Saturday, Dec 21, 2013
Finally went to the train in the evening. I was a bit anxious all day. Just waiting for the trip to start. To top it off Rita had three patients. The real start of the trip was on Sunday. However, getting to Emeryville Amtrak station would be a bit of a hassle early in the morning. Amtrak actually recommended arriving about 45 minutes before the train departure. I guess to load all that numerous luggage. So I figured it would be cheaper to just get to Emeryville the night before and stay in a hotel. I was all in the train travel mood so I booked Capitol corridor train to get to Emeryville Amtrak station.
Capitol corridor train went fast and on schedule. Within an hour we were in Emeryville. The hotel was right next to the train station. Just had to cross the railroad tracks.
Sunday, Dec 22, 2013
We gotten to the station way early. Well, to be safe and following their recommendations to be there 45 min before departure. However, the train wasn’t ready – some sort of mechanical problem, or so they told us. Since Amtrak doesn’t own the actual railway tracks it is often delayed in favor of higher paying customers. Eventually the train rolled in an hour late. Well, planes get delayed too. All that 45 minutes boarding thing is not necessary – there was plenty of time to board in 10 minutes.
The train was nice, clean. We were greeted by a friendly conductor Nathaniel. He should have listed all the rules and features of this train for the novices. Instead we sort of had to figure them out ourselves:
- This train didn’t have WiFi, which was kind of sad. I could have written this report right there (if I could figure out the two-step authentication with WordPress app).
- There were several restrooms and even one shower (while the water wasn’t frozen). The car also had some cookies and fresh hot coffee, but no hot water. I suppose coffee was more in demand especially if your stop was reached sometime in the middle of the night.
- The food was included in the ticket (for the sleeper cars). The small dining car made it for shared tables. Which was kind of good because it forced people to socialize. The quality of food itself wasn’t the best. Perhaps they should upgrade it to include more fresh vegetables (as well as WiFi. Capitol Corridor train had WiFi that allowed you to see where the train you are on was on the map. This train, being more sophisticated, could provide the location information as well as some historical information about the places around. It would also had info about dining, etc). However, the amount of food was way more than necessary. Consider the lack of physical exercise during the trip and the conditions were set to good weight gain.
- The service was good. The sucky thing that I found was that we had to tip. Hate those tips. Just include them in the price and don’t make me worry about them.
- After the food car there was the lounge car. It was all open with some seats turned to face the windows. It also had windows on the ceiling for better mountain scenery. It was a reasonable good place to socialize (somewhat) and observe the passing by scenery (it was also better than our basement first floor compartment). People sat there playing cards, watching DVDs, sometimes even playing music.
Our compartment – roomette – was spacious enough. It was just on the first floor of the car. A bit low, so you look at the world from under, as opposed to from the higher level. But perhaps it wasn’t shaking that much. The configuration of the compartment wasn’t what I’m used to. Perhaps because the gauge in ex-USSR is wider than in US – 1,524mm vs 1,435mm. Russian sleeper trains usually had one closed compartment with beds perpendicular to the train direction. This train has them parallel – two closed compartments with a corridor in between.
So all this day we first went through the Sacramento river delta, then slowly climbed over the mostly snow-less Donner pass. It was nice to see the mountains and the Donner Lake. But it would have been much more fun to go through a couple of feet of snow as well. They fed us fairly good stake for dinner. By itself it won’t be so much, but it was after rather heavy lunch that included dessert. For lunch one can just show up in the dining car. Dinner, on the other hand, had to be reserved a bit in advance.
We made a short stop in the weird Reno train station – it was located in this almost underground concrete pit below all that casino thoroughfare. Not a long stop, but enough to stretch and walk around.
Monday, Dec 23, 2013
Out was the early morning rise. I went off way early in the evening, so thought to get up early too. There wasn’t really much to do once the sun went down. It was dark outside so one can’t really observe the beautiful scenery. One remedy to that is to bring a good book or a move, or travel at a different time of the year.
The conductor said the breakfast would be at 6:30am mountain time, which turned out to be pacific time. I got up, washed and went to the lounge car to see sunrise and wait for food. I got up right when the train was standing in Salt Lake city. We were still in Utah apparently. When the breakfast finally came (the dining car wasn’t large and it took process the onslaught of the hungry passengers) it was heavy standard American stuff of fried meat and potatoes, we skipped the dessert.
It was nice sunny weather the first part of the day. We were passing though some Utah canyon country – red rock formations with snow. It was quite cold outside. One of the conductors, or whomever was speaking, was trying to provide some information about the surrounding scenery. We passed through Ruby canyon. Nothing especially particular about this canyon. I just recorded the name. The railroad sometimes followed a road, but often just went off to the mountains.
