Tuesday, April 27, 2010

April 26, 2010: The Long Drive

Finally, after 10 days of waiting, I am finally leaving for Scotland. My plane left the Grande Prairie Airport at 1:55 PM on Sunday, April 25, 2010, and while I've flown many times, this is the first time I've actually left from the Grande Prairie Airport. Because of this I was a little surprised that I had to walk out onto the runway to get to my plane - a tiny Dash 8.

The flight went well enough, and I was fortunate enough to get an entire row (two seats) to myself. I also "charmed" the flight attendant and got myself 2 extra packets of corn nuts (and by "charmed", I mean I asked).

As usual, my seat was right over the wing... well, in this case it was under, but has anyone ever sat in an economy section of a plane and not had his/her view obstructed by the wing? I don't think it is possible. At least I was able to capture some pretty neat footage of the landing gear deploying, which you can see in the first video, below.

(I didn't capture the flight to Munich because I wasn't sitting near a window.)

(The Dash 8 that took me to Calgary.)

I arrived at the Calgary International Airport at 3:30 PM, just an hour and a half later, where I was immediately impressed by the quality of the automatic taps in the washrooms. Not only did the taps provide a goodly amount of water pressure, but the water came on without fuss as soon as my hands were placed in front of the infrared beam. Said water was also immediately warm.

(Not my plane, just some other plane I watched being loaded/unloaded while I ate a relatively tasteless and expensive burger at the Calgary International Airport.)

(My plane to Frankfurt.)

The boarding time for my Airbus A330 plane to Frankfurt seemed to be rather long, certainly longer than any wait I've had flying into or out of Korea on a similarly sized plane, but to my surprise there were empty seats on the plane (which makes me wonder why I couldn't have gotten an earlier flight out?). Some early issues included my personal entertainment station not working (the video screen in the back of the seat of the person in front of me), even after two lengthy delays caused by airline attendants trying to restart it (the most boring first hour of an overseas flight ever), as well as being kicked constantly by the three year old girl beside me as she twisted and turned to get some better leverage with which to fight her sister beside her. Eventually I was able to move to a different seat, where I had no further problems.

(The Lufthansa Airlines 737 I took from Frankfurt to Edinburgh.)

(Bicycles you can rent in the Frankfurt airport to get around faster inside.)

The flight arrived in Frankfurt at 11:20, giving me 20 minutes to get to my next flight. However, after landing, it took 10 minutes to taxi into the airport. The German passenger beside me joked that he was "driving to Frankfurt" (add your own German accent). I then had to go up two levels, find my gate number, run across the airport, get lost, orient myself, then descend three levels where I was held up by an annoying kid who didn't want to check his soft drink into security. Once the bottle was finally pried from his hands, he screamed at the top of his lungs for three minutes. Eventually I made it just in time to my bus, which took another five minutes to get me across the airport and out to the plane, which was waiting for us in what seemed like a neighbouring town.

People often tell me that they experience "culture shock" when they go to a different country, but in my experiences I've often prepared myself in advance for most of the differences I might be likely to encounter, or at least told myself that there will be a difference and then was not shocked when there was one. However, I confess to being caught off guard by the announcement by our pilot that even though there was a slight "traffic jam" on the runway that would delay our take-off by five minutes, we would still likely arrive in Edinburgh on time. My Air Canada flights typically run into all sorts of delays, but you don't really have much of a choice, and so you just have to sit there and "like it". In Germany though, things are mechanically efficient, and the Germans seem to expect everything to run on perfectly (I'm probably unfairly generalizing based on one experience, but that is a common stereotype of German people, so I'll pretend as though I invented it).

My neighbours for the flight were a young couple from Maine, who were making their fourth trip to Scotland. Since they had also flown through Amsterdam on one of their previous flights (my first trip to Scotland two years ago transferred in Amsterdam), we were able to share airport stories about Frankfurt and Amsterdam, as well as discuss the finer points of Scottish life with the confident assurance that only a person who spends a week at a time in another country has.

After clearing customs in Edinburgh, I went to pick up my "Ford Fiesta or similar" car that I had reserved. Unfortunately there were no Ford Fiestas left, and so my options were a Vauxhall Corsa, or a Vauxhall Astra... (you can't see it, but I'm making a "sick" face). The rental agency gave me two options: a 1.2 litre Corsa (5 door station wagon), or a free upgrade to the 1.8 litre "hot hatch" SRI version of the Astra. I thought about the $50 extra worth of fuel it might cost me for the trip, but decided that I was on holidays, and that I should enjoy my possibly one and only opportunity to drive a European hot hatch.

I believe I once remember Jeremy Clarkson testing this car and saying the turning radius was awful. He was right. Despite it being a compact car, the Astra 1.8 SRI is a nightmare to try and park, and it also has seats that are uncomfortable after sitting in them for an hour, the rear window visibility of a Lamborghini Countach (non-existent), cruise control that is impossible to figure out how to turn on (I still haven't even figured out where it is, or if it even exists), and an AC system that only blows the hot air from outside at my face (I once had Mercury Zephyr that also did this). But the power... oh, the power! The car has no problem accelerating into traffic, or passing other vehicles, although that does not necessarily mean that I don't have problems getting the car to do them. After driving the Astra 1.8 SRI I'm sure I'll never buy one, but I sure don't mind driving one for a week.

