Sunday, February 23, 2014

Riding Transit in Taiwan, Part 2: Buses

In case you missed it, I talked about Taiwan's extensive railway system in Part 1. Today I'm going to talk about riding the bus in Taiwan, especially in some of the off-the-beaten-track rural areas that I've gotten to. There are a few different sorts of buses in Taiwan, of varying utility to the independent traveler, so I'll try to provide a decent overview.

To reiterate some info from the first part:
  1. Get an EasyCard. Called a 悠遊卡, yōuyóu kǎ in Chinese, the web site will have you thinking that these are only useful in Taipei. Don't be fooled! The EasyCard has been accepted on literally every bus I have ever set foot on in Taiwan, along with the HSR and TRA systems as previously mentioned. Every 7-11 and most other convenience stores and western-style fast-food places also take them, although there appears to be a 30NT or so minimum at 7-11.
    When I go to Taiwan, the first thing I do after I land is plunk NT$1,000 on my EasyCard (around US$30), because I know I'll use it. On my last trip, I was able to skip a room-spanning line for HSR shuttle tickets at the airport and walk straight on to the bus.
  2. If you're ever unsure if your EasyCard will work, just ask the bus driver or ticket counter "悠遊卡好嗎?" (yōuyóu kǎ hǎo ma, Is EasyCard OK?) They'll generally point you to the card reader. 
As a quick overview, Taiwan has a system of buses that, as far as I can tell, is operated by private, but heavily-regulated and cooperatively-planned, companies.

Pretty much all buses, even local city buses, are operated by coaches with comfy, high-backed reclining seats and fringed curtains. Even the tiny "twinkie buses" (my term, but my wife knew exactly what I was talking about) will have full reclining seats. A caveat is that, especially if you're a gentleman of average US height or better, you may find yourself wanting more legroom.

Another commonality among Taiwanese buses is the intimidation factor: the Taiwanese bus system is not as tourist-friendly as the railways. (There are some exceptions, such as the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle.) Most buses will have electronic headsigns listing the route number and destinations both in English and Chinese, but it's difficult to find route maps, and when you do find them they're typically in Chinese only. Most buses will have next stop announcements, both audio and visual, in Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English, but English is invariably last, and is often cut off by subsequent announcements. Furthermore, if the announcements are broken, the driver will almost certainly not speak English. (Some have only a moderate grasp of Mandarin, as Taiwanese or Hakka is their first language. This is also common among cab drivers.) Given that, it's always a good idea to know the name of your destination in Mandarin, both spoken and written. Generally, if you can communicate to the driver where you're going, they'll make sure that you get there, but it's always a good idea to be self-reliant.

Types of Taiwanese buses

Long-distance Buses

There are a good number of long-distance buses connecting the major cities along the freeway network. I haven't used them much, what with the railway system being both so awesome and so cheap, but other bloggers have suggested that these buses are a good option for overnight travel. The trains get pretty scarce after midnight, but some bus lines run 24 hours. The fares are said to be comparable to rail fares, with the exception that overnight buses are sometimes heavily discounted. The major companies are FreeGo Bus, GuoGuang Motor Transport (sometimes written KuoKuang, 國光 in Chinese), HowTai, and UBus. (UBus also operates the shuttle from the airport to the HSR.)

All long-distance buses have four-digit route numbers, and you can get information about them from a government web site, in Chinese and English.

City Buses

Not every city in Taiwan runs city buses in the sense that American cities do, with routes designed and administered by the local government. Kaohsiung, Taipei, and Tainan all have such systems, with Taipei's being by far the largest. There are extensive bus-only lanes throughout Taipei as well, providing quick travel through this traffic-choked city. (Not as quick as the MRT, but the MRT isn't everywhere.) City buses tend to run on a zone-fare basis. You will pay either when boarding, when alighting, or both, depending on how the bus route travels through fare zones-- check for a sign near the farebox. If it says "上", pay when boarding. If it says "下" pay when alighting. If it says "上下" you may have to do both.

City buses take EasyCard, which you may have to tap when boarding and tap again when alighting. When in doubt, do what the locals do, and if you forget, the driver will likely remind you.

City buses tend to have decent information available, both in English and in general. I found Tainan's system in particular to be very well-signed, with bilingual maps and next-bus LED signs at major stops. I don't have any experience with Kaohsiung's system, but Taipei's has good information at each bus stop-- in Chinese. You can also find usable map and timetable information in English on the web for Taipei, Tainan, and Kaohsiung.

