Sushu's Travel Journal

August 19, 2009

Train to Colorado

Filed under: USA — Tags: — admin @ 11:13 pm

I’ve taken the Amtrak once before up to Seattle (winter 2007), but that was by myself. It was lots of fun meeting random people in the Lounge Car, but sleeping was difficult in the reclined seats, especially next to a large trucker. I found out via Lounge Talk that it’s a much better deal traveling with 2 people because you can get the Roomette at a reasonable price.

Basically, if you take the train by yourself, it’s ~$90 for a seat. A 2-person room is ~$300, which means shelling out +$200 if you are a single person. However, it is the same price for 2 people which means the room is only +$60 per person. For that +$60, you get free meals in the dining car, horizontal bunks, and a little room with your own window and power outlet, etc. In other words, a much better deal.

Our roomette was small but sufficient. By day, it is basically 2 seats facing each other. At night, the seats flatten out into 1 bed, and a top bunk folds down. We could adjust the temperature and intercom volume, and there are free drinks in the hallway outside. We were right next to the dining car, which provided 3 hearty meals a day. For breakfast we could have omelette/sausage/hash browns, or cereal/grapefruit/yogurt or french toast. For lunch we had our choice of sandwiches, burgers, salad, etc, plus a dessert. For dinner we could choose from various roasted meats, also with accompanying salad and dessert. All in all pretty decent.

At first I was a bit worried that the privacy of our “Roomette” would mean fewer interactions with random people on the train. However, since (a) meals are free in the dining car, and (b) they make a point of seating you with random people while dining, we still got to meet some random folk.

One of the things I was excited about was seeing tunnels/tracks made by Chinese railroad workers. The train guide was very carefully neutral about the employing of Chinese railroad workers, as well. It said things like “The Chinese were paid the same wages as other workers, but since they bought their own food, they were much healthier than the other workers.” “They found that the Chinese workers were learned quickly and worked hard.” Um, yes. Disappointingly, it turned out to be a bit difficult to see the tunnels when you’re in the tunnel. :P So I ended up not getting that “spiritual connection” empathy thing that I was expecting. Ah well.

But the Sierra Nevadas were beautiful and we did pass by Donner Lake

It was surprisingly large and pretty and cannibal-free.

We spent a lot of time reading books, listening to audio-books, talking, staring out the window, drawing, napping, watching movies, etc. It was very relaxing.

We slept quite well on the train. There was some waking at around 4:30am when the Salt Lake City people came on board, but overall it was warm and cozy. According to the schedule, we should have woken up in the Rockies. Instead, we found ourselves in Wyoming.

It turns out Union Pacific was doing some track renovation in the Rockies, so they detoured the train through Wyoming and then down. :(

On the upside, we did get to Denver 3 hours early!

I leave you with train graffiti:

July 15, 2008

Audio Books from the trip

Filed under: USA — admin @ 10:46 pm

Blood of Flowers : coming-of-age tale about Iranian village girl moving to the city, making rugs, mistakes, and a niche for herself. Pacing was slow in parts, the off-shoot stories were cute, the main character not very likeable, and the narrator had a very bland voice. A lot of “girl power in face of societal oppression” type thing. Grade: B-

The Thirteenth Tale: a story about twins, family loss, storytelling, and literature (of the Jane Eyre variety), with a subtle mystery thrown in. Something that I wanted to read again after I finished, just to enjoy the nuances and catch the ah-hahs. The two main characters are: Margaret, the bookish biographer, and Vida Winter, a sharp woman, a novelist telling her final story–hers. Or is it? One of those good books that is good but not in-your-face about it. The narrators did awesome voices. A little too much twin-angst on Margaret’s part. Grade: A

The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-time: Props to showing autistic teenagers as complex, intelligent people. I liked the relatively consistent narrative voice. I guess the characters that interact with the main character are about as well developed as you can with such a limited first person…? I really wish I could have known more about the dad, but I guess that omission is what it takes to keep the power of the first person. The narrator also managed an awesome British-Indian accent. Grade: A

