Wednesday, 7 October 2015

I visit Wałbrzych in search of the Gold Train site

Explore Wałbrzych is the town's new advertising slogan, so I set out to do just that. My night train from Warsaw arrived at Wałbrzych Miasto at 07:14. (I slept well the whole night, thanks to two shots of pigwówka - quince vodka - before boarding the train.) Now, Wałbrzych has four stations (from south to north - Główny, Miasto, Fabryczny and Szczawienko) strung out like pearls along 12.5km of winding railway line that meanders through the town.

I'm on my way to a conference for Polish exporters at the HQ of the Wałbrzych Special Economic Zone. It's on the northern edge of town near Szczawienko station. I've got to be there at half past nine, so I've got over two hours to explore. I walk from Wałbrzych Miasto to Szczawienko, and then reaching the latter, I take off into the hills in search of the Gold Train.

Below: I approach Szczawienko station. That Germanic architecture lends an air of quiet menace to the place.

It's at this station that things start getting interesting. There's an abandoned spur from the main Wałbrzych-Wrocław railway line which then runs parallel to it northwards for a while before swinging off to the east to the former site of a ceramics factory. The rails have long been pulled up. However, between the spur and the main line is an interesting hump of land, towering over both (to the right of the picture below), within which a third railway line containing the fabled train could quite feasibly be buried.

Below: I cross over the high ground and the possible gold train tunnel to find the disused line. Now just wooden sleepers remain of the track bed.

Ventilation shafts? I peek inside and take a few snaps. More like sewerage. Smell like drains. The Gold Train could be directly in front and down several metres.

Below: the roped-off area, between the disused track and the main line, north of ul. Uczniowska has been thoroughly searched by army sappers. The army has finished checking the area out and found nothing except six rounds of rifle ammunition from WW2. No land mines, no chemical weapons – but then the Polish army's kit for scanning beneath the surface of the earth only 'sees' as far down as one metre. The radar location device that was used to 'show' the location of the Gold Train is good for 70m. But then there's only one of these devices in Poland, and the Polish army doesn't have it.

Right by the taped-off area is a large billboard promoting the town as #wAUbrzych (that's AU as in the chemical symbol for gold). On the one hand, visitors are invited to explore Wałbrzych. On the other, you are forbidden to go into the trees beyond. Smaller posters bearing the same message adorn nearby bus stops.

Below: a good view of the likely Gold Train site. It would be right here, centre of the pic. Note the flattened land on top - this is where the army sappers did their bit.

After the conference, I had an hour and half before my train home, so I set out to outflank the police cordon from the north. I made my way down to the track take a look. Look behind the train (click to enlarge) - this is where the line would have entered the tunnel under the raised hump of land. And note too the police car to the right of the frame.

So - here we are on a Google Earth map, rotated so that North is to the left to fit better. The main area in the yellow box is where the train is currently suspected to be. I took the above photo from the right-hand edge of the map. 

When will the official search start in earnest? Will the Gold Train ever be found? Human curiosity and one of the greatest stories in Poland in recent years come into conflict with the dull reality of the Polish State. Poland has yet to discover the efficiencies that come from joined-up government. This is 'Polska resortowa', 'Polska silosowa' – a state of uncommunicative fiefdoms and information jealously hoarded in silos. It is the state of 'spory kompetencyjne' – disputes of competencies – between organs. These are either negative (“This is not our agency's/ministry's/office's business – it's yours”) or positive (“It's not your agency's/ministry's/ office's business – it's ours”).

In the case of the Gold Train, we have the following actors involved: The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The Ministry of National Defence. The Ministry of Administration and Digitisation. The Lower Silesian Marshal's Office. The Lower Silesian Voivode's Office. The Office of the Mayor of Wałbrzych. Polish state railways' infrastructure arm, PKP PLK. The police, and finally the Straż Ochrony Kolei (SOK – the railway protection service). All these bodies will be having a stake in the game. They will be making suggestions, criticising others' suggestions, coming up with plans, finding allies for their plans, altering the plans, drawing up timetables that stretch into an indefinite future – and all this before we consider the political dimension – this month's parliamentary elections, local party politics, rivalries, jealousies etc. The Premier's office is too busy worrying about re-election to get involved (evidently no political party can see any capital to be made from either a) hurrying up the search or b) delaying the search c) saying anything about the search.