Closer to lunch we reached Colorado. The mountains became more rocky. We were still following Colorado river. I was just sitting in the lounge car watching the scenery. Couldn’t even read. We passed a couple of tunnels, but the train guide said that the largest was still ahead. It must have occurred after sunset because I didn’t remember anything very long. We reached Denver, CO by the late evening. It was so cold that the water pipes froze in our last car effectively killing the toilets. Oh, well. The neighbors in the next compartment met their friends from Denver while the train was sitting in the station. Interesting, you can’t really do this while flying.
Tuesday, Dec 24, 2013
Moving through the farm country in Iowa and Illinois. We really skipped Nebraska fast. I suppose the train sped up quite a bit coming down from the mountains. It was all flat farmland separated with some trees and structures, or small cities. Mostly corn fields or something like that. Even the city signs have only population on them, no elevation (in California a city sign contains city name, population, and elevation. But I’m not sure if this requirement is state or federal). But, it was possible to see bold eagles flying, quite a bit. The weather was very cold. We did a short stop in some city and one could really feel the cold things to come.
There was a funny case at that cold stop. I suppose people travel by train here quite a bit. So there were passengers getting in and their relatives seeing them off. Someone couldn’t let go, I guess, and stayed on the train when it started moving. The conductor announced that they would have to get off on the next stop. No one jumps off the trains in this country.
Arrived to Chicago an hour late, but in time for the next train. Checked in to the special Amtrak lounge where they were already taking dinner reservations. Thus there won’t be any deep dish Chicago pizza. The train station in Chicago was conveniently right in the middle of the town. The station had this underground railroad hub on the lower level. In a way you arrive underneath the station and then come up to the street level. Sadly, most of the train stations I saw so far were old. Yes, they may be retrofitted and repaired, but, ultimately, they were all built about 100 years ago. No new train stations were built recently that I know of.
We walked around Chicago a bit trying not to freeze. It was nice clear crispy air there. I really wished I had a good tripod to take all the shots with the lights. My wife from the tropical Shanghai couldn’t really handle that cold weather – the fingers started getting numb and cheeks red. So we returned to the warm Amtrak lounge with free WiFi and coffee. The new train was the same as the old one. Except this time our roomette was on the second floor and we were closer to the food car.
Monday, Dec 25, 2013
The ride was very snaky – the train was slowly moving around some small mountains. The second floor also provided for some shaky ride, supposedly. Sometimes, when the train stopped I could feel that it was still moving to the opposite direction. Not sure where this illusion was coming from. The area looked sad and gray because it lacked snow. What was surprising how little empty non-privatized space there was. Well, not surprising, but rather sad. California has all that land, even if it under BLM management. Still, I can potentially go there and explore it. In this East Coast – you are going to get shot.
We arrived to Washington DC just a bit after noon. It was sunny, not too cold, and dry – not exactly the winter weather. The town was deserted. We had time so we just slowly progressed to our hotel passing most of the main sights – Union Station, National Mall, The Capitol, and The Smithsonian. It turned out that our simple hotel was right behind the Department of Education and The Air and Space Museum. Interestingly, the aforementioned Air and Space Museum is the second most visited museum in the world, based on this list. Pretty good considering that it is just a geek paradise.
The hotel decided to be nice and gave us some Christmas gifts – two sort of socks with two fruits and lots of candy that looked like leftovers from Halloween (sugar and coloring). But they also gave us a list of events in the town. One particular I thought could be interesting – organ recital in Washington National Cathedral. The Cathedral was just a bit off from the National Mall. It took a bit of a walk to get to it. Once we arrived the cathedral was full of people listening to the Christmas service. The cathedral was large and advanced. No, they didn’t install WiFi, but there were many monitors showing the female pastor making the speech. People were coming and going quite a bit. There were actually many who came for the concert rather than the service. The concert was organ with chorus and singers. Good music from different periods. Just a bunch of short pieces not all related to Christmas. Not too bad considering I was falling asleep periodically.
Wednesday, Dec 26, 2013
Our posh hotel didn’t have free breakfast. At least it had Starbucks open right next door. So we had to eat breakfast like yuppies – cappuccino and panini.
This day was reserved for the National Archive. I had to carefully plan what places to visit over the course of the week since some of them were not open on the weekend. As a result the main attraction – The Smithsonian – was left for the last day. Interestingly, it is possible to reserve a spot in the tour of the National Archive on recreation.gov. Sort of like getting permits to camp in Desolation Wilderness or hiking Half-Dome. The ‘permits’ are free, just have to pay for service. I’ve gotten two for the early morning tour.