Ordinary buses

I'm not sure what to call these buses, but they serve the functions of local buses in cities where there isn't a city-run network, and they are also the main inter-city buses in smaller towns off the freeways and railway network. They are also assigned four-digit route numbers, and are usually operated by a company associated with the county, eg. Hsinchu County Bus Company, Miaoli County Bus Company, etc. etc. Most of these buses have LED headsigns with their origin, destination, and route number displayed in Chinese and Pinyin, but some have old paper rollsigns, which may or may not be bilingual. On-board announcements are typically made in Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English, and LED signs have Chinese and English stop announcements, with one major caveat: these systems typically announce every single stop, and in areas where stops are closely-spaced, often don't finish announcing one stop in English before it comes time to announce the next. For this reason, the LED signs are often the better bet, and it's not a bad idea to check your smartphone GPS for information about your location.

These buses also vary the most in terms of quality. Most of them are comfortable, with reclining seats, air conditioning, and modern signage. I have, however, encountered hard plastic seats, no A/C (in Taiwan in July...), and a driver calling out stops only in Taiwanese. I recommend that, before getting too far off the beaten path on ordinary Taiwanese buses, you learn how to say your destination in Chinese or get it written down for you in Chinese characters (or both!). That way, you can enlist your bus driver in ensuring you get to your destination.

Taiwan Tourist Shuttle

The Taiwan Tourist Shuttle is a relatively new system, having launched early this decade. (I can't quite put a date on it.) Nevertheless, it is fantastic. The system covers the entire island, linking scenic points of interest with railway stations (both TRA and HSR). While you can totally use it to get to the main tourist destinations-- Taroko Gorge, Alishan, Kenting, etc.-- I encourage you to explore the other destinations available. Because of the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle, I went to such odd and enriching places as the Qigu Salt Mountain (which, itself, is kind of lame, but which has a museum of salt sculpture around it worth the visit, along with a cool wetlands park along the route), the kinda-creepy-yet-fascinating Cihu Sculpture Park (filled with dozens of unwanted statues of Chaing Kai-Shek, the island's former dictator), Yehliu Geopark and Baishawan Beach north of Taipei. Taking ordinary Taiwanese transport to any of these sites would have been a pain, but the Tourist Shuttle made it easy and convenient.

Taiwan Tourist Shuttle runs a very good multi-lingual web site. Timetables, stop locations, and fare tables are all available on the web. The buses themselves are generally easy to spot, as they are usually bright yellow, and stops are clearly marked with bilingual Tourist Shuttle stop signs, each of which has a timetable and route map. (There are some occasions where the Tourist Shuttle is actually just a part of an existing bus route-- the Anping and Qigu routes in Tainan and the Lukang route out of Chiayi come to mind-- and, in those cases, the bus is not yellow. It does, however, carry a sign with the Tourist Shuttle logo.) Fares vary based on the route and distance traveled, but NT$100 (US$3) for a day pass is common on the less-traveled routes. Tourist information centers and service providers who cater to travelers also typically know about the system, and can direct you to the nearest stop. In Chinese, it's called the 台灣好行 (Táiwān hǎo xíng). Announcements on the bus are bilingual, Mandarin/English, and are generally very reliable, although drivers tended to take a particular interest in making sure I got where I wanted to go. The Taiwan Tourist Shuttle is a total game-changer for the independent traveler, making out-of-the-way attractions practical to reach and greatly expanding the parts of Taiwan one can expect to see.

The one downside to this system, however, is frequency. When the Tourist Shuttle is its own bus, it can be extraordinarily infrequent. Some shuttles, like the Lion's Head-Nanzhuang route, run every few hours. Some only run a few times a day, like the direct bus from THSR Chiayi to Alishan. (There is a more frequent TRA Chiayi-Alishan route, and a bus from the TRA to the THSR.) More commonly, the bus will run hourly, or possibly hourly on week days and half-hourly on weekends. They also often stop earlier in the evening than other forms of transit, with last runs usually happening around sundown. In most cases, missing the last Tourist Shuttle doesn't mean you're stranded, but it often means that you're going to have to figure out the conventional bus system, and may possibly require inconvenient or poorly-advertised transfers. And, yes, sometimes missing the last bus really does mean you're stuck.

I love the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle, but using it does take a little planning. It's totally worth it, though.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Riding Transit in Taiwan, Part 1: Trains

This isn't the right blog for this information, but I wanted to put this up because I have gained pretty extensive experience riding all sorts of transport in Taiwan, and I haven't seen an English-language guide like this available, either on the Intertubes or in the various travel guides. (My Kafkaesque Life has these tips on Taiwanese transport, but it's pretty Taipei-centric, and doesn't get in to all the nuances of riding the TRA or far-flung buses that I want to get to.) So here we go!

