Following the Tracks

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

What is it about train travel that captivates the imagination of travelers in every corner of the world? What about it makes the word “romantic” so apt? Do you have a rail experience that perfectly captures why we love trains so much? Or are you one of the people who actually avoids trains whenever possible?

yes. oh yes. as much as i love flying (#avgeek, y’all), if i could travel exclusively by train instead, i think i would. i. love. traveling. by. rail.

i’m not sure why that is. is it the technology (tilting, high speed, maglev…)? the way the countryside rolls — or whizzes — by as you stare mesmerized out the window? how even as toddlers we’re made familiar with them, taught that trains go choo-choo and i think i can i think i can?

my first big train journey was in 1999. i had just graduated from college and started working, and finally had the resources (time and money) to rail long distances instead of fly. that one-way trip from chicago, il (where i lived) to roseville, ca (where my parents live), cemented the romanticism of rail travel for me. i had my own compartment on the california zephyr where i watched the midwest, great plains, and rockies roll on by. i was glued to that window and in 48 hours i had seen more than i ever would have seen had i just taken the 4.5 hour flight. being born and raised in los angeles, i did things i never thought i would: i waved at strangers and they waved back. i saw the big black night sky, pinpricked by stars and a bright moon, covering like a blanket a vast expanse of prairie stretching as far the eye could see. i watched breathless as the train glided through the snowy rockies. i ate dinner at the same table as complete strangers! (i was pretty shy back then.) even though it was well over a decade ago, these are parts i still recall so vividly because it made such a big impression on me. sure, in my head i romanticized it (i still do), but that’s the magic of trains.

OK, don't laugh, but I blogged about it back then, which, thanks to the folks at, we can still read today (unfortunately I think I've lost all the pictures).

since then, my love for traveling by rail has only grown, especially when it comes to high speed train travel. here are some of my more memorable journeys:

  • 2002: up the west coast of india from thrissur to mumbai. this was amazing. you could hang out the open door, waving at people along the tracks, watching fishermen fish, seeing farmers tend their fields. the second part of this short video shows some highlights of that ride. it was by no means high speed, and i’m grateful it wasn’t.
  • 2003: my first high speed train ride, on a german ICE 3 from cologne to frankfurt. i remember staring at the monitor at the end of the car we were in, practically fainting when we hit the vaunted 300 km/h — it was as if i broke the sound barrier!

After I moved to Germany and traveling by ICE became the norm, it still never lost its appeal, even the ICE 1.

  • 2006: took trenitalia’s new high speed rail service from milan to turin for the winter olympics. literally brand new (the rail line had just opened less than two weeks before), i remember a loud cheer went up after the conductor announced we had reached trecento chilometri all’ora. i couldn’t help but smile and join in their pride and excitement.
  • 2006: bernina and glacier express trains. slow as all get out, but the scenery was breathtaking, especially going down into italy on the bernina.

  • 2011: bucket list item! i took the shinkansen from odawara to kyoto and it was everything i’d hoped for. like a true railfan, i purposely booked a connection so i could try both the hikari and nozomi services. for so long it was the pinnacle of rail technology and finally i was able to experience it firsthand. (in the video below, my poor iphone camera couldn’t even keep up with the speed of the train, hence its slanted appearance.)

I even had an ekiben to complete the experience!


Ramblings on Berlin

slightly adapted from an email i wrote to my parents, who are planning a trip there. (i’ve been to berlin three times, the earlier two while i was living in germany: 2010 (for a concert), 2007 (met up with a friend), and 2006 (for loveparade).)


what to do in berlin

the hemispheres 3 perfect days is actually pretty good, and then just add a day trip to potsdam as your fourth day, information here. a note for dad — the dome of the reichstag is open in the evenings as well if he wants to get up there for nighttime shots of the city. just be prepared to wait in line for a bit (day or night).

in my opinion, checkpoint charlie is skippable. if you want more on the berlin wall i highly recommend going to the memorial, and the ghost stations exhibit in the nearby s-bahn station the 3 perfect days has potsdam listed on the last day, i think, so instead of that, do this instead and move potsdam to the fourth day.

also, don’t forget to eat currywurst and döner. 


really reasonably priced and new/trendy.

i’ve stayed in the ku’damm one which is by the shopping street and easy to get to from by public transit. they just opened the one at the main train station (where you will be pulling into) if you want that sort of ease. that’s that Hauptbahnhof (“main train station”) location. 


be sure to book from FRA FrankfurtAirport to Berlin Hbf. also, remember the pop-up calendar for date picking starts on a monday, so don’t be confused. you will not be able to book until 92 days out, but it’s best to wait until 92 days before your return trip because (at least the last time i bought tickets) the 50% off price (not sure what they call it in english, but in german it’s sparpreis 50; there’s also a sparpreis 25 for 25% off) requires a round-trip purchase (so basically you’re buying a round trip ticket for the price of a one-way). remember that if you buy a sparpreis ticket, you will be locked to that particular train, so if you miss it, you will have to buy a full price ticket at the station (and forfeit whatever you spent on the first ticket).

if you print your ticket out at home, just bring the printout with you as well as the credit card you used to buy the ticket. you will need to show both to the conductor.

don’t forget to reserve seats. you will be arriving during rush hour and there may be commuters going to berlin.

also, you will need to transfer at least once if you want to take a high speed train (there is a direct non-high speed train that takes 30 minutes longer but it leaves pretty late, around 8 AM). i would not recommend booking a ride that involves an “S” train (suburban rail) because you will have to transfer at the frankfurt main station and you will have to make your way from underground to ground level in 10 minutes, which is doable but if you don’t know where you’re going it might be dicey.

here is, i think the ideal one for you. Fernbf = fernbahnhof = long distance train station. the first train just takes you to the main train station — you may get a reserved seat on it but it’s not worth finding and settling down in just for a 10-minute ride. you will see that they give you the platforms already, so you know which one you will need to change to. 

i’m sure you will remember the following from your past train rides, but just to be complete: if you have time, there will be signs on the platform that tell you where to stand (i don’t know if you remember from the last time we took the trains there). you find the car number on your reservation, look for your train on the chart, and find your car. the letters at the top correspond to signs along the track. here’s a sample one i found online:

in any case, the car number will be on a display on the side of each car, as well as on a display in each car’s vestibule and on the display inside, above the doors at the end of each car, next to the rectangle-shaped train car symbol:


ok, i think i’ve said all i wanted to say, but maybe more will come to me.

Eine Kleine Zugmusik

on my way back from starbucks today, i heard this song from a television show i’m not familiar with on the radio. the composer, john lunn, explained that he drew inspiration from one of the opening scenes (start about 1 minute in) — a train going through the english countryside with a man staring out the window. perfect soundtrack.

for me, the driving (chugging) bass line in the background evokes exactly those memories — trains, countryside, wistful longing for something right there in front of your nose.

it reminded me of another composition, this from a eurostar promotion. very similar themes. (i actually like the eurostar song better; for some reason it makes me tear up.)

i’m going to have to download both of these for my next trip to europe that involves a train ride. i’ll sit next to a window, pop my headphones on, and gaze longingly through that window.