Tag Archives: Sleeper Train

Bangkok, Thailand to Penang, Malaysia

7/18 – We took the sky train and the underground metro across town to get us to Bangkok’s main train station at Hua Lumphong in time to board our mid-afternoon train.


The reminder posted in the station’s restroom, which tickles me every time I see it!  We’ve encountered similar reminders throughout Asia.

 Jim had booked our tickets a week in advance to assure we would get an air conditioned car and lower berths on the 22 hour sleeper ride. 


We will miss Thailand!

On board, we met an American expat named Tom, who’s lived here for eight years.  He said he moved to Thailand because Miami was too cold!  

After a tasty dinner in the dining car and a peaceful night’s sleep on the rocking train, we arrived at the Malaysian border by mid-morning, and we all got off for our exit and entry stamps.  We don’t need a visa for Malaysia, and can stay for up to 90 days.

The train ride ended on the mainland in Butterworth, where we caught a ferry across the Straits of Malacca to the island of Penang. 


Georgetown is the big city here, full of shiny buildings and big shopping malls.  We are not staying in Georgetown, however, so as soon as we got off the ferry we boarded the 101 bus, which we rode for an hour and a half to the little town of Teluk Bahang, home of Penang National Park.  


We are staying at the Amal Inn for the next week, very convenient for exploring the jungles of Malaysia’s top nature park.   

Malaysia has Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures living in harmony, with three different styles of food and religion.  Today we heard the Muslim call to prayer for the first time since we left Turkey.  The town is small, but the park is huge!  The western alphabet is used here, and many of the signs are repeated in English, so we should be able to navigate easily here.  We’ve been told that Malay food is great!  Tomorrow we will explore. 


Pai to Chiang Mai to Bangkok, Thailand

5/4 – Our do-nothing vacation in Pai comes to an end tomorrow. As we enjoy one more swim in the pool and one more climb to see the sunset, here are a few things we opted not to do in Pai:

Seeing the Long Neck Karen tribe: as tempting as this was for a short-necked Karen like me, we read too much about the exploitation of these Burmese refugees, who are paid to disfigure their women with neck rings to be ogled by tourists. I remember reading about them in Ripley’s Believe It or Not as a child (a long, LONG time ago!). Really didn’t want to view humans the way we view zoo animals, and the tribe does not benefit from the admission prices charged by the tour promoters. Here are pix off the advertising poster in town:

Riding an Elephant: there are lots of places in Thailand offering to let you ride/bathe/train elephants. Most of these places use bull hooks to jab the elephants, torturing them repeatedly to make them docile enough for tourists. We decided not to be part of that exploitation. The exception is the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, where abused elephants are rehabilitated and never ridden. We tried to book a trip there when we were in Chiang Mai, but the waiting list was several weeks long, and we were not able to go. If you really want to see elephants, book early and support ElephantNaturePark.org. image

I’ve been keeping my sister AJ in mind as we tour Thailand, as she and her husband would like to travel here some day. They are vegetarians. Don’t know how they would feel about the vegetarian restaurants here, which all seem to serve meat, like the House of Pork Vegetarian Cafe:image

Same problem at the grocery store, offering vegetarian shredded meat:image

Don’t worry AJ and Bob – you can always eat rice!

5/5 – Back to the bus station this morning for our 3 hour mini- bus ride back to Chiang Mai. Met John while we waited, a Vietnam vet. He and Jim traded old war stories – Bangkok was the place Vietnam vets went for R&R, and its proximity brought back lots of memories for them both. Arrived at Chiang Mai with three hours before our train to Bangkok, so we has a leisurely lunch and chatted with two young Aussies from Melbourne. Turns out they were taking the same train.image



We were not able to book air conditioned berths on the overnight sleeper to Bangkok, so we are anticipating a steamy night. The windows on the train are all wide open – hope there is a breeze! image

This is the first long distance train we’ve been on that does not have compartments. The seats convert to upper and lower berths on both sides of the car, with curtains in front, like in old movies (Some Like It Hot comes to mind!) Here’s the sunset out the open train window. image


5/6 – After a long, sticky night, we approached Bangkok, as the scenery changed from rural to urban.image



Pai, we miss you!

