Since the age of 15, I’ve wanted to travel to Europe. This year, I decided it was time to stop thinking about it and actually do it. For the next few weeks I’ll be blogging my journey through 11 countries on Topdeck’s Winter Spirit. Enjoy!
DAY 1: December 25th. Sydney to Hong Kong.
I can’t get over how crowded Sydney Airport is. But somehow I manage to make it through security without any trouble. The journey ahead is daunting, a solo trip to the other side of the world, a trip I am unexpectedly taking alone. My emotions are mixed. A few tears saying goodbye at the famous departure sign only fuel the feelings. Am I doing the right thing, going alone? But in my heart I know this is what I need. I have to do this by myself. I have to.
Thankfully, I’m much better prepared for the long flight this time around. The last time, on my trip to America, I was not ready. I wore the wrong clothes on the plane, I got my liquids confiscated at security for being over the 100ml limit, I took a VERY strong sleeping pill way too early in the flight and barely lived to regret it….well, not this time. This time I’ve done my research. I know what I’m doing.
First stop, Hong Kong. 9 hour flight.
The Cathay Pacific plane is packed. There’s not one empty spot. But I’m pleased to discover that the seats are VERY comfortable. Almost like an armchair. Unfortunately my recline doesn’t seem to work, and lucky me, I get the seatmate from hell.
She’s an entitled teen who takes pleasure in elbowing my armrest constantly, sticks her legs into my space and feels the need to snicker at and criticise my movie choices. Even her mother joins in. Well, I’m 25 years old and if I want to watch Muppets Christmas Carol/Harry Potter then I will, your opinions be damned. However, it’s 10:20pm and soon I drift off to sleep.
DAY 2: December 26th, Hong Kong
My flight was meant to land at 5am Hong Kong time. But the plane has landed at 3:55am.
Hong Kong airport is almost deserted. Immigration takes about 5 minutes and soon I’m in the arrivals lounge. It’s so early, the train station is locked behind a heavy metal grate. Looks like I’m going nowhere until it opens. I snap a few pictures and settle in a seat. Everyone else is sleeping in chairs, waiting for the trains.
At 5:30am the gate is open. But first I head to the bathroom to freshen up a bit. There’s a little area in the ladies’ room dedicated for makeup application. Thanks Hong Kong.
The MTR train from the airport to the city takes on 24 minutes. The train is spotless, fast, and smoother than any ride I’ve ever had on public transport. At Hong Kong Central, screens show the airline schedules. You can check in for your flight at the station. I follow the excellent signage to the Island line. I haven’t even been outside yet and Hong Kong is already finding its way into my heart.
Every train is behind a glass wall, the door only opening when the train has stopped. How many lives must be saved because of such a simple measure? I want to take this whole system home to Sydney.
I’m meant to meet my friend Brooke a bit later, so I kill time at Sheung Wan by getting hot chocolate at Starbucks, searching endlessly for WiFi to contact both Brooke and home, and then I go for a walk to the famous Star Ferry pier.
At 10am Brooke arrives. My flight leaves at 3:05pm so we waste no time heading straight to Hong Kong’s iconic Peak Tram, much like Australia’s Scenic Railway. The view is stunning, though unfortunately partly obscured by smog.
We head back down and catch a cab to the Star Ferry. There’s another item ticked off the bucket list. On the next island Brooke shows me the Garden of Stars and the performing arts centre. It’s a shame the museum has closed for renovations. But I’m very keen to find one place in particular. A jewellery store I promised Grandpa that I’d visit. He went to Hong Kong regularly for business trips and every year since the mid 80s, this particular store has sent him a Christmas card without fail. We do find it, although the pieces are a little too much for my taste. Still, mission accomplished.
With only a couple of hours til my flight leaves, I head back to the airport. The train journey takes less than an hour (are you listening, Australia?). No need to check in, since I did it online but I need to find what gate I’m meant to board at. Apparently it’s Gate 65. Before I know it, I’m on another train to a different section of the massive airport, only to find there’s been a change. To gate 63.
Today I’ve managed to navigate a foreign city, alone, without getting lost once. I can’t help but feel proud.
When the flight to London boards, I’m thrilled to see that there is nobody in the row in front of me, nobody behind me, I have a whole row to myself and the flight is almost empty. Forget first class. I have a great setup here. I pull up the armrests, grab a few spare pillows and blankets, and manage to sleep soundly for 10 of the 12 hours. Best. Flight. Ever.
LONDON, HEATHROW AIRPORT
It’s 8:20pm but Border Control has a ridiculously long line. While I’m waiting, I log into the Topdeck App and discover that one other girl from the tour group is here in line for Border Control. Her name is Sophie. We make plans to meet up at baggage reclaim. Five minutes later, we realise we’re practically next to each other in line. Apparently her flight from Melbourne was delayed eight hours so if that hadn’t happened we wouldn’t have met up. We both decide it’s fate.
