Taipei 101 – An Introduction

I love the rush and excitement of flying into a new place. And since we transferred through Tokyo on ANA, we flew into the closer Songshan city airport (TSA) and had a window seat on a long double loop around the dramatic hills and skyscrapers of Taipei….a free aerial tour of the city where we would spend our next week!

Lunar New Year Bunny Seats on the 89th Floor of Taipei 101
Lost? You can almost always spy Taipei 101 wherever you are.

Note that most longer flights go out of the much larger and more distant Taoyuan International Airport (TPE). But both have good rail connections right to the center, so no worries if you fly into or out of TPE.

Waterfalls, mountains, and forest

Taipei is a world class city that just doesn’t rise to the top of most (western) tourists lists. But we think the Portuguese nailed it with the name “Formosa”, as it is a beautiful, prosperous, and free place.

Local Agriculture in the Pingxi District

It’s certainly a place that is receiving more attention in the global news due to the complex geo-politics associated with its status and ultra strategic location in the South China Sea. We enjoyed learning so much more about the history of Taiwan. It has left a unique legacy on the psyche of the country.

Ximen, The walkable downtown of Taipei

After the Qing Dynasty lost the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, they ceded Taiwan and the Japanese colonized and controlled Taiwan for over 50 years. When their occupation finally ended after World War II. a dictatorship initially led by Chiang Kai-Shek ruled for the next 40 years under the KMT party, with strict repression of free speech, detentions, and killings known as the “White Terror”.

Getting dizzy in Taipei 101
The massive damper on the 88th floor of Taipei 101 has a series of cute damper babies…this one was my favorite. Way to make science cute.

By the late 80’s, a slow transition to a more open and democratic Taiwan started, and after the election of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2016, it has solidified its place as a liberal and forward looking democracy.

The Pingxi train and Shifen suspension bridge

They were the first Asian state to legalize gay marriage in 2019 and have 42%+ representation of women in the parliament as well as a female president. The Scandinavia of Asia?! Almost, but there is still a huge gender wage gap and other legacy issues of a male dominated business world.

Bali and Tamsui are easily reachable by MRT and ferry for seaside strolling or cycling

However, we could feel the positive energy and openness in Taipei, although all within a society that still values social stability and conformity. It’s an interesting mix but definitely a positive one to experience, even as an outsider.

Run Up to the Lunar New Year on Dihua Street
Cutest local fire station ever, Tamsui

Here’s the Top 10 reasons we loved our week in Taipei and why you might too:

1. The Food – you can see Cheryl’s last two posts for lots of details on the food scene…great food everywhere, and the amazing and exciting night markets.

Ready for the year of the rabbit
Food and SO many boba tea shops…Taiwan invented it and continues to reinvent it for the rest of the world.

2. Unique culture – fun and quirky with a rich history influenced by indigenous, Han Chinese, Japanese, and western culture. There is also a strong fascination with Korean pop culture and clothing. It’s not quite like anywhere else, it’s Taiwan.

Cute = Taiwan
Check in option at Tinguan Airport…no takers?
Cat/bartender at the Tipsy Dragon in Songshan

3. Efficiency AND Kindness – This is a neat and orderly city…people follow the rules and you will enjoy yourself more if you do too. Or at least make an effort. It’s an easy, extremely collaborative society, and everyone has built in empathy and spacial radar systems. You’ll never bump into someone or have them cut or push too much, even in crowds…it’s infectious and relaxing once you embrace the system.

Graceful and spacious MRT stations, many outside the core are aerial with quiet platforms, views, and pleasant breezes. No center running freeway noise here.
Stand right, walk left…always!

4. The MRT! – a comprehensive and modern system that carries 2 Million passengers a day. Buy a EasyCard (IC Card) at either airport station for 100 NTD (New Taiwanese $, or about $3 US), load some fare and then tap in and out like the locals for 50c to $1 a trip. We had the airport station agent add 300 to each to start, so paid 800 NTD. If you get a funny beep or issue with your card, there is always a helpful staff person nearby.

The MRT is integrated with neighborhoods, creating nice station area plazas such as this one in Shilin
Neighborhood pride in Shilin

There are also real time predictions at all MRT and most bus stops, so don’t be intimidated to use buses as well. Big numbers on the front…tap on and off with your IC card when you ride at the front or back doors. So easy.

Keeping an eye on train operations in Jintong

5. Bathrooms – Seriously, Taiwan is the most bathroomed place on the planet (interested to hear about others!?). Every station has one (or two), public parks, museums, attractions, malls, night markets, parking garages, busy neighborhoods….you get the idea. And all free and clean, which really does reduce travel stress and the need to go into “camel mode” walking about like in some counties.