Headline tips:

  1. Get an EasyCard. Called a 悠遊卡, yōuyóu kǎ in Chinese, the web site will have you thinking that these are only useful in Taipei. Don't be fooled! The EasyCard is accepted throughout the Taiwan Railways system, on the High-Speed Rail for unreserved (read: standing-the-whole-time) journeys, and on every bus to every out-of-the-way mountain town I've yet gone to. Every 7-11 and most other convenience stores and western-style fast-food places also take them, although there appears to be a 30NT or so minimum at 7-11. The one place that you may not be able to use it is Kaohsiung (高雄, Gāoxióng), where they do have a different card for their subway system, but it wouldn't surprise me if they're compatible as well. I don't know for sure, I haven't been down that far south.
    When I go to Taiwan, the first thing I do after I land is plunk NT$1,000 on my EasyCard (around US$30), because I know I'll use it. On my last trip, I was able to skip a room-spanning line for HSR shuttle tickets at the airport and walk straight on to the bus.
  2. If you're ever unsure if your EasyCard will work, just ask the bus driver or ticket counter "悠遊卡好嗎?" (yōuyóu kǎ hǎo ma, Is EasyCard OK?) They'll generally point you to the card reader.
  3. If you're a student, and you're going to be traveling further afield then Taipei, strongly consider Taiwan Railways' TR-PASS. TRA trains are already a steal, but the TR-PASS is stupid cheap. Unlimited rides, 5 days for NT$599, 7 for NT$799, and 10 for N$1098-- that's US$19, US$26, and US$36 respectively. It does come with two major caveats-- one, that you don't get a reserved seat on express trains. Sometimes these trains fill up, and if you're asked to move by somebody holding a reserved ticket for your seat, you'd better get up. Second, you cannot ride the very fastest TRA trains, the Taroko Express. (Note: Rough Guides and several other tourist blogs say that you can't ride the Tze-Chiang [自強, zìchiǎng] trains, but I've never seen an official source that says this, and I've spent weeks riding Tze-Chiang trains all over the island with a TR-PASS and never been bothered.)

Types of Taiwanese Transport

High-speed Rail (台灣高鐵, táiwān gāotiě)

The Taiwan High-Speed Rail is just fantastic, and probably the most foreigner-friendly of any transport on the island, with the possible exception of the Taipei MRT. It will also likely be one of the first you ride, as it's the best connection between Taoyuan Airport and the cities of the west coast, including Taipei. THSR trains are comfortable, with 3-2 seating in coach and 2-2 seating in business class, and they are fast. They operate up to 290km/h (180mph), and express trains make the run from Taipei to Kaohsiung-- nearly the entire length of the island-- in just under 90 minutes.

That said, THSR has its drawbacks. First of all, with the exception of the Taipei and Banqiao stations, the THSR station is usually not downtown. The line was built on greenfield sites further inland from Taiwan's population centers. Dani happens to live next to a THSR station, so it's often useful to us, but you should generally plan on adding ~30 minutes' transfer time from the downtown railway station to the THSR station. Note, also, that these transfers range in quality. In Hsinchu, Taichung, and Tainan, there's a TRA-operated rail transfer, in Chiayi there's a BRT system, and in Taoyuan there's a shuttle bus. (A metro is being constructed in Taoyuan at the time of writing.)

Second, THSR is expensive. It's not really that expensive in US terms-- US$40 will get you end-to-end one way-- but when you get used to paying US$2.50 for lunch, that starts to look like a lot of money. There are plenty of cheaper ways to get around the island.

If you are taking the HSR, though, you'll find it very easy to use. All signage is bilingual, Chinese and English. Ticketing machines are plentiful and have an English option (in the bottom left corner). You can purchase reserved tickets up to several weeks in advance, as well as unreserved tickets for that day, from machines. THSR stations will all have an ATM, clean restrooms with Western toilets, at least two 7-11s (one before and one after fare control) and a restaurant of some kind. There's also a bill exchanger, which will turn those pesky NT$1,000 bills into more spendable denominations. (This is useful in Taiwan's mostly cash-based society.) Note that THSR machines only take chip-and-PIN credit cards, so most Americans are out of luck.

My best advice for THSR is to always get a reserved seat. It's something like NT$20 more for most trips, or around US$1, and it keeps you from having to stand packed like a sardine in the unreserved coaches at the back. The only time I've ever gotten an unreserved ticket was when there were earthquake-related multi-hour delays on the system, and it was the only way to catch the next train home.

If you need to tell somebody that you're trying to get to the HSR in Chinese, just tell them "高鐵" (gāotiě).

THSR trains have vending machines, snack carts, and western toilets. Announcements are in English and Chinese, and are always spot on.

