We have a good reason why we try to avoid bus travel through Vietnam, and I was once again reminded of this as we started our very long day of bus and train rides from Dalat to Danang via Nha Trang. On this particular ancient bus, we were blessed with a schizo driver who crawled up the mountain roads at a snail’s pace and then hurtled down steep windy paths, careening around the bends and throwing the passengers from side to side. It felt like we were being shaken around in a tin can. The driver honked incessantly, warning mopeds in front of him that he would kill them if they didn’t get out of his way. That’s Vietnamese driving for you, where the biggest vehicle rules the road and pedestrians are the lowest on the food chain.
By the time we stopped for lunch, the inside of the bus smelled like burning brake pads. When the driver ambled back to his bus, everyone scrambled back on after him as if the bus would leave without them. We shot down the mountain past small waterfalls before we swerved and stopped to avoid hitting a mother and son on a moped. They watched in stunned silence from the side of the road as our bus took off again.
After eight days in Taipei the three of us headed south to the city of Tainan. Our ever thoughtful Chienya was worried that we would be bored in Taipei, so she arranged for us to visit the “Kyoto” of Taiwan for a couple days before we headed off to Hong Kong. I guess she forgot that we would be happy anywhere as long as food was being shoved in our faces. We’re really grateful that she took us to Tainan because there were new food items to be stuffed in our faces there.
I was excited to ride the Taiwan High Speed Rail since train travel is one of my favorite modes of transportation. The THSR is modeled after Japan’s bullet train system and the ride was rather enjoyable. It’s not as fancy as the last shinkansen that we were on when we traveled from Tokyo to Kyoto, but it’s respectable. The price for our one-way ticket from Taipei to Taichung, a 1 hour and 45 minute ride, was about $50 USD per person. Not bad.
After you arrive at the Tainan Rail Station, you have the option of taking a free shuttle bus or a paid metro train into the heart of the city. We opted for the free bus cuz we’s po! It was also closer to our rental apartment, so that worked out perfectly.
All of our friends from Taipei told us that the food in Tainan is especially delicious. Luckily our former NYC roommate was raised in Tainan so she made sure Chienya took us to eat all of the great food that Tainan is known for. It also helped that Chienya has been to Tainan before and was rather familiar with most of the tasty food spots there herself.
One of the spots that Chienya took us to was Yonlin Restaurant for a much anticipated fresh beef hotpot. According to Chienya, a professional hotpot eater, the beef at Yonlin is fresh and never frozen unlike other hotpot places in Taiwan. I don’t know what I’ve been having my whole hotpot-eating life, but this beef was fantastic! It’s tender and flavorful with just the perfect amount of fat-to-beef ratio. Divine! There’s a branch in Taipei too, but we heard it’s the same food with a higher price tag. But if you can’t make it to Tainan for this meal then you should fork over the money and eat it in Taipei. The other dishes we ordered were delicious too, so even if you’re not a big beef eater you won’t go hungry there. Oh, and don’t forget to try the 100% beef balls. Delish! I’d also recommend that you go here with a lot of people so you can try as many dishes as possible. The three of us only managed to finish six dishes. What a pity.
Our train rides through Romania were unexpected in the lack of sketchiness that our internet research had warned us about, and the openness and friendliness of the people of this country. We generally tried to buy tickets in advance at the train station instead of doing it online, which avoided any internet-related mistakes and allowed us to familiarize ourselves with the route to the train station before we had our heavy packs on our backs. The ticket window people didn’t speak any English but they were generally patient and they weren’t complete jerks like their Russian counterparts.
Romanian train cars are split into eight-seater cabins. Unlike the Russian trains, though, this particular train was filthy. The seats, windows and floors were in bad shape and could’ve used some cleaning with an industrial-grade power steamer or something.
An American couple we met back in Bosnia had told us about riding the trains in Romania and how pickpockets and thieves often preyed on clueless travelers in these confined spaces. Fortunately, we didn’t run into any issues on the four train rides we took through the country.
We boarded the train at Sighisoara early in the morning and settled into our seats, hoping we would be alone in the cabin for the ride to Brasov. No such luck. A smiling middle-aged man came bustling in and sat across from us, immediately asking us questions in Romanian. After realizing that we couldn’t speak a lick of Romanian, we got each other acquainted by having him grab my hand and putting it on a growth on his wrist (shudder). I know it could’ve been worse but at that hour in the morning, I really didn’t need to touch a weird growth on a stranger’s wrist as he repeatedly told us “dialysis” and “renal transplant” in Romanian. We accepted the chocolate croissants he offered us and I choked three of them down. I’m not being ungrateful about free croissants. I’m just not a huge fan of sweet things and these were damp, mushy imitations of croissants that came in a plastic bag and reminded me of pastries served on airplanes. Kindly Bob invited us to come stay with him and his wife in Kluj, but we weren’t heading in that direction.
