trains


I am more keen than ever to get to North Korea in the next year, especially after reading Robert Myles’s account of his travels there. The question is what I should do, for there are many options.

I may want to cycle through different parts:

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Or go hiking and camping:

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Or take a glorious rail journey:

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All part of my project on Embalming Our Leaders …

We’ve just completed three days by train across the strangest country in the world, the USA. The Southwest Chief runs from Los Angeles to Chicago, and then the Capitol Limited runs onto Washington (and a local train takes you to Baltimore). Three days in all, through deserts, prairies, forests and mountains. On a train such as this, you get the best, worst, and weirdest of the USA. Amtrak is a great network, and thankfully more people hereabouts have begun to realise that. It’s cheap, efficient and pretty comprehensive. When Americans set their mind to something, they can do a bloody good job. The problem is that they rarely put their minds to anything worthwhile.

But the most intriguing part would have to be the dining car. Here is the USA in all its daily glory. Community seating is the rule in the dining car, where the food is included in the very reasonably priced tickets. Over three days we met and talked with 80-something newlyweds with dodgy legs, New Mexico artists, a couple of giggling grandmothers, a disconcertingly in-bred couple who growled about ‘them environmentalists’ and said an elaborate prayer before eating, disciples of Obama with a love of hiking and speaking so loudly our ears were ringing, and – the highlight of the journey – a charming man who told us in detail of Abraham Lincoln’s beginnings as a lawyer when he won a huge case for the new railways. He finished his discourse by peering out of the window and observing simply, ‘I’m looking for bigfoots. They live in these parts’. He was serious.

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Quirky signs with unwitting senses – part of the pleasure of travel in distant places.

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This is the name of a well endowed cafe at Leipzig railway station. Not to be outdone, the ship from Riga to Stockholm sports a somewhat different culinary experience:

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But my favourite is this one, on the old train from Minsk to Riga:

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It took me a moment to realise that there is no red line through the lit cigarette, for in the vestibule at the end of each carriage you can indeed smoke. How civilised!

The Chinese may have the most efficient and comprehensive rail network in the world, the Scandinavians may have the most expensive trains, but those soviet-era Russian trains leave everyone well behind when it comes to comfort. They comprise one of the less noticed legacies of the USSR. I’ve travelled a few by now: Moscow to Beijing, Sofia to Kiev to Simferopol, St Petersburg to Helsinki, St Petersburg to Moscow, Moscow to Minsk, Minsk to Riga …

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For instance, even second class on the Red Arrow, from St. Petersburg to Moscow beats any first class train in Western Europe:

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The regular day train from Moscow to Minsk is one of those extremely solid and reliable affairs:

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They provide a whole berth, with pillows and blankets, should you feel like an afternoon snooze:

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As for the overnight from Minsk to Riga, well …

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Apart from the plush comfort of the sleeper compartment, they also boast those magnificent stainless steel toilets that simply open onto the track. No toilet is more pleasurable:

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Replace these trains? Not for a long time yet, since they are continually repainted and refurbished. After all, if you’ve built something solid and to last, why replace it?

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Try sitting on the hard, uncomfortable seats of a train in Western Europe after travelling on these and you’ll see what I mean.

Prague might be a seedy old town, especially if you hang out on the tourist strip on either side of and upon the Charles Bridge. But it also has some unexpected corners and surprises.

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 Refreshing to see the old man mixing it in with the pastel buildings:

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Appropriately, road workers were pulling and repairing tram tracks:

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So what’s in Prague 3? That would have to include the Prophets of Prague …

The Germans are a strange people, as anyone can attest. Take the trains. At each entry door one finds the following image:

It took me a while to figure this one out. And then the insight came: in order to board a train, you need to pull your head into your shoulders, lean right back and then lift a leg to board the train. Quite a feat with some heavy baggage, either external to your body or as a result of devoted consumption of those ubiquitous Würste. I understand this approach does wonders for your lower back.

Two weeks of perpetual motion thus far: Beijing, along the Chang Jiang (‘Yangtze’) for three days, Wuhan, Frankfurt and then all night (unplanned) on trains and stations in the Romanian countryside, Baia Mare in Transylvania, and then more trains to Berlin. A few preliminary images; reflections later.

Heartwarming to see Lenin posters about. There should be more, many more.

I guess you can really do this only in China.

But now it gets a little more interesting:

For this is none other than the bed of the younger Mao and his wife – when they lived in Wuhan. So this is, as I observed when we were ushered in, where it happened.

Couldn’t resist sharing the same space … until I was sternly reprimanded by the staff.

I really must get a sign like this for home.

But then, after 60 hours of travel, most of it on multiple trains, I was in Romania.

I spent some time hanging out with the locals in Transylvania, in the mountains and villages.

From the old woman’s house, we stumbled across the local distillery.

That small mug was full of Palincă, plum brandy. He handed it to me and said ‘drink up’ …

Which is probably why I agreed to wear some local winter gear.

Thankfully, I was not alone in enjoying such delights.

Another travel story on Voyages on the Left, this time about the long-haul rail journey I have done most, more times than I care to remember – the XPT train between Sydney and Melbourne.

Each time I go to China I enjoy it all the more, so much so that it is one of the places in the world where I can easily imagine living

This time we received something of a rock-star welcome to the Nishan Forum at Confucius’ home town:

The nuance was perhaps not clear to all … but more was to come:

When one drew near, they ushered one in:

At a few moments, I was able to catch the excited teenagers beneath:

Being the official Australian VIP representative at an event that was as political as it was intellectual, I made a mental note to let Julia G know I had not put in one good word for her.

Which means:

But after a few days of rubbing shoulders with former presidents, advisers, ambassadors and communist government officials, of police escorts and road closures wherever we went, of a massive press battery filming and snapping, of being mobbed for endless photos with students (I kid you not), I had had enough.

I was keen on more ordinary life, whether with a group of old musos in a park at night:

Some local Shandong food from around the lake::

A lift in a beaten up motorised tricycle (the only suspension on them is what flesh you might have on your bum, although they will soon be a thing of the past):

Or indeed a glorious squat toilet on the slow overnight train I took from Jinan to Xi’an:

I was after some decent Chinglish:

The more esoteric, the better:

At one moment I realised I could no longer rely on pinyin, for in a quiet corner I found a toilet and stood bamboozled. No pinyin, no symbol for male and female; only Chinese characters. I guess you always have a 50% chance of being right, but I’d prefer to be able to read that script.

I must admit that I pondered whether the chubby ruling class women of the Tang Dynasty of 618-907 (for that was the aesthetic then) had very flat ears after sleeping on pillows like this:

By this time I was in the old imperial city of Xi’an, where I had to sing for my supper and accommodation at Shaanxi Normal University:

Supper consisted of a comprehensive walk along the endless ‘snack street’ – street food steaming, boiling, frying in all manner of fashions. Hadn’t dared until now, but my hosts tucked in. So I did too.

Finally I met an old friend who reassured me it was all perfectly good for you:

On the 9 news website:

Roland Boer lists the top ten tips for using toilets on Chinese trains on an Australian travel advice website.

“Grab firmly the handrail directly before you,” he writes.

“It is there for a purpose. Even though it may look as though previous users have balanced on one foot blind-folded while the train is racing around a curve, you should by no means try to emulate them.”

Sent a shitload of traffic to the Aussie travel site.

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