Global Glance: November 28, 2016
A quick look at intriguing international stories
By John Bostwick, Managing Editor, Radius
Five International Train Trips
Long train rides appeal to certain temperaments. I enjoy them because like poetry forms they allow freedom, but only within limits. You can read, write, chat, nap, look at the scenery and drink coffee on a train trip, but you can’t exercise, go to a museum or choose between daunting arrays of tourist sites to visit. A train’s limitations can be a great comfort to those who may feel anxious that they’re not bettering themselves at every turn, or to those who simply want to force themselves to relax on vacation.
One undeniable fact of trains is that they enable you to watch the landscape of a country unfold at eye level and at a comprehensible pace. Train travelers see landscapes change gradually, so they can understand the logic of how one region transforms into another. Air travelers sacrifice this for speed and in many cases economy.
Trains also reflect the cultures that operate them. Amtrak’s crumbling infrastructure and mostly old trains show, for example, the US’s preferences for the relative freedom and speed of highway and air travel. Japan, by contrast, continues to invest billions in high-speed rail technology. (Of course, the respective sizes of those two countries also help determine the popularity of rail travel in each location.)
This post explores five train rides from different parts of the world, ranging from a low-budget, bare-bones trip in Vietnam to a luxury land cruise in India featuring a presidential suite with two showers. (It also has this picture of my wife and daughters on a train trip we took from Boston to San Francisco in 2014.)
Trans-Siberian Express, Russia
This is the mother of all train routes, spanning eight time zones and nearly 6,000 miles. It also, The Telegraph explains, “helped shape the Russia we know today,” connecting the capital with the natural resources of Siberia. The great track was completed exactly a century ago, and it “remains a lifeline for millions of Russians.”
The Telegraph link above actually includes multiple articles, including a brief history, a couple of personal accounts of riding the Trans-Siberian Express, and a list of Top 10 highlights along the way. One of those personal accounts involves a British family of four traveling in a sleeper car presided over by one of the Express’ “provodnitsas,” or uniformed train attendants. They’re typically older women who look like Central Casting’s idea of Communist Party members and are not to be trifled with. The Telegraph writer found this out early on, when he spilled half his beer in his attendant’s presence while pulling out of Moscow.
His account covers a 3,200-mile portion of the Trans-Siberian Express, from Moscow to Irkutsk. When planning his trip, the writer had been anticipating enduring endless bouts of tedium on the train, so he packed a long Russian novel to while away the hours. He unexpectedly found, however, that “the time flew by” for him and his wife. They took in the scenery, observed their fellow passengers, and found themselves absorbed by the “vast space of Russia” and the “mental space” afforded by the leisurely pace of the journey. By the end of it, he’d finished only 30 pages of the novel. (I had a similar experience on my first long train trip, from Boston to New Orleans.)
For a less enthusiastic view, read The Independent’s “The Trans-Siberian Railway: Don't Bother,” also published last month on the centenary of the track’s completion. The author knows his subject, having “been trundling around Russia by train for three decades.” He admits that the Express is “a great way to meet the people, often over a drink, and to get a sense of the scale of the world’s biggest country.” But there are fewer economic reasons for traveling by rail in Russia than there used to be in the 1980s, and the author is not sure that “day after day passing through a blur of birch forests provides the best payback.” The train, however, must be easy for him to dismiss at this point, given that he’s already traveled on it many times.
Reunification Express, Vietnam
The Independent ran another train-line anniversary article this year, on Vietnam’s Reunification Express. The line was built 80 years ago by the French, damaged and abandoned during the war with the US and reopened in 1976 “to mark a nation's rebirth, just 20 months after the end of the” war. The 36-hour trip runs from Hanoi in the north to Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) in the south. Most tourists, the article notes, don’t take the train straight through from start to finish, but get off to explore historic cities along the way such as Da Nang and Hue.
The Independent warns that the Reunification Express “is not … the Orient Express” as far as creature comforts, though the “’soft sleeper’ class – a four-berth cabin – is comfortable enough.” Interestingly, the rail line’s official website says the same thing in nearly identical language. The website even goes so far as admitting that the line’s “most comfortable standard available … cannot be compared with European standards.” The site’s copywriters should consider quoting an article in Traveller, which claims the Reunification Express “has to be the best way to get around Vietnam.”