Fun, inviting, and yes, bathrooms in Pinxi District
Always so close

6. Greenery – Parks, long greenways (140km of bike paths!), and lush hills and mountains make for a pleasant backdrop, plus potted street plants liven up even the drabbest streets.

Street plants seem to be a craze in Taipei and make the vast downtown neighborhoods a bit more livable
Ahead of the curve…the cool interchangeable scooter batteries of the Gogoro energy system
Alley greenery (and the ubiquitous Food Panda!)

7. Clean air – not perfect but good for such a large city due to great public transit, fairly clean vehicles, frequent coastal and island breezes, and the greenery noted above.

Spiritual moss on Jiantan Mountain
Building around tree or tree within building?

8. Safety – Traffic is pretty organized and street crime seems virtually non existent. One of our only social gaffs was inadvertently moving a women’s notepad/binder/IPad? from a back garden of a coffee shop…we thought it belonged to the shop, and she came out surprised to see us in her seat…we offered to move, but she refused and headed to another spot upstairs. Oops.

Pocket temple in Tamsui
More fun at the Onsen Museum in the hot spring town of Beitou…via MRT of course.
The historic Pingxi Train line runs 13km from Sandiaoling to Jintong runs hourly, so you can hop off and on or walk between stations.

9. Hiking and cycling culture – a great proportion of the world’s quality bicycles are made here (not to mention 90% of the worlds fast semiconductors), and they actually push cycle touring as a key component of their tourist advertising. On this first “winter” visit, we only grazed the endless mountain and forest trails that crisscross the spine of Taiwan… with many accessible by public transit.

Morning walk up Jiantin Mountain
You can walk from the edges of the city far into the mountains and take a train or bus back.
E-bikes for Spaniels…so green

10. Mixing with the locals – not many western tourists makes for a more exotic feel. And at least some English in most places makes interactions more rewarding. We’ve discovered this cool Asian capital, right-:)

Cheryl drying out one of the many cats of Houtong Cat Village
Cats keeping an eye out on the purpose built cat bridge in Houtong
Cat food on the cat bridge

Maybe you’ve been here and are nodding along, but if not, consider at least a stopover in Taipei on your next travels to Asia, or better yet, spend a few weeks or a month traveling around the whole island. Rail circles the island and the more developed west coast has a high speed rail network that takes you all the way south in about 2 hours.

So much to explore outside of Taipei…Shifen village between trains.
We only dabbled on the local trains, but there is a whole island to explore!

The more you learn about the people, history and culture, the more you will understand the how complex the geo-political conundrum really is. Our hope is strong for a positive future for Taiwan and we definitely plan to come back soon to explore by bicycle.

🐇🎉Happy Year of the Rabbit! 🎉🐰

Peace to all and happy travels!

And One Month Later….

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been back in the US for almost two months, and apologies for the month gap in our blog, a record for sure.

Back in San Francisco and enjoying the amazing new Tunnel Tops Park in the Presidio; love the movable furniture!

We’ve been having too much fun seeing friends and family in Palm Springs, Moorpark and more recently, visiting our favorite SF haunts and enjoying the beautiful Northern California winter. Not to mention bingeing on all the World Cup. Felicitaciones Argentina!

View across Tunnel Tops. Always something new and wonderful in the Bay Area
A new bike path extension to the Golden Gate
A short but always inspiring meet up with our fellow nomad DNT.

But as other nomads have related, retuning “home” is sometimes a bit tough, and strangely disorienting, especially when you know that you’re heading back out into the world again as nomads. It now feels more like a refueling stop, with the primary energy being friends (and tacos!) Nomadic life is endlessly stimulating, but without a base of friends and family to pivot off of, it might seem less invigorating. Contrast in life keeps it fresh.

San Francisco welcomed us with a beautiful sunset…you’re not making this easy SF.
Back riding with the boys on Twin Peaks…so missed this!
Ramen and Udon fix at Marugame in SF.

We’ve also been reunited with some of our “stuff” in a local storage unit. It’s always exciting to roll up the storage unit door and see what is there. Luckily, most clothes to swap out for our visit and onward travels are near the front. It does beg the question of saving so many things, but we know that when we settle down again somewhere, we’ll enjoy seeing so many familiar things again in a permanent setting. Right?

