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Amtrak Passenger FAQs

Answers are from my own personal travel as of December 2013

  1. Where should you sit if you are taking California Zephyr?
    The scenery switches a lot between left and right side. Also, what you see depends on whether you are travelling from or to Chicago. I sat towards the Northern side (left side of the train) and enjoyed the scenery a lot. I would say, if you can, sit to your left on first day and to your right on the second day (if you are travelling form Emeryville to Chicago)
  2. How comfortable is coach class on California Zephyr to sleep?
    I found it to be very comfortable. Carry your own blanket and pillow. People around you might snore (I snore, fyi) and hence it helps to carry ear plugs.
  3. Are there electrical outlets in coach class?
    Yes. One per seat. But I carried a multi-socket strip with me as I had multiple devices to charge (laptop and my phone).
  4. Can I sit anywhere inside the coach?
    Yes. There is also an observation dome to better experience panoramic views.
  5. Is there a shower facility inside the train for coach class travellers? No. Carry some shower wipes as an alternative. And yes, deodorants help.
  6. Is there a microwave available for coach class travellers?
    No. Pantry car does have microwave ovens but the panty car people will politely reject your request by stating some FDA regulation related to food safety.
  7. Is there any kind of refrigeration system available for coach class travellers?
    No. But you can get ice to keep your medications.
  8. How many times can I change my reservation if I have a USA rail pass? Rail pass is for coach class. You can change your coach class reservations as many times as you want. But if your upgrades and other reservations might incur a cancellation / change fee.
  9. Will I be charged for ticket changes?
    I changed my tickets a few times and I had a USA rail pass. I was not charged for any of those changes.
  10. Why is it that I don’t see my rail pass booking on Amtrak website? Only bookings made through the website are available for online access. Though you may buy your USA rail pass online, you have to call Amtrak to make your reservations. Hence you will not see your reservation details online.
  11. I lost my booking information email. What should I do?
    Since you cannot retrieve your booking online, you have to call Amtrak and they will resend your email.
  12. Can I carry some personal stash of alcohol?
    Many people did and many people drank alcohol at their seats.
  13. Is there internet access in California Zephyr?
    No. Long distance trains don’t have internet. Only some commuter trains along the eastern corridor have internet.
  14. Why shouldn’t I board at Berkeley?
    Berkeley is a local station. If you are taking long distance trains, boarding at Emeryville or Richmond will save you a stop (changeover in Sacramento) and hence a segment on your pass. Also, since Berkeley is an unmanned station, you cannot check your bags in.
  15. When should I print my tickets? Two days before your journey day. That way you can save on rail pass cancellation charges if you decided to cancel your trip.
  16. What food should I carry?
    YES! The train food served on-board is expensive and is tasteless. If you are a vegetarian, you have even fewer options. During later part of my train journey, I learnt that it is better to pack two meals from places like Chipotle so that you can eat them during your journey. Of course, dry fruits and packaged food will also be very useful.
  17. What are the important things that I should carry when I travel long distance?
    If you are travelling coach class, carry a blanket, ear plugs, eye mask. It can get quite cold during the night.

Across America on Amtrak

I have to attend a research workshop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 16 December. By then, I would be done with my Ph.D. qualifying exam. I have to be in USA till mid-January to get a cheaper ticket to fly back to India. Since I don’t have any family in USA to visit during Christmas, I have decided to visit my friends in north-east and north-west of USA. As I have plenty of time, it is time for me to explore USA through its trains. After some research, I decided that 30 day, 12 segment USA rail pass is the best option for my travelling during the month of December and January. I bought the USA rail pass on October 16 and made reservations.

The exciting part is, I will be saving a ton of carbon, exploring some of the remotest parts of USA, travelling comfortably while it is snowing outside, experiencing the train culture of USA, getting to know what it is to live in the northern parts of this country during winter. It has been more than three years for me in Berkeley. In summer 2011, I travelled across the country in a car with my parents. I was busy and tired driving. Yes, driving in certain parts of this country is a great experience but I have always been a huge fan of travelling by trains and there is nothing like peering through a window into the remoteness and vastness of this country.

I’m looking forward to the journey with excitement and anxiety. I’m travelling coach class. I know that it is not very comfortable to travel for 84 hours from Emeryville to Philadelphia. But the sleeper class will end up to be thrice as expensive. Also, I don’t want to spend a lot of money buying food on the train. I have to figure out how to optimally carry food for four days and if possible, some alcohol, so that I can get some good sleep during the night. I will soon be writing another post which will list all the questions that I had in my mind and the answers I found through different websites and my own personal travel experience. Stay with me!

Train Name Departure Station Arrival Station Duration States (26 States in all)
Emeryville Chicago
California Zephyr Dec 12th 9:10am Dec 14th 2:50pm 51hr 40min CA, NV, UT, CO, NB, IO, IL (7 new)
Chicago Philadelphia
Cardinal / Hoosier State Dec 14th 5:45pm Dec 15th 8:20pm 25hr 35min IL, IN, OH, KY, WV, VA, DC, MD, DL, PA (8 new)
Philadelphia Newark Will be in Philadelphia for 7 days
164 Northeast Regional Dec 21st Dec 21st 1hr 10min PA, NJ (1 new)
Newark Boston Will be in Newark area for 5 days
170 Northeast Regional Dec 27th 7:57 am Dec 27th 12:44pm 4hr 47min NJ, NY, CT, MA (3 new)
Boston Chicago Will be in Boston for 3 days
449 Lake Shore Limited Dec 30th 12:00pm Dec 31st 9:45am 22hr 45min MA, NY, OH, IN, IL (0 new)
Chicago Seattle Will be in Chicago for 3 days
7 Empire Builder Jan 3rd 2:15pm Jan 5th 10:25am 46hr 10min IL, WI, MN, ND, MT, ID, WA (6 new)
Seattle Emeryville Will be in Seattle for 4 days
11 Coast Starlight Jan 9th 9:35am Jan 10th 8:10am 22hr 35min WA, OR, CA (1 new)

It’s a shame!

I always thought I can get by with my Hindi in Nepal.  Nepal, though a small country, is culturally rich and Nepali is very different from Hindi. I can understand few words here and there when people speak Nepali. People do respond to me when the interaction is limited to buying things or asking for directions. People involved with commerce know Hindi more than other people. My interaction is with farmers and septic tank cleaners. They don’t seem to give a damn about Hindi as my interaction is about my research related to water and sanitation. Knowing local language not only helps me with my research, it helps me connect better with local people! I am sure any human being will appreciate the effort one puts into learning a local language! Also, Nepal is a country I will keep visiting my entire life! The country and its people are simply wonderful!

I was listening to David Sedaris’ book “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls” where the author talks about his travel experiences and mentions Pimsleur, Michel Thomas, and Lonely Planet phrasebook. He makes an excellent point – these days we don’t even give a second thought to the fact that English is not an universal language. We expect people to speak English everywhere, which I would like to call it as linguistic oppression! When people of the new country do put in an effort to communicate in a language which we know, we rarely complement them by saying “Your English / Hindi is good”!

It is time for me to start a new venture – Learn Nepali! Yes, after my fugacious affairs with German, French, and Spanish, it is time for me to pick up a bit of Nepali. Nepali script is same as Hindi and Sanskrit i.e. Devnagari. There are many common words shared between Hindi and Nepali. I am hoping that Nepali will not be as difficult to pick up!

Nepal Course book and Kathmandu Map

Learn Nepal and roam around Kathmandu!

I went to Saraswati book Center (north of Pulchowk, west of Krishna Galli) and picked up the above book “Nepali in context, a topical approach to learning Nepali”. Nepal has very good maps. Since it is a country whose economy is very much aided by tourists, the options for maps is numerous! I just decided to start with a pocket map of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Though there were several options, I decided to go with this “Sadhu smoking Ganja” version! There are many Nepali radio channels to help me hone my language further! The adventure is about to begin! Stay tuned!

Why should roads be wide and linear?

If you travel by foot on the streets of any of the old cities of India, say Varanasi or Old Delhi, you might feel claustrophobic because of the narrow roads, with houses standing tall on either side as if they are people watching your every movement. If you look a little further along the road, you might see those houses closing in on you. You might feel flabbergasted and to some extent frustrated by the twists, turns, and abrupt endings of the roads. Roads in these places are not named or  paved, sidewalks, if they exist, end into surprise potholes,  neighbourhoods are not clearly marked, and there is no logic behind the house numbers.

Postal addresses usually consist of the name of the addresses, care of (C/O) some prominent person in the household (who has lived there for such a long time that the postal worker or neighbours can easily recognize the name), house number, name of the house (yes, houses in India usually have names), cross and main (if it exists), a landmark close to the house (mostly in the same lane), a temple, mosque, church or other landmark in the neighbourhood, name of the neighbour hood, Stage / Phase or Block number, name of the city, state, and a PIN. Some addresses may need two envelopes to write them fully 🙂 In few cases, number of words in the “from” and “to” addresses written on the envelope might exceed the words the in letter the envelope is carrying!

Asian cities have survived because of the long-standing co-operation among its people. The human interactions built these cities and now these cities are in turn facilitating those interactions further. The lifestyle is built upon the personal connections between people – the grocer, the milk man, the vegetable vendor, the rickshawwallah, the neighbours… I remember the days when we shared newspapers and magazines, we used our neighbours fridge to make ice-creams, watched Ramayan and other mega tele-serials with everyone on our street on one and the only colour television in the street, learnt to ride a bicycle and motorcycle from our uncles, borrowed bicycles from not so well acquainted people!

I like the way my friend Ayan Ghosh puts it:

I think the reason I love old cities is they have more crosswords. Each crossroad asks questions, makes you stop, take a decision and stick by it. In every lane we discover new things and think what did I miss on the other lanes? I must come back. I must give more time. This is why I have never enjoyed planned cities. They are too linear, too defined. You just walk from one end to the other and you have seen it all. But life is more like an old city than a highway.

In 2008 I travelled around  India for 12,000 miles on a motorcycle without a GPS, just a road atlas. I had to stop at major intersections, talk to people, watch out for diversions. It made me develop a deeper temporal and spatial awareness. In US I travelled with my parents for 9,000 miles without asking for any directions, without speaking to a single human. I never had to bother about the surrounding. Technology disconnected me from my surroundings. Of course, nobody forced me to use the GPS, but sadly there will not be any human soul around to give me directions if I get lost! Today’s technology can easily isolate people if we don’t know how to wield it properly and fall head over heels in the name of individuality. We like the pictures and status updates of our friends instead of having a chat with our family members who are right next to us. The age is of video games and not of the games that teach us to interact with real humans and build sportmanship!

Roads don’t have to be wide if all can walk to our workplace, to our schools, and to the market. Roads don’t have to be linear,if the towns are small enough! Roads don’t have to connect every place on earth if we don’t develop the greed to over consume – everything needs to be big – airports, roads, hospitals, schools, and office spaces, when we lose track of life and indulge in a lifestyle that focuses on money and exotic and extravagant consumption! We have fallen for the definition of development which epitomized – concrete roads. Concrete or asphalt roads don’t have character – one doesn’t see the colour of the earth beneath, smell the soil when it rains, feel how slushy the road gets when it absorbs water, experience the crumbly nature of the road when it dries up! Paved roads, when badly designed, which they usually are, reduce water percolation and thereby deplete groundwater reserves. Wide roads are for a society where a huge SUV is occupied by just one person, linear roads are for people who are not interested in talking to other people in the society, door numbers is for a society where people don’t want to spare time for each other! Wide roads are for people who are in a hurry to reach the workplaces where they don’t want to be, to do the work they don’t like to buy the stuff they don’t need!

Small is beautiful!

A Walk in Kathmandu


EveryTrail – Find trail maps for California and beyond

Motorcycles in Nepal

Automotive industry is not well developed in Nepal. Almost all vehicles are imported. Insurance and hefty road tax add up to the import cost and make owning a vehicle in Nepal very expensive. I am planning on buying a motorcycle in Nepal and here is a small report on my finding.

  • You get almost all the motorcycles that you can buy in India
  • Royal Enfield bikes are in huge demand
  • Motorcycles in Nepal are 2.5 times as expensive as they are in India.
  • You can ride your motorcycle from India to Nepal but have to pay tax to the government daily
  • If you want to buy a motorcycle in Nepal, you need a no objection certificate from your embassy in Nepal
  • You can use Indian licence to ride a motorcycle in Nepal (a motorcycle rental company gave me this information)
  • Because of the bad roads, motorcycles in Nepal need frequent repairing

I am planning on buying a used motorcycle. I tried asking my landlord and my colleagues to see if anyone they knew is selling a motorcycle. When that did not workout well, I tried Hamrobazaar (meaning our market), the craigslist of Nepal. I am not sure how reliable the sellers are, but the site is very popular among Nepali people (and hence reliable?). The site has a good listing of used motorcycles. Also, one can find many dealers of reconditioned motorcycles in Kathmandu. This is not a common sight in India. These dealers usually provide you two weeks of warranty. If anything is wrong with the motorcycle, they will fix it for you. They will also get the paperwork of insurance, transfer of registration (a blue book in you name), and bank loan done for you. Of course, buying from a dealer is more expensive. But you will save a lot of time and hassle as you can check out many motorcycles at once. I am planning on getting either a Bajaj Pulsar 150cc or TVS Apache 160cc.

The value of the motorcycles in Kathmandu is a function of following parameters:

  • Lot number (usually corresponds to a particular year). I believe the current lot number provided by the department of transport is 52.
  • Number of kilometers on the bike – many people get the meter changed – so this is not a reliable parameter anymore
  • Accidents – whether the vehicle was involved in any accidents
  • Overhauling or reboring of the engine – a good mechanic should be able to help you with identifying this.

When you get the motorcycle, check for the following things :

  • Cosmetic damages
  • Brake pad / shoe wear
  • Tire treading
  • Battery – keep the brake light or headlight on for ten minutes and try starting the engine.

It is hard to judge the quality of the engine but the quality of the clutch play, acceleration, and brakes can be judged by riding the vehicle for 10-15 minutes. I came across this page which you may find very useful – http://matadornetwork.com/trips/how-to-travel-nepal-by-motorcycle/

Happy riding! God speed!

My first visit to Nepal

Nepal, though one the neighbouring countries, is never an immediate travel destination for most of the Indians. May be the skin colour of the people is not as exotic as the people of the West.  I decided to go there this summer to study the businesses that support fecal sludge reuse (the human waste that comes out of septic tanks of households) in agriculture. But Why Nepal? Nepal is closer to India but is not like India – it is marred by a different level of poverty and administration. Unlike India, it is landlocked and is in a geographically challenging terrain. Though Nepali is the main language, I can get by with my Hindi, unlike in Sri Lanka.

There is no direct flight to Kathmandu from Bangalore, though Bangalore is one of the preferred education destinations for most Nepalese. My flight was via New Delhi. The Air India staff denied the “through check-in” facility for my baggage. So I had to go through the hassle of claiming my baggage and checking it in Delhi – I lost one hour of my time and I was not too worried. But the lady next to me was really exacerbated by the situation she was put into. According to me, these are the challenges we should willingly accept. Situations like these build character!

I went through the security check only to find that I was carrying an exacto knife and a Victorinox multi-tool in my carry on. Somehow the Bangalore security had missed it. I had to forego those knives though I had an established record of not using them to threaten any passengers during the flight from Bangalore to Delhi!

I had reserved a window seat to enjoy the beautiful views of the mountains of Nepal as the flight entered Kathmandu. But my c0-passenger wanted his aid to sit next to him and hence requested to me to sit in 31E instead of 10A. I agreed, thinking of my old parents and the people who had agreed to give up seats to allow me to sit with my parents during the long flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco. As soon as the plane took of, we hit an air pocket and the flight seemed more like a bumpy ride in a jalopy.

The flight lasted for 1 hour and 20 minutes. The beautiful green mountains surrounding a huge plain came into view when the flight descended to 4000 ft. The landing was smooth but the braking was hard. It could be because of the shorter runway. We taxied to a concrete patch. Weather outside was 29 C.  A red decrepit Air India non-AC bus picked us up and dropped us to the entrance of the building which was just 200  meters away. The red bricked building had narrow passages connected like a maze. Blue pennants announcing Nepal glory welcomed us – Nepal – The country with the second largest water source, the country with the largest number of world heritage sites, the country which was never under any foreign rule ! The emigration officer just looked at my passport and let me in without any stamp on my passport. Indians do not need any VISA to visit Nepal.

Going down to the baggage claim, I realized that Nepal airport is not a fancy place with air conditioning. It had fans running everywhere. It took a long time for the bags to arrive while I made some small talk with a lady from Bangalore on her Manasa Sarovar pilgrimage. She insisted that I visit Manasa Sarovar during my stay here in Kathmandu as it would save me a lot of money (INR 1,25,000 to be precise). I am not sure whether I will be able to find any free time even to do any short hikes, if not a grand hike to Annapurna circuit or Manasa Sarovar.

At the exit of the airport, the currency exchange centre had put out a board listing the conversion rates – 87 nepali rupees per dollar, 1.55 per INR. I went to the prepaid taxi booth and asked for a ride to Jhamsikhel.  775 NPR. I had only USD and some INR on me. Paid 520 INR instead of 10 USD I was asked for.

I got out of the airport to get into a rickety white taxi. The driver asked me to hold the lid of the boot while he loaded my bags.  I sat in the front only to realise that there is no way to clamp my seatbelt. The car rode into the town with jerky movements  through the haze of the dust and smoke raised by the vehicles in the front.  A few people were walking or riding motorcycles wearing masks over their nose and mouth to prevent the ill-effects of pollution. Soon, a  rally led by about 40 motorcycles with red pennants blocked the traffic. The taxi driver honked, veered through the oncoming traffic and finally made it to PulChowk.

Kathmandu valley comprises of three cities – Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. My accommodation was located in Jhamsikhel region of Bhaktapur. The roads in Kathmandu region are narrow and are being widened at places. I heard that many buildings will be razed to make way for asphalt. Addresses in Nepal are as abstract as they are in India. The driver had to call the guest house twice to get the directions to reach the place. The directions were all landmark based! It reminded me of my friend Ayan Ghosh’s statement:

I think the reason I love old cities is they have more crosswords. Each crossroad asks questions, makes you stop, take a decision and stick by it. In every lane we discover new things and think what did I miss on the other lanes? I must come back. I must give more time. This is why I have never enjoyed planned cities. They are too linear, too defined. You just walk from one end to the other and you have seen it all. But life is more like an old city than a highway.

I finally reached my guest house located in a narrow alley.  It is a residence converted into a guest house. The adjacent houses are so close to one another that I could  hear the sound of dish washing, TV, children playing, and my neighbours gossiping. It’s a shame that I don’t understand Nepali 🙂

Photos related to my stay in Nepal can be found here on Flickr