Most of Monday and Tuesday were taken up with the train journey from Los Angeles to Chicago. We discovered that sleeping on a train is not quite as comfortable as sleeping on a cruise ship, and did not get a huge amount of rest the first night! Luckily the views made up for it - we had passed very close to the Grand Canyon overnight, and awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the desert. We decided to get an early breakfast on the Monday morning, so after braving the shower, made our way to the dining car. Breakfast was lovely (French toast with strawberries for me, omelette for JL) and after eating we settled down in the observation car to enjoy the scenery. It was amazing - red hills and jagged peaks all around, caverns and streams in the ground, and no sign of civilisation anywhere. I spent the morning trying to take decent pictures from the moving train. Around midday we stopped at Albuquerque, where the train spent an hour and a half. The local vendors made the most of this by setting up a full market on the platform! We had a wander round, then came back on board for lunch - some nice salads.
In the afternoon we settled down for more scenery watching. The red hills were turning into mountains and the area was getting greener. There were lots of little pueblos (which looked just like the hotel Santa Fe at Disneyland Paris!). We saw lots of churches, and growing numbers of pine trees. We travelled round a huge S bend in the track where we could see our train ahead of us. We also had great views of a hill called Starvation peak in the distance which apparently has a story attached to it... As the day went on we saw more and more green hills, and mountains with snow on top. We passed by a number of small streams, and lots of Wild West type towns. We ate dinner in the dining car as the sun set, but shock horror they had run out of veggie burgers!!! They got me a veggie couscous instead which was interesting shall we say...! Shortly afterwards we retreated to bed, and had a better night's sleep (I think mainly due to pure exhaustion!).
On Tuesday we woke up in Kansas City excited about more beautiful scenery watching. Over breakfast (yummy omelettes!) we saw lots of fields with small farms scattered around. And this is pretty much all we saw for the whole morning! The highlights were passing some pretty fields of purple heather, crossing the Missouri River, the Des Moines River, and the Mississippi River (on a double decker bridge - the top level for cars and the bottom level for trains. We also passed a huge wind farm. But other than that it was pretty much fields until we entered the outskirts of Chicago in the middle of the afternoon.
We left the train, wrapped up warm, and walked to our Chicago hotel. We had purposely picked relatively basic hotels on this trip as we knew we would not be spending much time in them, and most of them have not even been worth taking a photo of, but this one (The Congress Plaza hotel) was incredible! I walked into the lobby and just stared at the beautiful ceiling and mosaic walls! Our room was on the eleventh floor, and once I'd got over the horror of having to use the lift (the entrance to which looked remarkably like the Tower of Terror entrance...!), I was very glad it was up there as we had an incredible view over Grant Park and Lake Michigan. After we had unpacked a few things and I had a cup of tea, we headed out again for a brisk walk through the park and to the lake. We passed lots of sculptures, the Buckingham Fountain (which had no water in it due to the freezing temperatures!), views of the skyline (somewhat obscured due to the fog which was coming in!), the ducks bobbing up and down on the lake, and some signs of spring - crocuses, daffodils and tulips beginning to bloom, and a couple of rabbits! I got very excited by this after all our hot places visited the past few months - I even enjoyed wearing my scarf and gloves again!
We went back to the room for a bit where we made the most of the free wifi, and then went to the hotel's restaurant for dinner (as we were too cold and tired to investigate anywhere further afield!). I had a burger-less burger (the bun and salad but no burger in it!!) and some yummy carrot cake. We then had an early night, excited to be in a proper bed after two noisy wobbly nights on the train!)
On Wednesday I got up early to Skype my parents, and then looked out of the window to discover that most of Chicago, including the lake and the park in front of the hotel, had disappeared under a thick fog! Hoping it would improve later, we checked out and went and had a cooked breakfast in the hotel restaurant. We waited outside the hotel to be collected for our Grand Half Day Chicago tour. This spent two hours exploring the north of the city by coach, and then two hours exploring the south. There were only three of us on the tour, with a full size coach! On the North side tour we saw many different historic buildings as we drove around, as well as theatres (including the one showing The Book of Mormon), pieces of modern art (including one by Picasso in the middle of a square), some interesting modern skyscrapers (including two round towers which are car parks in their bottom halves and apartments in their top halves), statues of various historical figures, the famous Trump building and Sears Tower (mainly obscured by fog at the start of the tour!), the river, several cathedrals, the Cubs baseball stadium, and some beaches alongside the lake. We made a stop at the Lincoln Park Conservatory which is a large complex of greenhouses with a selection of beautiful plants from different climates, and then at the Lincoln Park Zoo (which is free to enter) where we saw some sea lions, macaques and big cats.
We then started the south side tour, viewing lots of impressive houses (including that of President Obama, surrounded by road blocks and secret service employees even though he was not there!), the Whitesox baseball stadium, one of the unique river bridges which open up, the enormous art museum, some more sculptures (including one by a Polish artist of lots of legs, which is said to symbolise her memories of the Nazis arriving in Poland when she was a little girl), the recording studio where the Rolling Stones recorded "Satisfaction", Chinatown (the third biggest in the USA), a Mosque and some Synagogues, and then arrived at the campus of the University of Chicago where we got off the bus for a short walk around. We looked in a large church with magnificent architecture and an enormous bell tower and organ, and were fascinated by the cat who lives there (called Modo, short for Quasimodo!). Back on the coach we saw the Field Museum, the Bears football stadium, the Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium. We stopped here for views back to the city - luckily the thick fog had cleared a bit so we were able to see the tops of the buildings! We also had a look at the outdoor art exhibition by the same artist who created the art exhibit we saw in Alcatraz - this time it was sculptures of each of the Chinese zodiac animals. On the way back into the city we saw a fascinating house which was built on the roof of a tall block of flats - it was built for Elizabeth Taylor - to provide excellent views over the lake.
The tour dropped us off a few blocks from our hotel and we had a leisurely walk back, first walking through Millennium Park to see the amazing mirrored jellybean sculpture, then back past the Symphony hall, the signs indicating the end of Route 66 (the other end of which we had seen on Santa Monica pier in LA a week ago!), and the famous L trains going overhead many of the roads.
We collected our luggage from the hotel and then made our way back to the station where we checked in our suitcase, had some food, and relaxed in the special lounge for sleeper car passengers. At around 8.30pm we were able to board our train, and watched the city all lit up as we pulled out of the station. This train is slightly different from the first two - this one is only on one level rather than double decker, and our roomette is marginally bigger - so much so that I was brave enough to sleep on the top bunk! Well, TRY to sleep, as the train is just as bumpy and noisy as the last one!