Archive for April, 2018

An Impression on Rhaetian Railways

Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

Since I don’t have enough time to visit proper country I went to bad substitute of Sweden that’s much more accessible—Switzerland (it should be obvious why I cannot call it poor or cheap substitute). Since it happened on Easter (April 1-2), the environment was resembling Sweden: snow, mountains, deer and log sheds. And of course I could ride trains in new locations!

Rhaetian railways is a narrow-gauge railway system in canton Graubünden (which symbol uncannily resembles the one from Gävle), a fractal part of Switzerland occupying its south-east corner (fractal in the sense that canton shape looks almost exactly like the shape of whole Switzerland). Trains run in a picturesque scenery with dreadful names like Fhtagn (or Ftan in Swiss-Cthüelsch) or SaaS (they really have a station with such name!), going up to the mountains (in 1-2 km above sea level range) and I spent couple of days travelling around.

But while the scenery is okay, the railways are some unholy mix of Berlin S-Bahn, Czech and German railways:

  • There are German ICEs running there all the way to Chur (so I could travel home without any transfers);
  • The tracks are curvy and trains are as slow as in Czechia (i.e. no matter where you go it will take you at least an hour or two to get there);
  • Prices are like in Czechia too except they use Swiss Francs instead of Czech Koruna—but numbers are about the same (so it seems I can ride with ICE here cheaper, faster and on much longer distance than with RhB);
  • Another thing like in Czechia: buying a ticket with a card involves 1,5€ surcharge. No such thing in Sweden;
  • Narrow-gauge trains are a weird mix themselves: they can put locomotive in the front of the train, in the end (maybe), in the middle (very common) or just couple a typical EMU with a number of conventional rail carriages (I’m not sure I’ve seen that anywhere else);
  • Weird station names: I can understand when you name a station after two places at once like Reichenau-Tamins (that’s common in Germany too) or even if you name it after the same place twice like Disentis/Mustér (it’s Confoederatio Helvetica, natives can’t agree on a single name for anything) but Tavanasa-Breil/Brigels is definitely too much (it’s a station between those two mentioned earlier BTW);
  • It’s afraid of snow: after even insignificant amount of snow they stop going on some routes: on my stay there the trains on Pontresina-Tirano and Disentis/Mustér­-Andermatt routes were cancelled for indefinite amount of days. In Germany trains are more punctual—if they are late they’re late for dozens of minutes, not days. And if something bad happens and trains can run some route for days then you can see information everywhere including how to get around and such. No such thing in Switzerland;
  • And another thing that’s taken from German S-Bahn is timetables and tickets. This requires a separate rant.

Overall, FFS or RhB is not very friendly to a traveller: you should have a definite idea where are you going to, when (at which time and such) and how (i.e. where to transfer) if you want to buy a ticket. For example, I was at the station Chur-West and wanted to go to Scuol-Tarasp. The ticket vending machine offered me to choose from three options: via Samedan, via Chur-Samedan (i.e. go first to Chur main station and from there to Samedan and then to Scuol) or via Vereina. The last option is actually a tunnel and not a station name!

In Germany when you travel with long distance trains you actually choose one of the provided connection possibilities (e.g. InterCity from A to B, RegioBahn from B to C and ICE from C to D or InterCity from A to E and then from E to D) or you can use the provided functionality for route planning even if you don’t buy a ticket. SBB ticket machines simply allow you to buy ticket from A to B maybe with cryptic route midpoint and that’s all! That’s exactly how German ticket vending machines for regional transport work. And there’s yet another point of annoyance: Swiss rail timetables fail to include arrival time for the final destination so if you care about it (like I sometimes do) you have to find it out via other means. It’s plain stupid.

Oh, and the snow-related problem: when you buy a ticket you can’t be sure the train will go there because the only cryptic warning I got is when ticket machine said my ticket will be valid on April 1st-April 9th period (and much later in the train too). In Germany it actually shows warnings when there’s some problem with a train or it’s cancelled entirely (since you can use it later). I actually had a situation when one segment of my travel was served by a train that broke down and I had to take another train later instead. So it feels like you should rather use smartphone and buy ticket online where you can see the actual route and warnings (and probably use instead of too where possible).