Champion and I excited about a walk!
Mission Creek Preserve in Desert Hot Springs
Walking the dogs in the vast landscape of the California mountain deserts
Happy hour smiles in Southern California
Cheryl and Boba “the cutest and friendliest kitten in the world!”.
Thousand Oaks delivered peaceful scenery, oaks and even water during a late fall hike in Wildwood Park

But after 16 months of travel, we are now a bit awestruck by how streamlined our travel lives are compared to the complexities of typical American life. No home, no car, a few bills…a bag or two and sometimes bicycles. Life is a trade off, and many of our peers could choose to simplify and travel more, but for many, selling it all and going mobile may be just a bit too much.

Christmas and Victorians were made for each other! Hayes Street, SF
Selfie during a run up Twin Peaks…and yes, I’m that guy without Bluetooth earbuds…too easy to lose traveling!

It was not an easy decision for us either. And for many, simply renting your place out is an option, so you can return to your previous life with less of the uncertainties that selling creates. Of course, having no dependent kids or pets helps, and we recognize that this window in our lives to travel may be unique and precious.

Catching up over coffee with our friend, and our ace SF real estate agent Lisa from Polaris
Garlic noodles at Perilla in the Inner Sunset – Check!
San Francisco fire stations have an annual Christmas light competition…it was on in Portola/West Portal.
Being home means baking with friends in Oakland

Home is nice, and the longevity of friends and place gives you a unique perspective on the passage of time. So we especially appreciate the generosity of our friends sharing their homes (or dinner) with us as we return for these recharge sessions. Thank you to all for your generosity and please know we will try to repay someday when we again have some roots in the ground. (Especially Rich and Andi -:)

Hiking up Montara Mountain…the drama of the Bay Area landscape is striking after travels.
The San Mateo Coast south of San Francisco offers endless beauty and secret beaches.
More hiking with good friends in Redwood City

We’ve now just arrived to an usually cold and snowy Seattle after a somewhat leisurely 3 day drive from the Bay Area, catching up with good friends and family along the way. We have two house sits (x2 cats each). Hopefully now away from most of our friends and family I’ll be able to get back to the important tasks of global travel planing for 2023. But the Pacific Northwest is so intriguing….so many places to explore; hmmm?

Cats eye view in North Seattle

But today the streets are still coated in snow and ice, so we’ll wait for the forthcoming thaw and settle into the coziness of our temporary cats, and sip coffee and tea as we look out into the evergreen and snow landscape. More on our Pacific Northwest winter excursion soon, as well as our scenarios for 2023 travel. Still no “plans” -:)

Happy travelers back in Buena Vista Park

Happy Holidays and safe travels to all!

Six months of travel. Already.

Pre flight testing at San Francisco airport the day before our flight in August, 2021.

Six months of travel so far. I should add the word only to remind myself it’s ONLY been six months. It feels much longer. To have so many new experiences after 18 months of home body living skews your sense of time. We talk about something we did three months ago and it feels as if it were a year or more in the past. I want to tell you what we’ve learned, and what have been our successes, but first – what do I miss?

Baking. Like many, I leaned into cooking and baking during the height of the pandemic. I miss my sour cream coffee cake.

Friends and family are of course on top of the list of what I miss. And I miss baking. But, for everything I miss (except friends and family), there is a consolation activity or option.

Danish bakery in London. Bakeries are a lovely consolation for not being able to bake.

I miss knowing our way around a place. Living for so many years in SF meant I could bike, walk, or take transit almost anywhere without consulting a map. Now, maps are our constant friends.

Rich working the smartphone and paper map on a foggy hike near Grange-Over-Sands.

The upside of not knowing your way around is the constant discovery of new things. Every place, every turn of a corner, every walk to a museum, restaurant, or train station might have an unexpected gem just waiting for us to notice it.

Arrived by bus to Axminster train station in need of a snack. A sign pointed us 50 yards away to a milk vending machine.
Chocolate milk? Yes please.

Every fun discovery gives us a chance to chat with locals, like the gent who was coming to refill his milk bottles at the milk vending machine and walked us through the process. And then a man returning to his work truck from a hardware store nearby stopped to congratulate us on finally figuring out the vending machine, and we chatted for 20 minutes, hearing about his trips to Scotland and France and sharing our own travel stories. It’s not the same as seeing old friends while walking or biking in SF, and we’ll never see those two men again, but I will claim them as momentary friends.

Typical room while bike touring. Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

Comfortable furniture. That we miss! If a hotel room has two chairs we consider ourselves lucky. If even one of them is actually comfortable we’re thrilled.

Two chairs. And fairly comfortable. Heated floors, good for drying laundry. Disentis, Switzerland.

The uncomfortable furniture is a small price to pay for the privilege of travel like this. Our time in the UK helped us appreciate slow travel. And I’ve learned to fluff, flip, and rearrange the couch seat cushions in our rental apartments to try and eke out a bit more comfort .

