Month: June 2017

Windmills, Polders and Dykes

The Zaanse Schans Windmill Park near Amsterdam

Lately on my travels I’ve given into taking bus tours and merged myself into the same kinds of large or small groups of tourists that I generally confront with scorn and impatience when I’m on my own. So far I’ve never been disappointed with these tours: it’s a good way to see the countryside and learn about a new place. In the Netherlands I joined a big-bus tour that my St. Petersburg travel companion (cousin Maryellen) had already booked for her one day in Amsterdam. That tour combined automated narrative with a live guide who spoke English, Dutch, Spanish and French. It turns out there’s a lot to learn about water management in the Netherlands, and most of it is amazing.

This recent New York Times article explains some of it:

Zaanse Schans Windmill Park

In this post I want to talk about windmills. The iconic Holland windmills are disappearing, but like steam engines, there are folks dedicated to preserving some of this traditional technology. Preservation is also supported by the Dutch government.

We often forget that “drive” shafts are older than steam and internal combustion. Traditional labor saving drive shafts were originally driven by water and wind (not to mention horses, donkeys and humans.)

The ubiquity of windmills in the Netherlands was due to their use for pumping water. You can read specifics here:

Some of the things I learned on the bus tour were:

  • Everyone in the Netherlands has been paying taxes for centuries for water management and flood control.
  • The Dutch know how to reclaim below-sea-level land for agriculture by multi-decade projects that involve diking and pumping.
  • When they got tired of major floods from the huge shallow bay called the Zuiderzee, they closed it off and turned it into a freshwater lake.
Working windmill making linseed oil at Zaanse Schans

But windmills, being motivation for drive shafts, don’t just pump water. Some of the other functions I saw demonstrated were grinding grain, making oils such as linseed oil, and sawing wood. You can also grind pigment for paint.

Sawmill at Zaanse Schans

One of the Zaanse Schans windmills is a working sawmill. When I saw this, the penny dropped about how much work goes into creating planks for houses, ships, palaces and other structures. The windmill guide told us in his spiel (in English) how much quicker it was to use a windmill to saw planks as opposed to two guys with a big saw. (I forgot the relative hour statistics.) That brought to mind the Dutch East India Company and the navy that made it possible, and indeed, all the major European wooden navies.

Sawmill ramp
Sawmill yard


Model of a windmill using a screw pump to move water to a higher level (Molen de Adriaan, Haarlem)

Another concept I managed to absorb was the incremental process of draining water from below sea level. The Dutch do it in a step-wise process, using polders (isolated “hydrological entities” as Wikipedia calls them) of different levels. Basically you pump water from a polder at one level to an adjoining one at a higher level. Eventually you’ve got a polder or canal that’s high enough to drain into the sea by gravity.

After this lecture on the bus, I started noticing how the ubiquitous canals and ponds all have different levels. Then I tried to imagine the complexity of managing water levels in all these hydrological entities but gave up. It makes sense that King Willem-Alexander is deeply involved in water management (when he isn’t sneaking off to fly for KLM:

Wind turbines in the Rotterdam Port area

Nowadays the ever-present waterpumps are invisible, at least to me. Since they’re electric, it’s possible they are run on coal power, which is a major source of power for the Netherlands.  But the Dutch are also building wind turbine farms.

Molen de Adriaan art shot. This is a rebuilt, non-working windmill that was located on one of the city wall towers of Haarlem.







Russian Buses

Russian Buses

If you Google Saint Petersburg transport, one of the first webpages that comes up says that the buses are just too hard for visitors to use so you might as well use the Metro. Of course I accepted this challenge. For a transit geek like me, buses turned out to be easy for the most part. One big help these days is that Google maps plots travel directions using local public transport—not just in Russia but anyplace in the world that publishes their transit data. My cousin Maryellen and I did most of our sightseeing along the Nevsky Prospect, so we took the same routes over and over again during our seven-day stay, commuting from our airBnb apartment on Vasilevsky Island.

Buses are just fun to take in strange cities. I prefer them over metros for several reasons:

  • You can see more from a bus
  • Bus stops can get you closer to your destination
  • Metros involve a lot of walking and stairs
  • Metros are dark, noisy and crowded

Sometimes I get social on buses. For example, I had a “conversation” in Russian with one lady where we understood each other about 25% of the time, but we made contact. She didn’t seem to mind that I kept saying “Izvinite, ya ne ponimaiyu” (“sorry, I don’t understand” – Lots of people have this conversation habit—as long as you let them talk, they’re happy.) She had helped us find our bus stop, and then we talked during the trip.

Another interesting conversation I had in English was with a Chinese student who was studying Russian literature down the street on our island. On a hunch, I started speaking with her in English. She loaded that language right up into her brain and started communicating with me, after what had probably been a long day doing Russian and then  talking with her friends in Mandarin. I don’t think she appreciated how truly impressive her language skills were. (Later at a restaurant Maryellen and I sat next to a table of students doing a Russian / Mandarin language exchange.)

This is “Big Street” (prospekt Bolshoy) on Vasilevsky Island. We must of have looked pretty silly waiting for a bus on this street. (Photo by Maryellen Harrington)

Our attempt to get to the Hermitage on our very first morning in Russia was saved by a passer-by. We were waiting at a stop on Prospekt Bolshoy (“Big Street”) whose sign clearly indicated the buses we needed to get downtown. However, there was a strange dearth of traffic on that street (not to mention bulldozers and other construction equipment.) A woman came by and conveyed to us in Russian and with gestures that the buses weren’t running on this street. We sheepishly found our buses rerouted up to the next street up (Sredny Prospekt or “Medium Street”).

(In retrospect, the problems I had during the first few jetlagged, disoriented and culture-shocked days in Russian seem silly. That first day, my mind was obstinately insisting that of course there would be buses on Big Street.  It also took me a few days to figure out which direction to go on the #1 bus running outside our building, since I just couldn’t accept that the route initially took us in the opposite direction from our destination. I will watch out for this peculiar type of stubborn cognitive impairment the next time I travel!)

These tickets from the St. Petersburg bus conductors are prettier than the ones we used to get in Chișinau.

We had planned to get a “Podorozhnik” contactless travel card. These weren’t sold at our local metro, so we never got around to buying them. Bus fare was 40 rubles (about 80 cents) so we just paid cash for every trip.

We also never got around to taking one of the “shared taxis” (also called mini-buses or marshrutkas.) These are the same type of transport as the “rutieras” in Moldova, which I often relied upon for trips not covered by regular bus routes. The problem with them is that you have to call out to the driver (in Russian of course) when you want off, which means you have to know exactly where you are.

As for the rest of my trip: Amsterdam and Haarlem had plenty of transport but fares were confusing as they are moving to a cashless system, and the cost of buying electronic fare instruments seemed excessive (maybe even exploitative) for tourists. My sister and I used the trains, buses and trams for more major trips, usually visiting a ticket window with a real person in order to purchase a fare. At any rate, my airBnb host had a bicycle I could use!

As for Edinburgh I just bought four ₤4 day tickets and hopped on and off the buses all day: even made it out of town to Roslyn chapel on a city bus. For the single trip between train stations in London (on the Tube this time) I had money on my Oystercard from my last visit to England.

(Apologies here for boring photos. While on the street with my camera, I wasn’t thinking about specific images that might go into a blog posting like this.)

Bus stop signs were informative about times even if you have to figure out the Cyrillic.
Screenshot of #1’s route from an online route mapper.
We usually got a seat after the first few stops in the city center.
Technically this bus could take a wheelchair, but I didn’t see anyone using mobility devices on the buses (or on the streets for that matter.)