[amtrak trip] arriving in Tucson

8:00 PM: Arriving and hotel checking in

I arrived in Tucson at late night, good for me that the hotel was close to the train station. I had hard time deciding between two hotels near the station. One was Congress Hotel and the other was AC hotel (by Marriott.)

Pros and Cons of two hotels were too clear. It was just which one to choose from.

Congress Hotel (est. 1919!!!!)
Pros: historic, extremely affordable. extremely close to the Amtrak station
Cons: too old, no elevator, very loud at night because of the night club inside the hotel (the hotel even sent me an e-mail to let me know that the hotel should be quite loud at night)

/A room at the Congress Hotel

AC Hotel
Pros: new, fairly close to the Amtrak station, quite, chick
Cons: expensive (about three times more expensive than Congress Hotel), not a lot of story to it

/A room at AC Hotel

I first made a reservation for Congress Hotel but decided to change it to AC  Hotel at the last minute after reading carefully the email sent to me by Congress Hotel. I have never experienced a hotel sending an email warning that they are sooooo loud. I kind of got scared like ‘oh my god, it must be awfully loud that the hotel itself confesses beforehand!’ Also, I had these huge luggages for one month of train trip, so I wasn’t sure if I could carry them to the second floor without an elevator.

So, I ended up spending quite a $$$ for the night at AC Hotel Tucson.

Anyway, when I arrived at Tucson station, I was pleasantly surprised by its vintage-ishly chick atmosphere. The first impression for me was that ‘oh, so many light bulbs here and there.’ I kind of have this (very unscientific) prejudice that the more light bulbs, the cooler a city. Tucson was full of light bulbs everywhere: from the train station to the bars, to the cafes, to the hotels and to the restaurants.

/Warm lights at the historic Hotel Congress

10:00 PM Tiger Taproom

The AC Hotel was about 7~8 mins from the Amtrak station. I was pretty tired after the long train ride. I just threw my luggages and headed to the bar next door, the bar at the historic Congress Hotel (Tiger’s Taproom.) It was about 10:00 PM when we grabbed a seat at the outside table. It was like an early evening at Tucson, that young ones with loose and cool outfits started to come out for some local beer and small talks. The muscular bartender was like one out of an 1980’s movie, wearing a white, sleeveless shirt with a white cotton towel resting on the shoulder. And of course, there was live music to cheer the warm air of Arizona desert night. 

/Outside seats at Hotel Congress’ bar, Tiger Taproom

 

/Live music (with light bulbs!) at Hotel Congress’ bar, Tiger Taproom

*****Amtrak trip: full list*****

 

[Amtrak trip] New Orleans to Houston

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Sign on the wall of Amtrak Houston Station

9:00 AM Departing from New Orleans

After three jazzy days (and nights) in New Orleans, it was time to leave. The driver/guide who took us to plantations the day before had said “no matter what you ask, New Orleans will say ‘the answer is love.'” I was sure that I would miss the colorful, vibrant, and smiling city of New Orleans. I downloaded some songs by Louis Armstrong as memories and headed to the Amtrak station.

My next destination was a totally different city, the city of (wow!) World Series Champions, Houston! (New Orleans doesn’t have a Major League baseball team.) Appropriately, the train number of Amtrak train (Sunset Limited) from New Orleans to Houston was ‘1’, yes, ONE. I have no idea how Amtrak numbers its trains, but the route of ‘one’ train definitely is the longest one I have ever seen, 48 hours! The train (only leaves on Mon, Wed, and Saturdays) runs from New Orleans all the way to Los Angeles passing Houston and Tucson etc.  I was heading west and planning to go to LA as well, but surely wasn’t brave enough to take the 48 hours train ride. So I decided to get off at Houston: only 9.5 hours ride.

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Routes of Sunset Limited

New Orleans was the starting point of this looooooong train. Like the trains before, Amtrak staff gave out the seat numbers as people were getting on the train. We got the second to last seat from the back of a coach car. The last seats were for crew members. For the next nine hours, I could not help but listen to the conversations between two Amtrak employees, mostly about the heavy workloads that they have to endure. They argued about how hard oneself worked, and how another didn’t.

The train started the long journey as the the rivers, wetlands, and swamps of Louisiana were folding. The water was green, abundant with water plants. I could hear people shouting “look, alligator!” here and there, but I could not spot one. One woman said “wherever there is a water, there is an alligator.” (!)

