India again. After 16 years.

In Bengaluru. A good introduction to India landing city for this trip.

Rich and I last traveled in India over 16 years ago. He and my friends will attest that I did not have a great time that last trip. As interesting and unique as I found the country, there were things younger me couldn’t get past. The inequality, for women and for those less fortunate. The crowds. The traffic. Never being left alone to enjoy anything in peace. The poverty. It was a lot.

A street in the neighborhood of Indiranagar where our hotel was. I think the large trees are Rain Trees. The shade they cast makes for a lovely cozy feel to the area. That is the metro line overhead.

I think many travelers and tourists are overwhelmed on their first trip to India. Why, friends asked, are you going back? Well, I replied, we were only in the north in our last trip and people say that North and South in India are as different as in the US. Our first good chat with a local gentleman at our first dinner in Bengaluru confirmed that. He went to North India once, he said, from his native Bengaluru, and it was so different. Like a different country. And, I’m older now, more mature, lots of grey hair. Less likely to attract negative attention. Ok, so I did have my hair dyed purple before leaving Bangkok which means no grey is showing, and I have bright purple hair. Attention? Yes. But it’s my fault this time.

Seriously amazing trees in Cubben Park.
The sidewalks in Bengaluru were so welcome after Bangkok’s limited walking space. And all the trees provide lovely cool shade. Green bike lanes, though we saw very few bikes using them.

So, can my older wiser self settle in to enjoy India more than I did 16 years ago? I think so. It helps that Rich is an enthusiastic traveler in addition to being the best travel planner. We both love experiencing a place as independently as possible. Walking and taking transit as much as we can keeps us happy. Our only taxi in Bengaluru was from the airport to our hotel. All other trips were metro and walking.

The War Memorial garden, floral tributes near the obelisk.
Chai at The Srirangam Cafe.
More tree shaded streets in our neighborhood of Indiranagar.
Riding the metro towards downtown.

Our last four hotels have all been within a block of a metro or subway line. Taipei, Taiwan, two different hotels in Bangkok, one above the MRT and one by the SkyTrain, and now Bengaluru, a block from a purple line station of the Metro. Not an accident, just good planning from Rich. We share a pretty healthy dislike of having to rely on taxis. Every car trip added to a city is a bad thing. For the air, for people’s safety, and for noise pollution. In India the noise is mostly of beeping horns, the scooters are quieter here than the motor bikes in Bangkok – thankfully. But the beeping! Incessant.

At the train station, just a short walk from the metro station.

Since I’m still recovering from breast reduction surgery Rich is carrying both backpacks. Thankfully, the train station connects to a metro stop with a dedicated walkway so for our train ride to Mysore we again avoided a taxi trip. To enter the metro system you have to put your bags through a scanner, and then be wanded by a security guard, men to one side and ladies to the other in a small curtained booth. My first time I actually stopped for the wanding, but my second time I followed the lead of the local in front of me who didn’t even break stride as she passed through the curtains.

All smiles waiting to board our first train. The platforms are very long but the carriage letters were showing on electronic signs so we knew where to wait.
Masked up. Our carriage was less than half full so we did unmask.

Our destination, Mysore, is less friendly to walking trips. For starters it’s hotter here, up to 90f/32c in the afternoon, and sidewalks are not standard. We feel a bit like square pegs in round holes, but we persevere, heading out in the morning to walk to what we can, and taking auto rickshaws back in the heat of the day.

Our first stepwell.

A friend in SF sent us a link to a map of step wells in India (thank you Gisela!), and we took a taxi to this one a bit outside of town. This is a fairly simple stepwell, many are much more ornate. Built to capture water and as temples, construction of these stepwells hit its peak during Muslim rule from the 11th to 16th century – per Wikipedia.

Nanneshwar Devasthana Kalyani
ನನ್ನೇಶ್ವರ ದೇವಸ್ಥಾನ ಕಲ್ಯಾಣಿ

Built in the 8th century this Kalyani, or stepwell, was cleared of garbage and restored in the past few years.

Rich added for scale.

Stepwell visit complete, we had our taxi driver head back towards town and drop us off to wait for the train museum to open. Sitting on a wall in the shade and watching Sunday morning activities was actually quite nice. On our last trip to India I don’t remember being able to sit unmolested by curious or begging locals. Here in Mysore, although there aren’t many tourists back yet, most folks walk by us with only a curious look (Rich is quite tall and I have purple hair, so not unexpected.), a smile, or an offer of an auto rickshaw.

One of favorite things, a small, quirky, somewhat overlooked museum.
An Indian built carriage.
A British built locomotive.

It pains me to be reminded that so much of the history tourists are encouraged to see and celebrate in India is colonial history. The railway has its roots in British rule. From an article by The Wire.IN “Between 1850 and 1910, 94% of Indian broad gauge locomotives were built in Britain and only 2.5 in India. During the Second World War, preconditions for purchases from outside of Britain were relaxed but still the overall balance remained disproportionately tilted in favour of Britain. Thus, prior to independence in 1947, India imported 14,420 locomotives from Britain, built 707 itself and purchased 3,000 from other countries.” However, we were pleased to see what to us are very familiar planning presentations for the ongoing improvements and upgrades to Indian Rail.

Planning deck, anyone? As we well know with both our backgrounds in transportation- nothing happens without plans like these. We could both easily imagine the work that went into this, I’m showing you only 2 of probably 15 pages. Fellow bureaucrats unite. Let’s get it done.

Although Mysore requires more auto rickshaw trips we are managing to walk to some destinations in the morning. The zoo. The Mysore Palace – which is the second most visited attraction in India after the Taj Mahal, apparently.

The palace is lit up on Sunday evening, and it’s free to enter the grounds which means it’s a popular family attraction.
The moon was close to full, and I managed to add even more purple to myself with a new Kurta. Guess my current favorite color.

We went back to the palace on foot one morning. The neighborhood across the street from our hotel fascinates us. One thing I have found that I really enjoy when traveling is making eye contact with women, particularly women my age, and exchanging smiles. Sometimes the smile only come from me. Americans smile a lot, and if you ask other cultures we smile for no reason and it’s weird! I always make a special effort when I see women in a Niqab, the veil and face covering which leaves the eyes clear. Five years ago Rich and I were in Indonesia and both struck up independent conversations with a couple (bathroom at a train station), and she was wearing a Niqab. It made me wonder how often women in Niqab are overlooked, or even ignored, by folks who don’t feel comfortable with the idea of a women who veils or covers. In Indonesia we all laughed to see our partner walk out of the restroom chatting with their partner. When I make eye contact with a woman, of any age, and nod, and she nods and smiles back, I feel like I’ve made a connection, however small.