Within weeks the leaves will turn an even more gorgeous shade of gold and will drop off the trees, making the site more exposed to scrutiny (the bridge on ul. Uczniowska will become an even better vantage point). By Christmas, snow should fall, making incursions into the zone difficult as footprints will be traceable. Nothing much will happen this side of next spring. Heavy excavating plant should be brought in, preceded by careful soil analysis and army sappers. Media and popular pressure should be exerted on the authorities to proceed with a dig once the election is out of the way.

The Gold Train might be there, it might not be. If it is – this will be the biggest thing since the Titanic was found on the ocean floor. If not – well, let me take another look. It's down there somewhere.

Just as the Loch Ness Monster, which has generated (I'd guess) billions of pounds in tourism revenue for the lake and surrounding towns and villages since the 1930s, the legend of the Gold Train can become a huge draw for Wałbrzych and vicinity. Książ castle and the sites associated with the mysterious Projekt Riese around Walim. But the promotion needs to be carefully thought through. The balance needs to be right. Not Disneyfied and sanitised – but then on the other hand we don't want freelance explorers doing dangerous things to themselves and others with sticks of dynamite or falling down holes. People should be encouraged to get involved in the mystery, come up with their own pet theories, go on long rambles from Point A to Point B, calling in on cafes and restaurants before falling asleep, happy, in agroturystyki which offer simple but clean accommodation and hearty fare for tired explorers. Enterprising Wałbrzych householders will hopefully expand the baza noclegowa rapidly in coming years to be able to welcome curious tourists from around the world.

I've had a small sample today of the potential of Wałbrych as Town of Legend. The atmosphere in early autumn (a light mist would have been nice); the gloomy brick of this former German mining town, the rolling hills, the eternal mystery of what happened around these parts between 1943 and 1945. Why did the Nazis – fighting total war on all fronts – divert so many resources to dig so many tunnels and caverns into the mountains to the south-east of Wałbrzych? What did happen to the treasures looted by the Nazis in the East? What else is hidden in this complex? This is all fascinating stuff.

A final point about Wałbrzych. I was last here in 2008. Since then, the town has really come on – mainly as a result of its thriving Special Economic Zone. Ul. Uczniowska which was then nothing more that a dual carriageway lined with street lights running through empty fields is now flanked with factories providng jobs to thousands of people for scores of kilometres around. Gold Train or not, it's a city rising from its knees after the collapse of its coal mining industry. But with the Gold Train legend, Wałbrzych has the potential to become a great city.

This time last year:
Return to Scotland, still a part of the United Kingdom

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's Plac Unii opens - and changes colours

This time three years ago:
Tatra time (worth another watch and listen!)

This time four years ago:
The passing of Old Poland

This time five years ago:
A glorious week

This time six years ago:
Trampled underfoot: Sobieski and the Turks at Vienna

This time seven years ago:
The first, spontaneous signs, of a Park + Ride at Jeziorki

This time eight years ago:
Early autumn atmospheres, Jeziorki

Sunday, 4 October 2015

In search of the vectors for migrating consciousness

And old thread to pick up on the occasion of my 58th birthday - can consciousness migrate from one body to another? As I've written many a time (just click on the label 'reincarnation?' below for more), I have long held the belief - since childhood - those frequently experienced familiar flashbacks, those anomalous memory events - those brief moments when I'm feeling the precise mood of another time and another place - though not of my lifetime.

Pondering on the transmission mechanism by which this phenomenon may occur, I've considered brain-waves as being receivable by other beings. I've also considered the fact that we are made up of indestructible atoms that last for ever, electrons whizzing around the nucleus for many billions of years. This week, a new possible vector for the transmission of consciousness has turned up.

The Economist has an interesting piece about the bacteria that pass through us and that we give off on many different forms. [Click here to read - register to get three free articles a week.] Here's the key: "People constantly generate puffs of bacteria, even when they are sitting perfectly still... [They] shed bacteria - from their skin, mouths, noses and other orifices - at a rate of about 1m an hour."

Those bacteria have been inside us - and what have they learnt about their hosts? What memories have been encrypted in their structures? Can that be passed on to other living creatures that later play host to the same bacterium?

I discussed this with my brother, who raised the concept of the virome - the collection of all the viruses in the human body. It's not just bacteria that enter our bodies and leave. Could bacteria and viruses collect fragments of our will and memory before passing on to other living beings - like a pen drive picking up data from one computer and taking that same data into the memory of another computer?

