Thursday, January 10, 2019

2018 - Year of the Mountains

When I embarked on my 2018 travels I had a vague idea where I was going.  I already decided that I was going to South America, first to Rio de Janeiro for Carnival, then on to Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and finally Peru.  I was still undecided about a hike in Nepal.  However, what finally unfolded in 2018 was a few memorable trips to some of the best-known mountains in the world.

My first trip of the year was a ski trip to Telluride, Colorado, in the Colorado Rockies in January.  This is one of the most beautiful ski resorts.  It is truly quite an experience skiing down those humongous mountains.

Youngsters skiing in Telluride in the Colorado Rockies
In February I was in Rio for Carnival.  As part of the trip I went up to the popular Sugarloaf Mountain and Corcovado Mountain, where the Christ the Redeemer statue is located.

Sugarloaf Mountain

Christ the Redeemer Statue, built on top of Corcovado Mountain
We were in the high mountain desert of San Pedro de Atacama of Chile, then the Altiplano, followed by the Salt Flats of Bolivia.  These are all places that are above 10,000 feet

Mountains in San Pedro de Atacama of Chile

The Altiplano in Bolivia

The Salt Flats in Uyuni, Bolivia
In March I did a 4-day hike on the Inca Trail over several mountains in Peru.  Final destination?  Machu Picchu, a town or city built high up in the mountains.  It was exciting to finally see Machu Picchu first-hand.

Sacred Valley of the Incas, near Cusco

Urubamba River in the mountains

Machu Picchu
I was on an Asian tour of Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong in May.  In Taiwan I went to Hualien, then took a bus through Taroko Gorge, which was surrounded by some of the tallest mountains in Taiwan.  Not as famous as Ali Shan but a must visit place if you go to Taiwan.  On the same trip my friends and I took a tram up Victoria Peak in Hong Kong.  No visit to Hong Kong is complete without relishing the views of Hong Kong harbor and Kowloon.  At night the the skyscrapers are lit up in multi-color lights that is a sight to be cherished

Temple in the Taroko Gorge outside Hualien, Taiwan

View of downtown Hong Kong and Kowloon, across the waters

In June I took delivery of my new Casita Travel Trailer and bought a new Toyota truck.  One of our first trips was to the Grand Canyon and the Flagstaff area in Arizona.  As preparation for our hike to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal, we hike in the mountains, near Humphreys Peak, the tallest mountain Arizona,  around Flagstaff.

Hiking on the Inner Basin Trail near Flagstaff, Arizona

The Grand Canyon

A photography workshop in September took me to the Canadian Rockies in Banff.  What a sight driving and photographing the beautiful areas around these majestic mountains.  So beautiful that tourists come from all over the world to enjoy the scenery, to hike, ski, etc.

Lake Morraine in the Canadian Rockies

Another view of Lake Morraine

Patricia Lake near Jasper in the Canadian Rockies

Then the highlight of the year was a trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal.  This was a hike to raise money for a charity group.  A 12-day hike through the Himalayas, among the tallest mountains in the world.  Views of Mount Everest and other snow-capped mountains were the rewards of a very strenuous hike.

View of Mt. Everest from Kala Pathar

Valley near Periche

Mountain Range near Everest Base Camp

Following Nepal I went on a tour of Bhutan, a mountainous country in the foothills of the Himalayas.  Traversing the country means driving through mountain passes and beautiful views of valleys dotted with farms.  Then, of course, the famed Tiger's Nest, a monastery built on the side of a mountain.


Tiger's Nest on the side of the mountain in Bhutan
Terraced rice-fields near Punakha in Bhutan
The final trip of the year was a trip to Europe.  On a 4-day train tour of Switzerland, one of our stops was the town of Zermatt.  On the Gornergrat train up the mountains, you are rewarded with an unobstructed view of the Matterhorn, one of the most recognizable mountains in Europe.

The Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland
What a year it was, seeing all these tall and beautiful mountains.  I could not have planned it any better.




Thursday, January 3, 2019

A Wonderful Train Journey around Switzerland

If you've seen pictures of Switzerland, you'd think that they touched up the images to make the country look pretty.  No.  It's like this all the time and almost everywhere you go.  I tell Swiss friends that it's as if they are always expecting guests to visit them.  Everything is always neat and tidy!