Navigating the cows in the neighborhood across the street from our hotel.
Don’t let the dirt streets make you think this is a poorer neighborhood. The houses were quite nice.
The pongol, harvest festival, occurs in mid January and many cows were still sporting their turmeric water paint jobs.

Our walk to the zoo took us through this neighborhood, and our walk to the palace. It was fun to see the children being packed into auto rickshaws for the trip to school. I counted nine children in one rickshaw. Ladies, I assume maids for the houses, were sweeping and watering down front stoops and steps, and drawing elaborate rangoli or korams in rice flour.

Rangoli with color.
Spotting the rangoli was like a treasure hunt.
Not every house had one, which made them even more special. Apparently the devotion to this mostly women’s art comes and goes as generations give it up or take it up.

You can understand how a simple 15 minute walk to the zoo turned into a tour of its own.

These rhesus macaque monkeys at the zoo, not in an exhibit, were the only ones we saw in Mysore. Escapees from the actual macaque exhibit we assume. This little guy was thrilled with the plastic bottle he got from a trash can.
We’ve seen zoo workers in with elephants in Indonesia as well. In the US most if not all zoos keep humans and elephants quite separate. At one point elephant keeper was the most dangerous job in the US.
Many Dosa were eaten.
The purple lady waiting to dig in to a Dosa.
In the Mysore Palace. Once we realized we were the only ones obeying a few old no photos signs, we started taking photos too.
The colors. Amazing.
Columns, chandeliers, stained glass skylight.

So am I better at travel in India this time? Yes and no. We are more experienced travelers, but India doesn’t really suit our travel style. It’s challenging to be independent travelers here, which is why we see so many tour groups at our hotel being loaded into an AC bus after breakfast. It’s hard to book trains, or figure out local buses, and it’s challenging to walk many places. Rich has been working out in the hotel gym, but since I’m still recovering I can only walk. No yoga or arm workouts yet, so I’m feeling antsy. But the highs of India are indeed high and I’m glad we’re here. I love seeing and learning about new things. Tomorrow we leave Mysore and head to a lodge stay near a nature reserve. It’s not great tiger viewing season, but we can always hope, and the bird watching is supposed to be amazing.

The happy travelers in an auto rickshaw that matched my color scheme.

Chaos and Calm in Bangkok

This is our fourth visit to Bangkok. Bangkok is unique, fluid, and always changing. And we always look forward to further exploration of this vast and fascinating city, built over the swamp and floodplains of the Chao Phrayo River.

The Bangkok vision of a green city…from Benchakitti Forest Park

A lot has changed over 17 years since our first visit. There are new green spaces, MRT and SkyTrain extensions, and dozens (hundreds?!) of new malls and high rise buildings. But in many ways it hasn’t changed, including frenetic streetlife, food, and more traditional low rise and open living in most neighborhoods.

Bonus meet up with our friend Charlie, who used to live in Bangkok, and now leads and organizes amazing safaris in Africa and Asia with Remote Recreation

But the pace of change in urban mobility hasn’t happened as fast as you would expect, or in pace with other big Asian and global cities. And unhealthy air, noise, and traffic are still major drawbacks to daily life. Some of this is due to challenging and unstable governance, some due to a slowing of the economy and the pandemic, but at its core, Bangkok is fighting a legacy of car and scooter dependence that has been coddled, accommodated, and supported by street expansion and lots of (mostly free) parking at every destination.

A slightly more orderly but still congested Bangkok in 2023

Of course, the addition of more highways and toll roads has helped overall capacity, and apparently even the continuous congestion and traffic jams of 2023 pale in comparison to the true chaos of the 1980s and 90s before road expansion and rail transit began.

Yup, this is where you walk…also the scooter lane, and unlike the narrow lanes of Europe, cars, vans, and SUVs are big here.

But it’s a catch up game, as the first SkyTrain (metro) didn’t open until 1999. Luckily, major development has been concentrated along transit corridors. And there are now 3 BTS SkyTrain lines with 62 stations and 2 MRT lines with 46 Stations. The buses seem to be a missed opportunity as they have little or no dedicated space and suffer in the congestion. These old buses belch a scary amount of diesel along the roadways into air often in the 150-200 (very unhealthy) AQI levels.

Up on the skyway…choosing the right station exit can save you time and the stress of crossing mega intersections

There is also an elevated driverless train line to the somewhat distant Suvarnabhumi (BKK) Airport that opened in 2010. These have all helped to reduce car dependence and expanded the reach of transit. But overall, the system is not extremely user friendly as the BTS, MRT, and Airport Trains are operated by separate companies, so ticketing is still separate and connections a bit clunky and congested. But it all works and much of the service is good. We just carried two fare cards and swapped out for SkyTrain to MRT trips, and bought an electronic single-fare token for our trip from the Airport.

Adding fare to our MRT tap cards…once you get the hang of it, it sort of makes sense. Minimum add is 100baht, but machines only take one bill per top up transaction. Quirky.

We spent a week here in 2007 staying with two different expat friends. Outside of India, Bangkok was our first big Asian city experience. It was a globalization boom time. (And possibly peak?) We were mesmerized by the chaos and modernity of the city, then one of the fastest developing in the world outside of China.

The travelers loved the new SkyTrain in 2007…so young!
Varied street life on the side streets…explore and you never know what you will find

At that time, we explored the country for 6 weeks, so saw the northern mountain regions, northeast rural and Mekong, and the southern peninsulas and fabulous islands. Like most western travelers to Thailand, we loved it. We stopped over here for 3 days in 2014 and 2017 as part of travels onward in Asia. Both follow up visits were enjoyable as we stayed in two different neighborhoods, but always close to a MRT or Skytrain station.

Chatuchak Park next to the mega weekend market of the same name has a great 2mi loop to walk and is very well kept with park staff on bikes. Yeah Bangkok!
Lumphini Park is the old main park of Bangkok…still a nice respite with trees, but nearby mega construction and a bit too much “stuff” in the park reduces its luster somewhat
Asian Water Lizards are all over the parks and canals of Bangkok, they can grow up to 10 feet!