The universe is teeming with life: hundreds of billions of galaxies containing hundreds of billions of stars, many of which are orbited by planets on which sentient life has evolved. However, those islands of life are separated by light years of emptiness. The space between galaxies is said to contain but one atom per cubic metre. In between the light generated by stars, and the particles of visible, tangible matter, is dark matter, at present no more than a hypothetical construct devised by physicists to explain the gravitational push causing the expansion of the universe. What it is - scientists are utterly unable to explain. Yet without it (and dark matter is thought to make up the bulk of matter in the universe), the sums don't add up.

So here's another wacky idea. Until such time as science proves otherwise, I'd posit that dark matter is consciousness - the will and purpose of the universe. We come from dark matter, and into dark matter we will return, for our consciousness to be recycled eternally, evolving in awareness, evolving spiritually, until it has journeyed from Zero to One; the One being total awareness of everything.

I'm increasingly confident in my belief that the fundamental truth of life, the universe and everything lies somewhere between the human notion of 'science' and the human notion of 'spirituality'. The poetic mind can 'feel' the truth though not define it in empirical terms. Ideas spread like viruses; they 'infect' one brain then another and catch hold (the original concept of the 'meme'). Some are good and civilising - others are debilitating and disabling. Whether those ideas are scientific or spiritual (or metaphysical), they evolve; the stronger ones displacing the weaker ones.

Many thanks to everyone who sent me birthday greetings by e-mail, SMS, phone call, Twitter or via Facebook or Google+!

This time last year:
Slipping from late summer to early autumn

This time two years ago:
Turning 56

This time three years ago:
Turning 55

This time four years ago:
Turning 54

This time five years ago:
Turning 53

This time eight years ago:
Turning 50

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Polish politics enter a critical period

Populist politicians can seriously damage their country's macroeconomic fundamentals to the point where their stated aim - making life better for the ordinary citizen - ends up working in reverse. Take Brazil or Venezuela for example.

The interface between politics (which party you vote for) and policy (the competent delivery of a well-organised state) is complex and few voters see it in action.

Members of Parliament, posłowie, deputies - are elected legislators. Their job is to propose laws, shape those laws, vote them into force, thus changing the shape of the state - for better or for worse. The quality of that legislation is crucial, whether it be the transposition of EU Directives into national law, or determining the law at the national level where appropriate.

The law must be simple to interpret - so an administrator (urzędnik) in Białystok will understand the law's intent - and act accordingly - in the same way as an urzędnik in Wrocław or Łódź. To ensure the wording of the law is clear and unambiguous - and reflects the will of the people - legislators, our elected law-makers - must be up to the job. They have to be intelligent enough to grasp the complexity of what they do, and appreciate the consequences of their decisions.

My professional life brings me into close everyday contact with the consequences of Poland's elected law-makers' decisions. Whether it be the digitisation of medical services, municipal waste collection, vocational education, renewable energy or public procurement, I can see how the precise wording and interpretation of the law as it is set out by our elected posłowie has a tangible effect on people's lives. A well-organised state is an efficient and happy state. Bad things happen there less often.

Example. The Sejm is currently debating an amendment to the law on the delivery of medical services, to allow for telemedicine (remote diagnosis). This would allow a doctor sitting at a computer many kilometers from the patient to diagnose symptoms using online tools such as webcams, scans of ECG readouts or e-mails from specialists. Had not some bright spark spotted it, the amended law might have insisted that the room in which the doctor's computer sits be lined with washable tiles. And in the absence of such tiles, the doctor would have been liable to be fined or be struck off. Fortunately, this absurdity was picked up in the draft law's third reading.

My point is this. If you elect pop stars, actors, primary school teachers, farmers - they may mean well - but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of law making - a tedious and highly detailed activity - their attention may stray from getting the letter of the law right. And the consequences will be felt by us all. If they're not up for the hard grind of the legislative process, they will be letting down the electorate.

Law making should be left to those who can do it. Hustings should be more about competence than charisma. Experience is important, as is intelligence. We need legislators who can hang their egos on the coat peg as they enter the legislative chamber and focus long and hard on the outcome of their deliberations

Yet worse than amateurs in power, I fear idealogues. People who fail to see common sense, because they are guided by one ideology or another. Uncompromisingly they will force their agenda, irrespective of whether it improves the lot of the average citizen.