For more information on the Reunification Express (and many other train routes), check out the website The Man in Seat Sixty-One, the labor of love of railway man and train enthusiast Mark Smith. When writing of the extreme southern end of the Reunification Express’ route, Smith explains that Ho Chi Minh City “appears as Saigon in all Vietnamese railway timetables, it will say Saigon on your train ticket and … it actually says 'Saigon' in big letters on the station itself. The ruling elite may toe the line and call it Ho Chi Minh, but everyone else calls it Saigon.”
Maharajas’ Express, India
The Maharajas’ Express was completed in 2010. India’s foremost luxury train, it was built, according to its website, to recall “the private saloons of the erstwhile Maharajas of India.” An article in The Wall Street Journal about the opening of the line explains "maharajas" means “great kings.” The maharajas “ruled India's hundreds of princely states from as early as the 1600s to the mid-20th century.” Some were allied with the British Raj and “continued a sumptuous style of living until Indian independence in 1947.”
The train named for the maharajas would likely not disappoint the old royals. An article in the Financial Times’ “How to Spend It” section describes one lucky writer’s trip in the train’s presidential suite, “an entire carriage with marble floors throughout, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, … a huge living room, a personal butler and superb air conditioning throughout.” (Note to FT editors: Call me if you want someone to write the follow-up article.)
The writer adds that his fellow railway-geek passengers told him that the train’s more basic cabins also exceeded what might be called typical luxury standards. One drawback of the Maharajas’ Express is that it’s virtually a rolling metaphor for Indian (and global) income inequality. He writes: “Cruising through occasional trackside rubbish piles or surveying station beggars while you’re eating fine cuisine from 24ct-gold-plated tableware is discomforting, particularly for the un-India-initiated.”
India’s Economic Times reported in April that luxury trains in India are facing low occupancy rates. The Palace on Wheels, India’s first luxury train line, even “cancelled a trip for the first time in 34 years last week for lack of passengers.” Tourism and railway authorities are looking to develop initiatives to reverse the trend, including promoting and offering incentives to foreigners. Of the country’s five major luxury trains, only the Maharajas' Express has not experienced a decline in occupancy this year.
Blue Train, South Africa
According to The Telegraph, South Africa’s Blue Train is, apart from the venerable Orient Express, “the world’s best known luxury service, gliding opulently since 1923 between Pretoria and Cape Town on its 994-mile, 27-hour journey showing off South Africa’s stunning scenery.”
While the Blue Train’s website boasts that “kings and presidents have indulged on this magnificent, moving five-star ‘hotel-on-wheels,’” the website itself is down-market. It’s worth checking out, though, for the pictures of the suites and lounges alone. The train’s interior is filled with polished wood, leather armchairs, brass fixtures and other colonial touches that are fit for the cast of Downton Abbey and about as far as train cars can get from Amtrak. Cigars and wine are even included with the price of a ticket.
National Geographic named the Blue Train one of its Top 10 Trains, noting that the “slow, smooth ride allows you plenty of time to soak in the spectacular scenery” and that “food and service are outstanding.” You’ll find a bottle of champagne when you get to your sleeper car.
For a good article on riding the rails in this region, check out “Reliving the Golden Age of Train Travel in Southern Africa,” published this spring in The Wall Street Journal. It describes in part a trip on Rovos Rail, which uses “an extensive but increasingly neglected network of colonial railways that can still spirit travelers from Table Mountain in Cape Town north about 3,500 miles to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s teeming Indian Ocean port.” It notes that now is a good time for US customers to get a deal given the strength of the dollar against the rand, but warns that African governments are cutting back on infrastructure budgets that are used to maintain tracks.
As The New York Times explains, the Ghan got its name — which is a shortening of “Afghan” — from camels, which prior to trains were Australians’ means of transportation when traveling to the country’s vast interior. The Times writer says that most of the travelers on his trip were older Australians, some of whom were actually traveling on business. Among the dining car’s menu options is Kangaroo steak, which the writer reports as “tasty, a bit gamy but tender and grainy like good beef.”
The Ghan is notable in part because of the train’s length. The rail line’s website reports that in May of this year, one Ghan train took off with 44 cars and two locomotives, making it over 1,000 meters long. The total journey — from Adelaide to Darwin — is 1,852 miles, right through the middle of the continent. It takes 48 hours.
The older contingent of Australian Ghan riders that the Times mentions may soon shrink. According to the Australian news site ABC, the Ghan’s owners announced this year that there will be fare increases for retirees in the wake of 2014 federal budget cuts.