Saturday, October 29, 2011

Travel on the Rails

      One common way to travel independently is by train. That is not often the fastest way, nor the least expensive, and it can even be boring under certain circumstances. At the same time, trains offer different experiences, many of which are memorable. I generally prefer to travel by car so that I can stop where I want and see as much of the countryside as possible. For night travel and for longer distances, though, trains are often a viable option. The quality of the accommodations varies greatly so one must be prepared for a bit of the unknown. I have ridden trains on many occasions but will reflect on a few notable excursions here.

      Sometimes trains can be the only way to get from here to there. At least two of my trips fit that category including the Copper Canyon voyage in Mexico and the colorful trip from Cuzco, Peru to Macchu Pichu. The Copper Canyon train in Northern Mexico is a trip in itself. The train skims right alongside the ridge of the beautiful Canyon for a good ways passing through dozens of tunnels through the mountains. One can stop along the way to explore several varied towns of interest. The indigenous inhabitants of the area are mostly Tarahumara Indians, a shy cultural group many of whose members still live in caves as they have done for hundreds of years. Hikes or horseback rides along the edge of the canyon in the cool mountains are delightful activities. There is both a local train and a newer tourist-oriented luxury option. The local train still features armed guards between cars for protection from thieves and the passengers are most often folks who live there. Colorful vendors laden with snacks board briefly at each station. This was another instance of choosing between serendipity and security. I rode the local train and my choice was one I will never regret. The trip from Cuzco to Machu Picchu in the heart of Peru is also quite beautiful. I was lucky enough to get a seat right in the front to look out at the Andean countryside through a panoramic window. What a magnificent couple of hours! Of course a trek over the Inca Trail would have been lots more adventurous but my body was not fit for that at the time.

      The train trip I remember most vividly however also traversed Andean heights and it was the only time I rode on the top of the car rather than inside it. That route starts in Riobamba, Ecuador and ends in the lovely, colonial city of Cuenca. It is known as the Devil's Nose train because one of the sharp turns in the mountains features a formation that has come to be known by that name. You will have to decide for yourself if it deserves such a designation. You grab a cushion, climb up the ladder on the back of the car, settle yourself on the top where there is a low railing, and experience a trip through the Andes like you never imagined. Along the way there are brief stops at stations in small mountain villages where the passing of the train is the highlight of the day. As I looked out at the residents of these isolated villages, I could not help but wonder what life holds for them from moment to moment in their high mountainous retreats. The ride itself was one of the most thrilling travel experiences I have ever had. I would do it again at the drop of a hat (or in this case, a sombrero.)

     And then there is India where train travel is a very common and rather convenient way to go from place to place. Just looking around at the folks in the station where you board the train is an experience in itself. Porters carry gigantic luggage on their head. Passengers line up dressed for business or farming. A first class ticket (a term that stretches the meaning of the designation quite a bit) offers a sleeping compartment that doubles as an acceptably comfortable cabin during the daylight hours. If you are a party of one or two, be aware that the compartment contains four beds which are very likely to be full before the train leaves the station. As darkness arrives, the cabin is transformed. My wife has slept with many men on such trains and it is not her favorite way to travel in India. One can meet interesting people along the way, however, and the brief interludes at stations in small towns offer more opportunity for interaction with residents than speeding past in a car or flying over their homes does.

     If you inquire, there may be some surprising opportunities on the rails in the area you will be visiting. Ofttimes, these are not heavily advertised so you may need the knowledge of a good local agent to help you discover them. When we were in Darjeeling in the north of India, we discovered what they called the "Toy Train," a one car contraption with an engine fired by an oven in the very front. It traveled through wonderful mountain countryside and stopped at tiny villages along the way. If you think you might enjoy such an activity, ask about the opportunities that exist where you are heading. There might be a happy surprise in the offing.

The Copper Canyon, Mexico

Friday, October 14, 2011

The China We Don't Know

       If you are planning a trip to the popular sites of China- Beijing with its Great Wall and Imperial Palace, the incredible port and commercial center of Shanghai, Guilin and its limestone cliffs and misty landscape, Xian, the site of the buried army of the Han Empire, and the other most well known sites - you are in for a series of historical, aesthetic, and cultural wonders. As I write this blog, China is probably completing the construction of some new road or office building or apartment complex and the face of the country is changing stone by stone. But there is another China for those with interest in diversity and history and tradition, a China which requires perhaps a good number of additional miles and a bit more time and effort to experience. It is the China of minority life, a colorful look at age old traditions, dress, music, architecture, and customs.

      The visitor could start in the mountain kingdom of Tibet which most travelers are quite familiar with. The political dilemma of a sojourn in that province are personal. Like some other areas in China, it is a place seeking independence and experiencing oppression. Yet it is clearly a different culture. The ethnic background of the people, the religious practices and many other aspects of the province are distinct. For an even more dramatic encounter with unexpected minority life, one might wish to travel to China's far western province of Xinjiang, a massive area bordering Central Asia, Pakistan, India and Tibet. This is Muslim China. The majority of the people who live there are of Turkic or Persian descent and fair-skinned much like their Central Asian neighbors although China is encouraging hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese to move into the province to establish a working majority (a common Chinese maneuver). There are Uyghurs, Tajiks, Khyrgiz and other peoples in the area who speak their own language, dress in their own style, worship in mosques, have a distinct history and art and music and clearly oppose the rulers in Beijing. Present among them are Hui people who are ethnically Han Chinese yet practice Islam. One can see the unusual architecture of the Hui homes and mausoleums, the yurts of the nomadic Kyrghyz and other mountain dwellers, historic mosques and amazing Buddhist caves decorated more than a thousand years ago. It is an unsettled area which includes a long leg of the famous Silk Road dotted with scattered market towns and isolated farms as it runs between great deserts and high mountains .