So fast forward to January 2023….two coups, military leadership, a new King, global slowdown, and three years of a pandemic devastating the tourist economy which accounted for over 20% of the GDP in 2019. It’s still the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, but the stagnation is obvious and frustrating for the hard working and constantly striving lower and middle classes.

Canal paths are arteries of a calm and old style life in many neighborhoods
Some canals could link up neighborhoods, but most are neglected or cut off…definitely a future walking network opportunity

Its growth and development is still chugging along, but it does feel like it the benefits of mega projects, skyscrapers, and industry are not reaching the masses. The unfortunate decision in the late 80s to embark on a massive roadway expansion in the city instead of transit set the patterns that feel intractable in today’s Bangkok.

The Bangkok Art and Cultural Center is a fun and free space to explore in central Bangkok

On the bright side, a new central train station has been opened in northern Bangkok, that the government hopes to use as a hub of a vastly expanded rail network, with a specific goal for tourist service. Good plans if they can find the will or money to execute the plan.

The massive new Krung Thep Aphiwat Central Terminal opened January 19th
Me and the Royal Family approving of the fantastic new station

Thailand still seems to need more tourist (and other?) taxes to pay for infrastructure. One of the highly touristed (and beautiful) islands Koh Tao has instituted an arrival tax for each tourist to help pay for much needed sanitation and environmental improvement s, but it’s modest (<$1), so progress will be slow. Thailand itself is also proposing an international arrivals tax of 300 Baht (about $10) starting in June, but monies are designated for accident services and development assistance. It still seems light based on the impact tourists have on the infrastructure.

Platforms and multi level concourse are inside the grand hall, but no photos allowed…
Striking architecture
Recruitment for new taxi drivers….but the station is also connected to two metro lines
Beautiful, but a little vacant on opening as this was built for the future; including HSR

But the most obvious deficiency in Bangkok’s transport network is walking and cycling. It’s shockingly disconnected. The artery and capillary (Soi) network is disconnected by design and development legacy, as well as many routes being cut off by the remaining canals. But dead end streets are the nicest to live on and bring quiet from the chaos, so the challenge is to expand walking and cycling networks without inducing car and scooter traffic. It can work with some clever bollards, gates, or chicanes…and maybe some scooter traffic is acceptable as this would shorten trips for many from the arteries, as a grid is established.

This is the way!
Yup, Soi 14 does go through …just barely, but a fantastic calm link south of Sukamvit
There is literally no space for bikes on most roads in Bangkok…only for the brave and determined
Kitty finds some calm under a pick up truck

So for us, this is a livability failure. The lack of connectivity has been recognized by some studies (See UDDC Goodwalk pilot plan) and a few small steps have been taken recently to improve pedestrian mobility, such as new ladder crosswalks and a corresponding law increasing fine for motorists violating ped ROW in a them.

The calm of some of the alleys and sub alleys is a delight and an opportunity for connectivity

It is a bit encouraging, but mostly pedestrians are still a sub-species clinging to gutters, dodging scooters, and navigating a pretty hostile, polluted, and unpleasant streetscape on the main arteries. On hot and polluted days, which are many, it makes even the most ardent walker retreat to an alternate means.

Oh, but the food is amazing and tasty and still and integral part of daily life in Bangkok. The Northern Thai casual restaurant
Cheryl enjoying Khao Soi at the amazing Hom Doam in Thonglor
A Northern Thai food sampler at Hom Doam
A main canal, just west of the Jim Thompson museum house, has fast ferry service and connects to the river.

But indeed this a just a drop of perspective from a non-resident Farang, and I don’t begin to pretend to understand the complexities of life and culture here. But the local officials and planners do. And many are working hard to make the long vision changes to lifestyle and infrastructure that will lead to a healthier environment and people.

Great meeting fellow travelers Heather and Volkan for a long chat at Chamlong’s vegetarian restaurant near Chatuchak
Buddhist Temples are can be prominent or tucked away in hidden spots throughout Bangkok
Green alleys to quiet living oases…if you could only keep walking

Bangkok is a complex ecosystem of 11 million people, and finding the balance of economic growth and opportunity versus health, pollution, and mental health is tough. But as Asia often looks forward, I’m hopeful that next time we visit bangkok we’ll see more positive changes. Already they are considering a congestion charge, expanding the MRT, and modifying laws to improve pedestrian life. Just don’t move too many of the food carts out of the way….we can walk around!

The happy travelers in Benchakitti Forest Park

Happy travels and on to Southern India!

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!

The amazing food city of Taipei, Taiwan.

Working up an appetite with a morning hike up Jiantan Mountain Park.

So much amazing food. So many fun places to go to eat good food: shopping malls, night markets, little hidden restaurants in office building basements.

We dove right in with Xiolongbao (soup dumplings) at Din Tai Fun, famous for this dish and with many locations around the city.

From our first meal we were captivated. We are so happy to be able to travel in Asia again. Taiwan only opened back up to tourists in October 2022 with no 14 day quarantine required. This is our first trip to Taiwan and yes, we are already talking about when we’ll come back. Hopefully for a bike tour. We mention that to everyone we chat with to get as many tips and recommendations as possible.

Elevenses here means iced coffee for Rich and an iced matcha milk for me. At Cho Cafe in the Wanhua District.

We’re walking and taking transit everywhere we go. Walk, museum, walk, snack. Walk, lunch, walk, bubble tea.

Hot and sour soup, greens, and pork leek dumplings in beef soup.
The beef soup was delicious. The dumplings devine. At Lao Shan Dong Homemade Noodles.
The workers were so nice to us at this place. They helped us order and the young man who brought my soup and dumplings asked if I liked spicy. Why yes, I do. He brought me a little dish of something spicy from the condiment bar.
Google translate is such a good addition to travel in countries where you don’t speak any of the language, this translates as spicy butter. Yes please.
One more photo of the delicious hand cut noodles in Rich’s soup. I failed to get a photo of the chef making these noodles when we walked in, and of course when we left he wasn’t there.

Taipei is justly famous for its night markets. We’ve gotten to four so far, and the mix of food and goods for sale, families, groups of youngsters, bright lights, and divine smells is intoxicating. Ok, I admit that when passing a stinky tofu stand the aroma is a bit overwhelming, but we did try the stinky tofu with lunch one day. Not bad. The taste is milder then the scent.