Dinner ready to be cooked in an apartment in Colmar, France.

So what have we learned to make ourselves happy and healthy while traveling long term? Cook for ourselves as much as possible which means apartments with kitchens. We amass a roving pantry when we’re staying in places with kitchens. And we check for a local farmers market first thing.

Farmers Market haul from Keswick, in the Lake District.
Yoga mat folded up for travel. It’s thin and natural rubber so quite sticky.

Exercise is key. Easy when bike touring and when getting a lot of walking in, but we both have specific stretches and strength building exercises we need to do. Enter travel yoga mat. It’s nice to have and even more, it’s a good reminder to actually do the stretches and work outs. After trying to buy it in person I caved and ordered from Amazon to be delivered to an Amazon locker in London. I also ended up ordering laundry detergent sheets from Amazon to be delivered to a locker in Liverpool. Again after failing to find them at local shops. As much as I don’t love Amazon, the ability to get deliveries while traveling is very helpful. Laundry sheets are a fantastic travel item. Light to carry and useful for sink laundry as well as for confusing all in one washer/dryer combo machines.

Defunct train viaduct near Lyme Regis. Rich added for scale. Walking keeps us happy.
The happy, clean, well exercised travelers in France.

We are currently in France, swapping out some gear for our next adventures. Where to next? Italy.

Cruising the Southwest Coast

We rolled into Plymouth by bus and train from Lyme Regis on a Friday eve after our day of (not enough for Cheryl) fossil hunting. We found a nice comfortable apartment east of downtown, which was on the edge of a redeveloped, light industrial area, but proved walkable enough, and close to the Mt Edgecombe ferry and nicely restored Royal William Naval Yard.

Pondering our next moves near Bosigran Castle, Cornwall

Hotels are always busier on weekends these days (still little business travel) so apartments are often a good solution, with the added bonus of being able to cook and avoid busy restaurant nights out.

Smeaton’s Tower Lighthouse that used to mark the treacherous Eddystone reef near Plymouth.

We stayed 5 nights in Plymouth, as a bit of a breather, and to figure out our next moves. To be honest, 5 days was perhaps a day too long, even with side excursions; as Plymouth has a few interesting sights, but suffered badly from the Blitz.

Yes, the Fab Four were here!
Cheryl and our friendly local Greg on the Mt Edgecombe Ferry… hiking AFTER his morning swim off the “Hoe” of Plymouth.
Mt Edgcumbe wandering from Maker to Kingsand, just a 10 minute ferry ride from Plymouth

The core of downtown was rebuilt in the 50’s with a vast scale and the worst of minimalist/brutalist post-war “architecture” and urban planning. The cobbled Barbican and harbor areas are nice and certainly have charm, but the Mayflower Museum was disappointing. But we did enjoy some cosy pubs, the people were friendly, and the countryside nearby is beautiful.

So happy to get on a bike up the Plym River pathway…an easy bus day trip to trailhead rental (Plymouth Bike Hire).
Cycling up to a bakery in Yelverton – Dartmoor National Park
Wheal Martyn Clay Works in Devon…the outdoor museum is a hydro-mechanical playground, and the vast tailings mounds are known as the “Cornish Alps”.
One of many working water wheels that used to be used to process the clay; while the still very active clay mining business is now mostly mechanized.

One of the amazing aspects of long term travel is how much can change in a week. We’ve been enjoying the UK for two months now; but are both feeling the desire to move on to some new adventures. So while we waited somewhat nervously for our booster record and NHS registration to process, we decided we’d shake up our moods by changing modes for a week.

Mmm…freshly made veggie Cornish Pasty in artsy and charming St. Ives.
The Penrith peninsula of Cornwall; spring was in the air.

Yup, we’ve rented a car for the week to get into the nooks and crannies of Devon and Cornwall a bit more, as there are many places that are just impractical to get to by other means. It’s been a great brain challenge to drive a manual transmission left hand shifting while left side driving on the ubiquitous hedge rows of the region. Always ready to stop, and many snap decisions to back up and breathe in to let an on coming vehicle pass with inches to spare. Maybe not as fun for Cheryl as a passenger though!

About as far SW you can get in the UK, with shockingly turquoise waters and granite that feels sub-alpine.
The Merry Maidens stone circle near Mousehole, the rock sizes are tapered to account for the slope of the land…impressive Neolithic applied science.