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: The characters of Savannah as well as Savannah itself are well-portrayed. Felt like the book should be called “Collection of stories on the people of Savannah”, as there was little plot or anything else connecting the disparate characters. If I weren’t listening to it, I would have skipped around in the book to read all about The Lady Chablis. And then repeat for Jim Williams. Narrator had awesome voice for Jim Williams, Chablis, and the voodoo lady. Grade: B

The Book of Salt: A promising first 3 chapters on the political history of salt in China, Egypt and the ancient Celts quickly devolve into a recipe book for salted things in Europe. Okay, it’s not that bad, but its Euro-centrism was frustrating when it hit the “let’s explain the importance of salt in EVERY SINGLE EUROPEAN COUNTRY.” Granted, we stopped after “Chapter 9 – Poland”, or whatever it was called. And the Rome chapter and the Italy City-States chapters were kinda interesting. But I want more about the Middle East! Africa! Americas! Long recipes cannot be skipped in audiobook. Grade: B-

The Dante Club: Mystery set in 1860s England where the murdered subjects died in full Inferno glory, and a literary club consisting of Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, etc, try to solve the murder. There’s also Harvard politics and nice little details about Boston in that time period. The deaths are full of Dante-an gruesomeness, but some of the author-wibbling can get quite tiring. We got to SF before we finished, but I read the spoilers on wikipedia and it sounds pretty decent. Pacing and scene jumps can be…. odd. Narrator is decent. Grade: B+

Hey! 6 books, 7 cities, 8 national parks, and 19 states! That’s not half bad for 4 weeks.

June 23, 2008

Road Trip thus far

Filed under: USA — admin @ 10:26 pm

It has been 8 days! In order to be brief, I will only describe 1 location and 1 thought/memory for each day. Photos to follow (hopefully tomorrow?) when I get myself a USB cord.

Monday, June 16  — Driving to LA
Location: Driving along the California coast line — the hills that start deceivingly serene but then end abrupting in the Pacific Ocean. The curves, curves, and more curves as we wend our way at what seemed like the edge of the world.

Thought:
Hearst Castle is far more impressive than the Winchester Mystery House. Not only did he have far more money, but he also had Taste. It reminded me of ChengDe, the summer retreat of the Qing emperors where they picked their most favorite Chinese landscapes and synthesized them into a private estate. Hearst tried to do that with regards to Europe. Sure, some parts were far to opulent for ordinary living, but that was not the point.  The point was to build a castle filled with objects that pleased you, and then to share this with crazy-famous people which might then percolate downwards.  Maybe I’m just being defensive about it because I want medieval tapestries in my dining room, too.

Tuesday, June 17  — LA
Location:  The La Brea Tar Pits are quite an oddity — Random park in the middle of LA — but oozing with tar.   A part of the parking lot was fenced off because there was tar oozing out of the tarred ground.  Walking on the grass, you can sense the tar oozing just underneath.  There are numerous pits of tar strewn about the park, *bubbling* with tar.  Strange dissonance with the rest of LA, but also a quiet place to picnic or walk the dog.  (I also relish the possibility of falling in and becoming a fossil record for future generations.)

Thought:
Hollywood is strange.  The industry is massive in the number of people they employ and the amount of money that is thrown around.  But there are also so many grubbers that cling to its peripherals.  I don’t understand the awed silence or the murmur of excitement of being in proximity to a star, but I’m generally more interested in the mechanics of things, anyway.  I get excited seeing people build and take down sets in giant studios.  I enjoy the behind-the-scenes so much more than the glitterati.

Wednesday, June 18  — Driving to Sedona, AZ
Location: Sedona is beautiful, and can be seen from miles away — red, sedimentary rocks rising out of the Arizona landscape.  It was my first view of Arizona’s natural majesty, so of course I was awed.  Only later was I able to appreciate the specialty of Sedona:  not only were there beautiful rocks, but there was also Water, and with it, life.

