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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that article. I would never have thought to travel by train, necessarily. Your blogs are so interesting and offer a unique perspective in each area you write about.