We’ve also kept the driving to a minimum and always make sure to spend more time out the car walking and exploring. By the way, you can totally visit the region by train and bus, and see a lot…and we’d never consider renting a car in season, as the region is apparently overwhelmed. And we’ll definitely be ready to turn in our keys in a few more days!

What’s over that cliff Cheryl?
Ah yes, a colony of seals lounging on the pocket beach near The Lizard, the southernmost point in the mainland UK.
We walked to Lands End from Senner Cove…always better to approach the tourist hot spots from a distance and walk a few miles instead of a few yards from the car park.

And it’s been a fantastic week, as the coastline is truly stunning and few crowds until the school holidays start in the next few weeks. But alas, we have literally run out of England at Lands End and The Lizard, so we’ve decided to move onto new adventures on the continent. And yes, we’ve finally sorted our vaccine records (Thank you NHS!) so are headed to France this week by the slow boat. Stay tuned and happy travels!

Mousehole, Cornwall…memories of dinner here with my father 35+ years ago …. you don’t forget great travels, especially with family.

Leaning in to slow travel.

In front of the big board at Bristol Temple Mead Station.

As we wait to sort out our booster records we’ve really started to take delight in our snap travel decisions. Our last booked evening in Bristol Rich asked, where should we go next? My reply was “How easy to get to the Jurassic Coast? Looks fairly close.”

Stop for salads from the M&S fine foods. We try to never board a train without snacks or lunch.
Waiting for our train.

And the travel planner makes it happen. I’ve wanted to visit Lyme Regis since reading the novel Remarkable Creatures, about Mary Anning, the renowned fossilist.

At Axminster station, about to catch the bus to Lyme Regis.
Wheeling and walking from the bus to our guest house.

Lyme Regis is the heart of the Jurassic Coast. We had a lovely day and a half of hiking, which I now realize we could have spent fossil hunting. Oh yes, I caught the fossil bug. I caught it bad.

The old train viaduct at Uplyme. A lovely afternoon hike. Could have been hunting fossils.
Beautiful houses in Lyme Regis on a street that slopes down to the fossil beach.
Goofing around on the Cobb, of French Lieutenant’s Woman and Jane Austin’s Persuasion fame – just up from the fossil beach.

The Lyme Regis museum, built on the site of Mary Anning’s house, offers a fossil talk and walk. We bought tickets for Friday, our last day in town, thinking we had plenty of time to do that and catch our bus to the train station.

Apparently her house flooded with high tides and storms. A new sea wall changed that allowing the museum to be built.

The fossil talk was amazing, we learned so much. I learned we didn’t leave enough time for actual fossil hunting.

The wonderful geologist who talked us through what to expect and look for. And answered all the whys of this area.
Fossil hunting. Everyone has their gaze turned towards the sand. There really are fossils just laying on the sand.
The limestone cliffs where the fossils are before they landslide onto the beach. And my intrepid fossil hunter.

The best time to fossil hunt is after a big storm has caused land slips and churned up the beach. We were on the beach after days of mild weather, so not prime fossil time. And it was still amazing. Apparently after a storm the professionals are at the beach before dawn with headlamps and hammers. There are no prohibitions about hunting, just warnings. As our geologist told us, if you don’t get the fossils the ocean will. But don’t let the cliffs get you. They let loose on a regular basis. He kept us away from the cliff bases and focused on the tidal zone.

Looking earthward for fossils.
Two different versions of fossilized ammenonites. The small partial one is iron pyritized.

I’ll let wiki explain how these jewel like fossils happen: Organisms may become pyritized when they are in marine sediments saturated with iron sulfides. (Pyrite is iron sulfide.) As organic matter decays it releases sulfide which reacts with dissolved iron in the surrounding waters. … Some pyritized fossils include Precambrian microfossils, marine arthropods and plants.

A tribute to Mary Anning on the coast path. Her dog Tray and a Plesiosaurus skeleton in metal on a section of fence.

Sadly, we only had a short time on the beach before we had to leave to catch our bus to the train. But we will definitely be back to fossil hunt again.

The happy travelers take a sunset usie. Should have been fossil hunting.

Our next snap travel decision was to go on to Plymouth by train. Since we were so far down SW England, why not go farther? so we did. We’re in an apartment in Plymouth for a while. Where will we go next? And how will we get there? Stay tuned.

Doing the Booster Limbo

We left the beautiful and empty lake district via an easy one connection train trip to western Wales, and have been enjoying a lovely week in Tenby, courtesy again of our endlessly generous friends.

The moist and green footpaths around Tenby

The weather has been favorable as well, with little rain, and temperatures pushing 50 most days, as this is often one of the warmest locations in the UK.