Taiwan Railways (台灣鐵路, Táiwān tiělù)

The TRA is where I spend most of my time in Taiwan. They operate a network of almost-completely electrified railways, mostly on three main lines: the Western Main Line, the Eastern Main Line, and the South Link Line. There are also a series of branch lines, serving either THSR stations or a few rural spots. All TRA trains are fast, and most are frequent, with even the poorest branch line seeing at least hourly service, every day, until at least 22:00. The TRA is also much more complicated than the THSR, with several classes of train, each of which has several stopping patterns, so be careful to make sure that your train stops at the station you're going to. The train classes are:
  • Taroko Express. Technically these are a type of Tze-chiang (自強, zìchiǎng) train, and that's how they're indicated on station boards, but they're operated with very different fare rules. Fares are slightly higher than normal Tze-chiang trains, and more importantly, everyone must have a reserved seat to board these trains. This means that TR-PASS holders, among many others, are not permitted to ride these trains. They're run with beautiful white TEMU-1000 tilting trains, and I've never actually ridden one. These are the fastest and most limited-stop trains on the TRA main lines. Hsinchu-Hualien is a common itinerary, although they're found all over. There's only a handful of these a day, maybe one every three hours or so.
  • Tze-chiang (自強, zìchiǎng). These are the second-fastest and most common kind of express train on the main lines. Reserved seats are available, but probably only half of the people on the train have a reserved seat, and if you don't (eg. if you're riding on a TR-PASS), it's totally OK to sit in any unoccupied seat unless and until you're asked to move. If somebody comes up to you and shows you a ticket, and maybe mumbles something in Chinese, they're probably asking you to move-- just grab your stuff, say "對不起" (duìbùqǐ, sorry), and be on your way. You won't offend anyone. These trains stop at all major stations, so unless you're going somewhere very off the beaten track, these are usually the best choice for long-distance travel. These are probably the most popular class of train on the TRA, and if you're on a TR-PASS, you are more likely to end up standing on one of these than any other class. Tze-chiang trains have comfortable, reclining 2-2 seating with luggage racks, usually western toilets (but no toilet paper), and snack trolley service. They are occasionally run by TEMU-1000 equipment, but mostly by silver-and-orange EMU-1000 trains. The Western Main Line sees Tze-chiang trains roughly half-hourly. Chinese and English announcements, usually reliable.
  • Chu-kuang (莒光, jǔguāng). These are the slowest express train, and are also fairly uncommon. Reserved seats are also available, but likely most people on board don't have them (although the if-you're-asked-to-move advice above still applies). These trains stop at all major stations and a good chunk of minor ones, and are slower than Tze-chiangs for any journey over an hour or so. (That is to say, if you have the choice of getting on a Chu-kuang now or a Tze-chiang in 20 minutes, and you'll be on it more than an hour, take the Tze-chiang.) They are also operated by older, locomotive-hauled passenger coaches, and the difference in ride quality is apparent. You will notice a lot more bouncing and swaying, and a noticeable "clunk" on deceleration towards the rear of the train. Also, be aware that most of these cars are equipped with squat toilets. The one reason you might choose to ride one of these is that they are relatively uncrowded, so you're likely to be able to sit down most of the way. Also, these coaches have passenger-operated doors, which you have to manually open at your stop. This means you can open them a little early, indulge your action-hero fantasies, and jump from a moving train. Snack trolley service is available. You'll see a Chu-kuang roughly once every hour and a half on the Western Main Line. Chinese and English announcements, voice only, often broken.
  • Fuxing Semi-Express. I mention them because they're mentioned by the TR-PASS jacket, but these are basically extinct, at least on the west coast. I've seen one on a station board, once. As far as I can tell, you can lump them in with local trains-- see below.
  • Local trains (區間車, qūjiānchē). These trains serve a role something like a local subway, stopping roughly every km or two. They stop at all stations. You do not know how many stations TRA has until you've ridden a local for a few hours. Branch line trains also fall into this category. Seating is first-come first-served, and mostly in benches along the side. You can usually find a seat, but the equipment is obviously designed for crush-load crowding, which does happen from time to time. Restrooms, with western toilets, are available. No snack service. These are often run with the lovely blue EMU700 trainsets. Don't ride one of these further than the next station with express service, it's not worth your time. They do run frequently though-- every 10 to 15 minutes on the main lines. (Branch line service varies.) Chinese and English announcements, usually pretty reliable.
Buying train tickets on the TRA is simple. There are two types of machines, one with a slightly bewildering array of buttons, and a newer type with touch screens. Both have English options. Note that, and this apparently changed in the last few months, you can only buy reserved seats from the touch-screen machines.

Buying a TR-PASS or any more complicated sort of ticket (I understand monthly commuter passes are available) is a more involved affair, and will require talking to a ticket agent. Most ticket agents don't speak English, although major stations may have a window with English service available. For a TR-PASS, you'll need your student ID and a foreign passport. Having an International Student Identity Card or a Taiwan-issued Youth Travel Card may also help with the process. I don't think that many people use this pass, because whenever I've bought one (admittedly at Hsinchu station, which isn't really on the tourist trail), it's taken a while and involved a gaggle of ticket clerks trying to figure out how to put my information into the computer. Note that ticket clerks also have the ability to issue tickets for the entire system, while the older ticket machines will only issue tickets for the station and line that they're on. (Not sure about the touch screen ones.)

