Catching the train from Montreal to Halifax

I booked ahead, so as to get the best price I could, and just had a seat, rather than a sleeping spot, because this journey only has one overnight part, and it is right near the beginning. The train leaves three times a week, starting at 7pm, and is due in to Halifax at 17:51 the next day.

The seats are comfy, more so than those on the train I had ridden West, from Toronto to Edmonton, last year. The latter did have two seats on either side, so more space if not full (everyone got a two-seat to themselves), but I was happy with the newer single seat on this train.

The ride is smooth, and passes plenty of landscape, if you’re looking.

We were a little delayed, arriving in Halifax just after 7 the next day. In keeping with the generally festive mood on Canadian trains, we were told exactly why that was. In Britain, there would have been a mysterious “incident” up ahead, and even if we had been told, the language would have been torturous. Here, we were immediately told that a freight train ahead had unfortunately hit a truck, no one was hurt but engineers were checking the train over to make sure it could continue.

Trains in North America. A brilliant way to travel.

Running (or walking) from Mestre to Venice

Route overview
Route overview – AO hotel to Santa Lucia station, Venice.

I really fancied the run, and a quick look on Google street view suggested it was possible. I struggled to check that, though; I expected to find someone saying “yes, you can do that!” on several forums, but only found one, after some searching. That was enough, but I figured I’d add one more voice with this post.

Yes! You can run, or walk, from Mestre to Venice. It’s around 10km from Mestre station to  Santa Lucia station/Piazzale Roma and not beautiful. Buses, trains and trams cost €1.35 (March 2019) so at that point I understand if I lose walkers’ interest. Cyclists, though – go for it, the route is made for you. And despite the lack of beauty, arriving into Venice is stunning, and I felt my soul calmed. That despite my getting there after 10am, with the place full of people.

A couple of fiddly bits. First, if you are staying North of the railway tracks, you need to get South. There are a few options, but some involve strolling along the side of elevated roads, and Italian drivers are merciless, so I’d advise a crossing. You can go under the tracks at the railway station – walk in, go down stairs, pass all the platforms and out the other side. And just a little further along, at the back of the (open air) bus station, there’s another underpass. It is pungent, but wider and less busy than the station.

I used the bus station underpass, just 100m (ish) East of the railway station. Once out on the Marghera side, cross the road and follow what starts out as a road, with chain link fence on your left.

Bus station underpass
Bus station underpass – the lower circle is the Marghera side.

Then you can follow the Rampa Giorgio Rizzardi, on a separate cycle path for a while. Fairly soon, you run out of road. There’s a bus stop, but that’s it. Instead of running along the side of the main road, cross one single railway line and turn up the Via delle Industrie. No need to loop back on yourself as I did – that was me checking that yes, I was out of pavement.

Use the Via delle Industrie
Use the Via delle Industrie.

From there you can take one of the side roads, or continue on the Via delle Industrie. Below is an overview of this section, which is heading round another railway station, Venezia Porto Marghera. The path proper picks up behind the Expo. Most of this area seems set aside for parking.

A separate note, from a previous run. The circled area is a bridge from the end of Via Torino (the roundabout, disappearing into the top of the picture). There is a footway to take you onto the main road, on the left of the road/bridge. However, at the moment is is taped off. From the North, it looks like there is also a footway on the right. But when you get to the SW of the circled spot, that ‘footway’ is very narrow (I had to turn sideways and side-step my way down it). It isn’t really a good way onto the main road, though I made it, was ignored by the policeman on the road, and was able to cross the Via della Liberta to get onto the main path. Happier to stick to the underpass, though.

Porta Marghera overview
The whole dog-leg, overview. Plenty of road options, before getting on to a path.

There’s one more deviation away from the main road, but you are just following the path here. Keep your eyes open where it crosses roads – they may be busy if lots of people are heading to park.

One more dog leg
One more dog leg, but just follow the path.

From here it’s easy, and flat. The path narrows at a couple of points, so just check for bikes coming up behind you. The bridge is not high, just a metre or two above the water. The only raised section is as you come into Venice itself, but doesn’t go more than a couple of metres up, and by then you are on a separate boardwalk area, so your way is clear. That may not be true as you hit the first island – in my case, the pavement ahead was full of 100+ school kids in a group. But running in the road was okay. I took a slight detour heading for the station, but getting a ticket and getting back was as easy as you like. The machines have several languages, including English and Arabic.

Over the bridge and into Venice
Into Venice, Piazzale Roma South, Venezia Santa Lucia North.