Daffodils reminding us that spring is on the way!
The nicely renovated Manchester Piccadilly Station – our only transfer from Kendal to Carmarthen, Wales

We even had the opportunity to part ways for a few days, as Cheryl went to Cheltenham in the Cotswolds with our host, and another old friend for a ladies getaway, while the guys stayed behind in Tenby.

Cream Tea at the Ivy in Cheltenham

Although we almost always enjoy each other’s company, It was good for both of us to have some independent time for a change, and a bit of an odd sensation after so much intense time together the past 6 months.

The boys on a beautiful day on the Pembrokeshire Coast

Long term travel with a partner definitely requires a special relationship, and a lot of give and take. Luckily this comes naturally to Cheryl and I, but we still have to both respect each other’s personal space, independent desires, and known quirks (Just mine of course, Cheryl is perfect -;)

Watchful eyes in Cheltenham

Meanwhile the world continues to spin and adjust to Omicron, although we are happily past the early January peak in the UK. We certainly hope that the world gets to some endemic normalcy in 2022, but there are a lot of challenges, including proper global vaccination supply. As for us, we know we are lucky to be traveling at all and are still so thankful to the NHS for providing us a booster shot in December, as this allowed us to continue our travels with more protection and in a responsible manner.

Freshwater West Beach – a favorite of surfers and kite surfers (yes, it’s often breezy)

However, since we weren’t registered in the NHS system, we only have small hand written vaccine cards recording our booster. We were given a heads up that this could be an issue going forward, especially for travel documentation, and indeed this month, we have found that our electronic (EU) COVID passports have now expired in most countries, as there has been a new standardization around a 270 day (9 month) validity from original vaccines without a booster.

Walking alone along the cliffs near Tenby reminded me not to get too lost in that podcast

So we need to get our booster vaccines we received in December into a more usable electronic format. We think we have found a solution as you can actually register with a local GP surgery in England as a non-resident, and access the record after being assigned an NHS number. We could have registered in Wales in theory, but the health systems are actually quite separate and we were warned that the transfer of the record from England could be fairly quick or take months…something that wouldn’t work for our desired onward travels to France and Italy.

The Fresh Ponds of the Stackpole Estate. Back when you just made ponds for your amusement, but now a perfect habitat for migratory bids

So we set off to Bristol, England yesterday to try to get registered in the area after some initial success online and with some phone calls to various practices that are still accepting new patients. Many are full or shut off due to COVID and/or ongoing GP shortage issues in the UK. Health systems are strained everywhere.

Up and down the coast path to Saundersfoot

As a bonus, we had a bit of an adventurous day getting to Bristol, England yesterday due to signaling issues disrupting a west wales Main line. When our first train leg was cancelled (and next train in 4 hours!) we quickly booked a taxi to the next transfer station, where our onward journey was still shown on time; however, then found out that the problem was still down the line. Doh!

Oh Oh, no trains going from Carmarthen!

Luckily, after some confusion, Transport for Wales did manage to rustle up a few small mini buses to get us past the issue. And in fact, the friendly driver offered to drive the 20 or so of us to a more convenient station for quicker connections and we ultimately got to Bristol an hour earlier than scheduled, by catching a connecting train with two minutes to spare. Small travel win!

Two full hands in Cardiff; happy transfer after making our trains to Bristol

But we are in a sort of limbo while we try to sort out our booster record, but we will try to make the best of it. And it’s interesting to return to the Bristol-Bath, an area that we really enjoyed in our first visit last fall. You so often say in travel life, “we should come back here some time to see more, etc….” But you rarely do. This is one revelation we discuss as we travel new places now; do you think we’ll come back here someday? Yes, no, maybe….but always realizing that regardless, travel to a place is always a snapshot in time, and a unique experience.

The Hanoi we fell in love with in 2007 was not the same Hanoi in our 2017 return. Of course, the UK does have many places that haven’t changed much 500 (or 5000) years, but the country is still a very different place than 5 years ago, as it has a whole different vibe post-Brexit, and mid-pandemic. The travel experience is a complex blend of a place’s physical infrastructure, social, political, and environmental influences, all filtered though the lens of your personal attitude and biases.

Back in cool Bristol, cool brew pubs and bike bridges included

So what next? Excellent question. On our 7 hour train ride last week from the Lake District, we had some time to think about 2022 and develop some broad scenarios. The challenge is to parse out our 90 allowed Schengen days in the prime spring/summer/fall. Some of the goals include more bike touring in Northern Europe, Scandinavia, and the Baltics….tied to the Grand Depart of the 2022 Tour de France in Denmark on July 1st. (Hotel reserved a year ago -:).