Even with so many food opportunities at the markets, there are fan favorites. Look for the lines and join in. This line is for Gua bao, or the Taiwanese Hamburger (刈包)
Replenishing the bao supply.
Rich waiting and watching. The line moves quickly.

四兩刈包-台北創始總店/Si-liang Taiwanese Gua Bao, in the Zhongzheng District was our choice but many places make versions of this.

Here you can see the bao, the peanut powder, and the coriander. There is also pickled mustard greens.
The meat, pork belly. Fat, lean, or half and half. We got half and half.
The delicious result. Many customers were buying multiple bao and riding off on scooters. We found a small park and sat and enjoyed.
Boba tea break!

Taipei is also loaded with tea stands. Bubble tea. With boba. With jelly cubes. With any base tea or fruit juice you could hope for. Green tea, black tea, milk tea. Again, such patience from the staff. It’s nice to be in a place not overwhelmed with tourists. Type of tea, level of sweetness, quantity of ice. Be ready with those decisions.

Taiwan is working to get rid of single use plastics, so all the bubble teas we’ve gotten have been in paper cups, this one welcoming the upcoming lunar new year of the Rabbit. Yes, still plastic straws but we save ours and reuse them. Many customers have their own tea containers and places offer discounts if you bring your own container.

Ok, another night market – this one really at night. And a Saturday night to boot! We expected crowds, and crowds there were. It was a bit overwhelming, but we dove in and immediately got in line for Fuzhou Black Pepper Buns (福州胡椒餅). Don’t let the lines discourage you, they move quickly and the staff have this down to a science.

Rahoe Street Night Market.
The line for black pepper pepper buns.
The goal. Get those buns in your belly! Yes, those are Michelin notations you see in the sign. We’ve never been to a Michelin starred restaurant, these Michelin noted places are more our style.
These buns are cooked in a tandoori style oven, stuck to the edges.
Closer photo of the buns, clustered like bats in the oven.
And halfway through this very hot, very delicious treat. The sesame encrusted bun did a good job of containing the filling.

Saturday at the night market was crowded. But people here are good with crowds, very collaborative.

If you saw something you wanted, you just pulled over to the side.
It was too crowded for this little dude, they got a lift up out of foot zone.

A note on all the masks, Taiwan lifted the outdoor mask mandate December 1st, 2022. Would you have guessed that from our photos? Probably not. People don’t seem all that eager to unmask outside yet. We mostly follow the crowds and mask when we’re in busy areas or in line for food, but when it’s just us walking around we go mask free.

One more fun food to share.

We have so many more photos and experiences to share, but I’m going to wrap up this post with one last food.

What are these little balls on skewers? So many possibilities. Octopus? Sweet potato and cheese? Meat? None of the above.
Fried milk.
Delicious. Halfway between a custard and ricotta cheese. The perfect end to an evening of snacking.

Eating our way through the markets reminded us of our recent time in the Basque area of Spain, and wandering the towns eating pinxtos. Similar ease of ordering, point and gesture if you don’t speak the language, hand over money, thank you and step away.

The well fed and Happy Travelers in front of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall.

We’ll share more soon from amazing Taipei!

What’s so great about San Francisco?

Gorgeous buildings with amazing paint jobs. A paint job like this is a gift to the city.
This deserves two photos. I’ve seen this house when that bare tree is exploding with bright fall leaves. Stunning.

Let’s start with the architecture. And the way folks paint their buildings. The four or five color paint jobs on the Victorians always take my breath away, this one in particular. So bold. And the fence! This is a tour de force of color and joy. I love this house.

A lovingly kept corner building. That awning. The color scheme.

I haven’t found a better city for just walking around and looking at buildings. It helps that since there is so much money in the City now, more people seem to be spending to spruce up the lovely old buildings. SF has a boom and bust history, a history of rising from the ashes, and the care for these exteriors you see must bear witness to a deep love for this City. With each brightly or carefully painted building the mosaic of the city is enhanced.

Even when clad in more subdued colors these buildings charm.
Nighttime glamour. I’m glad I got this photo, that huge Christmas tree in the window was gone the next day.

Great buildings- check. What else makes San Francisco amazing?

Transit! Oh the joy of traveling around while someone else drives and I can look out the window. A bus window. Perfectly situated to enjoy a nice high view.

Great transit. San Francisco has it. I admit that I have always lived quite central and in the northern part of San Francisco where the transit, biking, and walking are all good, and not every corner of the city is as accessible, but I have explored every corner of this city by transit. It’s better than many places we’ve visited in the US. It helps that SF is a small city, 7×7 Sq miles. With the help of MUNI you can explore all the neighborhoods.

The MUNI worm logo. Best transit logo ever? Probably.
Mask free MUNI selfie. On the J Church.
This view. Top of Dolores Park from the J Church. Rivaled only by the view from the 33 bus line as it crosses Upper Market Street.

And what gives us the great views from MUNI? The hills. Tough by bike and even on foot, but a climb up a hill is well rewarded.

The roller coaster swoop of Dolores Street. You might not think of palm trees and SF together, but Dolores Street has an impressive line of palms.

Yes, I was that tourist standing in the middle of the intersection marveling at the hill. I love it when other pedestrians turn to look at what has me mesmerized. See! I want to say, look at that swoop of trees. So cool.

Not every view of hills is as glamorous, but something about seeing hills makes me happy. And those electrical wires are so SF.

We have been so fortunate to stay with different friends each time we come back to this city we love, and left. Each stay in a different neighborhood lets us experience a new to us neighborhood and see a part of the city with fresh eyes. A wise person wrote that you can’t hate San Francisco unless you love it first. (In response to one of those ‘I’m leaving because of…’ letters.) It’s not tolerated to hate this city if you haven’t first learned to love it.

The Golden Gate Bridge after the first big January storm. The road to Ft. Point took a beating.
And that old photo bombing bridge again, with Rich and his flat tire. Photo credit Rich1.

And love it we do. All the reasons I give above are nothing on the main reason why we love this City: so many good friends. We come back to recharge, to swap out stuff from our storage unit, and for Rich to get some bike rides in with his buddies. We come back to see how our city is doing, to find out if the continuing onslaught of wealth has chipped away at more of what makes this quirky city unique and lovable.

Another stunning view. The top of Dolores Park.

