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A sleeper train to Bangkok

Posted by Ted on Oct 25, 2010 in Travel

The last time I took a long-haul sleeper train, I was 6 years old. I traveled from Cleveland, Ohio to Pueblo, Colorado with my aunt and cousin to visit grandma. It was also winter, and if I recall correctly, the pipes froze around Chicago and there was no cold water. Being so young, I don’t remember much except vague memories of hanging out in the dining car and generally watching the world go by out the window.

Yesterday, we left Butterworth, the mainland town in Malaysia across from Palau Penang, on a two car train heading north. When we crossed the border into Thailand, we stopped at an immigration point and all got off in order to get our Malaysian exit and ThaI arrival passport stamps. We stopped again a few miles later at Hat Yai to join up with the rest of the northbound train to Bangkok.

Much of the Malaysian scenery seemed to be of construction along the track. Once we entered Thailand, rice fields and small villages were much more picturesque. Somewhere along the peninsula, we saw our first karsts – dramatic limestone mountains which appear to be vertically thrust up from the earth like Superman’s crystal Fortress of Solitude. In truth, they are eroded formations from long ago when the entire area was under the sea. Unlike any hills I have ever seen, they seem like they were created using giant versions of those metal dropped pin toys that are used to recreate hands and faces as silvered silhouettes.

A couple hours after sunset, dinner was served with real plates and silverware; cashew chicken with a delicious chicken curry. Afterwards, the train staff came through to convert the seats into beds, lowering the much smaller upper bunks down into position, and drawing the light blue privacy curtains across each one.

During the night, the train stopped next to a densely packed and brightly lit festival. The local equivalent of a traveling carnival, there were food vendors and people milling about. Revelers waved and beckoned us to get off the train and join them. We wished that we could have. After a decent night’s sleep, we awoke to more rice paddies, small villages, and temples. The closer we got to Bangkok, the villages turned into towns and cities, the temples grew in size, and everywhere there is always more rice.

30 years later, the joy at watching the world go by out the window is no less. What would have been the snow-covered midwest of America is now the rich tropical green of Thailand. Both can be beautiful. A few hours after arriving in Bangkok, we board yet another sleeper train to Laos, gaining just over 13 degrees of latitude in 2 days. We will be taking several more long train rides during the trip, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Southeast Asia out of their large windows.

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China – Day 3

Posted by Ted on Jul 21, 2009 in Travel

The paths one takes on a pilgrimage are often difficult. Plans fail, expected roads are found to be blocked, and tricksters mislead you. This has always been, and must be so. A pilgrimage is supposed to be out of the ordinary. They are supposed to be hard. It is, in part, overcoming the obstacles to finally reach the spiritual destination which provides a sense of accomplishment. If it were easy, one might feel that they cheated, that they did not truly deserve the reward.

Today was such a journey. We left our hostel after breakfast, having checked the train times to Ningbo online. Of course, we discovered that our information had led us to the wrong train station only after there was no way we could get a cab to the Hangzhou East station in time. Two hours were lost waiting for the next train.

The ride through the countryside was lovely, past verdant rolling hills, farms, and small towns. Being the only white people in our car, we were a source of fascination for the old man and young teen sitting across from us. Hungry, we took advantage of a passing food cart and enjoyed the best ramen noodles that either of us have ever had.

We arrived in Ningbo worried about making the last ferry to the island, being stuck within reach of our destination. Somewhat lost and stressed, we were saved. As luck, divine intervention, or simple business opportunity would have it, we were approached by a kind gentleman who simply said “Putuoshan?”. Clearly enough non-asian pilgrims come through Ningbo for just such a need. For 300 yuan, he escorted us into a cab and to the ferry terminal, purchasing our tickets for us. He made a good 100 yuan off of us, and it was well worth it.

Finally on our guaranteed way, we settled into our bus ride to the fast ferry dock and onto a packed ferry to Putuoshan. We watched the sun set over the Zhoushan archipelago of lush green islands, the waterways filled with Chinese tankers. We passed by container cranes, similar to the familiar ones in Oakland, but red and perhaps even more of them. While ours at home mostly unload, these surely do more loading, spreading ‘Made in China’ goods throughout the world.

