulouse. Every day, two daily special commuter flights fly back and forth between Toulouse and here to shuttle Airbus employees on daily commutes. Thus, it is not hard to believe that this area has more millionaires than any other town in Europe. Nice view, great beaches, quiet neighborhood, easy commute, Blackenese has got it all, and more importantly, it has a trick up its sleeves.
In 1926, an old Finnish cargo ship caught fire when its engine exploded while sailing in the north sea, after the rescue ship towed this unfortunate Polstjernan into Blackenese, it had already turned into a smoking pile of buoyant rubble. Since her insurers dispute the true origin of the fire, Polstjernan‘s temporary mooring in Blackenese turned permanent when it sank into the sandy beach. Since then, it had became a local point of interest, since one could walk to the wrecks without getting feet wet during low tide. The charred metal not only attracted people, but more shipwrecks too, as many submarine junk was piled on each other nearby, along with a broken barge Uwe in 1975. Unfortunately, when I visited the famed Blackenese Shipwrecks, it was high tide, so you could barely see the tip of Polstjernan in the below picture.
I wandered around the quiet little town, as every affluent neighbor greeted me as they passed by with their dogs during the routine morning walk. I sat in front of the flat, wet beach, and stared into the horizons as each newly built Airbus took off. It was a quiet first day of 2019, and I could not have asked for anything better. The wind was calm, and the sun pierced through the clear sky, welcoming me to a brand new beginning.
I climbed the steep stairs back onto the train station, and encountered many beautiful gardens tended by even more beautiful people, who all greeted me with a smile. This is what I aim to live like, not constantly running away from my responsibilities on the road, but actively training with happiness to fight for what I want.
Next up, Netherlands!
I packed up my bags, and hugged goodbye to Jirina and her boyfriend. I had not found this elusive thing called love here, but a nice old friend with nice old memories. I enjoyed a nice round of beer with a nice group of people, and had a great time. A mini world of discovery surprised me, and the amicable people welcomed me. I could have easily chosen a different place to begin 2019, but I was in Hamburg. It was great, and there is nothing else that I wanted more.
I hopped onto a train heading north, and arrived at the airport of Hamburg. I was here to catch my final intra-Europe flight to Amsterdam, as I was heading to a tiny corner of the country that I had never even heard of before. I slowly approached the boarding ramp, and hopped onto the last EuroWings A320 heading to Netherlands that day. It was dark, and it was cold, but I sat down by the window, and involuntarily fell into an ocean of ruse.
What a strange life I have led! What maniac would hop around Europe year after year looking for something that he is not even sure that would ever befallen onto him. I guess I just had to keep myself busy from thinking about the truth, confronting the inevitable, and this is just my way to delay such deliberation. I feel like, I am caught up in a strange, long dream. Not a nightmare, but not a wet dream either. I am a dreamer, but I have been dreaming for so long that I have forgotten whether I am in an illusion created by my own mind or not. I just hope one day I can become wiser, and older, and eventually one day, when I am ready:
I would open my eyes.