Chengdu to Kunming, China

3/17 – There was nothing else we wanted to see in Chengdu, so we are continuing south to Kunming.  We enjoyed a leisurely morning, as our train doesn’t depart until 15:00 this afternoon. Same hotel breakfast ( I skipped the pickled cabbage and had an extra egg), and an especially good lunch of dumpling soup with leeks and chives.  Jim had a spicier dish comprised mainly of chicken skins.  

We gave ourselves an hour to complete the 10 minute ride to the train station, so, of course, circumstances conspired against us. Background:  hotels in China ask for a cash deposit when you check in, then send a maid up to inventory the room when you check out, to make sure you haven’t stolen anything.  Some hotels have items for sale in the room – razors, decks of cards, cans of soda, beer, and snacks – clearly marked.  Most hotels provide an electric kettle and teacups, bottled water and a variety of tea, gratis.  When we tried to check out of this hotel, we were presented a bill for 40 yuan for the sundries we had used – the tea, the tissues, the bottled water, and what we thought was a complimentary toothbrush.  After almost a month in China, this is the first time we have encountered this.  They also claimed we stole a towel, which others online had reported was a common ploy to extract more money from tourists here.  I shouted and waved my good arm around, gave back the toothbrush and got the damage reduced to 15 yuan ($2.42), but it cost us 15 minutes in the lobby.
We hustled down to the main road, (Jim still lugging both our packs) but had a hard time getting a taxi to stop, and when we finally did, the traffic was bumper-to-bumper all the way to the train station.  Passing through Security, I got pulled over because my passport number was not correct on the train ticket.  The young woman showed me the discrepancy and I just shrugged.  I didn’t type up the ticket – I didn’t even know they were putting our passport numbers on there!  We had to march over to the supervisor, who examined my passport and Chinese visa very carefully and then let us through.  We got to our gate just as our train was being called. Whew!
So now we are on the overnight sleeper to Kunming, in our comfy lower bunks of a soft sleeper with a door that closes, fresh linens (I presume), and a young man and a young woman texting away on their mobiles on the berths above.  The afternoon is warm (mid 70s) and we can actually see the sun as we leave the city.  Here are some views out the train window.


3/18 – After a bumpy night’s sleep, we arrived in Kunming at 9 am.  The train station is huge, and we have to walk quite a way before we can find a taxi.  Kunming is called Spring City in China, as the weather is always perfect – not too hot and not too cold.  It is a favorite destination for Chinese tourists.  Although there is some smog, the sky is definitely blue!
Jim booked us at a new hotel in the center of the city, which does not appear on any of our maps.  The only clue I have is that one of the exterior pictures of the hotel on the Booking.com website shows a large golden statue of Jesus.  Can’t be too many of those in the middle of Kunming!  Sure enough, we spot the statue, and identify the tall building that must contain our hotel.  It is an insurance company building, in the middle of a construction zone, but we know our hotel is on the 8th floor.  We’re getting pretty good at sleuthing our way around without being able to read the language. 


In the afternoon we checked out the options in our neighborhood – fruit shop, plenty of noodle eateries (not big enough to be called restaurants, just a few tables) of the kind we favor, but no market, super or otherwise, which is too bad, as our hotel room has a fridge and a microwave.
We has supper at a nearby eatery that provided a delicious full meal including soup, tea, two vegetables, a meat entree and rice for 15 yuan ($2.42). The proprietor came over after observing me eating with my chopsticks in my left hand, and tried to get me to take a new pair of chopsticks with my right hand.  I thanked her, but was puzzled.  I wonder if I am offending by using my left hand – I know I would be in India, but this is the first time I’ve been approached here.  She could see the sling on my right arm – this was one of the many times a bit more knowledge of the language would have helped!