I have to say, the Romanians are a friendly bunch, especially compared to the rest of the Balkans. At the next stop, a young teenager and her grandmother joined us in our cabin. The grandmother was super cute with a scarf tied around her head and everything. She started trying to speak to us and Bob let her know that we were Japanese tourists. Then two other people came into our cabin at the next stop, and all of a sudden we had an almost full cabin and we were sandwiched between each other’s bags like sardines.
What was strange about this arrangement was that the cabins on either side of us were completely empty but everyone remained squeezed into their assigned seats, smiling politely at one another and trying to give each other as much personal space as possible, which just wasn’t possible. We asked the teenager if we could move into any of the empty cabins and she said yes and maybe. Maybe the locals don’t like to break rules, but we weren’t about to ride three hours in a stuffy cabin, cute little grandmother or not, so we stumbled over legs and feet and moved to the cabin next door.
Watching the scenery outside in Romania was far more interesting than many of the countries we’ve traveled through on trains and buses. Well, besides Russia, where I could spend all day scouring the desolate landscape of Siberia, and France, whose countryside is unmatched in beauty to any other place I’ve been to. But we saw some pretty cool shit in Romania. There was a dead cow in a ditch by an overgrown field, its white fur sinking into the bones underneath. There were men talking around a horse-drawn plow, a big red tassle hanging from the horse’s bridle to ward off the evil eye. An old shepherd huddled in a large wool coat among his herd was straight out of National Geographic (of course, I didn’t get a photo of this). N even saw a guy squatting by the tracks and taking a dump (we didn’t get a photo of this either).
And then there were all of these cement chimneys everywhere, but it looked like they scrapped the building project and left the chimneys standing.
On another ride, we were on a slightly less disheveled train where we met Mary, a small woman with twinkling eyes, who started talking to us once she realized we spoke English. She related her interesting life history to us, told us about the sights and sounds of her home city, and then walked us in the direction of our hotel. She wanted to walk us all the way there but we assured her that we would be able to find our way.
Train rides are calming. Sometimes incredibly so, and I always find myself a little sad when the journey comes to an end. This was was no exception, made more pronounced by the fact that this was our last train ride for this leg of our world exploration trip. We vowed to come back to explore more of this country, to hike the Tatras, explore the painted monasteries in the north and of course, to ride more trains.
After riding kupe and platzkart for the first two legs of our Trans-Siberian trip, we decided that we had earned and deserved an upgrade on the last and longest leg of the trip, Irkutsk to Moscow, a 76-hour marathon style train ride. The two first-class tickets cost a pretty penny, almost double the price of kupe, but they were worth every red ruble.
We left for the train station at the asscrack of dawn since I don’t like messing around with Russian transportation. Since Irkutsk is one of the major stops on the route the train stops there for at least 30 minutes and when we arrived at the platform our train was already waiting for us. There were two carriage attendants to greet us with the expected non-smiling Russian face and after we presented our tickets and passports they made us wait a few minutes on the platform with our heavy backpacks while they prepared our cabin. Once we entered our cabin we could immediately see the luxurious difference between first-class (spalny vagon), and our previous platzkart ride. The spalny vagon cabins look like the kupe cabins but they only have two lower berths instead of two on the bottom and two on top. The sheets were pure white and clearly of a higher thread count, which was more suited to our first-class tastes. We even had two fluffy pillows each! I also noticed that we were provided with wooden hangers because everyone knows that first-class people need to hang their shit up. No more wire hangers!
For many foreigners, riding the Trans-Siberian rail across the vast Russian countryside is a once-in-a-lifetime travel adventure. Most of us have romanticized visions of sitting in a cozy and comfortable train car while idly staring at the passing scenery. If you’re really a dreamer you might even have fantasies of meeting a kindly Russian who speaks accented but perfect English and she’ll be an absolutely perfect cabin mate for the next seven days. She’ll be easy on the eyes, smell nice and even share her black caviar, homemade blinis, and vodka with you. And, of course, she’ll have an advanced degree in Russian history and enlighten you with her vast knowledge of her country. Before you know it, you’re at the end of your 7-day, 9,289km trip and you and Tatiana exchange emails and promise to keep in touch.
Keep dreaming, silly foreigner.
This past weekend I went to visit my darling little nephew in Pennsylvania. He learned to say our names recently so I had to reward the milestone with a personal visit. KS couldn’t join because she hates children.