Thursday, December 26, 2013

All Aboard! Train Travel Around the World

Everything about trains evokes the true essence of travel. You not only see the landscape passing by, but can feel it rattling under your shoes. Trains are the best way to experience a long distance journey. Air travel is an abstraction; you're seated in a pressurized metal tube, and after a few hours of being out of touch with the world, land in a different continent. To go by bus or car means being strapped into a seat and left to the mercy of a driver. Train travel gives the passenger the freedom to roam the rumbling wagons while gazing out the window at the passing scenery. You can eat and wander about, snooze, and stare out the window. Train travel is freedom.

There's nothing like the moment when a train departs a station. Unlike the roar of a plane's take-off or the gunning of a bus's engine that marks the beginning of a journey, the departure of a train is a peaceful, unassuming start. Outside, the world begins to slowly roll by - baggage handlers wheeling their carts, travelers fleeing for their connections - and then the engine picks up momentum, the rhythm below your feet keeping pace with the passing scenery. Pedestrians wave at you, dreaming of where you could be bound. The wagon, your world, sways around you as the train takes a tight curve. Outside the clanging of a passing crossing signal grows loud, louder, before changing pitch as it quickly disappears.

Trains around the world are microcosms of the countries they serve. They reflect the economy and cultural norms of the nations they ply. To enjoy America's Amtrak you need to have money to afford the dining car and a private berth. England's train network, once the pride of the nation, is in decay, expensive and grungy. Russian trains, with a steaming samovar in each wagon, still harbor a bullying Soviet air of authority; an attendant is assigned to each wagon to scold passengers . Egyptian trains are manned by soldiers guarding against attacks by Muslim terrorists. The hustlers and touts found in every Indian city are concentrated on the nation's Taj Express that runs between Delhi and Agra eager to scam tourists out of their seats.

Train travel is slowly disappearing, a victim of the world's reliance on buses and taxis. Up until a half century ago Americans were able to reach the most remote of towns through an intricate network of spur lines. My mother could arrive to her tiny Kansas hometown from a distant college without relying on a vehicle. Now the spur lines are gone, torn up, or overgrown with weeds. Until recent years, Canadian trains allowed affordable transcontinental access, until the lines were privatized, and now a train trip through the Canadian Rockies is an expensive endeavor. In Mexico the passenger train network has disappeared, replaced by modern bus stations and affordable buses.

To enter a train station is often like stepping into a museum setting. Britain's smaller stations still harbor ladies' waiting rooms, a relic of earlier Victorian times, while in Thailand a uniformed officer in starched white linens bangs a large gong to announce an approaching engine.

Staring out a train window at the world speeding by is a hypnotizing experience. You experience the gradual cultural shift that occurs while traversing countries during a long sojourn. As a Russian train departs from Western Europe en route to St. Petersburg, the 21st century disappears somewhere in eastern Poland. Looking out a dirty window I spied leather-skinned farmers navigating horse-drawn plows. In the border town of Bialystok a gaggle of Slavic women, squat, toughened babushkas in head-scarves and heavy boots, gossiped amongst each other, or hawked snacks to passengers. Soon all sense of time disappeared as the train was swallowed into the vast birch and pine forests of Byelorussia.

Staring out the window of an Indian train, I grew fascinated with the traffic that lined up at the road crossings, waiting for our procession to pass. The train rumbled by a striped pole behind which waited bicyclists and idling motorcycles, farmers with their ox-carts old schoolbuses, the roofs crowded with sun-darkened men. A few smiled and returned my cheerful wave.

In Eastern Europe the numerous nations released under the yoke of the USSR now post their border guards and customs officials at every frontier crossing. The Russian train bound for St. Petersburg constantly stopped and started as it traversed the borders of Byelorussia, the Baltic states, and finally Russia. I studied the uniforms of the guards, the official colors, the missing buttons and frayed collars. From a neighboring compartment I could hear the protesting of a smuggler whose large stash of vodka and cigarettes had been uncovered. Later, when escaping Russia, a pair of strapping young Ukrainian guards eyed my passport curiously. 'Amerikanyets'. I had no transit visa for their country. Did I need one? They shrugged their broad shoulders. 'I dunno.'

I recall everyone who I've ever met on a train. I remember the two Norwegian girls and the young Czech man I met on a trip to Kansas. I sat in the dining car with an elderly woman who in an astounded whisper announced how she had been seated with a black man that very morning for breakfast. A dour old man still grieving for his long dead wife stared out the window as the Texas prairie rolled by outside.

In India a pair of teenaged girls stared amazed at a huge map of their country that I showed them. An Indian father traveling with his family to a wedding in Delhi tried to engage me in conversation, but his thickly accented English was incomprehensible. "What? Huh?" After a few conversations like this he finally grew frustrated at my puzzled looks and stared out the dirty window.

On a Russian train I shared a compartment with an obnoxious volleyball coach accompanying his team to a play-off in Byelorussia. When I had trouble closing the sliding door, he smirked. "Weak American."

I pointed at the stubborn door. "Russian door."

"It's an East German door. This is an East German train."

"What's the difference?"

And in northern Italy my brother and I shared a compartment with an elderly nun who resembled Mother Teresa's older sister. She was a wizened old creature, a mask of fury chiseled on her face from decades of punishing pupils. My brother grabbed my phrase book of various European languages, and began reciting random excerpts of Italian, and began asking the nun for her phone number. "Please . . . give me . . . your . . ."

The nun gave me a puzzled look as I quickly snatched the book from my brother's hands.

As the cost of fuel continues to rise, perhaps there is some hope for the future of train travel, which has proven to be an energy efficient means of getting from point A to point B. Amtrak reports increased numbers of travelers in recent months. In this world of break-neck speed communications and hyperactive schedules, a slow train ride across the frontier may be enough to save our sanity.

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