If you're just taking a local or branch line train, use your EasyCard! Tap it on the turnstile where it says "IC Card" and enjoy 10% off the fare, plus no waiting in line. Smaller stations without turnstiles will have EasyCard validators-- remember to tap on and off.

TRA stations vary from simple wayside platforms in the rural areas to the bustling underground rabbit warren that is Taipei Main Station. Most stations that you'll be using will be central city stations, and all of these have automated ticket machines and ticket clerks, at least one convenience store, and several options for quick snacks. They will also have restrooms, although cleanliness varies, and squat toilets are the rule. Note that restrooms are often found only outside of the fare-paid area. Major rail stations and major bus stations also tend to be co-located, although this rule holds less in rural areas. (Zhudong, for example, has its rail station on one side of town, and its bus station-- a major transfer point for Hsinchu County buses-- on the other.) Many major stations will have purified drinking water, and most of those will offer cold water. (Changhua would only provide hot and warm water...)

Mass Rapid Transit (MRT, 捷運, jié yùn)

The Taipei MRT rivals the HSR in foreigner-friendliness. Maps, signs, ticket machines, and automated announcements are all bi-lingual. (Spoken announcements are quadra-lingual: Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and English.) EasyCard is from here, and you can buy a card, re-load one, and use one at every MRT station. Many stations have restrooms, and the MRT is conveniently connected to HSR at Taipei Main and Banqiao, and to TRA at Taipei Main, Banqiao, and Nangang. If you happen to be flying in to Songshan Airport (for most domestic flights and a handful of international ones, mostly to Tokyo's Haneda Airport), there's an MRT station right outside. MRT stations are also important transfer points for Taipei's bus system.

Many MRT stations will have restrooms.

Kaohsiung also has an MRT system, which I am not familiar with.

Fares on the MRT are distance-based, with a NT$20 minimum. You get a 20% discount with an EasyCard, but single fares are handled on these adorable plastic RFID-enabled chips, roughly the size of two US quarters stacked on top of each other. I bought one just as a souvenir (but if you do, you can't tag in with it-- the turnstiles eat them on the way out).

Next up, I'll be discussing the bewildering variety of bus services in Taiwan, and how each is useful to the typical independent traveler.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Picking the blog back up

So I managed to leave this blog off in Chicago, only a third of the way through Epic Train Trip. This is due to several factors, but long story short, I'd like to actually finish this. I was reading a few travel blogs around the Internet today and it was making me feel restless, and so I figured one way to deal with that was to reflect on my last truly amazing trip.

Watch for new content here in the coming weeks.

Chicago, Day 2

Our second day in Chicago began with a trip in to the city on the Blue Line, via a bus that mercifully stopped within a few steps of our hotel's parking lot. We stopped off at Union Station to set our bags down in their lockers, which were a rather exorbitant $9 for the day, and had breakfast (cereal!) in Union Station's fabulous Great Hall. At breakfast, I realized that I had lost my sunglasses. We went back to Aurelio's to see if I'd lost them, but this turned out to be fruitless. I'm still sorting through the photos to find exactly where I left them.

Building on our great success in Seattle, we decided to visit the Harold Washington Library- the largest public library building in the world. Aside from the fantastic size of it all, it was worth the trip for what we found. On the upper floors of the library is a "winter garden"- a green space with tables and chairs for the public to enjoy, all sitting in a comfortable, climate-controlled dome. I assume that this is meant to assist Chicagoans in coping with the harsh local winters. The effect is much like sitting in the plaza of a city park, except that you're 9 stories up in the middle of downtown Chicago.

Off of the garden are several historical exhibits. One of the galleries is focused on the life of the man whom the building is named after- Harold Washington, the first black Mayor of Chicago. The library's current location was one of his great projects as Mayor, and one that he would not live to see completed.

In the next gallery was part of the Chicago Public Library's extensive collection of Civil War artifacts, including a saddle used by none other than General Ulysses Grant. As always, there are serendipitous surprises to be found in all of the nooks and crannies of places- and often they're free.

After the library, we visited the newly-renovated Millenium Park. There are several things to be seen here, including "The Bean"-- formally the Cloud Gate, a large metal sculpture that looks a bit like a very chrome lima bean.

Dani found The Bean useful for photographic tricks.

Afterwards, we visited the Crown Fountain, a large sculpture fountain in the park. On this particular hot summer day, the fountain was teeming with Chicagoans of all sorts enjoying the water, which was "spit" from nozzles in the side of 50-foot towers. The towers themselves were decorated with a rotating series of faces, with the mouths of the faces at the nozzles.

My impression of the fountain was that it is a prime example of good public space-- both artistic and functional, and highly appreciated by the folks there. The air was full of the sound of people just having a good time, which is what a city park ought to do.