Interesting place. It houses all the documents related to the US Government business (as opposed to other museums or the Library of Congress that can house all sorts of documents). For example, it has JFK’s college transcript (not a single A). The Archives even have the canceled check that US paid for Alaska. And of course it has the main documents – The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, and The Bill of Rights. All of them written on some old goat skin, sitting in these way space age boxes that can probably survive nuclear attack. They are so old that it was almost impossible to read. One can of course always get a readable copy from the gift shop. Those documents are housed in this Greek style imposing rotunda. No one really builds buildings like that anymore. And there were two armed guards standing next to the documents. Sure they are rare, but it is not like someone can steal our Declaration of Independence and we will be back in UK’s family.
The tour went rather fast around the main exhibition. I didn’t really want to repeat it (if started it would have taken a lot of time). So instead we went to see the Iraqi Jewish Archive exhibit. The US military was clearing out one of the Saddam’s palaces and found these boxes of old Jewish documents. I’m talking about torahs of course, but also school records, permits, some busyness records, etc. Essentially the regular everyday life paperwork. Jews lived in former Persia for thousands of years. I just didn’t think the Jewish culture would come up like that.
After the National Archive we walked around the town. The weather was nice; the tourists returned; the National Mall was bustling with people. We went to the main place in town – the White House. Obviously there were lots of people taking photos of themselves behind that impressive black iron fence. Obama was on vacation in Hawaii. However, I think I saw his press secretary – Jay Carney – coming out of the White House gate driving something like a Ford Explorer. Aside from general lack of snow the atmosphere was pretty festive.
People were taking lots of photos with the White House in the background. There was the official federal Christmas celebration area outside the moat in front of the White House. It looked sad mostly due to the non-winter weather. There were Christmas trees from all the relevant locations and working model train installation. Most of them were working. We also visited the White House National Park visitor’s center. The permanent one is being renovated, so the NPS gotten a temporary trailer.
I found this place in the tour guide called The Old Post Office. There is an indoor glass covered pavilion with shops selling tours junk. The main building actually contains some sort of offices, maybe even of USPS. However, the main attraction of this place was the clock tower. While the Washington Monument was still on restoration this Old Post Office tower provided great views of the National Mall and its surroundings. It was free and not crowded at all, and the windows were allegedly larger than in the Washington Monument.
The Post Office would be closing soon for remodeling. It will be turned into a glitzy hotel by this Donald Trump dude and his daughter. Though I’d like to see this building being used for something better than a food court, I hope Trump’s daughter has better taste than he is and not turn this beautiful building into another erected golden ugliness.
We still had a couple of hour after dark so we went to the American History Museum. I’m not sure how the Smithsonian people distinguish what to put into American History Museum, Museum of Natural History, or Air and Space Museum, because this particular museum had just all sorts of stuff that might as well be in the other two. Well, I suppose this American History Museum contains the history and artificial human-created stuff. Obviously we couldn’t see everything there. So we just walked around the food and travel exhibitions. All sorts of interesting things were there, like different designs of the coffee cup lids (interestingly, they didn’t say anything about that law suit that forced McDonald’s to use them).
After that I convinced Rita to get Chicago style pizza in DC. One decent place I found was District of Pi. Fine pizza, good beer, just Rita didn’t like it.
Thursday, Dec 27, 2013
For today I managed to get a tour of the US Capitol from our current congressman Mike Honda. In hindsight that wasn’t strictly necessary – just come early enough and wait in line. Perhaps some other season, but not currently. Of course there were metal detectors and back checks. At least they didn’t ask us to remove shoes. The visitor center in the Capitol was a well oiled machine. Lots of tourists were screened and then shuffled to one of the two greetings counters. They did ask me who get us the reservation so perhaps there was some benefit in knowing your congressman (or he just get some feedback).
After that people were divided into groups with their own guide. The guide didn’t have to shout because he gave everyone headphones tuned to the particular guide’s channel. In this chase each group could only hear their own guide.
The place was quite crowded. The groups went around like command in a CPU pipeline. We went from one impressive room with lots of statues to another. Finally ending up in another rotunda with frescoed ceiling. On it George Washington looked a bit like a god or something. There was a room with many statues from different states. The state of California submitted the statue of father Junipero Serra and Ronald Reagan. Really? Was it the best that California gave to this nation?
After the Capitol we went to the Library of Congress. Good thing there was a tunnel from the Capitol to the Library. In this case we could avoid waiting in line and being frisked for weapons.
Well, that was a big library. Nicely done with marble columns and statues of some prominent individuals. We also managed to get a 1:30PM tour there. There were also lots of people, thus the workers just collected us in a holding area before the tour guides would come. Interestingly, the Library of Congress has its own credit union. I was walking around there and saw their ATM machine. A woman was walking by and said that their credit union is better than US Senate credit union. Tribes.