The views, even on a quick visit as I had, are fabulous. Go early if you want to run round more of Venice, or there will be people everywhere.

Ponte Papadopoli, Rio Novo
Ponte Papadopoli, Rio Novo.
Venice Grand Canal
Venice Grand Canal.

 

Amtrak from Vancouver to the US

I have done much of this trip before, riding from Bellingham down to Olympia, so had seen many of the views. New, though, was crossing the border, and riding the train from the dark into the sun rise.

Travellers need an ESTA and an I-94. The wikipedia page on visa requirements for UK citizens suggests an ESTA is needed if arriving by air or cruise ship, but you will be asked if you have one before being allowed to head to customs.

The train was due to leave at 6:35, so I (as suggested on the ticket) got to the station at 5:30, to go through customs. With the train less than half full, that was arguably too early, and the whole thing was a breeze. First Amtrak staff check your ticket, then a second line check your passport and ask if you have an ESTA. Then it is on – and this is before you get on the train – to US immigration, who do the usual checks. I wasn’t asked anywhere near as many questions as last time I crossed by land. But then, last time I wasn’t sure how long I was staying and had no ticket out. This time, although casual, one of the early questions was “what are you doing in the US?” and in reply, I said I was there for 6 days to do some running. Although that was more info than asked for, possibly my having said as much meant he didn’t feel the need to ask for more.

Watery view from the train
Watery view from the train.

I didn’t have to show any proof of my flight out of the US, nor did he ask about it. I did need my wits about me when it came to the I-94, though. It is only $6, and you can just pay that at the time. The website suggests you pay cash, but crossing via car, card payments were taken, and maybe the same is true here. You can, however, apply for a provisional I-94, paying online, and I’d done that. But he either didn’t check, or missed any automatic “wait! This person has paid!” notification. No harm done, I just said I had paid online, and showed my confirmation. Without the latter, though, I might have had to pay again. Plus when I said I had paid online, they assumed I meant the ESTA, poor confused tourist.

Sun rise, seen through the train
Sun rise, seen through the train.

It was easy, anyway. The train stops at the border for another check. There are warnings that you must be in your seat and not wearing headphones. Pay attention! There are enough officers that if they want to ask questions, they could, but on my carriage at least, they checked passports and moved on.

Sun rise in Washington
Sun rise in Washington.

The train rolled down the coast, right next to it much of the time. The sun rose just a little way into the journey, which was lovely. The views are at their best early on and when moving around Seattle, but it is a journey you could pass by staring out of the window.

Blurry view of the water
Blurry view of the water.

I even took better pictures as the time went by. The weather was entertaining. Bright and clear in Canada, thick fog once we were in the US, then that cleared, only to return a little later. So there might have been great views early on, too, though I am fairly sure the fog was sitting over farmland.

View over Puget Sound
View over Puget Sound.
Boat moving away from the train, WA
Boat moving away from the train, WA.

It is a lovely way to travel. If you want just to head to Seattle, Bolt Bus are cheaper, but I only paid $33, and that’s a pretty good bargain for a relaxed ride through the US countryside, and the best way to get to intermediate stops.

Three nights, two days on a train: Toronto to Edmonton

I went East through the US on a train, and returned West, through Canada, on a train. Book tickets at www.viarail.ca/en. They do discounts every Tuesday – I travelled in economy (so no sleeper, no meals included, no access to events or the Park car – see Seat61 for more details). It’s also worth a look at Viarail’s special offers page, though bear

Day 1 selfie
Day 1 selfie. Yes, from the toilet. Blame a friend, who likes to send these drunk, late at night.

in mind that though these fares are cheaper than even the discounted ones available via the standard link (e.g. CA$760 vs $960 for a sleeper when I looked – and right now, for November, there are some great prices, around $550), they don’t include taxes (which pushed that 760 up to 860, and just like that, I lost interest).

We left at 10pm on a Saturday, due to arrive just after 8 on Tuesday. Delays are routine. My first worry was that my train from Ottawa would not get there in time. That left at 2.30pm, due to be in Toronto around 7. It was delayed an hour and a half – all in one go, waiting for a freight train – but that just filled most of the waiting time. The longer train was fine till past Winnipeg, giving time for a long break there, but was then hugely delayed in the run to Edmonton, eventually getting in to the town after 2pm.