Afterwards, we headed across the park towards the waterfront and the famous Buckingham Fountain. Along the way, we encountered the Taste of Chicago festival-- which was good, as we were hungry-- but then we encountered the Taste of Chicago festival's price list. Suffice to say that we kept walking towards the fountain.

While Buckingham Fountain is obviously a work of art, it's a work of art somewhat unlike Crown Fountain. It's fenced off and offered no respite from the muggy heat that plagued the city in July. I'm told that there are water and light shows at the fountain, but we weren't there for either. Still hungry, we kept walking towards the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, as when I had last visited the city with my family there was a hot dog cart in front of the museum.
Sadly, the hot dog cart wasn't there. I brought down this beast, but as you can see it was all bones.

By this time, it was three in the afternoon and we were both hungry and a very long walk from the nearest CTA stop. So we turned to our smartphones for help. We found City Dogs in the Loop, and hiked back out to the Red Line for a trip inbound. Once there, we found that there are a lot of things to do to a hot dog beyond the usual ketchup.
It was delicious!

We rounded out our time in Chicago with a trip around on the CTA, followed by a ride out to Lincoln Park and a walk along the waterfront.
The waterfront trail links all of the parks along Chicago's lakeshore, and it was clearly very popular. Among the most interesting features I saw was this pavilion, where several people were sitting around playing chess. The boards were built in to the benches.
With Chicago (or at least its waterfront) thoroughly explored, we made our way back to Union Station and the Lakeshore Limited to Niagara Falls.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Chicago, Day 1

Our first day in Chicago began with a trip to Union Station to try and disentangle the mess that was our reservation. After the first re-route, Amtrak lifted the segment limitation on our pass, making it possible for an apparently unlimited number of reservations to be associated with it. In the extensive re-booking that followed our second re-route and subsequent emergency airlift, we had reservations lingering from both, and the routing that remained would have required us to be in at least two places at once, if not three. We walked up to the ticket counter in Chicago, and the agent we spoke to visibly cringed.

After the cringing, he was the most helpful Amtrak employee we had yet encountered. He cleaned up our booking entry, got us back on track, and managed to get us aboard the Lakeshore Limited on 1 July. This was still a day behind schedule, sticking us in Chicago for an extra day and causing us to miss Canada Day in Niagara Falls, but it was certainly better than I'd gotten on the phone. I'd also already made plans for transportation to Toronto based on leaving on that train, so all we needed to take care of was a last-minute hotel in Chicago. A quick click on Hotwire (and the judicious coincidence of my paycheck being deposited a few days early) and we were on our way.

After doing pretty well at our game of ticket poker, we headed out in search of Chicago pizza. A friend on Facebook recommended Aurelio's, and his recommendation was excellent. It turns out that there is an Aurelio's just around the corner from Union Station. (Of course, we didn't figure that out when we left Union Station. Of course not! We thought about going back to our hotel to leave our bags, then decided better of it once we were downtown. We mailed back our first pack of memorabilia at the post office, THEN looked up Aurelio's, and had to backtrack.) They had a $10 pizza-and-pasta lunch buffet, and after weeks of PB&J sandwiches we were eager for as much pizza as we could stuff ourselves with. The pizza didn't look all that great, considering its location under a heat lamp, but looks can be deceiving. One bite confirmed that this was indeed excellent pizza. (For the curious, it was the Chicago-style thin crust, not deep dish- which, I expect, cannot be held under a heat lamp for long.) I pass on the recommendation to any heading to Chicago, with the caveat that locals might know better than I. Thanks, Dana, for the tip!

We then set out trying to follow an itinerary from WikiTravel, but it turned out that the author's travel plans didn't exactly coincide with mine. We set out to see Chicago's Michigan Avenue, also known as the Magnificent Mile. Once we got there, however, we found out that the Mile is magnificently expensive- it's Chicago's primary commercial strip, populated by high-end department stores and boutiques. We did dig the Old Water Tower and nearby pumping station and firehouse, the first two of which survived the Great Chicago Fire, but the remaining occupants of the Magnificent Mile did not appear so magnificent to us. Therefore, we went elsewhere.

A quick walk east (and an astounding realization, on my part, that the water was now to the east, rather than its proper location in the west) took us to Lake Michigan, which we then proceeded to swim in. The cool water was refreshing in the muggy heat of the day, and it was fresh water despite its extension beyond the horizon. (Salt water always bugs me a bit, leaving a crusty impression on my skin after I'm done swimming.) We spent a bit of time splashing about and comparing notes on the local wildlife, which was out displaying an impressive array of colored plumage.