      While there are several other sections of China where distinct subcultures exist, the largest concentration of these lie in the South in Yunnan, the part of China neighboring the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. A few hours south of Kunming where the Stone Forest is a tourist attraction live the Yi (ee) people, one of the most colorful of the minority groups. You can visit their small villages and see the unique and colorful dress that is distinctive to their group. Even further south, the mountain groups that live near Xishangbanna, home to the Dai people, share many of the customs of their neighbors in Burma and Laos. North of Kunming minority life is even more in evidence. The Bai minority group are quite a sight at their weekly markets all of them in traditional, unfamiliar dress. A walk through these markets is a photographer's dream. The ancient pagodas just outside the city of Dali are worth traveling to alone. A bit further north still is Lijiang, home of the fascinating matriarchal Naxi who have single handedly retained ancient music of the countryside in spite of repression of their musicians during Mao's tenure. They also maintain the only known Dongba Cultural hieroglyphs and lead their own singular life in the beautiful city. Past Lijiang is the fascinating road to Shangri La, the area made famous in Lost Horizons, a spectacular mountain area inhabited mostly by Tibetans. One other characteristic of Yunnan that should be mentioned is its eternal spring-like weather. A great place for sunshine, beauty and wonder.

     There are 56 recognized minority groups in China although they constitute only a small portion of the total population. If the tourist is interested, he or she can visit the Manchu in the far north and the Zhuang in the South or any of the many places where traditional peoples are concentrated. In any event, such a voyage offers the tourist a substantially different China than one might ever imagine. When we Westerners think of exotic countries on other continents, we imagine that each cultural area is homogeneous but such is not the case. Travel almost anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, or southern Asia or many sections of South America and Meso-America or even islands like Borneo or Papua New Guinea and you are in for the delightful experience of visiting people who live considerably differently from their nearby neighbors and who take pride in their membership in a group, usually more than their citizenship in a nation.

                               Local Dentist, Kashgar, China

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hazards to Remember

     In my book, What's an American Doing Here?,  I devoted a whole chapter to various pitfalls and dangers that occurred along the way as I travelled the Third World. I wrote, "So what else is there to worry about beside disease and sanitation, running out of gas or unavailability of medical care!  Well, maybe rockslides and landslides, storms and floods, frozen roads and crazy drivers, marauding bandits and slippery thieves, insurrections and civil wars, spewing volcanoes and other such precarious hazards one might stumble upon." The reality is that, although the passage was intended to be facetious in part, several of those circumstances may well be experienced if one travels long enough and in the right places. The story of one such occurrence which my friends have been burdened with my rendering of was an incident on my first trip to Burma about fifteen or more years ago.

     At the time we were there, Burma was not eager for tourists. There were few places to stay, a visa was granted for only a seven day sojourn, and transportation to and from and within the country was very limited. It seemed that there was but one plane that circled the main cities and, if you were not on it, you either did not go where you were intending to go or you made your way over slow, muddy, unpaved roads or found a seat on one of most uncomfortable trains in the world. We made our way around to some of the main sites by various transport until I developed a slight ache in my side on the way to the airport in Mandalay. By the time we reached Rangoon, I was immobilized by the extent of the pain and lay helpless on my bed in the hotel. It was so bad, we called a Burmese doctor.  Medical advances after about 1920 seemed to have passed by largely unnoticed in Burma and the doctors were hardly up on the latest techniques. The diagnosis I received was that I had strained something in my side. I was so desperate that I took the half inch wide pill the doctor gave me.  Fortunately, we had heard there was a doctor in the U.S. embassy in Rangoon who would help tourists if they asked him although it was outside his usual responsibility. I was able to get to see him that afternoon. When he heard I had been treated by a Burmese doctor he could not restrain his laughter, increasing my own skepticism and nervousness immensely.

    My American doctor was rather convinced that I had a kidney stone problem and informed me that " could not get treated for that in Burma." He recommended that I immediately head for a hospital in nearby Bangkok which had American trained doctors and the latest equipment. Our tickets to Bangkok, however, were for three days later and one did not simply exchange tickets at that time in Burma. With good luck and the help of an influential Burmese orthopedist who knew my American doctor I was able to secure tickets for the next day. In the meantime, I was sent to a clinic in Rangoon to spend the night under the watchful supervision of ten thousand mosquitoes. I was to drink lots of water but not the stuff that ran from the clinic spigots. My wife needed to make her way into town to get bottles of water that would not kill me as well as the tickets which had been arranged. No problem except for a few minor considerations that popped up.

      My wife left for town in a cab when she suddenly realized that she did not know where the clinic was that she was leaving from nor did she know its name. Her panic was not assuaged by her interaction with the cab driver who spoke not a word of English. The entire event occurred during the Water Festival, a fun-filled but crazy celebration. She got the tickets, found out from the Burmese doctor who met her there where the clinic was, bought some water and made her way out on to the street to be greeted by dozens of Burmese pouring water over her head, down her blouse and everywhere else they could. In tears, she finally secured a cab, handed the driver the instructions and made her way back to me soaked and exhausted. 

      By the time we left for the airport the next day, my pain had subsided considerably. We could get not get a cab to the airport but arranged for an ambulance to take us there. Along the way, even the ambulance was bombarded with water from every angle. The Burmese apparently had as much respect for their medical establishment as we did. We made our plane in time, got to a lush, comfortable, and very inexpensive private hospital in Bangkok and spent the next five days there. Overall Loss: a couple days of travel in Thailand. Diagnosis: sprain. Result: pain gone and travel resumed. Lesson learned: anything can happen when you travel the Third World. Long term benefit: great cocktail party story. 

                                              Sunset, Irrawaddy River, Burma