Overall, travelling with Rhaetian railways was both a pleasant and exciting experience in some aspects (i.e. when I was inside the train) and confusing and frustrating experience in others (i.e. when I actually tried to buy a ticket). They also boast how some parts of the system are the third railway in UNESCO World Heritage Railways (the second after India, I guess) and how picturesque some parts are (they are almost as interesting as Sauschwänzlebahn indeed) but as I’ve seen it all there’s no reason to return there (and the reliable source says there are better places in Switzerland to wait over heat waves too).

#chemicalexperiments Dough and Pancakes

Saturday, April 14th, 2018

Since I don’t have any urges to work on NihAV at this moment (big surprise, I know) I’ll talk about cooking instead.

Since I don’t know how to cook and never had any kind of culinary education, I divide dough into three main categories: puffy (the one that expands while baking), non-puffy (the one that keeps about the same volume) and runny (usually used for pancakes but we’ll talk about them later).

Non-puffy dough is the easiest to make: just mix flour and water (take either boiling water or very cold water for good results). Ideal for simple filling dishes like вареники or Karelian rice pasty (I made both and shall probably make again). The next level is to make so-called shortcrust pastry which is used for pies, quiches and such. Here you usually mix flour with some fat and/or filling (called shortening).

And there we have a variety of what to use for shortening:

  • classical recipes use butter—I’ve cooked stuff using it and it works fine except that it takes too much butter to my liking;
  • French people obviously prefer margarine (since it’s their invention)—I see no reason to try it;
  • Brits prefer some weird animal fat called suet—I feel queasy just thinking about it so it gets definitive no from me;
  • USians use chemically processed vegetable shortening; I’ve tried it once: ordered a can of Crisco shortening, followed the recipe for pie crust and the result is bad. I’d stick to other two recipes listed here. Fun fact: while searching for it on Amazon most offers were from sex shops where it’s apparently offered as a lubricant. I can see why—that stuff is sticky and slick and not fit for baking. Also since one of the sellers offers it along with various sweets (and what passes for them in the USA) I’ve ordered some of those and tried it—I was not impressed by that stuff either.
  • and finally there’s German variant that I find very good called Öl-Quark Teig (dough made from oil and quark—in this case lean homogenous cottage cheese). You mix flour with several spoonfuls of oil (you can choose different oil for different flavouring of course, which is a nice feature) and magerquark (lean homogenous cottage cheese) and that’s all! You can add an egg and/or baking powder too but it’s fine as is too.

Puffy dough is the trickiest one—the puffiness comes from bubbles in the dough and it takes extra effort to do that. The easiest way is simply to add baking powder (or baking soda reacting with vinegar) to the dough, the other conventional ways are to prepare yeast (cultured or uncultured, either way it takes time and some effort) or make bubbles from eggs which requires some skill that I lack (so I stick to baking powder). There are two recipes that work for me: mixing flour, eggs, butter and sugar (aka the usual cake mix) or öl-quark dough with sugar, egg and baking powder.

Runny dough (is it called batter?) can be made by mixing flour with a lot of liquid and some eggs and then used to make pancakes. Since it’s the only thing I’ve done with it so far let’s talk about them.

There are several kinds of pancakes that I know and tried so far:

  • French-style thin pancakes (aka crêpes) that are better eaten fresh with something rolled in;
  • Dutch laughably small pancakes (that have a name almost like an Australian word for gay—probably the words have the same origin);
  • common pancakes—thicker than crêpe, plain, good to eat with something on top or with some filling rolled in;
  • slightly thicker pancakes with something embedded in them (like bits of ham).

And of course Sweden has nice varieties of pancakes in wide range: ordinary pancakes, pancakes with bits of ham, pancakes with potatoes (I tried those and approve) and pancakes for people like me who can’t do anything right with their hands (including flipping pancakes)—ugnspannkaka, i.e. pancakes baked in oven. Obviously that one is much thicker than the rest but it’s easy to make (even I baked some) and it can embed various stuff too which makes it interesting (bits of ham, fish or even fruit). Also this way you’re more likely to end with rectangular pancakes which I find to be a nicer and more versatile shape than usual round ones.

I forgot to mention one local thing—in Baden-Württemberg they have plain pancakes shredded into thin stripes, dried and then they add it to the served soups. It’s called Flädle and you can buy it in every local supermarket (even Aldi). It’s a nice addition to a soup IMO.

Okay, now back to doing anything but coding.