Boarding trains in North America carries a sense of excitement. Staff – and there are lots of them on the train, as if to taunt Brits, who are told that their overcrowded trains cannot possibly afford more than one member of staff each – are pleased to see customers, and each of us is guided to the right carriage.

Day 2 - waking to snow
Day 2 – waking to snow.
Snow falls, day 2 (Ontario)
Snow falls, day 2.

I love a long journey. The US and Canada were meant to be places where, with a more familiar culture, I could settle in to catching up on TV series I haven’t seen and so on, but it hasn’t quite worked out like that. A long train journey, though – so long as you have enough food, and no aches and pains, there is nothing to stop you passing the time, moving from book to podcast, looking out of the window to several episodes of Stranger Things 2 (for instance), then realising the day has slipped by. Because it is a train, you can get up and stroll around; for me, at least, that erases any sense that I am trapped in one place.

The first evening went by quickly, and we all experimented with different sleeping positions. It may be different at peak times, but our attendant, JP, was happy to tell us “you all have a 2-seater each”, and referred to it as “our area”. A little room to spread out, and it is possible to sleep reasonably well, curled into that space. I preferred to wait for the small hours and slip to the floor, stretching my legs out into the aisle for a few hours, and don’t think I got in too many people’s way. Certainly no-one tripped over me and woke me up.

Kit. I have two coats, so didn’t take a blanket. Whether you need one will depend on the train or, perhaps, the staff. My carriage was lovely and warm for two nights, then the staff changed, and it was cooler the next night. Correlation is not causation, but I wonder if the new bloke preferred it colder. I took a pillow – just a neck pillow – and that really is needed, whether you’re on the floor or wedged up against the arm rests. Food is available on the train, but I had enough for at least a day. I figured, having toyed with paying for the more expensive sleeper, I could run to the cost of a day’s food onboard.

On Monday morning, to my growing excitement, we stopped in Winnipeg. It was 7am, so I had only just woken up, and it took me a while to work out the options. The attendant came through to let us know that the platform was open till 8.30, after that, we’d have to wait till re-boarding was open at 9.15. That didn’t quite sink in, and I sat there for a while. Browsing the map using the wifi that was available via the station, I found a Safeway a good 2km walk away, and figured that was a good way for a quick exploratory walk. There are organised walks available if you want to sign up for one.

Winnipeg welcomes you

I walked and shopped, and then the import of the attendant’s announcement came home to me. I could hop back on the train before 8:30, but not after until they re-opened the platform. So if I hustled, I could get back, change and go for a run through Winnipeg. A total bonus. I didn’t mind missing Sunday, and had run the extra miles to parkrun on the Saturday anyway. But why have a second day off?

Manitoba State Legislative building
Manitoba State Legislative building.

I had left the station through the front entrance and was about to do the same, only in my kit. But look! Right next to platform 4, the back entrance. And it leads right to the Human Rights museum, statue of Gandhi ready for a selfie, and then on to the river path. Glorious. I was overexcited by how cool this stop was. With re-boarding at 9:30 (not 9:15), and the train not leaving till 10, I had plenty of time. More, in fact, than I allowed. I stopped for a picture of the museum and its rainbow pavement, to be told by a passing local that “it is even more spectacular inside”. It might be, I said, but I’m on the train. “Oh,” he said, “they are just about to board now, so you’re fine.” I knew that, but it felt lovely and communal that he had just strolled through the station and knew my business. We shook hands and went on our way. Despite not getting in to the station till 9:35, I wasn’t back on the train for another 10 minutes or so. Sleeper passengers board first, so don’t rush (but don’t give in to the thought that “I could run all day!” and miss it completely).

That was it for long breaks, but I was suitably enervated. I love the long journey, and barely used the observation car, and only walked past the snack bar, content in my coach, but still, it is great to hop off the train and have a walk.

Past Winnipeg, we were into miles and miles of prairie. The banal Canadian a couple of rows back decided, in conversation with a non-committal member of staff, to delay heading into a dinner booking until we hit BC, for better views. He might have been right. But he was dull. My personal hell arrived, only for half an hour or so, when he engaged the two Australian girls in the row behind me in conversation. Banality and cliche met, like, comments on, like… oh my god. I reminded myself that it really isn’t just the English who seems functionally illiterate in conversation. But I look forward to meeting more Europeans with fabulous and well-constructed English. Perhaps it being a second (or third, or…) language forces people to think before they speak. If so, the latter is a lesson for English people all over. I have a heavy podcast habit, and hearing a professional broadcaster talk to a non-professional is stark – Jon Agnew interviewed someone from the ECB over the summer. The latter made very little sense, but what I could understand could have been expressed in (sort of, like, you know) half the words.