On Sunday 25 October, we'll be offered the choice of who is to govern Poland for the next four years. Poland is a great European economic success. The economy is currently growing at an annualised pace of 3.6%. No other large EU member state can match that. The danger is that with a populist tax-and-spend, economically nationalist, government in power, foreign investment will be discouraged, jobs growth will cease, entrepreneurs will up sticks and move elsewhere, inefficient state enterprises will be propped up with taxpayers' money, and rent-seeking cronyism will take hold.

So who to vote for? Until Ryszard Petru nailed his colours to the mast, I'd have stuck with PO. But they are a spent force, especially after the departure to Brussels of Donald Tusk. They have become stale, complacent. They need a jolt of reformist zeal. This could come from a junior coalition partner like Ryszard Petru and his .nowocześni party.

Polling 8.1% in yesterday's Radio ZET opinion survey, .nowocześni are in the running to make it over the 5% threshold and get into parliament. Despite the polls' increasing unreliability, it seem certain that Petru's party will make it into the next Sejm. The question who else of the smaller parties will.

The big question mark is Kukiz '15. Without any real policies, their support is evaporating from poll to poll. A protest party that can offer no meaningful alternative, it is currently polling around 6%-7% - enough to get into Sejm, but a far cry from the 20% that Paweł Kukiz polled in May's presidential election.

There's three weeks to go; the election will be crucial. The outcome can be either 'steady as she goes' with a PO-led coalition roughly continuing on a similar course the past eight years - though hopefully with a jolt of Petru, or turn in a populist, amateur, shambolic direction that would shame Poland internationally and harm its healthy economic growth prospects.

I shall be voting for Ryszard Petru and .nowocześni. (Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have gathered that by now!)

More on Polish politics between now and the election!

This time two years ago:
First intimation of new Biedronka store for Jeziorki

This time four years ago:
Moni leaves home for Łódź film school

This time five years ago:
Out and about in Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
Funeral of Lt. Cmdr. Tadeusz Lesisz

This time seven years ago:
Puławska by night

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Optimising travel to work

The world's cities are changing, technology is advancing. The old model changes yielding place to the new. Driving into the centre of the city from a distant exurb is soooo outmoded, and yet it seems on a day like today that half of Warsaw's working population has driven itself into town, clogging up the capital's arteries for public transport. [And interesting article in Gazeta Stołeczna last week suggested that first-time property buyers in Warsaw seek small - like 20 sq.m. - flats built and equipped to a high standard in good central locations rather than larger flats further out.]

Gone is August, when I could catch the 319 bus from Trombity bus stop at  08:19, arrive at Metro Wilanowska, pursuant to the ZTM's timetable, at 08:41, and thus be able to stride into the office at 08:55. This morning, the 319 pulled into Metro Wilanowska at 08:55. On Monday, this journey took me 20 minutes (ie 50%) longer than in August.

The start of the academic year and the low-temperature morning had a part to play in the jam.

I wrote about the 319 before, a wonderful bus service for me as I'm often the only passenger on board as it picks me up from the bus stop conveniently located 150 seconds walk from home. But by the time it arrives at its destination, Metro Wilanowska, it's nearly full. The bus (only three trips scheduled in each direction, Mon-Fri mornings only) serves to complement the totally overcrowded longer-distance buses running from Piaseczno along ul Puławska, the 709, 727 and 739. At peak times (06:00 to 07:00) there are 23 buses an hour from Karczunkowska to Metro Wilanowska. But between 08:00 and 09:00, there are only 16 buses on this route, three of which are 319s.

Anyway, I get on this bus, pull out my smartphone, and start reading the day's news on Twitter, Poland A.M. and and getting early visibility on overnight e-mails. Time spent on the bus is put to good use. One of the reasons that increasing numbers of people across western Europe are taking to public transport and eschewing the car is the ability to engage with one's mobile device.

Difficult when trying to drive a car at the same time.

"No, the law about not using mobile phones in cars doesn't apply to me because I'm rich so I need to use a 3.5 litre V6 engine to drag me and two tonnes of metal to my office to proclaim my social status. Public transport? It's for the little people."
On the railway, the long-awaited works are well under way. A new platform is being built at W-wa Okęcie, and there's single-track working between W-wa Okęcie and W-wa Dawidy, which is causing some delay as trains have to let one another pass. Once completed, the modernisation of the line between Warsaw and Czachówek will mean that SKM trains will be able to connect the capital to Piaseczno. This will double (at least) the number of trains on this busy commuter line. It will do a lot to take drivers out of their cars and take to the rails. In the meanwhile, my commute between Jeziorki and Śródmieście takes some five to ten minutes longer than scheduled, which is an acceptable trade-off given the promise of better things to come.