After our swim, Dani was feeling in need of a respite from the continuous city-walking that we'd been engaging in. We wandered back to Michigan Avenue and caught a bus headed for Union Station. We also were under the impression that we had to leave the city quite early in order to make it to our suburban (and inexpensive) hotel for the evening, so we got on a blue line train heading for Forest Park, connecting to one of the CTA's rare #17 buses. After the end of that ride, we had a mile-and-a-half walk to our hotel. Neither one of us were happy about it, but Hotwire hides the actual name and address of a hotel from you until you pay for and book your stay. (In return for accepting this limitation, you get insanely cheap rates. In most cases, we stayed for 50% or less of the room's posted rate. In this case, it was cheaper than hostel beds for the two of us.) We walked, weary, packs on, across suburban wasteland, pausing only for water and a bit of grocery shopping at a Super Target. We finally reached the Hillside Extended StayAmerica, checked in and tried to spend the evening relaxing.

Of course, fate would not allow us such a luxury. The air conditioning in our room didn't work. A quick call to the front desk informed me that, no, a maintenance person was not available on site, and that the desk clerk's promises to "call right back" were empty. We didn't receive a call for the duration of our stay. Plan B- a cool shower and opening every window in the place- worked passably well. I also then logged on to the Internet to discover that Pace, Chicago's suburban bus agency, is not on Google Transit- and that a quick perusal of their schedules would have brought us directly in front of our hotel, with buses running half-hourly up until midnight! At least we discovered this before the mile-and-a-half walk back to the #17 bus. With that, we ended our first day in Chicago.

Disaster and Rescue

After the washout of the Empire Builder earlier in the trip, we were re-routed on to the California Zephyr out of Sacramento to Chicago. Some scrambling meant that I was able to save most of our trip, losing only a day in Chicago and half a day in Niagara Falls. (It would turn out to be worse than that, but I'll explain why later.) We'd also have to ride straight through to Buffalo, making for 4 nights on the train, in coach. Not an ideal situation by any means, but okay. So, after an evening in Seattle that Amtrak still refused to pay for, we grudgingly boarded the Coast Starlight back south to California, expecting an early morning transfer to the Zephyr the next day. We settled in and I got to doing some blogging.

My blogging was interrupted, however, about halfway between Portland and Salem, OR. The conductor came by to ask me if I had received a call from Amtrak. It seems that some of her other passengers had been called and informed that the Zephyr that we were trying to transfer to would be cancelled due to flooding, and that buses were on hand in Salem to return passengers to their origin stations. I told her that, no, I hadn't received such a phone call, and that I really hoped that I wouldn't. Sure enough, three minutes later, I received just such a phone call. I got on the phone to Amtrak's Customer Relations department, who informed me that they'd be happy to bring me back to Seattle. I informed them that there was nothing for me in Seattle, and that returning me there was tantamount to tossing me onto the streets, and they refused to provide any sort of accomodation in Seattle for me. They also offered to deliver me to Denver, where they would also leave me to my own devices. I informed the agent that I would not be leaving the train until I had either a place to sleep or a plan to get to Chicago, and hung up.

Salem, OR came and went, and most of the people in our car emptied out onto the waiting buses. (Amtrak, on long-distance trains, seats passengers by destination. Our car was all Sacramento passengers, and 90% of them were Empire Builder refugees heading for Chicago.) We stayed, and I tried different tacks with Amtrak's customer relations agents. Nothing worked. I was finally re-routed via the Southwest Chief, but that train (the only remaining route from the west coast to Chicago) was so overbooked that the agent was unable to get me aboard earlier than 5 July. (It was 27 June.) That, of course, was when I would be able to board the train- it wouldn't get us to Chicago until the 7th, or to New York (our eventual destination at that point) until the 8th. This itinerary would have us cooling our heels in Riverside for a solid week, and would eat Chicago, Niagara Falls, Toronto, Montreal, and most of our visit to New York City (and therefore, most of our visit with my best friend, who is currently in exile in Brooklyn). We were both devastated by this outcome, but since we didn't have the money for a flight or bus to Chicago, we were resigned to booking it.

I then, fatefully, texted my mother about our situation. She expressed incredulity about the awfulness of Amtrak's customer service (unsurprisingly- I can't quite believe it myself), and asked if there was anything she could do. I said that, barring a last-minute flight, there wasn't. Surprisingly, she replied with "Your dad and I will look into things- give me some airport options," which I did. At this point, we were in Eugene, OR, and about to lose cellular service for the spectacularly isolated stretch of track over the Cascade range, so (not thinking that much would come of it), I told her I'd call when we were back in cell range.

When I called her, she informed me that my grandparents were prepared to foot the bill to fly us to Chicago the next morning, and that I should arrange to get off in Oakland. Who am I to argue? (Thanks again, Grandma and Grandpa!)