While planning for a trip to Europe with my girlfriend, I had 4-5 days to squeeze between a trip to London and Germany.  I decided that Switzerland would be a wonderful country to see more.  I've been to Lucerne a couple of time and driven through but not spending enough time to appreciate its beauty.  When I researched into what I can do, I found that taking a train tour through Switzerland is probably the best way to see the country.  If you read a lot of travel magazines and articles, you will find that whenever they mention the most beautiful train journeys in the world, Switzerland is always included.  Not only that, there is more than one beautiful train journey.  There are several.

The first place to start is Rail Europe's Grand Train Tour of Switzerland website:

Grand Train Tours of Switzerland

Here you can read about the many options.  3 days is the minimum, 15 days is the maximum.  I had only 4 days and that's what we picked.  We followed the recommended itinerary:

Day 1 - Lucerne - Interlaken - Montreux
Day 2 - Montreux to Zermatt
Day 3 - Zermatt to St. Moritz
Day 4 - St. Mortiz to Zurich

We actually started in Zurich, for a good reason.  Because we were traveling all over Europe, we had two large suitcases.  We wanted to leave our large suitcases at the train station and only carry with us backpacks with enough clothes and items we need for just four days.  In many big European train stations, they have lockers to store your luggage for perhaps up to 3 days.  Any longer, you have to store them at a luggage room called Left Luggage.  At the Zurich train station, the Left Luggage office is on the side of the building, behind the Tourist Information Office.  They are opened until 1945 hrs but check with them so that your luggage is not stucked there when it's time for you to leave.  Each of our luggage costs 10 euros per day to store so it costs us 80 euros to store two suitcases for four days.  It was well worth it because it will be so inconvenient to carry the suitcases up and down the trains, platforms, and walking to the hotels.


Left Luggage office at Zurich Central Station

I am not sure if Lucerne has a Left Luggage facility but another reason we want to come back to
Zurich is because we want to take the bus to Munich, our next destination.

The next important thing to do is to stop at the SBB (Swiss Train) Office to plan our itinerary.  Every train station has a SBB office and they are always very helpful.  We told the official behind the counter the following information:  what day we plan to travel, and from where to where.  Then we tell him/her roughly what time we plan to start.  The official will print out schedule slips (like the picture below) for all your trains and you are all set.  If you change your mind, you can stop at another train station and get a different schedule.  There is also a SBB Mobile app available but I find it easier talking to a live person and have a hardcopy printout of the schedule than having it on my phone.  If you plan to travel during the busy season you will have to make reservations for some of the popular trains.  You can do it online in advance or at the train office.  The reservation fee is an additional fee besides the ticket price.  Since we were traveling during the off-peak season, reservations were not necessary.  In fact, in some instances, the train was virtually empty.


Train schedule from St. Moritz to Zurich

Sometimes planning a train journey like this can be stressful.  There is help.  One of the best resources is Rail Europe.  They have an US-based office that you can reach by telephone, 1-800-622-8600 or on Facebook:  Rail Europe  They are incredibly helpful in answering any question about train travel in Europe.

We wanted to start the train tour in Lucerne so that evening we took a train from Zurich to Lucerne.  It was a short ride, about an hour, but the train was crowded.  Perhaps many Swiss live in Lucerne but work in Zurich.  We easily found Hotel Central Luzern, about 5 minutes from the train station.  It is a small clean hotel.  The receptionist greeted us warmly.

Hotel Central Luzern

Nice breakfast spread
Less than 5 minutes from the hotel is Lake Lucern.  We walked across the famous Chapel Bridge to Old Town until the rain forced us back to the hotel.

In the morning the rain stopped briefly to give us a chance to walk around the lake and the Old Town area.  We took many pictures of the lake and what's around the lake.  Lucerne deserves more than a couple of hours.  It is one of the most beautiful cities in Switzerland.