Then there's the matter of the bus lane for ul. Puławska. Long promised, Piaseczno, Nowa Iwiczna, Mysiadło, Jeziorki, Pyry and Grabów wait for an announcement that work will start soon. But no news on the horizon as yet.

There has to be carrot and stick to get car users to abandon their lazy ways. Once Piaseczno has a reversing loop for SKM trains, once Puławska has a bus lane, the use of public transport into town will become more attractive. As does the ability to use time on the bus or train to tweet or to connect with friends via Facebook or catch up on office work. And using public transport, one is forced to walk - to the bus stop, to the train station, from bus stop or station to office - and walking is good for you, while sitting in a car in a traffic jam is not. Another carrot is financial. The cost of a quarterly Warsaw Zone 1 travel card is a mere 250 złotys (£45). This works out at 2.90 złotys a day (45p).

You're either part of the problem (sitting one-per-car on your short journey to work, co-creating traffic jams) or you're part of the solution (using public transport or using two wheels to get to town).

This time last year:
My enemy's enemy is also my enemy [Putin and ISIS]

This time four years ago:
Cadillac Eldorado convertible cruises through Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
A whiff of the past

This time seven years ago:
Ul. Poleczki finally finished

This time eight years ago:
Early autumn moods, Jeziorki

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Out of the Third and into the Fourth

End September, early autumn. Morning spent working from home, late afternoon time to walk and catch some sun and sunset. It's getting cooler and cooler. By tomorrow morning the temperature will have fallen to 5C. We are being abandoned by the sun as, bored with us, it drifts south. Darkness and cold will march in to fill the void.

We've had equinox, equilux, and the first three quarters of this year have passed. A fine, hot, dry summer. Today the onset of autumn feels like it's arrived. Below: W-wa Dawidy at ul. Baletowa.

Below: a LOT Polish Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner, SP-LRB, takes off from Runway 15 at Okęcie airport - wind's in the south-east.

Below: the RE8 przyspieszony to Skarzysko Kamienna. This train does not stop at W-wa Dawidy or W-wa Jeziorki. The service stops short of Radom, a bus takes passengers from Lesiów to Radom, from where a train takes passengers on to their final destination. Over three hours journey time.

Sun is setting in the west; to the north, Warsaw's skyline is changing, below. Warsaw Spire gets closer to completion. Within a few years, four or five new towers will rise up around that part of Wola as Warsaw's central business district moves west.

Below: looking east along the S2 in the direction of Ursynów. The bridge over it is carrying the railway line that links Warsaw's Metro to the outside world.

Below: the sun sets under the bridge carrying ul. Hołubcowa over the S2. The Metro's rail link in the foreground. This line is very rarely used - the occasional draisine is all I've ever seen on this track. Having said that - every single piece of rolling stock running on Warsaw's Metro - lines M1 and M2 - has passed over these lines.

Below: in the foreground, the rail bridge carrying the Metro link (which has pedestrian walkways on either side). Beyond, the S2 expressway, Warsaw's uncompleted southern bypass, which peters out a few hundred metres to the east. Underneath, ul. Puławska.

Third Quarter ends and year-to-date stats are due: 2.94 million paces walked since 1 January (up from 2.75 million paces in Q1-3 2014). Average daily paces: 10,778. Last year - a mere 10,095. Average weekly alcohol intake 25.7 units (down from 29.2 units for same period last year) where 21 units is safe drinking and dangerous starts at 50 units per week. New for 2015 - daily fresh fruit and veg intake - average is 4.4 portions a day (five being recommended). Remember - if you don't measure it, you can't manage it!

This time last year:
Inverted reflections

This time two years:
Observations from London's WC1
and Observations from the City of London

This time four years ago:
Civilising Jeziorki's wetlands

This time five years ago:
Warsaw's Aleje Jerozolimskie

This time six years ago:
Melancholy autumn mood in Łazienki

This time seven years ago:
Autumn gold, Zamienie

This time eight years ago:
Flamenco Sketches - Seville