Almaty, Kazakhstan to Urumqi, China

2/23 – We hung around our hotel today, listening to the construction above our heads as they rebuild the hotel after a fire. The goal was to give my arm a day of rest before subjecting it to another bumpy train ride. My throat is full of construction dust and my eyes are scratchy. I’ve had enough of Kazakhstan, thank you!

We used the one finger method to catch a ride to the railway station. Best system ever!

2/24 – Midnight train to Urumqi, China. This little cutie was very interested in my iPad.image

Had to cross over three sets of tracks and vault up onto the train. The conductor tried to help me up by grabbing my arm – ouch! Re-injured my shoulder. We have a four berth compartment to ourselves. image

In the morning, lots of cold desert. Discovered there was no dining car, as we had been led to believe by the Man in Seat 61. Hope we have enough snacks!image

The path we are following is part of the ancient Silk Road trade route through the east.

At 5pm our conductor indicated that we would be stopping for one hour, and could get something to eat in the station. We understand that this break is to enable them to change the wheels on the train, as the track gauge is different in China (Lionel vs. H.O.?).
The menu was only in Russian, so we walked around the cafe, saw a tasty Asian stir-fry with rice at another table, and pointed to it. That’s how we get fed!

By 7pm our room had been inspected by Kazakh customs. This was the first time our bags had been searched – we had to dump out the contents of our backpacks for inspection.

By 9pm we repeated the process for Chinese customs. Bags searched again. They turned on my phone and were interested in the picture I had saved of the Istanbul metro – I wonder what they were looking for? The train started moving again at 11:30pm, and we adjusted our watches for China time, so it is 1:30am. Welcome to China! Not sure if we’ll be able to blog reliably from here due to censorship, or the Great Firewall of China, so please be patient. We’ll do our best!

Astana to Almaty, Kazakhstan

2/20 – Last day in Astana. The temperature got into the positive single digits today! Jim was worried about the effect the jouncing of the train would have on my sore arm, so he found a small pharmacy inside a clothing shop, and asked for pain medication. He came back with a tube that I was hoping was a topical analgesic, but turned out to be flesh-colored makeup to cover bruises, called Bruise Off! Such are the adventures of communication in foreign languages – and thanks to Google Translate for letting us know what we bought.

There is an English language school in our hotel, so we stopped in to talk to the students and teachers. They all agree that English is a good language to know if you want to travel. Someday, they would like to go to London and Paris.


We negotiated with the front desk clerk to keep our room until 3pm. Our express train leaves at 6:30pm for the overnight ride to Almaty, our last stop in Kazakhstan. We’ll just hang out in the train station until it’s time to board. Here’s the train station in the light of day.image

We boarded our express train, and had our compartment to ourselves. After watching the miles roll by in the dark, we locked the door, got undressed, and turned out the light. At about 10:30pm we heard a furious pounding on the door. Uh oh, guess we’ll be sharing our compartment after all! Jim opened the door, and a woman in furs and high heels rolled a big suitcase into the tiny compartment. She started shrieking in Russian, waving her arms about, until the train attendant came and yanked her out. Evidently, she did not intend to share space with two undressed Americans, and suffer the indignities of climbing into an upper berth. A minute later, a young Kazakh man came in to take her place. He vaulted into the upper bunk, and all was well.

The train arrived in Almaty at 7:30 the next morning. We went to the ticket office to secure our next tickets, to Urumqi, China. We read that we could save 8 hours of this journey by taking a series of buses, but we are comfortable with the train. There was only one ticket window open at this early hour, and the woman, who had no English, communicated that we needed to get our tickets from Window 7, which would open at 8am. When no one opened Window 7 at 8am, we went to the station cafe and had some breakfast, then returned. Window 7 still dark. We asked at all the other windows, and were told by each that Window 7 was the only game in town for tickets to Urumqi. We went to the Information booth to ask when Window 7 would open. The info lady walked with us back to the darkened window and read a note in Russan on the glass. She pointed to where it said 11:30. Oh no! We were punchy from too little sleep, and decided to go find our hotel and come back later. As we were shouldering our packs, she came back with an update – 9:30. It was already 9 o’clock, so we sat back down to wait. Sure enough, at 9:30 the little window opened, and we got our tickets. The train to Urumqi only runs twice a week, and leaves at midnight. As the Chinese New Year celebrations are still going on, we felt lucky to get the tickets.