After Seattle our little City of hills seems so compact and charming. People are California nice, quick to smile and chat. It does make us wonder if we can settle anywhere else. So, a decision not to make that decision is made. We love SF, and we leave again. Houseless but not homeless.

The Happy Travelers waiting for a BART train to the airport, headed for Taiwan.

Packed up and on our way. Goodbye again San Francisco. See you in about five months. Until then, stay quirky.

Sitting Pretty in Seattle – 2022 in Review

Happy New Year! We’re just winding down our second house sit in Seattle and after almost 2 weeks, we’ve learned a lot about life during winter in Puget Sound. As expected, it is wetter, colder, and darker than the SF Bay Area winter. No real surprise there.

The amazing Cheryl and Seward Park along Lake Washington
Fully equipped kitchens, one of house sittings many perks

But “living” in two different untouristed residential neighborhoods has allowed us the opportunity to experience a bit more realistic perspective. We’ve walked to the parks, grocery stores, and restaurants that we might use if we lived here. We have to decide to walk, take a bus, or drive as yes, life in most of Seattle would be fairly limited without a car for some trips ( We’d also have bikes of course).

Cute cats, another perk
Not to mention security detail!
Kubota Garden – a Japanese garden oasis and one of Seattle’s 485 parks!

People are very laid back compared to SF and friendly if you engage them, but sidewalk or trail greetings are not a given. Just all a bit reserved here. Nordic roots maybe play a part in this. Or maybe it’s the fact that the area draws more introverts with the weather and open space of the Northwest. Where can I hide in the wet woods? Seattle for sure.

Coal Creek Falls in Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park
Cougar Mountain Reserve was previously an active coal mine…ferns hide the legacy pits!
Cheryl never listens!

Seattle has been cool and intriguing to the nation for years, but especially since the rise of grunge and SubPop records in the late 80’s and early 90’s. We’ve been here many times, including multiple bike tours and I’ve been listening to the amazing KEXP for years on the web.

The glassy north side view of Seattle’s skyline with our friend Christine.

We always enjoy it, but how would it be in the dead of winter? Well, we still love it. The magnificent firs, cedars, and other evergreens are in frequent view and are so soothing along with the occasional spectacular Mountain View’s. But it IS cold and damp, and we’ve only had two doses of sunshine in two weeks. Other than an unusual ice storm our first few days, the rain has always been on and off.

The mighty Olympic Mountains from Queen Anne near downtown Seattle. The core and inner neighborhoods are very walkable.

But like the locals, it’s really not an issue if you have decent gear or just ignore it and run or walk in the rain. It’s just water Californians, don’t freak out like a cat in a bathtub! We haven’t freaked out.

More cute cats to keep us warm in Seattle
What’s that thing on the ground behind Cheryl? Rare winter sun in Seattle.

So we’ve surmised that cozy and warm housing is a key to happiness here as there is no fallback to walk in regenerative sunshine in winter, like SF. Oh, and Vitamin D supplements left over from our last dark winter in the UK are just what the doctor ordered. And we’d also need to scale back our pace a bit…which is good.

A rite of passage in the PNW…drive thru Espresso near Mount Vernon.
Caffeine brightens the gray days

Another place we’ve been intrigued about, mostly from afar, is the City of Bellingham which is two counties and about 90 miles north of Seattle. Close, but a very separate place. We bike toured through the area during late summer many years ago and found it beautiful and it felt a bit undiscovered. It’s no longer undiscovered by any means after articles in the New York Times and appearances on endless “best places to retire” lists.

Lake Whatcom…drinking water and recreation source for Bellingham.

We only had two brief days to explore the city and environs but it is a very nice place. Funky but somewhat vibrant downtown, hills, views, forest, lakes, mountains and many parks. It’s also only about an hour by car to Vancouver, Canada, although the border crossing can slow things down.

Downtown Bellingham is funky and hip boosted by 16,000 students at Western Washington University
Old building charm in Bellingham

Could we live here? Sure, it’s very cool. But at this point in our lives, we still crave a bit more urban density, diversity, and a variety of neighborhoods to explore. Seattle has this AND access to the outdoors, although maybe not as close or as as quickly to remote wilderness as Bellingham.

Afternoon Chai and a Cortado at Makeworth Coffee Roasters – Bellingham Chic.

So the decision to live somewhere else for awhile is not easy for us and is not easy when you’ve been in the blissful bubble of San Francisco, which is so eminently walkable, very bikeable, and still full of creative people, variable cultures, and amazing food. We always compare places to these high bars.

Whatcom Falls Park in Bellingham. Including a landmark WPA bridge.
A legacy logging railroad trestle in Bellingham who’s days are unfortunately numbered due to collapse and flood risk.

But SF has its problems, especially affordability, exacerbated by a lack of new housing and stagnant neighborhood planning. The financial disparities are tough and strain everything. Seattle has similar issues, but has more of a relief valve in buildable area and housing options. But we also have deep roots and hundreds of friends and family in the Bay Area. We would miss them but are convinced we could find some good friends here too…we just might need to start the conversation!

Breadfarm in the quirky artist hamlet of Bow…very picturesque but we didn’t think the bread lived up to the scene.
Enjoy your pastry and coffee by an inlet of Puget Sound
Unfortunately, the King tides and the lowlands around Samish Bay don’t always mix well.

But no need to fret about where we land yet as we have decided to wander the globe for another year. We stayed in 130 different places in 2022….yup, that is a lot, so settling down somewhere now would be a bit like hitting a travel brick wall at 100mph. Other stats for 2022 FYI: 45 days of house sitting (9 cats, 2 horses, 2 bunnies), 61 days in apartments, 146 days in hotels (apart hotels, B&Bs, Inns, and pensions), 3 nights on transport(planes, trains, and a ferry), and finally 110 days with friends and family (thank you all-:). Whew!

Where will we go in 2023?

So tomorrow we meander a few days back to the Bay Area for final prep and friend catch up before heading on our next big adventure in Asia…first stop, Taiwan. So excited!

Happy travelers ready for 2023!

Happy New Year and Happy Travels. Maybe we’ll see you out there!

How to take a vacation from your travels. And on to the next adventure.