Our friend Gary’s dog Misty on the way to the pub lunch at the Stackpole Inn

In the nearer term, we are looking to do some more exploring in Italy, perhaps walking some of the beaten tourist routes more off-season, such as the Cinque Terre, or Venice. Then “home” to the US of a for a month to see as many friends and families as we can ( and consume as many burritos as humanly possible!)…..then back across the pond to explore Turkey for a month, a place we have long wanted to visit, before swapping out for our bikes again. Central and Southern Africa are also on the short list for later in the year, as well as the Camino Del Norte in the fall. Of course, these are all subject to quick pivot as needed based on the state of the world.

Colorful Tenby Harbour

So hopefully the blizzards are clearing and the sun is starting to shine a bit more wherever you are, as we emerge from a long dark winter, and the burdens of a pandemic. For now we move on in the UK with the uncertainty that has become a way of life.

Happy travels!

Beauty all around us.

Above Ambleside.

Nine days of hiking. And we haven’t even scratched the surface of the available trails. We’ve moved a bit south to the very lovely market town of Kendal, known as the gateway to the Lakes District. The terrain here is less craggy and peaky, more rolling hills and sweeping vistas, but just as beautiful as the Lake District proper and with just as much amazing hiking.

Stone circle of Castlerigg.

The stone walls, the farm animals, our interactions with friendly hikers, and of course the pints at the pub garden at the end of our hikes have been keeping us well entertained. I’m fascinated with the many different types of stiles that get us over fences and walls while keeping the sheep and cattle contained.

Ladder stile over a wall.
Classic wooden stile over a fence.
A narrow gap with a tiny gate.
A very narrow gap, requires even Rich to squeeze through. This is actually called a squeeze stile.
One of my favorites, stone steps up a stone wall.
More robust steps, usually there is a small gap at the top, and here, a metal bar across the gap.
A rather fancy ladder and platform stile, outside Cartmel.

Along with clamoring over stiles we’ve opened, and correctly closed and secured, many gates. Many many gates. So many gates we joke that we now have masters degrees in gate-ology.

The farmers depend on hikers properly closing gates. We make sure we do.
A kissing gate, it simply swings and requires no securing.
I appreciate these signs educating hikers about the animals in the fields.

We’ve had some lovely chats with other hikers. The fell runners and the one tarn (lake) swimmer we saw have impressed us with their hardiness. And, we’ve stopped to talk to hikers who are well into their 70s and 80s. We say to each other after those interactions, with luck that will be us, years from now, still happily hiking together.

Zoe, a 4 month old Jack Russel terrier, accepting a treat supplied by her human.

As we’d hoped, the Covid curve seems to have peaked here in the UK. We’re glad we’ve stayed in apartments and kept out of crowded places as long as we have. Yes we’ve had some very chilly pints and cups of tea outside, but it’s been the right thing for us to do.

A foggy view on the River Eea.

We’ve seen so much stunning countryside. This time in the Lake District in winter was not something we planned on, but we’re enjoying it so much. Travel in the time of Covid is stressful, we think we’re doing a good job keeping ourselves relatively calm and certainly well exercised.

Muddy boots and the green green hills of Cumbria.
Sunrise over the River Kent with Kendal Castle ruins on the hill. This is the view from our apartment.

What’s next? Back to our good friends in Wales. After that, uncertain at this point. We need to get our COVID booster shots entered into the EU tracking system so we have the ability to abide by vaccination rules in France, as our current Pass Sanitaires are now invalid without the booster info being updated. It’s probably easiest to do this while in France. So, maybe France is next.

The happy travelers on the road to who knows where.

Car Free in the Lake District in Winter?…Why Yes!

We moved on from lovely Liverpool late last week and arrived Keswick by train and bus (locally pronounced Kehz-ick) on a spectacularly snowy day in the Lake District.

Dramatic winter skies ascending near Grasmere

We were very glad that our professional bus driver was plying the slushy mountain roads, especially on the sheer edges of deep lakes; nevertheless, we did take note of the emergency window systems on the bus! (avoiding what I called a double decker bus watery grave…-;)

Can we do this without a car?

Our decision to base in Keswick was based on a number of factors, but primarily that we could get there by public transit, and numerous lines route from there to other parts of the National Park. It also has a few museums, nice shops, and many services in town, including a great regional supermarket, Booth’s.

Our row cottage in Keswick came with a friendly outdoor kitty neighbor no charge and a 5-10 minute walk to town or the bus
Cheryl trying to cajole an adorable Lake District sheep to follow her home

Oh, it also happens to be very quaint, with a lovely pedestrianized core and footpaths heading in every direction, including along the large Derwant Waters, what we in America might call a lake!