We walked out onto the street, through the gauntlet of men muttering “taxi” under their breath. Evidently, they are not licensed taxis, so try not to call attention to themselves. Jim chose one, and showed him the address of the hotel and a hand-drawn map showing where it was. It’s been our experience that taxi drivers have no idea of where you want to go, and if you don’t direct them, they are happy to drive around all day, running up the fare.

We arrived at the Mark Inn Hotel, to find a construction zone. The reception area was filled with Sheetrock, and there was hammering, sawing and piles of debris everywhere. There was no one to check us in, and the owner was not on site. One of the workman called him and we spoke on the phone. Seems there was a fire, and they were trying to rebuild. Our room was fine, if you like noise and dust… Always an adventure!

Aktau to Astana, Kazakhstan

2/13 – We stayed only one night at the lovely but high-priced Hotel Harat. After purchasing our train tickets and finding that the train only runs on odd numbered days, we looked for another hotel that was more reasonably priced, so we can settle in for two more nights. We are very pleased with the Silk Way Hotel, which actually offers better amenities, and a wonderful breakfast.


The currency here is the tenge, and one tenge is equivalent to five cents in US dollars. This has the unfortunate result of making everything sound really expensive while you are trying to work the math – our new hotel costs 14,000 tenge a night, which works out to be about $75.00. Still too expensive, but Kazakhstan is an expensive country, thanks to uranium, oil and gas wealth.

Unlike the wide avenues and glittering buildings of Baku, we don’t see the wealth here. Buildings are flaking and haphazardly painted, streets are rutted, sidewalks broken or just dirt paths. Even the 4 star Hotel Aktau, commanding $400.00 a night, looks on the outside like it has seen better days. We find this strange, as Aktau was only built 40 years ago. Maybe the harsh climate?imageimage

This is literally the city “where the streets have no name”. The buildings are numbered and the areas referred to as micro-districts. Google Maps was confused, and so were we…

That said, the people we met were very nice. A young man encountered us searching in vain for an ATM that would accept our debit card, and walked us to the main street where we found one. An older man tried to direct us to the travel agency without a word of English. Jim had written down several phrases in Kazakh, which turned out to be of no use, as folks here speak Russian. This is the first country where many of the people look Asian, probably a politically incorrect thing to say. 50% of the people here are Kazakh, and 30% are Russian.

The president wants to change the name of the country to Kazakh Eli, as he doesn’t want to be associated with the other, poorer “stans”. He also wants to reintroduce Kazakh as a national language. He moved the capital from Almaty, near Uzbekistan, to Astana, in the middle of the country, a few years ago, and built lots of monuments to attract tourists. He sounds like a guy who gets things done (and he was elected with 95% of the vote)!

2/15 – got up early Sunday morning for the taxi ride to the train station, which is about 12 miles north of town. We have second class tickets for the sleeper to Astana, which will take two full days to arrive. Here is our sunrise.


The train sleeps four to a cabin, but we are the only ones in our cabin so far. We meet Timon, a full-contact fighter from Azerbaijan, who is on his way to Astana with his team mates for a wrestling match. He showed us the scar on his nose, and helped us practice our Russian phrases.image

These were the views we had today. Flat desert:image

Desert with camels:image

Desert with mountains:image

We stopped occasionally, and more folks got on. image

The scenery showed that it was getting colder as we rode northeast.image

We saw women selling food on the siding right outside the train – we weren’t sure what food options would be available, so we brought our own fruit, water and canned tuna. And cookies. Maybe tomorrow we’ll hop off and see what the women are selling. The train attendant came by once selling socks, and again selling whole smoked fish. Pee Eww!