An evening view 

Another part of Old Town

Old Town and the Chapel Bridge

Chapel Bridge and other side of the lake
We took the 10am train from Lucerne to Montreux, with stops in Interlaken and Zweisimann to change trains.  Interlaken is famous for Jungfraujoch, one of the highest mountains in Switzerland.  However, our schedule was tight and we did not have time to ride the train up the mountain.  We walked towards the middle of town and saw beautiful buildings and touristy shops.

View of train going up to the Jungfrau

Beautiful river running through Interlaken
At Zweisimmen we changed to a GoldenPass panoramic train.  With this train you can see not just through the windows but above you as well.  Again the view is astounding.  As the train slowly winds its way down to Montreaux you see the town besides Lake Geneva.

View of Montreux, beside Lake Geneva
Montreux is a lakeside tourist town.  When we got off the train, we walked a flight of stairs down to the main road, turn left and walk about 10 minutes towards the J5 Hotel.  We heard that there is a Christmas market going on.  In late November and December, it is the Christmas market tradition in Europe.  You find stands selling everything from hot mulled wine to chestnuts to handicrafts.  We spent a couple of hours walking along the market and enjoyed watching the crowd.

Beautiful Lake Geneva

Christmas Market in Montreux
When we tell some Swiss the places that we'll be going on this train tour, their eyes went wide.  These are some of the most beautiful places in Switzerland.  Zermatt, our next stop, is only about 3 hours from Montreux.  We want to get to Zermatt early so that we can enjoy the town because we won't have time on the third day.  We took the 9am train and arrived in Zermatt a little after noon.  The nice thing about traveling in Switzerland is almost every popular town has a Tourist Information Office by the train station.  We stopped there to ask for directions to the Le Petit CHARME-INN.  It is about a 10-minute walk and on a small side street.  It's a small hotel and the room is clean and well-furnished.

The most famous landmark in Zermatt is the Matterhorn.  We were given different options to get up there and decided to take the Gornergrat Bahn.  The train stops at different stops on the way to the top of the mountain.  At the top you see beautiful views of the surrounding area, including the Matterhorn.  You also see skiers as Zermatt is a popular ski town.  We find Swiss restaurants to be very expensive so we decided to buy sandwiches at the Coop grocery store.  You see a Coop store almost next to every train station that we stopped at.  It is very convenient and much cheaper than eating at a restaurant.

The World-renowned Matterhorn

Church along Main Street

Panoramic View at the top 

A generous breakfast at the hotel

Looking at Main Street of Zermatt.  Coop store is on the left

Gornergrat Train station, next to the Zermatt train station
The Zermatt to St. Moritz is an 8-hour trip that is often called one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.  It's popularly known as the Glacier Express.  Unfortunately, it was on its annual maintenance when we were there.  So, we had to take local trains to go from the two towns and making four train changes.  Nevertheless it was a beautiful journey as we traversed the Alps and passing unbelievably beautiful villages one after another.  Something that I never thought would happen in Switzerland, did happen.  Our train broke down with mechanical problems halfway through the journey, near Disentis.  We had to wait another 30 minutes for the next rain to come and pick us up.  By the time we boarded our last train in Chur, it was dark and we couldn't see the scenery.  We arrived in St. Moritz at about 8pm.   I asked for directions to the hotel at the train office but the official was nice enough to call the hotel for us to come pick us up.  It'd have been a 30-minute uphill walk to the Steffani Hotel, right in the middle of town.

St. Moritz lives and breathes money.  You can tell by the shops that it is a money town.  We opted to stay in a room with shared bathroom at the Steffani Hotel because it saves us about $100.  However, we have the same very generous and beautiful breakfast buffet.  Most of the restaurants were closed by the time we ventured out at about 9pm.  We found Bobby's Pub in a shopping center and had an average meal of pasta and salad for $35.

The Matterhorn Express

Center of St. Moritz

Beautiful Lake St. Moritz
In the morning we walked around St. Moritz, especially around the very photogenic lake area.  We spent about 2-3 hours in this dream-like town.  At 11am it was time for us to return to Zurich, a 3-hour train ride away.  First, we had to take the train to Chur, then switch to a relatively fast train to Zurich.  The trip from St. Moritz to Chur is one of the most beautiful as we descend through the Abula Pass; going through villages like Samedan and Bever, then on to Bergun and Bravuogn.  The train also passes the iconic Landwasser Viaduct and continue to spiral slowly down the mountains.  We eventually arrived in Zurich at about 2pm, where we spent a couple of hours walking around old town Zurich and doing some shopping at a Coop store.

The Landwasser Viaduct.
Credit:  By Champer - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4865428

One of the beautiful villages on this part of the journey
We decided to take the bus from Zurich to Munich instead of the train.  Not only is it much cheaper, about $24 each, it runs more regularly.  For $2 extra we have reserved seats on the Flixbus.  After picking up our luggage at the Left Luggage office, we walked about 200m, along Track 18, to the bus station.  Finding the right bus at the bus station was a challenge.  There were many buses going to different destinations but there were no designated bus stops or signs.  A not so nice ending to a beautiful journey.

Limit River, between Old Town Zurich and Zurich Train Station

Old Town Zurich, with Christmas Market



Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Grand Tour of Europe

I subscribe to Scott's Cheap Flights, which finds cheap fares and send emails to its subscribers.  I saw one to Europe for about $500 and decided to book a trip to Paris for 3 weeks.  I had not decided where to go but I figured I've been to Europe enough times that I know how to fill up a 3-week itinerary.  After much researching and planning, I decided we were going to start with 4 days in Paris, 3 days in London, 4 days in Switzerland, 4 days in Munich, 3 days in Amsterdam and finally, 2 days in Paris again.

Escargot

Sacré-Cœur

Palace of Versailles, Louis XIV's gilded palace and gardens

Macaroons

Eiffel Tower at night

Crêpe
French Croissant - the best!

No matter how many times you've been to Paris, you never get tired of it.  So many things to see, so many things to do.  Flaky croissant, escargot, crepes, cheese, wine, etc.  Museum, old architecture buildings, churches, monuments, gardens, farmers' markets, etc.  It's easy to get around Paris on the Metro.  Buy a 7-day pass and you can take the train from the airport to the city and also to Versailles.
Hotels are expensive but staying further away from the 1st and 2nd Arrondissement, you will find hotels at a more moderate price.  If you are willing to walk for 30 minutes or more you will see more of Paris.  Eating at a regular French restaurant can be expensive but you can find some reasonable prix fixe (fixed price) dinners in the Latin Quarter, across the river from the Notre Dame Cathedral.

We took an Eurostar train from Gare du Nord train station to London.  The "chunnel" train goes under the English Channel, taking a little over 2 hours for the journey.  That is very convenient compared to the old way of taking a bus or train to Calais and then taking the ferry to Dover, then another bus to London proper.  At London we get off at the St. Pancras/King's Cross station and from there we can take the Underground to anywhere in metropolitan London.  We met my son's family in London and spent three wonderful cold and rainy days together.  Like Paris, London is best enjoyed walking around:  London Eye, Borough's Market, Tower Bridge, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus, Chinatown, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, etc.  We stayed at a hotel on the other side of the River Thames from Big Ben.  Of course, no visit to London is complete with a fish and chips meal.

Borough Market

Iconic Tower Bridge

London Eye, next to County Hall, where we stayed

Fish and Chips at Masters Superfish, near Waterloo Station
The next part of our trip is a 4-day train journey around Switzerland.  Whenever you read about my beautiful train journeys around the world, Switzerland is always on the top of the list with multiple train journeys.  No doubt the natural beauty of Switzerland helps but without the right trains, you can't enjoy the scenery.  I will write more about this train trip around Switzerland in the next post.

After Switzerland, we took a bus from Zurich to Munich, Germany.  It's a 5-hour ride and costs only about US$25 each.  Taking a train would take about the same time if you find one that is direct (no stops) but at a much higher price.  The bus runs almost every hour with a few stops and a ferry ride across a lake.  For another $2 you get to reserve your seat.

We went to Munich for 2 reasons:  to visit my friend Tobias and his family and to see the Christmas markets.  We were there for 4 nights and unfortunately it rained almost every day.  On top of that I contracted a virus on the third night and it caused me to vomit and had diarrhea all night.  A visit to an urgent care clinic with an IV for dehydration costs me a bank-breaking amount of 62€ or about US$70.  In the US it'd have easily costs me at least US$500.

One of the stands at a Christmas Market

In Marienplatz, selling hot wine in front of the Glockenspiel

A live Christmas play
One of the treats of visiting friends in Munich are the local meals.  We were treated to a family-style breakfast spread of cheese, cold cuts, sausage, yogurt, fruits, fresh baked bread, smoked salmon, etc. It was a meal worthy of royalty.  The next morning we were treated to a breakfast at a popular restaurant.  It's so popular that our table reservation was for only 2 hours.  Again, the bread, cold cuts,  cheese and everything was top-notch.  The joy of having friends when you travel.

A family breakfast for the royalty

A towering selection for breakfast for two

German Bread are to "die for!"
The last part of our trip took us to Amsterdam.  We flew from Munich, landed at Schipol Airport and took a 30-minute train ride to Central Station in the city center.  It was easy and convenient.  At the Central Station we took a 15-minute ferry ride to our DoubleTree Hilton Hotel at NDSM wharf.  That may sound like a hassle but we find that it's easier than dragging your suitcases.  The hotel is beautiful and the service excellent.

We took a canal cruise to see the Light Event.  Many places in the city are lit up with special lighting for this once-a-year event.  The next day we walked around the city but I still had remnants of my virus infection so I wasn't exactly in the best shape.  We felt better on our last day in Amsterdam and were able to walk around the city all day.  It was a beautiful walk through parts of Amsterdam that are not frequented by tourists.

Tulips are synonymous with Holland

A tourist boat cruising near the city center

A typical canal neighborhood

Bicycle culture is a big part of Amsterdam

The red light district
From Amsterdam we took a 3-hour high-speed Thalys train to Paris.  It costs about US$150 each.  There may be cheaper options but taking trains in Europe is always a nice experience.  The cabin was spacious and boarding the train was easy.  We took the ferry to the Central Station, scan our tickets to get in, find the right platform and about 15 minutes before the departure time, go up to the platform.  No going through security and no delays.  Americans who had this experience often wonder why there are not more trains in the United States.

At Paris' Gare du Nord train station I bought tickets to the Metro to go to our hotel in the 14th Arrondissement.  It was quite a challenge as there were many stairs to carry up our heavy suitcases.  Unfortunately, I was also pickpocketed between the train station and the hotel.  Being a Friday afternoon, the trains were also very crowded.  We were warned many times in Paris about the pickpockets.  Coming from Amsterdam, Germany and Switzerland, you get a little lax.  All my credit cards were stolen plus other documents.  All the credit card companies, except one, were quick to realize that it was fraud and rejected the transactions.  I did not lose any money.

On the last 2 nights of our trip I intentionally booked a room at an upscale Curio by Hilton hotel in an area that is south of the Seine River and the St. Germain area.  I want to walk in a neighborhood that is different from where we were before.  So, on our last day, we walked from the hotel near the Pernety Metro station towards the popular Le Jardin du Luxembourg (or Luxembourg Gardens), the Pantheon and University of Paris areas.  On our way we were delighted to come across a farmers' market in the Montparnasse area.  Farmers' markets are common all over Paris.  It's how a lot of Parisians shop for their daily staples.  We did not see any gargantuan supermarket like Safeway's or Kroger's in the US.  The meat, seafood and vegetables are not only cheaper but fresher than what you find in the supermarkets.  It was a treat to walk through one.

French dinner at Bistrotters Restaurant near the hotel

Farmers' Market near the Montparnasse Tower (in the background)

Fresh Oysters

Malis Restaurant in Chinatown, in the 13th Arrondissement
For our final dinner we decided to walk to Chinatown (in the rain) in the 13th Arrondissement to find some good Asian food.  We stumbled upon a Cambodian/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant in a shopping center.  It was surprisingly very good and inexpensive.  We were able to converse with the owner in Cantonese and learned about how they live in Paris.

At the hotel we met a fine bartender from South Carolina, fluent in French, and living in Paris because of her parents moving there.  In the morning we stopped at the Police Precinct to lodge a police report on the pickpocketing on our way to take the train to the Charles de Gaulle Airport.
What a lovely 3-week trip it was.