We finally arrived at Putuoshan under a clouded sky, and were assailed by hawkers of lodging. After giving in to one of them, we were taken to a nearby hotel where we were lead down decrepit, smoke filled halls to a musty room with 3 single beds and then to a better room at a higher price. My gut said to leave, so we took our money and went back to the dock to try our luck again. We found a similarly priced option, in a nicer location, with a more straightforward management. We enjoyed a dinner on the outside patio of crab that we’d picked out ourselves, fried rice, and the most amazing, yet simple, Chinese cabbage and mushrooms.

Already, we feel that we have achieved our goal. Even if the morning weather obscures the eclipse, we are on a beautiful island in the East China sea, and that is reward enough.

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Morocco, Day 1

Posted by Ted on Oct 27, 2007 in Travel

The day actually started on Friday when we gathered Polly and our bags into the car and drove down to NY in the morning, and having a birthday lunch with Liz’ mom, before being driven through rush hour to JFK. Then we got on Royal Air Maroc, flight 201 and flew across the Atlantic to land in Casablanca around 9:30a. With our packs on our backs, we exchanged what cash I had on hand into dirhams, and caught the 10a train from the airport into downtown Casablanca.

The adventure began as the train broke down at one point, and we waited for over an hour for the 11a train to arrive and for everyone to crowd onto it. I remember getting off to walk around a couple of times, and the first “you’re not in Kansas anymore” moment I had was watching the crowded cross street, packed with cars, bicycles, mopeds, and donkey-drawn carts. We got to the main train station, and took a cab to a restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet, Cafe Moura. Our first of many price negotiations was the cab ride. Everything in Morocco is negotiated. haggled. bargained. It would take us until the end of our trip to get get even passable at this new skill. We had an appetizer of olives, bread, relish tray, and an amazing fish dish.

Due to a bit of a snafu (never split up when traveling in a foreign country. rule #1), we missed one train, but caught the next to Marrakech around 3p. It was a pleasant ride, watching the red terrain pass by, scattered with rocks. A deeper red than the american southwest, it was more martian in color, and its cacti were nothing like we have here; they were large and floppy. We finally arrive in Marrakech after dark, and the adventure continues as we walk down the street trying to hail a cab to our final destination. We zip through crowds and down narrow streets until we get dropped off on what appears to be a random street corner. While we try to get our bearings, we’re approached by someone who asks us where we’re going and did we need a guide? With no other real options open to us, we followed him down even narrower darker streets, soon followed by a second gentleman. Needless to say, we were wary. But we were delivered to our front door, we paid the man some dirhams, and then had tea in the courtyard of our riad, Dar Soukaina. It had been a very long trip.

We check into the “Muscade” (Nutgmeg) room, drop our packs, and relax for a few minutes before deciding to head out to have some dinner. Our hosts gave us a map, and we winded our way towards the famed Djemaa el-Fna. As one gets deeper into the old cities, the streets are truly a maze. Even with our carefully-drawn map, we made sure that we identified landmarks as we walked such as a tall lamp post, a crenelated awning, or a sign for La Vache Qui Rit. At one corner we stopped, and we had another offer for someone to be our guide. Saying no was difficult; we didn’t need a guide, we didn’t ask for the directions he gave us, and they are tenacious when they follow you, pointing out sights along the way, and get huffy when you refuse to pay them. In addition to the guides, the labyrinthe of the souqs had the distractions of shopkeepers inviting us in to look at their store “just for two minutes!” After a couple of stops, we finally found our way into the square, and it was a flurry of activity and a cascade of color. Appreciating the craziness but really just wanting to take it all in over a meal, we dined at Chegrouni with a third floor terrace view of the square, and had one of the best meals of our trip; an onion, beef, and prune tagine, and beef with olive-flavored couscous.

After dinner we went into the night market, and walked along the shops selling lanterns, handbags, and carts offering spices, nuts, soups, and tea. A monkey-handler put a monkey on our shoulders, and we stopped at one of the tea stalls for “Hunja”, a ginseng tea with cloves and cinnamon and “Sellou”, a sesame seed cake similiar to halvah. We then decided to head back to the riad for the night. We walked back down the maze of streets, now eerily quiet, but we remembered our landmarks and made our way back safe and sound. Finally lying in bed, we held each other and smiled. We were in Morocco.

And that was Day 1.

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