At 7:30pm we were joined by two young men who had tickets to the top bunks. They had no English, and heaven knows we don’t have enough Russian for a conversation. I hope they don’t snore. I can’t help remembering back in Turkey, where they wouldn’t sell me an empty bunk because there was a man in the section. Now here I am with three men!image

2/16 – the view out the window is just as flat, but now it’s white… I wonder how cold it is out there? imageimage

It’s still 85 in here – slept all night without even a sheet, never mind the thick woolen blankets we were given. Turns out Jim was the only snorer, so I slept pretty well. More people coming down the aisle today, selling clothing and trinkets. The word has gotten out that we are Americans, and several have stopped in to acknowledge that fact. Americans? they say. Da, we say. That’s about it!

Today Jim jumped off the train at lunchtime, and came back with a plastic bag of hot stew – potatoes and what is probably horse meat – definitely not beef or lamb. They eat both horse and camel here…image


At mid afternoon a Mongolian-looking man came into our cabin and introduced himself as Norman. He said it made his heart happy to see Americans here. He is from Uzbekistan, and worked for 10 years at a gold company. It’s the longest conversation we’ve had all week!

By supper time our cabin-mates were packing up. They will be getting off at the next stop, so we’ll have our little cabin to ourselves tonight.

2/17 – the loudspeaker woke us at 5am – the train is due in to Astana at 6:10, and I guess its going to be on time!image

Tbilisi, Georgia to Baku, Azerbaijan

2/9 – What do you do when you have an hour to wait in the station before your train arrives? You get a haircut, of course! I’ve been needing a trim for quite some time, but never had luck finding a women’s hair cutter in Turkey (there are barbers for men on every corner). With zero vocabulary in Georgian, I managed to communicate what I wanted, and my sassy stylist took it from there. Nice Person of Georgia!


Our sleeper train was sort of down-in-the-heels, yet was the most expensive ticket we’ve purchased.


I sure hope an accident does not appear!


We left at 5:30pm, rode for about an hour, then stopped for two hours to clear all the passengers through Customs – once on the Georgian side, then again over the border with Azerbaijan. That left us the rest of the night to make up our bunks and lie around in our little cabin. There was no dining car, and no snacks or anything for purchase. The cabin had no thermostat, and, true to our recent experience, the heat was set on 85F, so we had to keep opening the door to cool off. We drank most of our water, and wished we had more, but fell asleep eventually.

The train arrived in Baku right on time at 9:20 the next morning. Here is our sunrise through the train’s dirty window.


Coming in, the land was flat, featureless and brown.




However, once we arrived in the city, it was a different story. Lots of wealth here, courtesy of the oil industry.





There were designer boutiques everywhere – Dior, Gucci, Armani, and plenty of others.. Cars were bigger, newer and fancier than those we’ve seen in a while. Here is the shopping mall.


And here, believe it or not, is the KFC!


We booked at the Guest House Inn Hotel, and walked up and down the street, but couldn’t find it. A nice young man stopped to help us, called the hotel, got directions (it was on a court behind the street) and walked us there. Nice Person of Azerbaijan!

We walked to the Old City, where we found the Maiden Tower, one of the few remaining medieval buildings in the city.


There are several myths regarding the origins of the tower – it may have been built by sun worshipers (the sun shines directly through the portals on the Equinoxes), as a celestial observatory, a defensive fort, or a gift for a beautiful princess (hence the name). Here are the views from the top.






We planned to spend five days here, trying to book passage on a commercial ferry to Kazakhstan. To our great surprise, we got a call on our very first afternoon, and we’re on the ship by midnight. We didn’t even get to sleep in our lovely room at the Guest House Inn Hotel!

See the next post for details.