It’s been over a year since we’ve been nomading, vagabonding, wandering – whatever it is we’re doing. The transitions can be very challenging, city to county side, country to country, bike touring to backpack travel again. How do we do it without burning out, or driving each other bonkers? Our secret superpower is a home base in France, thanks to wonderful friends who hopefully know how much we appreciate it. There we can swap gear, relax in familiar and comfortable surroundings (Oh, comfy couch, we love you.), and actually be in different rooms from each other! For hours!

Those are the smiles of travelers who get to be somewhere familiar and cozy, and swap out some gear.

We are super fortunate to have a private home where we can recharge, but we also have places which are familiar and comfortable that provide the same mental break. Bristol, in the UK. A city we love and have been to three times. Hove/Brighton will be one of those places as well. Both have good public transit, lots to do and see and good for getting around the area. Izmir, Turkey is probably one of the places we’ll go back to again and feel happy knowing our way around, and what we like to do and eat. Our home town of San Francisco, of course. A place where you can navigate without a map and know the bus routes and bike routes. That feels great, wherever it is.

The relief felt when encountering French bike infrastructure again is massive.

But wait, how did we get here? As Rich mentioned in the previous post, Hove to the Haute Savior takes about 13 not always easy steps, with loaded touring bikes. Trains, a ferry, rides to and from hotels, to and from trains, trains to trains, and finally a lift the last few steep miles. We love the UK, but the French have really zoomed ahead of the British with safe, comfortable bike facilities, especially in urban areas and to connect town and cities. From getting off the ferry in the dark and rain, and directly on to a protected cycle way to our hotel, to the next morning riding the riverside path that led us into Caen for our train to Paris, it felt easy and relaxed. We both breathed a sigh of relief. Oh yeah, this is fun! Bike touring with no safe route is so stressful. Bike touring with lovely pathways and signage? A joy.

Headed from Ouistreham where the ferry docks, into Caen.
Arrived at Gare Paris Saint-Lazare via train. Tick off another step.
Rue de Rivoli in Paris at rush hour. Headed to our hotel in the 12 arrondissement.

Let’s take a moment to recognize what an amazing transformation Paris has undergone. 10k at rush hour with loaded touring bikes and it was not at all stressful. Even though we probably caused some near misses as we stopped at red lights and the cyclists behind us kept going – there was no cross traffic so they were being safe, just not expecting the big old loaded American touring bikes to actually stop! We got the hang of it. The quiet of Rue de Rivoli was like a forest bath. The sound of voices and bike tires. No loud engines. No car horns. Just the lovely sound of people. I’ll say it again, cities aren’t loud, internal combustion engines are loud.

Gare de Lyon, waiting for our TGV platform to be announced. One night in Paris is too short a stay, but still fun.
Three trains later, yada yada yada, we made it!

So, now that our legs, backs, and bottoms are totally adapted to bike touring, after four months of travel by and with bikes, let’s mix it up!

Load up that backpack, lace up the boots, and let’s Camino.

While down in town at the weekly market, where we walked with our packs which have scallop shell Camino patches on them, a young man said to us – you have a long way to go. And then after I used my one good French phrase “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.”, he said it again in English. (Oh, to be bilingual.) Why thank you for thinking we could and would walk all the way from the French border with Switzerland to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, but no. We will actually fly to Bilbao.

My Camino pack. Getting some air.

We try quite hard to not fly places. This will be our first flight since returning from Turkey in May. Unfortunately, avoiding air travel means you must have time, and more money than the cheap flights cost. But, we do what we can, and sometimes our chosen lifestyle means airplanes.

Lunch break on our first training day out with our packs.
Second day hiking. Ready for the rain.
And rain it did. We were grateful to find this shelter by a glider field so we could enjoy our lunch.

With packs on and trekking poles in hands we started walking. And walking some more. Hopefully we’ll be in good enough hiking shape for the long Camino days.

Third day. Up into to the fog we go.
A very helpful and beautiful orientation table at the peak of the climb. It did clear a bit on our way back.
He’s ready to Camino.
Practicing the Camino picnic. My Cleverhood rain cape doubles as a ground cloth for sitting.

What a place to be able to train for the Camino. The Lower Alps are simply stunning. Varied terrain, nicely signposted routes, amazing views. And beautiful cows. Making all that delicious cheese.

Respect our cows. Words to live by.
Who could not respect you? Gorgeous.
The Happy Travelers on our final training hike. The sun came out to bid us farewell.

By the time you read this we will be headed to Spain. We’re meeting dear friends from California to hike part of the Camino del Norte. Adiós y Buen Camino!

London to Brighton by Bicycle! Hove, actually.

Welcome back and sorry for the delay! After our wonderful 6+ weeks of exploring Ireland, we left Dublin under the threat of rain to catch an early boat to Holyhead, Wales. Our ultimate destination was a house and cat sit stay in Hove, on England’s historic south coast, and part of the lively Brighton and Hove municipality.

Cruising South Downs National Park towards the water and Brighton
Riding to the Port of Dublin, which is really a work in progress.

Luckily the rain managed to hold off while we rode to the massive Dublin port and terminal area, and the Irish Sea was thankfully calmer than predicted. We also decided to try out Irish Ferries instead of Stena Line, but we’ll fill you in on all the nuances of our year of ferry, train and bike travel in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.

Posing with our new friend waiting to board the Ferry in Dublin
Successfully off the train at London Euston, at a very quiet spot at the end of a platform and 10 car Avanti West train! One other intrepid cycle tourist with us.
Central London rush hour cycling was a breeze, even in a bit of rain.

Since we didn’t have time to ride all the way from Wales to Hove, we decided to train from Holyhead to London and then spend 3 relatively short days cycling to Hove via scenic back routes and footpaths. So we boarded the train in Holyhead, and after one transfer arrived in London.

Further along the Thames towards Wimbledon the roads got a lot more hectic

But unlike our last ride across London, which was on a quiet Saturday morning, we had 17km of pure evening rush hour riding from Euston Station to Wimbledon. I had found a nice guest house in Wimbledon that was bike friendly, walkable to dinner, and much cheaper than any part of Central London. It also got us a bit on our way towards Hove, and allowed a bit of the stretching of the legs after the ferry and train time.