Actually, on the driving front I feel that I've done relatively well so far. There was a bit of an iffy moment in Inverness, in which I turned left into the right (wrong) lane, and caused quite a bit of confusion for the oncoming drivers. But, other than that, I'm sure I've only made but a half-dozen (hundred) of drivers shake their head and mutter "tourists".

It's not easy driving in Scotland either, what with traffic circles being as common as stop signs in Grande Prairie, and roads that are easily two to three feet narrower (check out the video a bit lower down in the post). That said, I'm having a blast driving in a country where manual transmissions are the norm and you have to qualify in order to rent an automatic car, and where there is even the option of driving a car with a 1.2 litre engine, and this is also considered normal.

But back to the trip...

It took me about twenty five minutes (not a joke), to figure out how to exit the Airport at Edinburgh (anyone who has been there knows what I mean), and after driving in a bus lane, a taxi lane, finding myself in a restricted area, I finally made the right exit on the round-about (traffic circle), and got onto the A90 heading for the Firth of Forth bridge.

I had specifically chosen this route so that I could get a glimpse of the water going over the bridge, but the metal railings obstructed my view so much I could not see the water. Oh well, being able to tell my Scottish friends I drove over the bridge will be fun enough.

At Inverkeithing, just north of the Firth of Forth, the A90 turned into the M90 race track. I raced along to Perth, whereat I turned onto the A9 and then took a pit stop in the beautiful town of Pitlochry.

Most of the trip on the A9 was far less beautiful than I remember it being when I took the train through the countryside. However, the "B road" into Pitlochry past the River Garry, cannot be matched for stunning beauty, and had I been able to find a spot to turn off and take a picture, I would have (there are no hard shoulders in Scotland in seems).

I had been to Pitlochry on my trip to Scotland two years ago, and so I remembered most of the stores along the main street. I stopped to buy some ice cream at a small store, and pick up some vitamin water (I was rather dehydrated at this point). What I hadn't remembered though, was how difficult it is to get two lanes of traffic, and a row of parked cars onto one street made for no more than two "American sized" cars. But this is Scotland, and you just find a way to squeeze yourself in there or you'll never go anywhere. After a few tight fits and close calls, I was out of Pitlochry and back on the A9 heading for Inverness.

(Standing under the Macnaughton's of Pitlochry sign, where I once bought a $100 hat made in America.)

Along the way I stopped in at Aviemore, wrongly assuming from its beautiful name that it would be as picturesque as Pitlochry. It wasn't. It also had zero shops open, since they all closed at 4 PM (it was 4:10 when I arrived).

(The Cairngorms Hotel in Aviemore.)

During my first trip to Inverness, I distinctly remember it being my least favourite Scottish city. My second visit confirmed my original assessment. Going to Inverness was a waste of time. I only drove in because I thought I would be able to find an adapter for my computer, etc. at the mall, but all the stores were closed. There was also the aforementioned incident in which I nearly caused an accident by turning into the wrong lane. The third time won't be the charm though, because I'm never going back to Inverness again. Along with all American airports, and square tipped shoes, I am now also boycotting Inverness.

At this point, I had originally planned to travel even further north into Sutherlandshire, to explore my ancestry, but it was getting late, and I needed to check in at my hostel in Ullapool (still 70 miles away). This is where Scottish driving got interesting.

Already in my drive I had experienced more corners than on the entire Highway 43 journey from Grande Prairie to Edmonton, but I was not expecting the "adventure" that is the magnificent road A835 to Ullapool. The A835 to Ullapool is like that section of Highway 40 near the Grande Cache mine on steroids (you know the one). The already narrow roads, are made at least a foot narrower, and the already non-existent shoulders are made even more non-existent, by chopping off the road right at the edge of the paint and adding sharp ditches on the side of the road, or lining the road with steep cliff faces. The corners are often blind, and the road dips and drops out from under you after those blind corners. Despite that, the 60 mile an hour speed limit isn't enough for the locals on these roads, and they race their fifteen year old rust wagons on spare tire sized wheels at 70 mph or faster on this bike path for cars. Check out the video below for a glimpse at the tamer portions of the road, on which I could spare one of my hands to hold the camera. On my next visit, after I have some more experience, I'll go even further north, where I'm told it gets "better".

(This video doesn't capture the "sense of speed" or "danger" that anyone sitting in the car would have felt, but trust me, it was there).

Eventually I made it to Ullapool, and was delighted to find the scenery exceptionally beautiful, the staff exceptionally friendly, as well as all the people in the street who helped me find the place when I was lost.

After checking in and taking my first shower for roughly two days (or at least it felt like two days), I set out to find a place to eat. As can be expected in a fishing town, fish and chips ("real food," as it's known here) shops are a dime a dozen. Well, they would be if there were a dozen food stores to be found. As far as I can tell though, Ullapool is one main street right on the harbour, a harbour, and then two other streets. I will explore the town more thoroughly on Tuesday to find out though, which will probably be "today" by the time you read this.

And now I go to bed. I haven't slept in 32 hours.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely written post, Dave. I had gone 57 hours without sleep on my way back from Korea.