[Amtrak trip] 24h in Houston (1)

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Space Shuttle and its carrier 747 aircraft in front of Houston Space Center

Frankly, I did not expect much from Houston. People I know had been telling me negative things about the city. One friend told me I would be wanting to leave as soon as I arrived because it should be so hot and humid. Another person said the city did not have much thing to enjoy as a traveler. However, while staying in Houston for two nights, I found it quite contrary to my negative prejudice.

First, Houston was the coldest city I have encountered during this trip. Of course, the temperature was high and yes, it was humid. But the A/C was absolutely stronger than any other city I’ve visited. Moreover, I encountered a few rain showers in the afternoon that cooled down the city  dramatically. It was like pouring cold water to a sizzling pan.

And the second point, ‘not-much-to-enjoy’ (aka ‘boring?’,) was certainly not true. I truly enjoyed the world-famous Houston Space Center and well curated museums established by the Southern philanthropists. So here’s how my first day in Houston went by.

8:00 AM Breakfast at hotel

I started my day with a simple breakfast (more like snacks but sufficient for me: bananas, breakfast bars, coffee etc.) provided by the hotel, Club Quarters Houston. The hotel chain primarily serves its member organizations, then opens up its rooms at reasonable price when there are some rooms left. The hotel was very clean, and the location was also good. The best thing for a long-term traveler like me was the free Whirlpool laundry & drying machines (six of each) on the basement.

9:00 AM Houston Space Center

Right after the breakfast I headed  to the place I have been wanting to go for decades, NASA Space Center Houston! I usually prefer public transportation but this time decided to rent a car, because it was 30 mins by driving but 1.5~2 hours by bus. Yeah, the Lyft driver was right about Houston being the city of car, car, and car.

Before I go, I signed up online for the annual membership. There was close to zero possibility that I would be able to visit the center again within a year, but after doing some research I decided it would be better deal to purchase the membership because of: 1) reasonable pricing ($90 for two persons) of the membership  which includes general admission (general admission is $29.95 per one person) 2) fast track privilege for the (two) tram rides that is the essence of the Space Center visit 3) 10% discount at the gift shop and restaurants and 4) free parking ($6 without the membership.)

I printed out the temporary membership card at the hotel and drove 30 mins to the Space Center. As soon as I was entering the parking lot, I was greeted by the huge Space Shuttle (real size mock up) and its carrier Boeing 747 airplane (original.) Space Shuttle was on top of 747, just like the good old days when they flew together across the country. When the Space Shuttle (now retired) landed on Earth, it had to be carried by other vehicle to its home in Florida. It was fascinating to find out that moving the space shuttle by another airplane was the result of one enthusiastic outside-of-box thinker, John Kiker.

As I entered the main center, I headed straight to the tram station. There are mainly four parts to the space center visit (all included in general admission): 1) inside museums (where you can touch the moon rock!) 2) Space Shuttle and Boeing Carrier (inside and out) 3) tram ride to the historic  mission control center 4) tram ride to astronaut training center. I jumped to do the one of the tram rides first, because the weather report said it would be raining hard that afternoon, and when it rains hard the tram tour would stop.

Thanks to the membership, I could ride the tram to the historic mission control by waiting only about ten minutes. The non-members’ line was very long, looking like a good 40 mins wait. The open-air tram took us to the historic mission control room after about 10 mins ride. It was interesting to see longhorns looming around the center. It’s Texas, for sure there are longhorns, right?

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Longhorns looming around Space Center Houston

I didn’t know what to expect at the ‘historic’ mission control room. I thought it would be some kind of mock-up with cheesy mannequins and stuffs. But I was so wrong (again.) It was very genuine and real. It was THE real control room that was used from 1965 to 1998. The room was where the historic words from the first moon lander Neil Armstrong’s were received in 1969 (“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”) The room had also received the desperate call from Apollo 13 saying “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

NASA preserved the room so well that it even had ashtrays on the observing room that we the visitors were allowed to stay for a while (The observing room was originally built for the families of astronauts on mission.) The guide told us that they were preparing for 50th anniversary of moon landing (1969) next year and hot debate was going on regarding whether to allow visiting people to smoke in the control room, just like the old days.

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Historic Mission Control Room at Houston Space Center

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Historic Ashtray at Historic Mission Control Room at Houston Space Center

As we were coming back from the control room, rain started pouring down, literally soaking us all like in a shower. We jumped into the icy cold air-conditioned museum building as soon as the tram driver dropped us off. We had brief lunch at very good cafeteria on the first floor while trying to dry ourselves.

It kept raining so another tram to astronaut training center was not running. I took that opportunity to look around the museum itself. There were various spacecrafts, satellites, and pictures that tell the challenging history of America’s ongoing journey to the space. One of the most popular artifacts was, of course, the moon rock that you can touch. It was small black rock, maybe size of two quarter coins. It was surprisingly soft like a velvet (maybe too many people have touched it?)

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Space Center Museum

 

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People touching the real moon rock at Space Center Museum

Around 3:30 PM, right before the closing time, the weather cleared, and tram started to run again. I dashed to the tram line and headed to astronaut training center. Not like historic control room, the training center was being used by real astronauts right now! Visitors were allowed to follow the long corridor upstairs with glass windows and watch astro-people (not just astronauts but also mechanics and administrators) working. It was interesting to learn that the US is (seriously) preparing for the Mars man landing! The guide explained to us that it is planned in early 2030s so the astronauts in the future are likely to be 7 to 16 years old now. That meant I was certainly excluded, but who knows? There are also biologists working hard to turn back aging………😳

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Astronauts training facility at Space Center Houston

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Astronauts training facility at Space Center Houston

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Astronauts training facility at Space Center Houston

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Astronauts training facility at Space Center Houston

I ended my Space Center tour with a one more visit to the space shuttle and the very well stuffed gift shop. I bought those cool ‘NASA’ t-shirts that every tourist was wearing and NASA stickers for my MacBook.

6:30 PM Dinner: Gorgeous Texan Barbecue at Killen’s

On a way to the hotel, I had a dinner at Killen’s Texas Barbecue, the famous Texan Barbecue restaurant. Woods that would be used to smoke the meat were stacked right beside the restaurant building. I hurried inside and ordered one-pound bone-in beef short rib. It was a single huge rib ($22,) smoked so black outside yet moist and juicy and chewy and almost melting inside. It was nothing like any Texas barbecue I had been tasting outside Texas. The mind soothing side dishes, collard greens and cole slaw ($8 each) were perfect match to the tough-guy style barbecue rib. A glass of local Karbach draft beer upgraded ‘perfect’ to ‘more-than-perfect.’

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Killen’s one pound barbecue rib

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Killen’s one pound barbecue rib: juicy inside

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Woods used to smoke meats at Killen’s

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Killen’s menu

I drove back to downtown Houston with a happy scent of barbecue smoke still lingering in my hoodie, thinking ‘who said Houston was boring?!’

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On a way to Space Center, Space McDonalds (?). Who said Houston was boring?

***Amtrak trip: full list***

[Amtrak trip] Boston to Chicago

07/23/2018
Day 1. Boston –> Chicago

Amtrak 440 Lake Shore Limited, Reserved Coach
Departure 1:20 PM
Arrival  9:45 AM (next day)

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from Boston to Chicago by Lake Shore Limited

After shipping the furniture and stuffs to South Korea in the morning, I grabbed a Lyft ride and headed to Boston South Station. The journey begins today: a trip from Boston all the way to Seattle with Amtrak USA rail pass!

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Boston South Station

1:20 PM Boston, MA

The first train I am taking is Amtrak 449, Lake Shore Limited, running from Boston to Chicago. The train was supposed to be full, but since Boston was the starting station, it was not hard to get a seat I preferred. I looked at the map and it seemed like the right hand side seats will have better view when I pass the big lakes of Midwest (will find out tomorrow morning!), so I chose to sit at one of the right hand side seat. I was planning to sit on a quite car, but when I asked the staff he said “no quite car on this train.”