Anyway, such hell was short lived, and the train rolled on through prairie. I read, watched films and comedies, and changed position as I saw fit. The major stops are listed, but there are some smaller ones, like Rivers. There are two rivers there. The run down, probably disused, station building has been coloured up a little by the addition of puzzle pieces. They are pretty, but serve mainly to point out the incomplete structure of the building.

Rivers station

The train started to stop for long periods of time, sometimes an hour or so, as we waited for freight trains to pass. The staff kept us loosely updated, particularly when something odd was happening. At one point, a freight train was pulling up very close to our back end, for instance, so as to allow the train on the next track to pull past, with that one then replaced by another, allowing us on our way. The sleeper passengers have use of a special Park car at the rear of the train, which is glassed all round, so that announcement was mostly to prevent them worrying too much about the train creeping closer.

My area. Car 4, seat 7C
My area. Car 4, seat 7C.
Fire in the distance
Fire in the distance.
Orange bee hotels
Those tents? Bee hotels, for pollination.

We pulled into Edmonton – backwards, to allow the train to pull back out and head West, and after slow progress through a huge train yard – some time after 2pm. I walked off down the road, as instructed by the hostel instructions. Walk South for four blocks, onto Kingsway, and catch the no. 12 bus to Kingsway Mall. Ask for a transfer ticket, and your $3.25 will get you all the way downtown. In fact, it wasn’t even $3.25. I had £3.05, and the driver said it didn’t matter, just put it in the slot and let’s get on with it. Okay, he didn’t actually say the last bit, but I’d have let him. His kindness, or Edmonton Transit’s possible view that “actually we’re not counting, so drop in some coins and let’s go” was much appreciated.

Viarail, train 1, across Canada. Highly recommended. Now, excuse me, but I’m going to sleep in a bed, and stretch my legs out. After a shower – washing in the bathroom keeps the wolf from the door, but there is a joy to the first shower.

3 days on a train – Amtrak, Portland-DC

Straight up, I will admit to a fib. This trip should have been 3 days on two trains. 2 days to go from Portland to Chicago, then a tight 1h45m connection onto a different train, and into Washington the next day. I had only made a provisional booking in DC, reasoning that the connection might be too tight.

Sunset in Montana
Sunset in Montana.

America is a huge country, with a large railway system, but one which is far from serving everywhere. The route I took, across the top of the country via Montana and North Dakota, stops at some very small places, ignoring some larger ones to the South – though you can connect to them via buses. This quirk, though all a part of the massively wasteful ‘drive to here, errand, drive to there, errand, drive to this friend, drive to that friend’ American lifestyle, means that the trains are an oddity, and that makes for a great atmosphere. On each train I have been on, conductors have walked the length of the train, chatting and laughing with passengers, making jokes and generally keeping people entertained. They will even wander through after a few hours just to check if “everyone alright down here?” It’s pretty great, and even the reported presence of a screamer in the observation car, and people getting on the train in the early hours and chatting, couldn’t spoil it.

Food given to me
Food, and bag, given to me by kindly fellow passengers.

I had the cheapest possible ticket, $186 to go across the country in coach. Those seats are massive, and the leg room is enormous, but it still isn’t a patch on a sleeper. That said, I was lucky enough to have no one next to me for the first couple of nights (other than a sketchy lady, but she occupied her journey by walking the length of the train, seeing if anyone would front her money on the promise of taking a loaded debit card from her) and so with the leg rests (yes!) stretched, I could curl onto a makeshift bed. The seats recline, but that doesn’t suit me so well.

Murals in a small town
Murals in a small town.

I was right in the mood for the trip. I think you have to be, really, otherwise it must seem an awfully long time. As it was, with power available at the seat, plenty of time to use and a big bag of food from Safeway in Portland – which is only a few minutes’ walk from Union Station – I was set, and pitied the people who got off a mere 6 hours later.

I was mostly happy at my seat, though I did get a reassuringly expensive can of Budweiser from the cafe – 330ml, $5.50 and sit in the observation car. If you want to talk and have quiet neighbours, that car or making a reservation for lunch/dinner will probably sort you out. Plus people are generally up for chatting. An Amish girl got on halfway through, and did not join in with the conductor’s light-hearted “Broken arm? Have you been taking on the boys?” but talked for a little while with a gentleman who walked past with a coffee and stopped to ask her about the different religious groups in the area. It’s okay to talk – I will miss that, back in the UK.

As Thursday morning passed, I realised we were some way behind schedule. We’d stopped in the night, and there was an ambulance parked outside. “Oh, probably someone died,” said one of my neighbours. Then floods in Wisconsin meant there was some doubt over whether we’d get through, communicated by the train’s announcer emphasising that “we are being told that we will get through”. Well, yes. None of us had doubted it until you seemed to. At any rate, that was a slow bit, and then we screeched to a halt in Pewaukee, with a couple of policemen mooching past the train to check something out.

All of that added up to that Chicago connection being too tight. And that was hugely to my benefit. Announcements assured us that Amtrak would be on the case, but wouldn’t decide much till we got to Milwaukee. I received my new ticket, for the same train on the next day, long before that, via email. Then when we arrived – 3-4 hours late – I joined a queue at passenger services to be offered a room at Swissotel, taxis there and back (no thanks – under 2 miles, I’ll have a walk in Chicago – I was one of the first off the train, early in the queue, so was still at the hotel by 9.15pm) and a $10 food voucher for the station’s food court. All in all, that’s the cost of my ticket returned. Plus it made for a much better itinerary, with a proper bed for the night and a day to wander round Chicago’s waterfront in the sun. Had I booked that itinerary, though, I’d have paid for the hotel stay, and probably more for a split ticket, too. A huge bonus.

 

Bago-Mawlamyine by train

Another travel day, Monday. I had a last run in Bago. It really is an unlovely place; the pagodas and temples are pretty, the small shopping centre an oasis, but the river, which might one day be some sort of social centre, is undeveloped, so essentially it is a busy road with buildings either side. Still, one busy road feels easier to handle than a whole city of them, and I don’t regret having a couple of nights here having escaped Yangon so quickly. Last night, my hosts brought my washing, followed soon after by some home-made honey juice, in case I wasn’t feeling at home enough.

My room, Bago
My room, San Francisco guest house, Bago.

But I was. Sat in a light and spacious twin room, the Korean film ‘Train to Busan’ on the laptop, and master of my own time.

Handwritten ticket
Handwritten ticket, for the 9.00 train to Mawlamyine (and beyond, down to Ye).

I bought my ticket on the day, getting to the station with 50 minutes to spare in case I found it extra difficult. It’s not, though, and a local took me to the right counter anyway. Later, there was a rush from locals for tickets – it seemed as though I, and a few others, were okay to buy tickets early, others had to wait. ‘Warmly welcome and assist tourists’, indeed. 3,150 kyats for Bago to Mawlamyine. Waiting for the train was simple – access to the platforms was locked, and the train was due to pull in at the near platform. When we were allowed on, an old monk walked up to me with great dignity, shook my hand and chatted away. I have no idea what he said, but followed him down the platform and hopped on where he said, which worked out just fine. (In case you don’t know it, by the way, The Man in Seat 61 is the fount all much wisdom for train travels around the world. It helped me first with travelling from the UK to Ireland, then UK to Russia, Thailand to Malaysia and continues to help. Not least the timetables, which otherwise I can’t read here.)

In motion, with door open
In motion, with the door open, something about safety, etc.
Temples/Stupas hove into view
Temples/Stupas hove into view.
Selling food, balanced on the head
People walk through selling food, usually balanced on their head.
Wooden houses
Wooden houses.
Local houses
Local houses.
Kids waving at the train
Kids waving – they do this, though sometimes it seems almost a reflex, as they wave at the carriage passing, while looking down the train and therefore missing me waving back. I suppose I should be leaning out to make sure they spot me.
Water buffalo
Water buffalo. Later on I spotted some slick with water, looking blissed as they emerged from a stream. ‘Stream’ probably sounds a bit small to take buffalo, but there were some very narrow watery spots used for navigation by boats, so possibly they are manmade and, although looking like a long puddle, are actually reasonably deep.
Small local station
Small local station – request stops, I think. If the train doesn’t stop, there will be a member of staff with a green flag to wave the train through.
Bridge into Mawlamyine
View from the bridge into Mawlamyine.
Mawlamyine from the bridge.
Mawlamyine from the bridge.
Mawlamyine from the bridge.
Mawlamyine from the bridge.
They don’t know, but they’ve been told
They don’t know, but they’ve been told.

Although we’d got to the first stop a good 30 minutes late, we pulled into Mawlamyine almost on time (4.50pm) and I wandered from the station to the Cinderella hotel, who had space in their dorm for me to chill out in for a bit before walking down to the riverfront. Mawlamyine is a bit more walkable than other cities – it’s the 3rd or 4th biggest depending on where you get your info, with a little over 300,000 inhabitants, but they seem to be pretty spread out, so there is space enough on most streets for people and vehicles.

Train ride in Myanmar, Yangon to Bago

Initially, travel out of Yangon seemed a bit difficult – which for me, means I don’t feel like I can organise it all on my own, and am going to have to rely on other people, here because I was feeling hemmed in by buildings and traffic. The central station, though, is 3km from my hostel, and trains leave to Bago, en route to Mandalay and Moulmein, through the day. I figured I’d get out of Yangon with a short hop, so wandered to the station for the 11.00 train.

Buying a ticket was entertaining. The station building is divided into two – the colonnades mark where. The part on the right contains the ticket desks. One in the centre has a nice, prominent ‘Welcome tourists’, which reads as an instruction to staff. It didn’t mean that was where I bought my ticket, though. Instead, I was waved over to another window on the side of this half (left as you look at it here). The bloke there didn’t seem that interested, as people came and went from the queue in front of him, but I picked up a vibe that he was doing special tickets, not for (most) locals, and that seemed to work out. He sold me my ticket, anyway. 1,000 kyats to Bago.

Yangon Railway station
Yangon Railway station, crumbling but impressive.
Two youngsters on the green seats of the train
These two joined me for a while. Possibly because their brother had sold me a bottle of water for 4x the price and they wondered what other money I might drop.
Platform with electronic display and train in the background
Balloon sculpture maker on the platform at Yangon.
Looking down the side of the train, through the open window
View from the wide open window (it’s either open or metal shutters).

The ride is famously bumpy, but the seats are soft and comfortable and I enjoyed it. I’ll try a longer one and see if I feel the same.

People sleeping on the train
Not uncomfortable on this train. The conductor (right) sleeps in upper class seats.
Wooden huts seen from the train window
Wooden huts seen from the train window.
Nuns in pink at a brief stop
Nuns in pink at a brief stop.
Mock tudor signal box, Bago, courtesy of the Brits
Mock tudor signal box, Bago, courtesy of the Brits.
Train carriage relief murals decorate the bridge at Bago
Bridge over the tracks, Bago, venerating the train.

Two hours or so later (this journey is only 40-50km!) I was in Bago just after 1, and walked to the San Francisco guesthouse. Wikitravel advises you get out of Bago as soon as possible. It is just a small city, but with the main Yangon-Mandalay highway running through it, the main road (which I seem to have to cross to go anywhere) is constantly busy and a riot of traffic and horn noises. Adding to that are regular speaker cars (better phrase for that, anyone?) which come through blaring music.

But big cities do my head in a bit, and this feels much better. I stayed an extra night.

Train to Thanh Hoa

Train to Thanh Hoa
tp. Thanh Hoá, Vietnam

tp. Thanh Hoá, Vietnam

With a motorbike taxi ride, woo. And a train-delayed, only 20 minutes, but still I was glad to have picked the 11.21 train rather than kick around till 3.30. No trains till the night, mind.

Like the buses, entertainment seems compulsory-two screens in the middle of the carriage playing music videos.

My e-ticket was checked as I got on, with no need for the passport double check that sometimes happens. So I was writing this as the conductor came past, and was about to hurriedly close it and find the ticket again. But he just gave me a bottle of water.

Train pulling into the platform, sun beating down as people wait
The train slowly arrives.

All this seems better than a minibus ride, a confused wait, and then being squished on a bus, even if the sleeper buses are reasonably comfortable.

On reflection, as I did when I got off, the entertainment may be only in proximity to a station. The railtv bit ended after three or so songs, and all was quiet. Then some revolutionary – excuse my ignorance, but that’s my interpretation at least – music started as we pulled into Thanh Hoa.

Marvellous. 3 miles to the hotel. Queue of taxi drivers. I walked, obviously. Sorry folks. And all the other taxi drivers who stopped – one to shout then wave with a friendly smile from the other side of a dual carriageway – and moto dudes who roused themselves from slumber at the probably unexpected sight of a rogue Westerner off the tourist trail. I left them all behind. And the pavement, too, ultimately, but then it’s a rarity round here in any case, so the fact that I walked most of the way on the pavement *not* looking like I didn’t belong, was a bonus.

View of a square and a four-storey hotel from Ninh Binh station
View from Ninh Binh station.