Morning light on Derwentwater in the Lake District NP

We actually wavered a bit about whether we “needed” to rent a car, but then read about many others visiting car-free and thriving with the great regional transit system. After 6 days here, we know it was 100% the right decision for us.

The 78 bus to the end of the line at Seatoller…schedules, a shelter, and multiple trailheads
Cheryl ready to hike…the other friendly passengers were day tripping photography buffs from Manchester

Our decision also considered the fact that this area is heavily impacted by car traffic, much like the National Parks in the US. Nevertheless, the car parks and road are still surprisingly busy here mid week in January, as driving is still seen as the easiest and best way for most to experience the park. Despite some pay parking in many of the towns and villages, the roads are still free and there is an abundance of free parking available.

Hey, there goes our bus!

But it’s not just about the carbon footprint of driving for us. We’ve seen the impacts automobile congestion, noise, and pollution have on communities. When practical, we don’t want to contribute unnecessarily to the problem. Although traffic is fairly light in the middle of winter now, it apparently is extremely congested most of the year, and a nightmare in holiday periods.

On the way to Styhead Tarn; did we mention there is water everywhere!

The typical scenic two lane roads barely fit two bus widths (they slow to pass) or even some large cars and trucks! Luckily most people in the UK still drive pretty small cars, but they still impact the safety and experience of the bikes and walkers that also use most roads. Many drivers here go too fast for conditions and it can be nerve wracking even on small unmarked country lanes.

Fragile sub-alpine tundra above 500m
The surprising alpine world of northwest England…Styhead Tarn near the Great Gable

National Parks and holiday areas have specific problems, and many have now taken to managing traffic through various methods, such as fees, closures, parking management, and shuttles/transit. The Lake District National Parks is no different and really is trying to address the problem by providing a really good bus system at fairly reasonable (but not cheap) prices.

Returning on the upper deck just before the early winter sun set
The backbone 555 bus runs throughout the core of the district and will connect you to the train in Windemere…closed double deck BTW

The buses are reliable, extensive, clean, and even a joy with double deck service on the some lines and 1/2 open top double deck service on two shorter lines through very scenic areas. So the buses really do double as sightseeing and transit for locals and visitors alike.

Yes, it WAS chilly on the open top bus, but the views will keep you warm

The other key is easy payment. The Stagecoach bus system offers payment by any tap cars/Apple Pay, etc for single/day trips or you can buy a loadable smart card right from the driver £1 fee for week or month passes.

Information is key! Most stops had schedules and route info.

We bought the 7 day gold pass form £29 each, which allows unlimited travel on the entire systems, which extends to the coast and all the gateway/border cities of the whole district.

Less sun, more dramatic colors
Walla Crag view on a misty winter day
But the sun was out today!

The only suggestion we would make to the Stagecoach bus system is to make the pass an 8-day or 7+1 trip pass, as many holiday rentals are 7-nights, so you generally have 8 days of travel. We are going to have to buy another day pass for our last day out of the park…. a minor annoyance. Let’s make this an even easier decision for people.

Gourmet Scotch Eggs from the Keswick farmers market are the ultimate winter hiking food

So we highly recommend coming to the Lake District in the winter. Although the transit system runs a little less frequently, and a few of the lines to very remote areas are peak season only, you will have a lot of the typically crowded places to yourself. Just make sure to always bring your waterproofs, and leave the car behind.

The intrepid travelers press on despite some serious hat head

Lunch time on Mont Forchant

We continued to relax and recoup in the beautiful Vallée Verte by setting out and exploring by foot from our home base, soaking in the endless connected footpaths, trails, and rural roads of France. Our goal yesterday was Mont Forchant, a 1500m peak at the head of the valley known for steep approaches and rewarding views.

Headed up valley

We could have driven to a trailhead and and made an easy two hour peak bag, but what fun is that? So we walked about 10 miles up into the wooded paths with over 2,000 feet of climbing! By walking, we got to stroll through two small villages and lots of rural pleasantness.

Roads plenty quiet to walk
The final push to the summit

So we were hopeful of promised views on Mont Blanc in the distance, but alas, the clouds were still thick on this typical summer day. But it at least cleared enough to see down the valley, and the the clouds made for cooler hiking.

Gazpacho and sándwiches on Mont Forchant

And this being France in August, there was plenty of company at the summit, all enjoying their leisurely picnic lunches. We relished the background buzz of French around us, as it seems this was a locals only place today, along with two very happy Americans.