The tour guide lady had to shout quite a bit. There were lot so people and space was rather limited. She showed us the two main bibles on display. Also about the history of the building, its design, all that enormous book collections, etc. There used to be a high school in the attic of this building for the pages who worked in the Capitol. Then it was closed perhaps because no parent would want their kid to spend time by himself in such active area with a lot of older men. Not sure how they were studying anyway with all that activity around (tourists and protesters outside). Usually in Europe the architect would put these boy angels on the armament. And the angels were fooling around doing nothing. The US angels, on the other hand, were working. Showing that our country wasn’t made of lazies.
Since it was a relatively short day we just went to the Air and Space museum to walk around until it was closing. During the holidays all the Smithsonian museums had extended hours of operation till 7PM. Though we’ve had just a bit of time to spend there, it was great – real voyager spacecraft (probably the one that was used for some testing), two nuclear rockets, and all sorts of other stuff. I was really looking forward to visiting this place on Sunday.
Saturday, Dec 28, 2013
We barely made it to the DC walking tour. The starting point was near the closed White House visitor center, which required a bit of a walk. The tour was one man operation. A man with a loud voice because he had to control and speak to a rather large group. The National Mall was crowded, but our tour guide did a reasonable job explaining all the good sites and their meaning.
Everything built here had some meaning. WWII memorial all that signs properly for each army group everywhere, starts for number killed, etc. Same in the Vietnam War memorial. None of those ‘oh, we felt like it so we built it’. I was actually very impressed by the memorials there. Soviet Union had lots of memorials for WWII. But they are not as personal. They are mostly large and grandiose with lots of concrete and brass. However, they don’t touch for some reason.
The most touching was the Korean War memorial. It was a brutal war with many casualties that US had to participate in, because otherwise USSR and China would plow over Korea. Interestingly, the South Korean ambassador puts flowers there every Monday to commemorate the gratitude of the Korean people.
We visited also the Lincoln temple. No president before or since had to deal with what he had to. Thus he got a temple. It was insanely crowded. I guess to really appreciate what Lincoln has done one need to come there on a less crowded day. But as a simple tourist spot, it was fine. There was actually a good view from the back of the temple to the Arlington cemetery.
Then the tour ended. We paid the guide his tips and moved on. I like those tours, and especially the busyness model. If the operator isn’t paid in advance he doesn’t try to sell some stuff from shops connected to him (like they were doing in Thailand). In this case it attracts people who want to do the tours rather than make money. Our tour guide was actually retired school teacher.
The National Mall has a couple of more interesting sites to visit like FDR memorial, MLK memorial, and Jefferson memorial. The only thing it doesn’t have were good food sources. Well, it was like any other national park – you don’t expect a food court in the wilderness of Yosemite, right? After that we visited Maine Avenue Fish Market. The market had some freshly (I hope) caught sea products. Lots of crab, shrimp, fish, and clams. Since we didn’t have tools to cook, Rita bought already cooked soup and shrimp. It would be nice to sit there and watch the Potomac river, but it was already dark so it was pointless.
Sunday, Dec 29, 2013
It started raining rather heavily in the morning. Rain would be fine, but it should really be snow instead. Anyway, we were sitting in the same Starbucks eating breakfast. The good thing was that we could see the line of people waiting to get into the Air and Space museum. First the museum wasn’t open and even after it did everyone had to pass through metal detector. Isn’t it sad? In order to visit a museum once has to pass through a metal detector. I understand the reason they put the detectors in the first place. But how sick someone needs to be to bomb a museum? Where is this civilization going….
Ahh, Air and Space museum. I wish I had more time to walk around there. There were hordes of people, but tons of things to see also. There was the real lunar module, rockets, space stuff, U2 spy plane pilot survival kit on display (it had very peculiar packet called “shard repellant”. I wonder how it worked). But we had to cut it short. Visit the Mitsitam cafe in the Museum of American Indian for lunch and move on to The Natural History museum. The thing about Mitsitam cafe was that it was selling real American Indian food from different regions. It didn’t come cheap, but was very tasty. Beats hands down stupid McDonald’s in Air and Space museum.
National Museum of Natural History was, of course, just as good as Air and Space museum. The building itself was great – old Greek style with rotunda. I could have walked there for a day looking at all the skeletons and skills of early American colonists with holes in their teeth (people were smoking clay pipes rotating them a bit in their teeth. After some time they managed to essentially drill a fairly clean round hole for the pipe).
Monday, Dec 30, 2013
Just fly back to LAX. Good thing the DCA airport was just a couple of subway stops away. Back to the grind, in a couple of days, the vacation is over.
Washington DC Photos: