Overnight Train from Baku to Tbilisi

Baku - Tbilisi Overnight Train #38

Train Number: 38

Travel Time: ~13 hrs

Travel Class: 4-bed sleeper, upper bunk (kupe)

Price: 34 AZN (~20 USD at time of writing)

Departure Time: 21.50

Arrival Time: ~ 11.00

To save on one night’s accommodation and also travel efficiently, I booked a second-class, four-bed train from Baku to Tbilisi. The trip took about 12 hours, although quite a bit of it was basically waiting to clear immigration on both ends.

Baku - Tbilisi Overnight Train #38

Booking the Ticket

Azerbaijan Railways actually has a website, where you can book the tickets online. I did muck around the website, and even got as far as selecting seats. In the end, I didn’t click through to buy, although there are reports of people being able to do so online. I am not sure how payment works, although for sure, it is possible to purchase online. Why? Because when I showed up at the train station to buy my ticket, the attendant asked if I were here to collect my online ticket. During popular months of travel, I’d suggest you purchase online, just to guarantee your seats.

After checking that there was plenty of availability, I decided to just buy my ticket the day before departure. I rolled over to the railway station, which is at the 28 May metro station. Follow the signs for “Railway Station” exit, and then turn left. The railway station is at a mall of sorts, and the ticket sales is near the KFC in the mall.

In the middle of the ticket sales is an attendant. You want to talk to her to get a queue number. I waited for about 20 mins before I was served. Remember to bring your passport. I told the ticket agent my route, date, and class of service (in English), and she ticketed it in 5 mins. Online reports of cash-required are outdated. I was able to purchase my ticket with a credit card at the window.

Baku - Tbilisi Overnight Train #38

The Trip

I’d say the announcement system wasn’t particularly helpful. Thankfully, at around 9.30 pm, there were only two trains. I just walked down the platform, and located my train, which wrote Baku-Tbilisi.

If you can’t understand your ticket like me, just approach the ticket attendants. They will point you in the right direction and tell you your seat number as well.

The four-bed cabins are pretty okay. At around 10.30 pm, a train staff came by to distribute bed linens, so you won’t have to sleep on their rather well-used pillows. I actually passed out for a good 9 hours, and by the time I woke up, we were already at the Azerbaijan-Georgia border on the Azerbaijan side.

On the Azerbaijan side, the immigration officers board the train, and proceed to check out passengers individually, so expect an interview with the immigration officer. After about 1.5 hrs, the exit immigration was done, and after about 20ish minutes, we were on the Georgia side.

On the Georgia side, they simply boarded the train, collected everybody’s passports, and processed them in a building. They did call some individuals, although that is more the exception than the rule. At about 10 am, we pulled away from the border and headed towards Tbilisi.

The train pulled into Tbilisi station at around 11 am. The Tbilisi railway station is actually very close to the Station Square metro station. Just exit the railway station at the ground level, take a right, and you’ll be at Station Square metro station.

Overall

The train journey was pretty fine. They don’t have anything on board, so bring supplies. Also, although I didn’t personally venture, apparently, according to my German cabin-mate, the bathroom is nasty. It is not the Orient Express, but it’s a functional overnight train ride. The few daylight hours we had on the train weren’t particularly scenic; I am not sure if this would be different for a day-time train.

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Argentina: Parting is just sorrow, Buenos Aires to Rosario, 17 July 2016

Retiro Train Station Platform 7

Parting is just sorrow. This was the specter that was hanging over our entire trip, and now, it was happening.

This morning, we hustled from our hotel to the Aeroparque Airport for P’s long, multi-stop journey back to Seattle, while I continue my journey before starting a new job in Singapore. Finding the right counter to check in, getting his tickets etc. left us with very little time. The only time we had was a teary hug before he had to go board his plane. Our future was left hanging. (P.S. The tariff for taxis from airports is what causes taxi prices from the airport to town to be insane. I paid 3x the price to go back from Aeroparque)

After dropping him off, I took a taxi to the Retiro station as my train to Rosario was leaving in five hours’ time. I settled in at a café, and we continued to communicate via Whatsapp. I’ve always been the one handling all our travel details, and I couldn’t help but be worried about how he’d handle the three-country, five-city connection that’d take him back to Seattle.

At around three thirty in the afternoon, I sauntered towards the Retiro station. I made the bad assumption that I could purchase food on the train. For future reference, please do bring food on the train, there’s no food (for purchase or otherwise) on the train. Everyone else on the train seemed to have gotten the memo, as they brought picnic bags and generous portions of mate. (there is a free water dispenser on each carriage)

Pullman Class on Train ride from Buenos Aires to Rosario

The train journey was interesting. I don’t see myself necessarily wanting to do this particular route again, although if there are more scenic routes available, I’m open to trying them. The train system is slower than the bus, and actually, cheaper. My ticket in the Pullman class was 20 pesos cheaper than standard seats on the bus, but it took about two hours longer.

Pullman Class on Train ride from Buenos Aires to Rosario

The train wound through the countryside, and ghost towns for the most part. If you really want to check out the countryside, and see the stark comparison between life in the Argentinian countryside vis-à-vis the cities, the train journey will give that.

Sunset on the Train ride from Buenos Aires to Rosario

Hunting for my hotel at close to midnight was fun. I walked a block or two from the train station and finally found a taxi. But I might have stolen someone else’s taxi. He was nice enough, and because it was a female driver, I felt rather safe, so after his drop off at the Rosario bus station, I gave her the address of my hotel, and thus ends my long travel day.

Train Travel: Getting from Rabat to Casablanca

Casablanca

Casablanca Voyageur Station

There is one main train station in Rabat, and three train stations in Casablanca – Casablanca Voyageur (Casa Vog), Casablanca Port (Casa Port), and Casablanca Oasis. You probably won’t be going to Oasis if you are a tourist. The journey between Rabat and Casablanca probably takes one hour.

Casablanca

Casablanca Port Station

Casablanca Voyageur and Casablanca Port are both in town, but Casablanca Port is within short walking distance to the medina. Casablanca Port is the newer station, and the station has international chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s. Casablanca Voyageur has more train station options, like your little stand with a 20 DH sandwich. At Casablanca Port, there’s also a Sofitel and Ibis, and if you walk about 10 mins (where the medina is), you’ll hit the Grand Hyatt. The Casablanca Voyageur station is located on the tramline, and it’ll take about 15 mins to get from Casablanca Voyageur station to get to the medina using the tram.

Rabat

First class on the newer, double-deck train

There are many trains going from Rabat to Casablanca – don’t use me as an authority, but I’d say there’s at least one train every hour, but it might be closer to two trains every hour. The trains that run from Rabat to Casablanca Port are the newer, double-decker trains, and they leave on the hour, e.g. 10, 11, 12. The second-class cabin costs 35 DH, while the first class cabin costs 55 DH. This train is not particularly popular, so you’ll probably get a seat, even if you bought the second-class cabin. I bought the first class cabin, and the cabin was empty. It was very comfortable, and the table gave me space to get in an hour’s work.

Rabat

Newer double-decker train pulling into Rabat Train Station

The trains from Rabat to Casablanca Voyager runs about 20 past the hour, i.e. 10.20, 11.20, 12.20, and tended to be the older A/C trains, whereby the second-class seats are those 8-seats to a cabin type. The first class ticket was 39 DH. I didn’t check the price of the second-class ticket. These trains tended to fill up, so when buying a second-class ticket, there is a possibility that you might wind up standing for the journey.

Rabat

Older Train, second class

The major train stations in Morocco tended to have machines, which sell tickets for immediate departure. There is generally quite a bit of machine malfunction (at the different stations, only half worked). Some of them just didn’t work (green light on the machine means it is function, red means no go). The good thing is, it has an English option, if you’re not a Francophone. They also take their own bankcard – I tried using my credit card, and it didn’t work. Some of the machines also only take exact change, so having a range of change might be helpful, if you’re trying to avoid the long lines buying tickets from the counter.

If you want to check train times/prices, you can try the official Moroccan train website.

Morocco: What’s a trip without a misadventure? Rabat to Casablanca, 27 December 2015

Rabat

Rabat

I was up by 5 am, so after breakfast at the hotel, I decided to take a stroll to check out Rabat’s medina in the daylight. I started out from my hotel around 8am, and stopped by Hassan Tower, and the mausoleum of Mohammad V, as it was along the way. The mausoleum of Mohammad V has very intricate carving, and you can also check out the costumes of the guards, both on horses, and those who guard the four gates of his mausoleum. I do feel rather bad that his final resting place is now swamped by tourists who have no qualms about photographing his coffin.

Rabat

From there, it is a short walk to the waterfront. There seems to be some nice restaurants there, so I imagine that’s a nice spot in the evening, if you are looking for some romantic dining. In the early morning, fishing boats were docking, and nets of seafood were being put on trucks, presumably for distribution to the different restaurants in the city. I simply followed the waterfront before winding up at the Kasbah.

The Kasbah still has some pretty dwellings (think blue windows/doors on white walls), and when you get to the end of it, you will have an amazing view of the Atlantic Ocean. As a touristy place, there are generally a number of men hanging around, offering to show you around. Just keep moving. I saw a gallery/café along the walk, and after taking in enough of the Atlantic Ocean breeze, I simply ended up at the café for some mint tea, and to get in some writing for the day.

Rabat

At around 10, I made my way back to my hotel to pick up my stuff, as I planned on taking the noon train to Casablanca. I checked out, and rolled my luggage to the tram. The major train stations offer a ticket vending machine, which has an English option, and sells tickets for immediate departure. They don’t always work, or if they do, they might have other issues, like only accepting exact change. Good luck! Or as they say in French, bonne chance! I did get one to sell me a first-class ticket to Casablanca (55 DH).

Rabat

Casablanca

And, that’s where my day’s adventures began. Casablanca has three train stations. My ticket brought me to Casablanca Port, which is the train station at the waterfront, and closer to the airport. Not liking the look of all the over-eager (scammy) taxi drivers, I saw a sign that read “bus ancienne ville”, and hopped onto bus 900, without questioning my decision (7 DH), all the time thinking that the bus will take me into town. Well, it took me into town. It took me into a town two towns away from Casablanca. So, 40 mins later, I wound up in the town of Mohammadia. By the time my spidey senses told me that I messed up big time, I had to think of a quick fix-it that would not bankrupt me. Thankfully, the bus went by the Mohammadia train station, so I simply hopped off the bus, and hopped onto the next train to Casablanca Port, again! Thankfully, this mistake just costs me 22 DH, and 1 hr of my time, and another doofus story for the ages (now, the story unfolds about why I travel alone).

Casablanca

Anyway, this is related to why I take buses – to avoid scam artists. Getting off the train, my day’s misadventures didn’t end there. The train stations in Morocco are essentially a death trap for tourists. I got picked up by an asswipe of a scam-artist taxi driver soon enough, who refused to use the meter. If I had more energy, I would have fought this more, but whatever. In the end, I wound up paying 35 DH (he demanded 40 DH) for a very short taxi ride, which should have cost closer to 15 DH. He was so lazy, he didn’t even want to turn into my hotel.

After resting a bit, I decided to head out for food. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with more crowds, so I avoided the medina and its souk. I simply went into the first place that had a menu with fixed prices, and ended up with a shwarma platter (45 DH).

Casablanca

In Casablanca, there is also a rather extensive tramline in Casablanca, so if you want to avoid such incidents, that is an option. Rides are 7 DH per trip – be sure to keep your ticket, because it works on a tap-in/tap-out system. But as the distance wasn’t too far, I just walked both ways. I ended the night by hanging out at the rooftop pool of my hotel, which offered nice views of the city of Casablanca.

Casablanca

Costs

Transportation: 112 DH (55 + 15 + 7 + 35)

Food: 60 DH (45 + 15)

Accommodation: 70 USD (I stayed at a 5-star hotel)

Total: 88 USD

Colombia: Zipaquira, 02 September 2015

Why Zipa? A Salt Cathedral, of course!

Getting to Zipa

Train: Initially, I found out about Zipaquira, a town which is about 50 km from Bogota, when I went through Seat 61, looking for trains in Colombia. While Colombia does not have a functioning railway system, they do have a tourist train, which runs from Bogota to Zipaquira. I was super excited about the prospect of sitting on a steam engine train. Unfortunately, it was not to be. No thanks to my non-existent Spanish, I didn’t see the part on their website, which indicates that the train only runs on Saturdays, Sundays, and Festival Days, and I wasn’t going to be in Bogota on a weekend. Nevertheless, after having found out about the Salt Cathedral (do check out their website – it’s very informative), I decided that I would have to visit it, just because. For what it’s worth, the tourist train is 48000 COP – 52000 COP, depending on the season, and is highly rated on TripAdvisor.

Sabana train station at Zipaquira

Sabana Train Station at Zipa

Bus: Staying at Usaquen made the journey to Zipaquira a lot shorter. I took a bus in front of my hotel, and dropped off at Portal Del Norte (calle 182). The bus to Zipa actually leaves from the Portal Del Norte station, but because I took a local bus, I wound up on the streets running by Portal Del Norte. Nevertheless, the bus conductor will yell out destinations along the street. I heard Zipa, and jumped on. The journey took about 40 minutes, and set me back by 4500 COP each way. Portal del Norte - buses going out of town

Portal Del Norte station for Zipa bus

Salt Cathedral

Getting there: After dropping off at a square in Zipa where there are a bunch of taxis lined up, I decided to walk it, instead of taking a taxi up. The tourism signage in Zipa is very clear, even if it might not be the most direct route to the Salt Cathedral. I suggest following the signs to the Centro Historico, and keep walking up that pedestrian street until you hit the Independence Square, at which point, take a left. The Salt Cathedral is there. When you get to the general entrance of the Salt Cathedral, that’s where the fun begins – stairs. If you don’t want to trek up those stairs, you can always take a mini train trap tram for 4500 COP, which will drop you right in front of the ticket office. Set on a little hill, the Salt Cathedral does offer nice views of the town of Zipa.

Zipaquira

Find one of these pedestrian streets and walk up

Independence Square Zipaquira

Turn left on Independence Square for Salt Cathedral (still ~500ft)

Tickets: Tickets for adults are 25000 COP. I tried to use my student card to get a student discount, but the lady was like close, but no cigar. For those who are looking to charge expenses to credit cards, they do accept credit cards at the ticket booth.

Entry + guide: Entry to the Salt Cathedral is by groups, and these groups, accompanied by a (Spanish-speaking) tour guide, leave every 15 minutes or so, and last about 45 minutes. They have English guides 10 am, 12 pm, 2 pm, and 4 pm, but yea, I wasn’t going to wait around for that. Towards the end, I broke off from the group, and just wandered around myself.

Observations: The Salt Cathedral narrates the life of Chris, with 14 different crosses, some carved as standing crosses, and some, shapes of crosses carved into the stone. There are sites for worship, but it is also rather commercialized. Example: There is like a commercial zone in the cathedral, with a cafe. It makes for an interesting day trip, but just temper your expectations. It is rather dark, even with some lights, and I have very poor night vision. If you have vision problems like me, bring a flash light. One of the nice things about the Salt Cathedral is that it is handicap accessible.

Salt Cathedral

Salt Cathedral

Salt Cathedral

Salt Cathedral

Town of Zipa

It is a nice little town. Prices are cheaper than Bogota, so feel free to stop for a lunch. I felt that the town was quite tourist-y, but some of the colonial architecture looks cool. The signage for their tourist sights is clear, so you wouldn’t get lost, and you don’t need a map either.

Getting back from Zipa

I took the same journey back. Buses pretty much just ran in the opposite direction that they came, so I just went back to where I dropped off, and when a guy yelled out Bogota, I boarded the bus back to Bogota for the same fare (4500 COP). The bus terminates at the Portal Del Norte station. One of the annoying things about this is, it traps you in the Transmilenio. I was planning on taking a local bus (1500 COP) back to Usaquen, as the Transmilenio station is 1 mile from my hotel. But you have to tap into the Transmilenio station, making the 1800 COP mandatory. Drop off a bit earlier at 187 Calle if you plan on taking local buses.

Food and Drinks in Bogota

Having been dropped off on the Transmilenio that’s 1 mile from my hotel, I decided to just break up the walk, by popping into a coffee shop. Juan Valdez is a chain store, and they do offer your choice of beans. I got a tall latte that set me back by 5300 COP. Nothing to shout about, but also nothing to complain about. I would probably put it in the same category as Starbucks. The nice thing about them is that they offer free wifi.

Juan Valdas - you can choose your beans

Juan Valdez

I decided to have a nice dinner. Usaquen has quite a lot of options, and I was googling my options, including parrilla and Brazilian rodizio. I was actually walking towards a Colombian parrilla when I got sidetracked, and ended up eating at an El Corral gourmet. El Corral is a Colombian fast food chain, a step up from McDonald’s, but El Corral gourmet is a little more upscale than it. I was attracted by the fact that they accept credit cards, and I was rather keen on charging as much of my expenses to cards as it was possible, to maximize my points. I had a New York strip (38000 COP) with onion rings, and a Club Colombia beer (6000 COP, 4.7%). Although I ordered it medium, it was cooked a little unevenly, so parts of it were closer to medium well, and parts of it was closer to medium rare. I enjoyed it nevertheless. El Corral Gourmet

El Corral Gourmet

Dinner at El Corral gourmet

New York Strip

One of the interesting things to note about credit cards – sometimes, a store might just post a Visa sticker, but generally, they also accept other cards. I paid with my Citibank Prestige, which is a MasterCard, and there were no problems with that.

Costs: 

Buses in Bogota: 1500 COP + 1800 COP (local buses are slightly cheaper than the Transmilenio buses)

Bus to/from Zipa: 9000 COP

Entrance to Salt Cathedral: 25000 COP

Dinner: 47700 COP

Accommodations: 25 USD + 4000 Hilton points

Total: ~ 55 USD

Taiwan – Taipei to Kaohsiung, 27 August 2011

We moved from Taipei to Kaohsiung today, via the High Speed Rail, which took 1.5 hrs to make the 300+ km journey between the two cities. I highly recommend this option, as it is extremely comfortable, and the train station is located in the middle of Taipei. The station in Kaohsiung is about a 20 min taxi ride from town.

Once again, we stayed at the Grand Hi-Lai Hotel in Kaohsiung, which was excellent (and it does claim to be the best hotel in Kaohsiung). We have stayed here in our previous visits, but what sweetened the deal this time, was the free upgrade we got to executive rooms, which included a nice sofa set, and a balcony with gym equipment overlooking the Kaohsiung Harbour. The hotel had an excellent gym, with no less than eight treadmill machines, and a pretty decent weights section, complete with stationery bikes and steps machines. They also have a nice pool, but I didn’t go swimming.

One of the nice things about the Grand Hi-Lai Hotel, is the huge Hanshin mall that is located beside it. You can actually go into the mall which is located beside it without setting foot outside. It’s a pretty substantial mall that is around 11 storeys (when you count in the three levels of basement). It definitely worked out for us, as it rained the two days we were there. It was nice to have some food options within shelter. I sampled the dry variation of the Danzi noodles, and the fried oysters at the food court, which was pretty decent, and topped that off with some macaroons and Gongcha.

Well, the main event of the night was having dinner with my dad’s friends, so that was pretty much my day – gym and food.

Executive room in Grand Hi-Lai Hotel

Gym Equipment in the room balcony

Kaohsiung Harbour

Dry version of Danzi Noodles

Fried Oysters

Peru – Lima to Huancayo, 10 June 2011

A new day, a new town, a new epic journey.

I honestly know nothing about Huancayo, but the only reason why I am going there, is to take the epic Ferrocarril Central Andino , a rail journey that winds through the Andean mountains, a must-do journey for any train aficionado. This can be booked online, in the link I provided above, and it won’t break the bank. They only have about two to three trips every month, so be sure to check, if you decide to go on it!

The journey is amazing in several ways. It is a marvel of modern engineering, in terms of the fixed structures, like the bridges that span high mountains, and the tunnels that were cored into these mountains. Also, to make the train climb up to 4,700 km at Galera, it also had to use several techniques like the switchbacks, where it climbs the mountain by going back and forth (you have to experience it to know what I’m writing about). Btw, this railway project began in 1870. To give you an idea of how crazy it is, it takes about 12 hours to travel a horizontal distance of 332 km.

Engineering aside, the train ride had some stunning views. As the train was winding around the Andes the non-walking/hiking way, and as it went pass mountains and lakes, I realized that I was now at the ground level with some of the mountains and lakes that I saw from the plane. Isn’t that totally awesome? Apart from natural scenery, we also passed by the coal-mining town of Oroya, some 3,800 m above sea level, which was quite interesting for me. It just seems like such a nineteenth-century industry, and yet, here it was. The train was originally built for the purpose of transporting such materials to more accessible places. For more information, they give a great brochure of the highlights when you get on it.

Arriving in Huancayo was quite anti-climatic in some ways. I didn’t know what to expect from this market town in the Andes mountains, and I guess, my bad for imagining that it would not be modern. Well, when the train pulled into the station, there it was, a huge, two-storey, modern mall with modern cinemas, kfcs, and what not.

I was convinced that we could get accommodations quite easily, but apparently not. We went to our first option, and the lady didn’t seem to welcome two girls with backpacks on our bags. The second place also told us they were out of rooms. Maybe it’s not a good look to spot? (I swear we shower and looked clean and decent!) Anyway, we ended up at Hotel Turismo Huancayo , one of the older establishments in Huancayo, but still very excellent. The staff were polite, and didn’t seem to mind us like the other establishments. Their rate of USD 60 was ok for us, and included breakfast, so we checked in. The rooms were small, but comfortable, and the hot water shower works well. The interior of the hotel lobby was also really, really charming.

After settling in, we went hunting for dinner. B wanted to have something more Peruvian, and after consulting her guide, we ended up at Olimpico, which started in 1941, is one of the oldest restaurants in Huancayo, serves local delights, and is attached to Hotel Olimpico. We tried a papas a la huancaina, which is their version of potato gratin, topped with quail eggs. I had a trout done in a gratin for my entree. All in all, a very tasty and filling meal, and set us back by about 10 USD each. Do try it, it’s just beside the Plaza des Armas.

Ferrocarril Central Andino

The tail is turning into the head of the train!

Train winding around the Andes

Lake in the Andes

Coal mining town of Oroya

Restaurant Olimpico

Trout