European trains are tricky. When you walk into a major train station you’ll likely find 15-20 tracks with trains going every whichaways. If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, you might as well close your eyes and get on whichever one leaves next. Either way you’ll likely end up stranded in some random village. Before the dawn of the internet, massive and complex timetable books were published just to help people know how to get somewhere. Even that could be an exercise in futility unless you had a master’s degree in map making, and were fluent in German. These days, the internet makes using trains in Europe significantly easier and it will instantly tell you the best seven ways to get somewhere and how to do it.
Walking into Munchen Hauptbahnhof for the first time, I wasn’t exactly 100% prepared. My travel buddy Bart and I wanted to jump a train to Fussen for a day trip visit to Neuschwanstein Castle. I was a little rusty in “Train-ese” and decided I needed to get a second opinion on my route from the information desk. Along with the correct directions, the young woman helping me also imparted one more golden nugget: “When in doubt, follow the Chinese”.
Getting to Neuschwanstein was easy, and the Castle itself is as much of a fairytale as the pictures make it out to be. However, getting back to Munich that afternoon became much more challenging.
When my travel buddy Bart and I arrived back in Fussen ready to take a later train to Munich, the train station was plastered with fliers and yellow tape everywhere – the kind you’d expect to see at a crime scene. Had I been able to read German, it would have told me that the train station was closed for the next three months while construction took place. Unfortunately, my conversational German only includes “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Thank you”, and the ability to count to three while pointing at something (I never figured to need four of anything at one time).
Because it was later in the day and the rest of our trip’s itinerary hinged on leaving from Munich early the next morning, Bart and I start to freak out a little. At this point all we know is that the train station looks like someone had just been murdered in there, and there were no Chinese in sight to help us out. After literally running around the train station several times, we did the only thing you can do when you don’t know what you’re doing: we closed our eyes, climbed aboard the next bus leaving, and after 45 minutes were dumped off and abandoned at a train station in a random village.
Unsure that we had done anything to actually improve our situation, we started looking around. On track #1 there were three abandoned train cars sitting there. No locomotive… No posted schedule. Only a printed sign on the train car’s entry door that read “Munich”. So we figured it was best to get in. Half an hour later we felt the bump of a locomotive attaching itself, followed by the slow but steady movement of our train car heading out. We weren’t positive that we were headed to Munich at first, but after following the route on paper as we went, we realized we would both make it back in one very relieved piece. Waiting for us back in Munich? Chinese tourists.