Thought:
First night of camping, so I suppose I should address it.  I like it as a cheap alternative to motels.  The Days Inn room I’m sitting in right now costs $67 including tax.  The campground was a $10 reservation, we burned about $10 of firewood, and ate about $5 of canned goods.  Less than half the cost of the inn.  Of course, it means having a lot of accrued assets — tent, sleeping bags, foam padding, cookware, fire-starter, etc.  It also means eating creatively, and appreciating running water.  Camping at Sedona meant no running water.  At the Grand Canyon, there was a pay-shower and a laundry room, which made it seem like civilization.  I like the amenities of civilization — the internet, the water on tap…  but there was a certain simplicity to camping that I also enjoyed.  There is no alienation of labor there.  We have currently left the land of camping for the time being.  Doubtless, we will re-enter National Park territory when we head West again.

Thursday, June 19  — Sedona, and Driving to Grand Canyon
Location: The approach to the Grand Canyon is anti-climatic.  Unlike the Red Rocks of Sedona, which rose into view from 20 miles away, Grand Canyon is something that you sort of stumble upon.  You see signs that say "Grand Canyon, 20 miles", but you look around and it is merely boring mesa landscape — dry with a gentle rolling hills, brush and trees that seem wizened and battle-scarred from their fight to survive in the harsh landscape.   "Grand Canyon, 10 miles" "Grand Canyon, 2 miles".  Still nothing.  "Mather Point".  Still nothing.  It was not until we parked and walked over to the point when the ground suddenly fell away and the Grand Canyon presented itself.  And suddenly it is as if you were transported to a mountain-top 1 mile high and looking down into an expansive valley of slopes and cliffs.  To be honest, the first view was less-than-impressive.  I was surprised by its colors — specifically, its lack of colors, its lack of saturation.  It’s not the brilliant red of photos, or even of Sedona’s rocks, but rather dull reds and yellows and browns.  I was also surprised by its valley-ness.  I expected the canyon to be sheer rock cliffs.  Those exist, yes, but also gentle slopes with Ye Olde Desert Brush that angle into the canyon.

Thought:
How might the explorers or cowboys have seen this canyon?  "Oh shit, forgot about this giant hole in the ground.  Now I have to go all the way around — 200 miles"

Friday, June 20  — Grand Canyon
Location:  We went on two hikes — one along the rim of the Canyon (from Hopi Point to the Rim Lodges), and one that went down partway into the Canyon (the first leg of the Kaibab Trail).  Unlike my first impression of the Grand Canyon, this day was much better.  Actually walking in the red dirt of the Canyon was pretty cool (the Canyon starts out yellow and then turns red, then brown, etc).  My feet turned the color of the Canyon.  I started a photo collection of dead trees.  The Colorado River was a crystal blue-green (caused by damming of the river).  But just to pick one location: the Mine.  There was apparently a Uranium Mine in the national park.  It took them 18 years (1951-69) to completely mine the high-grade uranium.  What is left is a mining tower and a mineshaft that is off-limits.  But it’s a healthy reminder that National Park or no, we humans love our resources.

Thought:
All of the rangers and visitors try to impart so much significance to the Grand Canyon — the might of the Colorado River, how it has affected human life in the past millenia, etc.  But really, the Grand Canyon doesn’t give a fuck.  The Colorado River basically dug through layers and layers of time/fossil record.  And the topmost layer is completely eroded away — the layer that includes humans, mammoths, and dinosaurs.  So really, the Grand Canyon is just there, doing its own thing.

——
Okay, it’s late (12:30am here), and there’s more driving and a Rodeo and The Alamo tomorrow, so I’ll do the next batch tomorrow night.  A preview…

Saturday, June 21  — Driving through Arizona
Sunday, June 22  — Driving through New Mexico, and the Carlsbad Caverns
Monday, June 23  — Driving to Fort Worth

And hopefully I’ll be able to put up some pictures and update this entry, as well.

Oh, BTW: I’ve run out of people to write postcards to, mostly because I don’t know your address.  So you should email me your address.

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