There were signs saying ‘seats for groups’ that made me think the seats were for well… big ‘groups.’ But the staff assisted us (party of two) to sit on one of  those seats. I asked “are those not for groups?” and the staff kindly answered “yes, groups like two people groups.”

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Two or more persons = group

The train departed on time. I had to show to the staff both the USA rail pass and the reservation ticket. (Didn’t check the passport in my case.)

Lake Shore Limitied is an overnight train. I did not get a sleeping car because the price seemed too expensive. (USA rail pass holders can ride on reserved coach seats for free. You can pay extra dollars and upgrade the seats to business seats or sleeping cars.) Forgot the exact amount but the extra money was around 500 dollars, which was like five star hotels. If you reserve a sleeping car, you get free meals for the entire trip so it sounded attractive, but it was waaaaay over the budget so I decided to stick with a reserved coach seat for this train.

The reserved coach seats had more leg rooms than I expected, something like business class seats of DOMESTIC flights. Being 5’6″ (169cm), I could stretch my legs all the way. There are feet and legs rest too and the chairs recline to about 45 degrees. I had very little sleep the night before, so took some nice rest.

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Reserved Coach in Lake Line Limited

5:09 PM Pittsfield, MA

The speed of the train was perfect for enjoying the charming scenery of Massachusetts, not too fast nor not too slow. After having some fun… hmm, just looking outside the window, it came to my mind that it would be wonderful if I could track and record my routes throughout the journey. I did some research with free wifi on board and purchased an iPhone app called GPS Tracks ($3.99)

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GPS Tracks screen shot: from Pittsfield to Rochester

6:30 PM Albany- Renssenlaer, NY

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thirty minutes break at Albany, NY

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scenery of Mohawk river near Albany

Now the train was running alongside a river (Mohawk River according to my GPS Tracks.) After fiver hours from the departure, the train made 30 minutes stop at Albany- Renssenlaer, NY. In here the train was joined by travelers from New York City. People who were dying to smoke cigarettes hopped off the train and smoked on the platform. I stepped outside to stretch my stiff arms, legs, back… etc. Now the train was almost full and the staffs did their best to arrange the best seats for everybody.
The train turned off electricity here and I learned that you should not use toilets while electricity is off. One woman was saying she was sorry, could not flush because it was ‘off.’ Good to learn!
Train departed at 7:05 PM. I ate fried rice I bought from South Station (there’s also a reasonably priced dining car on board) as a dinner and went back to sleep.

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dining car on Lake Shore Limited

12:08 (+1) Rochester, NY

Woke up at around 11:00PM and went to the restroom to wash my face and brush my teeth. The structure of the washing basin was somewhat not suitable for washing faces, so I decided just to brush my teeth. Wet tissues I brought came in handy to wipe off some sunscreens from my face.
The train is now heading west. It stopped for about 20~30 minutes somewhere (to make a way for a freight train?) and had some slow moving times here and there, so at this point we are about one hour behind the schedule.
The train was a bit shaky and rattling, but most of the travelers seemed very comfortable, sleeping like babies. The car is as quite as any peaceful quite car. Only sound I can hear now is the whistles of hard working good boy, Lake Shore Limited.

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midnight at Rochester, NY Amtrak station

***Something I learned today***

  1. Good to carry wet tissues around
  2. Reserved coach seats on long trains are pretty comfortable
  3. Should not use the restroom on board when electricity if off
  4. ‘Group’ means two or more persons
  5. Amtrak Timetable come in handy. Good to know when and where the next stop is
  6. Amtrak wifi works pretty well, though sometimes unstable
  7. Temperature on board is pretty low (strong A/C), so very good idea to bring some kind of blanket (I brought one of those compact down blankets made for camping)
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Stopping stations of Lake Shore Limited, from Amtrak Timetable