Ultimately, now I’ve worked out I’m doing the long run – 10 hours on the train – to Hue tomorrow, today is a bit of a bust. Should have headed straight down to Hue. But at least my short trip let me test out the trains, and find that really, writing them off (as the travel agent in the Hanoi party hostel did) is a bit odd. Maybe they are more expensive, but not significantly. Tomorrow’s trip, several hundred kilometres, cost me £12, and that’s with a pound or two commission for the agents I booked through. The bus on the short trip from Hanoi-Ninh Bing was either $10 or $7 – I thought the former, but then the rice fields dude charged me $9 for a second night’s stay, so perhaps it was $10 to book there from Hanoi and get picked up off the bus.

Whatever. I’ve enjoyed staying in a relatively swanky hotel for the huge sum of $27 and am back on the backpacker trail. Tomorrow I make some real progress toward Saigon, though I’m still not half way. And i get to travel on my own terms, and in the day time. If the destination is entirely the point, then yes, pick a sleeper bus or train. But I want to see the countryside, get some sense of moving. So I’m doing a 9:30 train – means another early start to fit in a run beforehand. I ran this evening, mind, in Thanh Hoa, and that made the stop worth it. Although I’m in a whacking great hotel, near at least one other, Westerners are a novelty here, so every group of kids laughed and couldn’t get enough of saying “hello!” and getting a response. Brilliant. Running past them out the back of the hotel – quite so, I wandered down the steps and ended up coming out of a garage door out the back side – let me see why Google maps and my Here! app on the phone had disagreed about the streets round here. There’s a lot of new development out the back of this hotel, and much more of the pavements/roads marking out blocks kind than actual houses, though the now-familiar tall and thin constructions exist singularly on most blocks, looking a little lonely. Given that it’s a work in progress, the roads are fine to run on. And given that groups of kids want to distract with “hello!” they are also safer, as the pavements have regular wide open large man holes. Or several-man holes. I missed them all, but on a different day would have splashed down. Phew.

I ate, alone, in the hotel restaurant. I figured I’d pick something at random from the menu, but the very kind member of staff insisted I follow her to the computer and used google translate to ask what I wanted to eat. Like I know. I figured she’d turn what I said into a menu, but she was a bit literal. I should have said ‘something cheap and tasty!’ but instead got a literal steamed chicken and rice. Lots of rice. Stuff it, it didn’t cost much, and I’ve learned for next time – when there’s a translator in front of you, use it to make sure there are no misunderstandings.

Amtrak, Klamath Falls – LA

Amtrak
Sacramento, CA

Sacramento, CA

A day on a train. 23 hours, in fact – my longest journey on a US train right at the beginning. I hopped on late last night and all was quiet – aside from the couple in front, who ignored the instruction that ‘it’s quiet time’ and chatted while watching tv, but they were reasonably quiet about it. He got off around 6 in the morning, at Sacramento, leaving her to spread out and finally get some sleep. It’s a bit odd getting on a train in dark that has been going for a while, a little like entering somewhere that’s had a party, but that’s now over and everyone is going to sleep. Oh, and this guy and that girl are the wild cards, we’ve all seen them in action but for you it’s discovery time.

View from many windows in the observation car
The observation/lounge car.

A few people watched us new arrivals on to the train, but only from curiosity rather than threat. The one wildcard was a youngish woman up ahead, who seemed to turn some inquiry of the attendant into a problem, though I didn’t pay enough attention to really know what her problem was. I did later discover that she has a slight problem with locks – once you’ve stripped for a wash in the largest restroom, sliding and checking the lock is an essential skill.

Jaw drop. Eyes drop. Suspected nakedness confirmed. Door shut. “Sorry love!”

The trip was great, though. I didn’t sleep much, letting podcasts take me to sleep at midnight then waking several times to see city lights go by or darkness when we were on the plains. Half the carriage got off at Sacramento, giving the rest of us space, and we sat parked at the station for a while as the sun came up. I slept a little in the daylight but there is a glorious lounge car on an Amtrak super liner, portrait windows open into, though not quite across, the roof, and I trusted seat61.com that there were usually seats available. I moved in after Martinez station. My neighbour got off there, glad her long journey from Seattle was over and a little friendlier for it. She had apologised for being ‘all over me’ during the night, but it was only a little overspill. Which she couldn’t really help.

View from the train, of a road running in the valley below
The road winds through the valley, below us.

I was given a new neighbour and decided at that point to give us both some space and took my book to the lounge. Comfortable, seats facing out, snacks available downstairs. This journey couldn’t go on too long, really. A good mentality, because LA was our final stop, 9pm. It doesn’t look far enough on the map, but it took nearly that long, with us arriving at 8.30pm. I had spent my time finishing a book, looking out whenever the conductor gave us the steer. As we passed through a nature reserve Moss landing (sp.), inspiration for Steinbeck, was on to one side. Seals were lounging by the water and later a lone cyclist on the road gave the train a wave. See ya, sucker/s, from both sides.

Reading an article in National Geographic from 1982 about Angkor Wat, I was struck by mention of the casualties in the 70s. Not so much the numbers, as the comparison – 1-3 million out of 7.5 would have equated to 30-90 million of the US population. How the population has grown since then. I think the author would be pleased that the temples have been saved, though.

Double-decker silver train in LA
A superliner (at LA, on my way out).

In the mid afternoon we made it to the coast, first the sea visible through hills and then the full shore. The inland side holds a massive military base, the beach on the sea side is public but can only be reached by boat because of the base. Off shore platforms dotted the horizon for a large portion of the journey. After two hours by the coast we stopped at Oxnard and turned inland. It was dark when we arrived in LA but Union Station was easy to navigate, I found my way onto Main Street and walked, crossing streets 1st through to 6th, with the streets busier and busier as I went. Lonely Planet suggests Tinseltown attracts a better class of performer, but I wasn’t convinced by a lone trumpeter. The drummers near 5th were better but the highlight was the rap battle; a parking lot off to one side, a tattooed and pierced youth dancing over the bonnet of a truck while another rapped into a microphone. Loud and American, just perfect – if generally adding to my sense of dislocation. A quick hit of culture, though, then I was into my grand hotel/hostel. It used to have a reputation, as the Cecil Hotel, though I only know that because it is alluded to in reviews of the ‘check out this name and you’ll know what I mean!’ I quite liked the place – no real communal areas, but small rooms, so just a two bed dorm for me, with Korean Jeremy who was young and curious about life. After we’d both escaped for food – I wondered where I could go, but there was a wrap and rice place right next door and I was empty enough to even take the free iced tea and enjoy it – we stayed up and talked in broken English about philosophy, life and philosophies of life.

Reading: Michael Farquhar, A Treasury of Deception

Sporting day

Sporting day
Wellington, New Zealand

Wellington, New Zealand

A tree obscures part of the pitch at the cricket (for the photo only - sitting underneath it, I could see just fine)
Self inflicted restricted view.

By the third day you’re either used to the journey or sick of it. Maybe both. It is slightly under 4km from hostel to railway station (though the hostel manager reckoned it was 5, which must please those who take it on without benefit of a GPS to set them straight), and I walked in again, this time wandering in to the Basin Reserve before 12. It was busy – I had wondered whether the Blackcaps’ perilous position might have kept people away, but the grassy bank was full of families enjoying the weather. The official temperature of 21 degrees seemed a bit cool in the scorching sun, but I was cold in the shade so I guess they had it right.

The moral of that paragraph is: measurements are good.

Substitute players sit under the shade of two large umbrellas, watching the play
Subs.

By lunch NZ were in trouble, and at 94 for 5, with Corey Anderson out for two and swishing his bat in frustration, I thought it might all be over by tea. The ground PA is loud enough for everyone to hear, but giving career averages for this team doesn’t fill everyone with confidence; I don’t think a batsman in the team has an average over 40. But McCullum and Watling dug in. They were still together when I left at tea. I left, for an ice cream and a train ride home, and they were still together at the close, with New Zealand now 6 runs ahead. 6 for 5 isn’t so good, but with a big partnership taking shape they were in a good position. In fact, at the close the following day, Watling was out after hitting a century, McCullum had another double century and Neesham had hit 67, NZ 325 ahead with 4 wickets to go. They only need a draw to win the series, so no incentive to go crazy, but 325 in a day is already a lot to chase, and with 5 quicks they are in a great position to put pressure on an India side looking to win.

I did the station-hostel walk one last time and was back in time to run along the beach into the sunset. Every one different, hostel manager Barb had told me; frankly tonight’s wasn’t as dramatic as the night before’s red extravaganza, but, well, it’s February and I’m running on the beach in the last of the summer sun. I could live here.

Two paddle boarders on the water, near the City to Sea bridge, with Wellington's buildings of many heights behind
City to Sea bridge.

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