After more than an hour waiting, Sophie gets a real grilling by immigration, while the man checking my passport doesn’t even mind that I made a mistake on my landing card.
It’s close to 10pm, so we head to the taxi rank. We’re greeted by a massive line and precisely zero taxis in sight. We head back inside to find the Tube.
Unfortunately for us, the Heathrow express isn’t running. Thankfully the attendant is helpful (despite mistaking us for students) and tells us how to get to the hostel. Or so we think.
It’s a long trip to the station and neither of us a phone reception to call the hostel. Mercifully, Sophie manages to get some data roaming once the tube is above ground. She contacts the accomodation so we don’t lose our reservations. It’s getting close to midnight.
Finally, we arrive at the station. There’s free WiFi at the station so I connect and pull up Google maps. The guy said it wouldn’t take long to walk from here. And that’s when we realise the horrible truth. I told the man we wanted to get to Tower Bridge Station. He’d told us to get on a train to London Bridge Station. The genius has sent us in the wrong direction.
At this point it’s almost 1am, we’re both tired and a 26 minute walk from where we need to be. It’s also freezing cold and we have suitcases.
The London Bridge station staff tell us where the taxi rank is, and we get there to find it almost deserted. Though neither of us say it aloud, Sophie and I are seriously doubting whether we’ll make it to the hostel before sunrise.
Sophie spots a man hanging around near a fancy looking building. I assume he’s security because he looks like someone the mafia would hire. He sends us to the main road and within minutes, we’re finally in a taxi towards the hostel.
Unfortunately the driver sees fit to give us a PHENOMENAL lecture on how we could have gotten a cab at Heathrow if we’d just XYZ….maybe he thought we were insulting the taxi industry. I don’t know. And I really don’t care. I just want to get warm.
It’s well after 1am when we finally get to the room. After a shower I’m finally feeling human again. The bed is pretty comfortable too.
It’s taken us 5 hours to get from the plane to the hostel room. I tell Sophie that someday we’ll be laughing. But for now, sleep.
DAY 3: December 27th, London.
When I wake, I can feel a cold starting. Drat. Last thing I need is to get sick. But it figures. More than 21 hours on planes which are just massive bacteria breeding zones. I’ll have to take something for it.
Sophie’s already up. She says she couldn’t sleep. I suspect jetlag, although I’m feeling a bit groggy too. But I’m not sure if it’s jetlag or this stupid cold.
We head down to breakfast, where there’s a great spread of all-you-can-eat food and we meet another girl from the Winter Spirit tour. She’s from Perth. While we’re chatting away, I happen to glance out the window and see the snow.
I jump up from the table and run up the stairs, through the foyer door and start snapping pictures. Everyone is laughing at me.
“What are you so excited about?” Someone asks me.
“I’ve never seen snow fall from the sky!” I explain with the air of a child in a candy store.
The guy looks at me like I have three heads. “Where are you from that you don’t see snow?!?”
“Australia. I haven’t seen any since I was twelve and never falling from the sky,” There’s one item off my bucket list. And on my first morning too.
Sophie and I decide to head out to the Christmas market by the Thames. It’s raining so I take the umbrella I packed.
Neither of us have ever experienced such cold. Even layered up with thermals and down coats, the wind chill hits you. Within minutes my stupid umbrella is broken. It kept out the rain but it’s no match for the wind. Damn it.
We cross Tower Bridge and find that it was worth braving the temperatures for what we find. The stalls are in cute wooden shacks, beautifully decorated for the holidays. At one stall, we find a great umbrella built for London’s weather and big enough for both of us. And it’s only £10. Sold!
We pass a chemist and head inside, partly so I can pick up something for this stupid cold and partly to get warm. Everything is so well heated here. I quickly find some cold and flu tablets. Better to nip this thing in the bud.
Sophie is really starting to shiver and I have to admit we need a break. We decide to head back to the hostel to get warm, (in Sophie’s case) get some thermals on, and figure out our next move. Our city map didn’t hold up so well in the rain either. We need a new one.
Back at the hostel, I discover my socks got slightly wet from the deep puddles. My boots are a little damp on the inside too. Sophie offers her hair dryer which does the trick. Not even 24 hours since we met and we’re already a great team.
We both want to go to the Tower of London but we’re also keen for lunch. We set out to see if Britain’s fish and chips live up to the legends. But Google maps can be deceptive as the place we were looking for is closed. We resign ourselves to pizza instead. May as well get some practice in for Italy.
After we eat, Sophie says she’s feeling tired and I’m quite relaxed too. We walk back to the hostel to figure out what to do next, but Sophie’s so tired she decides to get some sleep. It’s probably best I take it easy today as well, with this ridiculous cold threatening me. Besides, it’s not even 4pm and the sun is setting.
Tonight, the tour group plans to meet at the bar for drinks. Tomorrow, we hit the road. First stop, Paris, the City of Light.
Next time: Part 2/10, Paris and Switzerland