The next morning, we arrived in Sacramento nearly an hour early. I took the opportunity to get off and stretch my legs. By the time we were in Oakland, however, we were magically half an hour late. Somebody, someday, will have to explain to me how that works. My grandparents picked us up from the station and took us out to breakfast at a wonderful breakfast place called Dell's in their town of Castro Valley. It's the sort of dive that many towns have- decor that hasn't been updated since the place opened, cash only, but phenomenally good and phenomenally cheap food. We chatted about what we'd seen so far, and the abysmal treatment we'd received at Amtrak's hands, and headed back to their place to relax and wash up for our 14:00 flight. We also made use of their laundry machines, which turned out to be a tremendous mistake. I thought that two hours would be enough for a load of laundry, but we were running later than everyone concerned would have liked when we finally got the clothing out of the dryer. They dropped us off at the airport, and (after thanking them profusely once more) we headed off to our gate.

Our flight was overbooked, and we were subject to the usual requests for volunteers to be bumped. The offer was tempting enough, but after our recent troubles Dani wasn't feeling lucky enough to give it a try. We boarded the plane nearly last in line, and weren't able to find two seats together. A tip to everyone who fills in the window and aisle seats on a sold-out plane- if you see a couple come down at the last minute, it'd be kind of you to move and let them sit together. As-is, we were both sitting in middle seats, and two rows apart from one another. We tried to keep the shouting back and forth to a minimum, but there was an instance in which I dropped my sunglasses in the lap of the gentleman between us. The flight itself was rather miserable- four hours of flying through a thunderstorm, listening to the cries of at least two clearly distressed infants. Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for earplugs! However, when it was over, we were back in Chicago and back on our originally-scheduled itinerary... or so we thought.

You see, when we were first re-routed, we changed our reservations for the Lakeshore Limited from Chicago to Buffalo. Considering the ease with which we'd changed them, and the opening we'd made with our own cancellation, I thought that it would be relatively simple to switch them back again. Not so! It seems that, not only had the 30 June train (which was our original reservation) filled up, but the 1 July train (our first re-route) had as well! Our reservations had been changed to the 8th of July, and changing them back was going to be... problematic. We decided to take the El into downtown Chicago, get some sleep, and deal with it first thing in the morning.


We left Victoria early in the morning- a bit too early, as is my custom. We got to the ferry terminal nearly two hours early for our sailing, and were quite thoroughly alone in the waiting area for some time. Dani was somewhat unhappy with me, but I like to be prepared. Sadly, the Clipper's terminal in Victoria is a touch uncomfortable, filled with the most unpleasant folding chairs you can imagine. It felt like we were waiting for an awful school play. Around 10:00, U.S. Immigration started processing us, and I held out hope that there would be somewhere nicer to sit on the other side. Sadly, it was an even less pleasant holding room, filled with the same chairs, but we were soon liberated and taken aboard the ferry.

Once aboard, all the seats that were available were at tables facing each other- and I had the dubious fortune of sitting across from a very, very tall gentleman. Neither of us had any legroom for the three-hour crossing to Seattle, during which the cabin staff did their best to sell us something, anything, from their on-board shops. Puget Sound was astoundingly calm, and the crossing was uneventful (if highly commercialized). We pulled in to Seattle on a drizzly afternoon and enjoyed a short, if hilly, walk to our hotel- which brings me to the second time I had to call my family for help. Despite our best efforts, we didn't have enough money on hand to pay for the room. After a few hours on the phone and Internet, my mother came through with everything necessary to persuade the desk clerk to let us in to a room. (Thanks again, mom!) Of course, $80 a night in downtown Seattle doesn't buy too much of a room, but it was a place to keep warm and dry.

I asked the desk clerk what she'd do with an evening in Seattle, and she tipped us off to a few suggestions. One was a pub called Buckley's just down the street, reputed to have an excellent happy hour, and the other was a visit to the Seattle Public Library. Both were spot-on. The pub had excellent happy hour appetizers- I had delicious pulled-pork sliders and chicken wings, Dani had a quesadilla that was far too big for her, and we split a plate of garlic tots. If you're ever in Seattle, do stop by and give them a try- tater tots smothered in garlic and cheese, fried to perfection. After a week of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, they were welcome.

After dinner, we headed to the amazing new Seattle Library. The building is a great example of recent architecture, and uses its unique shape to the fullest. Aside from being beautiful and expansive, it also houses a book robot and the world's only book spiral- a slowly-sloping hallway that wraps around the central stairway, organized by dewey decimal number. Libraries are wonderful places, but Seattle's library stands out as unique among them. Give it a visit if you're nearby.

At the library, we stopped by their small store in order to buy a magnet and postcards. While there, I had the happy accident of somebody mistaking me for a Canadian. We made a comment about how the only cash we had was Canadian, and that it was useless but pretty. The clerk agreed that "our money" was pretty... I told her I took it as a compliment.

We headed back to our hotel, courtesy of Seattle's extensive free-bus area, and got ready for our train back down to Sacramento- where, we were told, that we would connect to the California Zephyr to Chicago. Of course, the next morning was when it all started unraveling.