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On a way from New Orleans to Houston: Lake Charles (Louisiana)

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On a way from New Orleans to Houston: Lake Charles (Louisiana)

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On a way from New Orleans to Houston: El Dorado (Texas)

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On a way from New Orleans to Houston: Trinity River (Texas)

 

This train too had an observation car where you can look out the windows. The views of Southern states were fascinating so I spent about two hours in the car. Not like the train from Chicago to New Orleans, where the observation car was very loud like a party car, the train from New Orleans was very quite with people observing the sceneries of Mississippi River and Lake Charles. The train kept running westward as the weather changed from sunny to rainy to sunny to cloudy to sunny again.

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Observation Car in Amtrak Sunset Limited

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Observation Car in Amtrak Sunset Limited

 

There were a couple of more things I learned on this trip, about the long distance Amtrak train.

1. Dining car and lunch box option

Passengers on a reserved coach could have meals at dining car too. Food at dining car for sleeping car passengers are all free, and coach passengers need to pay for the meal if you want to dine in the dining room.
To use the dining car, you need to make a reservation first. The crew will announce that coach passengers should come to the dining car to make a reservation after they take reservations from the sleeping car passengers. (So it might not be possible to get the best time slot for your choice, if you are coach passenger.)
In case of Sunset Limited I took, the dining staff announced if anybody would go for an ‘early bird’ takeout option around 1~2 hours before the regular meal time (10:00 AM for lunch for example.) You can get a lunch box with something similar to angus beef burger, chocolate chip cookies, water etc. at around $15.00 which seemed like a good deal (I packed a simple lunch before I got into the train so didn’t have chance to try one though.)
In the dining car, you have to share a table (the Amtrak crew described it in such a friendly way as “you will make new friends.”) If you are not comfortable with eating with strangers, lunch box seemed like a good idea. (Below is Amtrak dining car menu, in case you are interested. Click to enlarge.)

2. ‘No Wifi’ is common
There was a free wifi on a train from Boston to Chicago. Most of the train I took on the east coast area offered free wifi. I figured that the train tickets are so expensive, it is obvious that Amtrak offers a free wifi. I was so wrong! Apparently, free wifi is only a thing of an east coast train.
The train from Chicago to New Orleans didn’t seem to have wifi but I didn’t bother to ask because it was a night train and I slept for the most of the time. On the train to Houston I asked the crew if they have a wifi and he answered back “only on business and sleeping cars.”
However, three days from this train, I took a sleeping car and there was no wifi either. I needed to use a wifi and my mobile phone data plan was running out, so I had to upgrade my plan for more data to use hotspots.
(another) However, trains often run through remote lands so ‘no service’ or ‘4G’ on cell phones are very common. Then you are doomed to read a book. 😛

8:00 PM Arriving at Houston

We arrived at Houston around 8:00 PM. It was about 1.5 hours late because the train had to go around the city as we got closer to Houston due to some construction or something. I was excited see the skyscrapers of Houston as the train slowly approached this big city. Being delayed wasn’t something unexpected, the thing that surprised me was the size Houston Amtrak station. It was so small! It was smaller than any ordinary subway station in NY. I thought “oh, it must be a temporary one.” I was wrong!

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View of Houston from the Amtrak Station

 

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Unexpectedly small Houston Amtrak station

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Unexpectedly small Houston Amtrak station

I called Lyft to go to the hotel (Club Quarters Houston) and the first thing the driver said was “Gosh, I didn’t know there was a train station here.” I asked him where the ‘real’ train station (not the temporary one) was, and he said “no, no, this must be the real one.” He added, “nobody rides a train in Houston. Nobody uses public transportation in Houston. There are very fancy metro, and you will find there are so little people there. And nobody walks in Houston. It is car, car, and car.” Really?

It was only about 5~10 minutes drive from the train station to the hotel. After dropping the luggages, I went out for a late dinner to one of the casual restaurant nearby and grabbed a beef brisket taco with a glass of local beer. The hotel was near the ‘central’ metro station, and interestingly enough the street was quite empty. ‘It is only around 9:00 PM, where is everybody,’ I thought, or is 9:00 PM too late for Houstonians? As I walked back to the hotel, I witnessed a gentleman with a very formal suits running into a building with a brown bag meal.  Is everybody just working? I shall find out!

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Very quite night streets of Houston

 

***Amtrak trip: full list***

[one drawing #28] space shuttle

I visited Johnson Space Center in Houston recently. There were mock-up (retired) Space Shuttle and the real Boeing 747 (airplane) that used to carry space shuttle to its home when it returned from the trip. I was surprised because it was such an interesting way to move the Shuttle around (across the US apparently) and the Space Shuttle looked smaller than I thought. Surely I should do more research on the details.

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The Space Shuttle and its carrier 747

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making ‘Space Shuttle’

***I drew this from a cool drawing (picture?) that was hanging in the Space Center.

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The Space Shuttle and its carrier 747 in Johnson Space Center Houston

 

[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