Loved the Marple Cottage Guest House in Wimbledon

The irony of our ride was that Central London was still easy peasy due to light traffic, great bikeways, and smooth pavement. But as soon as we left the core and headed southwest into SW3, 11, and 18, the roads got a lot busier and the bike accommodation was less. The reimagined cores of global cities are now often ahead of their more suburban car oriented neighbors. Regardless, we made it to Wimbledon just fine, and were pleased to have a long 13-hour travel day over! It was then an easy walk to a great pub (The Alexandra) for dinner and some libations. We liked that the Alexandra had a sports side, non sports area, and upstairs loft, so you could choose your setting based on your mood. (Or passion for Arsenal or Liverpool!)

Finally, a bench atop Farthing Downs to have some lunch!
Unsuitable for trucks means more suitable for bikes!
A nice dry foot path in Sussex.

We had been to Wimbledon a few times when staying in London, as the area is nice, and walking though Richmond Park via Wimbledon Common is lovely. With easy train connections to central London, it’s a good alternative neighborhood to stay in if you want a bit less hubbub and cost than central London too.

The breakfast at the Godstone Inn was fantastic; Gourmet Full English and Avocado Toast with Scrambled Eggs.

There is no single “route” from London to Brighton and no National cycle network route that gets you there directly unless you divert fairly far east or west. You can head west via the NCR4 and 223 (rail trail-flat!) or east via the Avenue Verte, which is a good route to Paris via the Newhaven-Dieppe DFDS Ferry. We still went fairly directly and used Komoot, and a route on the Cycle.Travel site. I then tweaked each daily route to try to avoid busier roads, take in some sights, and hit sections of quiet lanes tagged by Komoot users. The big advantage of cycle touring on a leisurely schedule is that it is always easier to lengthen a journey and day as desired, but not the opposite. If you’re more time pressed, then you often have fewer choices and can be forced to take busier roads and ride through the worst of the weather.

Ready for Day 2 from Godstone.

The main roads south of London and in Sussex are all pretty busy, so we were happy to have the time to explore via smaller routes. It was also supposed to be rainy, and rain it did, so our schedule allowed us to duck under cover for showers, and not fret about excessively long days out in the wet. About 40-50k a day, but it did feel much longer on wet hilly roads, muddy paths, and stops at little sights along the way. Slow travel for sure.

Sometimes the footpaths turn foul.
Cheryl trying not to shred her legs through the briars…mostly successful.
Heading down into the green abyss near Ardingly via some very steep hollows.

One challenge of routing via Komoot or OS maps is knowing what the real condition of a footpath or bridleway will be. They vary widely! Smooth forest floor, decomposed rock or grass can be easy. Roots, mud, briars, and kissing gates or stiles can be a real challenge….your best bet is to look at notes/markers people have tagged in Komoot and be ready to turn around and divert back to paved roads as needed.

A memorable night at the Ardingly Inn, sharing in the shock of the Queens passing with the locals.

Even with our planning; we inevitably were on some busy stretches of A and B roads to connect up the quiet lanes, but they were not too bad for short stretches, but not recommended for longer distances, with large trucks and often mixed/no shoulders. Some A roads have bike lanes indicated on Google (light green solid lines), but these can consist of 2-3 foot shoulders, and with grit, wet roads, and high speed traffic, are not really anywhere you WANT to be. There is still a lot of work to do in the UK to make safe cycling networks complete and practical for those other than hard core sporty types. Or those with a lot of time (like us-:).

St. Martin’s Church, Westmeston.

The other variable on footpaths is how they are maintained, as clearly some landowners don’t really seem to want to accommodate the rightful access. But don’t get me wrong, the public footpath and bridleway network in the UK is an amazing thing and really allows unfettered and peaceful walking almost anywhere you want to go. We really missed this in Ireland. So as we build our perfect country, we’d take the footpath system from the UK, and the cycling access from the Netherlands.

Ready for our final short day via the Ditchling Beacon from Ardingly
Cheryl’s final assault on the Ditchling Beacon! And about to cross the South Downs Way long distance walking path.
Atop the Ditchling Beacon looking back towards London
Hove’s iconic beach cabins on a Saturday morning as a local triathlon finishes up.

All in all, the three days were very nice despite the rain. Sussex countryside is beautiful and the rains of the past few weeks had regreened the landscape from the late summer drought. (But not enough to fill the reservoirs again!)

The English Channel….France in the far distance!
Brighton’s waterfront quay has been reimagined with eateries and art galleries….but this day required some clean up after much needed rains.
It was a dramatic change from Summer to Fall over our two weeks in Hove
Great old timey rides on the Brighton Pleasure Pier
Steel pilings and railings take a beating on the English Channel
The skeleton frame in the distance is all that remains of the West Pleasure Pier; which hosted up to 2 million people a year in its heyday in the early 1900s.
People were a bit more friendly and laid back in Brighton and Hove
Day hike via the Thameslink to Balcombe…great place to start walking right into the woods.
Approaching the Ouse Valley Viaduct
Another engineering marvel, the 1,500 foot long Ouse Valley Viaduct. Designed by John Rastrick and opened in 1841. It still serves the main Brighton to London line today!
Great rambling on the South Downs
Cheryl with our morning pastries on the Undercliff walk near the Brighton Marina. (The Marina is bit of a 1970s design nightmare)

We arrived a bit early for our house sit, so decided to head to Hove Park, which is a very nice central park with a great cafe. Immediately we were greeted by a friendly cyclist who inquired about our travels and told us that would love Hove. Which we did.

The upbeat vibe of Hove

Brighton and Hove have a temperate and pleasant oceanside climate, long established LGBTQ community, art scene, good restaurants , a walkable grid, and connectivity by bus and train. It’s hilly with both broad slopes and steep valleys that frequently reward you with views. It’s also flush with parks and borders the large South Downs National Park. It really reminded me of San Francisco and is a place we would consider staying awhile.

Sunset on the Regent’s Canal during a day trip to London.
The Camden Canal on one of our easy day trips to London. The narrow boaters yelled to us that it was only their second day on their new boat- they were very excited!
Pub stop in London.

The rail connectivity means you can be at Gatwick airport in 30 minutes, and London in less than an hour. And you can even go all the way through London to Cambridge in 2 hours without a transfer. Getting to France is easy via Eurostar (from St. Pancras) and ferries from Portsmouth and Newhaven to the Normandy Coast.

Lots of space on the South Downs for cows and walking.
That’s Cheryl at the bottom of the fascinating formation known as the Devils Dyke

So, with such great connectivity, we met friends from London on the Thameslink to hike, a friend in London for the day, and other friends in Worthing, an easy train ride west. It was also fairly bike friendly, especially along the coast. It was wonderful to get so much social time with friends.

Another engineer bucket list item? Thanks Joe and Justina for the ride!

The great waking and SDNP adjacency came in handy as we mostly parked our bikes and walked and hiked from our house sit in every direction (except the ocean). The comfy double decker bus system, with USB ports at every seat and easy contactless payment via credit card or Apple Pay (capped day fares!), was the most fun, especially along the coast.

Couldn’t miss a ride on Volk’s Railway along the waterfront. Some dedicated folks (ok train nerds!) keep this running.
We loved the extremely walkable streets of Hove and Brighton…Street party around the corner from us in the Wilbury Villas neighborhood.
Independent neighborhood organic store and coffee….dense and car free living means more to discover around each corner.

The two weeks flew by, and we had to pack up, clean the apartment, and say goodbye to the sweet cat we had bonded with over two weeks. So we caught a train to Portsmouth and a ferry to Caen and another 3 day journey via train and bike to the Valleé Verte.

Our sweet house sit cat…mostly blind and deaf, but incredibly affectionate.
Hove Station at night with a huge new high rise neighborhood being built beyond; a great place for housing given walkability, transit, and weather.
Along the miles long promenade.

But where to next you ask? Let’s just say we’ll need all the walking fitness we can muster. But another update from Cheryl is coming soon. Bon Voyage!

The happy travelers in Hove…ready to move onto France and our next adventure

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

The Engineer as Hero

Isambard Kingdom Brunel …a name hard to forget, especially in Bristol, England. As a professional Civil Engineer, it was so refreshing to see an engineer given their proper dues, as it’s usually the Architects that get (or take?!) all the credit for innovative projects. And boy did I K Brunel do it all: Paddington Station, the Great Western Railway, Thames Tunnel, SS Great Britain, and my personal favorite, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. His designs are credited with revolutionizing public transport and modern engineering.

Engineers are great, aren’t they….

We started our Brunel tour at the fantastic SS Great Britain, which is a magnificently preserved and restored steamship that Brunel designed in the 1830s and was the largest steamship in the world when it launched in 1843.

In the Dry Dock – that’s water up there!

I think the best way to see the ship is to start below the water in the dry dock. It allows you to appreciate the scale of the ship, as well as understand how the unique hull was constructed and is being preserved. It takes a massive array of dehumidifiers running 24/7 to keep any further corrosion of the steel hull at bay. The array keeps at about 20% relative humidity, similar conditions to “the deserts of Arizona”, and paralleling the path of millions of other retirees being preserved in the Sunbelt.

Brunel chose to use a new and highly efficient propeller for the SS Great Britain, shaving weeks off a Transatlantic journey

You also can see how they moved the ship from its near demise in the Falkland Islands in 1970 and dragged it all the way back home to Bristol on a special barge. But the dedication to restoration didn’t stop at the exterior of the ship. The cabins have been fully restored with the sights, sounds, and yes, smells of the ship when it served as a passenger ship to the US and Australia.

The Kitchen…spooky realism abounds, as even rats can be seen moving about the cupboards.

The Steerage class quarters are strikingly small, but as a docent pointed out, still offered those crammed in 4 1/2 foot bunks a chance at better conditions and more opportunity in the New World. Life in the early industrial revolution days of Britain was hard. The crew barely had it better, as had to toil all hours shoveling coal into the furnace and keeping the ship going over grueling 3 week to 6 month journeys. Of course first class was quite grand and the Titanic-like dining hall is now available as a wedding venue, minus the swells and nausea of the open seas. (As it turns out, Brunel’s hull design was a little unstable…until a later wood extension was added to to the keel)

Morning dew on Brandon Hill, Bristol

Bristol and Bath were both a pleasant surprise. The crisp fall weather and foliage were perfect for exploring on foot and both cities offer fascinating sites, museums, culture, and vibrant food scenes.

Proper tea and a scone at the American Museum and Gardens in Bath

Bath is like a living Georgian museum, pleasantly frozen in the 1770’s, while Bristol offers a modern revitalized waterfront, lots of history, and more diversity, all supported by a large University population. The American Museum has beautiful views and a offers a unique British perspective on American history and culture. The Roman Baths are the big attraction and surprisingly engaging with brilliant holograms in each room and an audio tour featuring humor of Bill Bryson.

As much as you want to, you shouldn’t touch the water at the Roman Baths

After 3 nights up the hill in Bath near the Royal Crescent, we decided to stay just 7 minutes away from the Temple Meads station in Bristol. The Station itself is worth a look, and yes, I K Brunel provided the base design and inspiration for the main station as the terminus of his Great Western Railway from Paddington in London. How was he so many places? (4 hours of sleep helped apparently)

The Temple Gardens out the back door of our hotel

After a day on the waterfront and Brunel museum, we decided to explore more neighborhoods and walked out through the pleasant and upscale Clifton village. We walked back through the University and along Gloucester Road, which is full of an eclectic mix of shops, pubs, and restaurants. 8 miles overall and great walking up and down the undulating hills, with constant surprises and new views.

The Castle Bridge opened in 2017, offering an inspiring human powered crossing of the Bristol Harbour (but still not enough bike parking!)

But the hands-down thrill of the day was the Clifton Suspension Bridge. A structure that highlights the need for visionary technical leadership and perseverance. Brunel’s original design took over 35 years to be built. He succeeded in a design competition in 1830 with his proposed bold 700- foot steel chain suspension span. This span allowed a full span of the gorge, which was key to the intrinsic beauty of the structure in the unique context of the Avon River Gorge. But many, including his father, doubted that such a span could be built. Unfortunately, cost overruns and contractor financial trouble (sound familiar) put the half completed project on hold by 1843. Luckily, the bridge was finally completed in 1864 with the assistance of other designers, but sadly 5 years after Brunel died. And like many of his bold designs, the ultimate bridge required some design modifications to the deck to make it stiffer, as his original design would have likely failed in high winds. Engineering is a constant process of improvement and optimization.

The 1,300-foot long Clifton Suspension Bridge soars more than 300-feet above the Avon Gorge…so nice!

But his vision survives and his grand engineering projects are still serving millions of people today. So anytime someone doubts that a large infrastructure project can ever be finished or if a new design innovation can really work, just shout out the name of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Or say it three times if you can!