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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

Train-ing

CHINA | Thursday, 2 December 2010 | Views [630]

We're on the 83 Karaganda-Moscow train, our 62nd and longest train.  Trains have been the defining mode of transport for us.  We've taken more trains than anything else, covered more ground and spent more time on them.  We did one train in each of Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.  All were slow and comfortable, fairly unremarkable, with the exception of pretty scenery, especially on the jungle railway in Malaysia.  They were not train countries, though, so we travelled often on boats and buses.  Most of our train travel has been on almost all of the world's most legendary and notable rail networks - India, China, Japan and the former Soviet lines.  We're looking forward to the German trains and possibly even the French, which would almost complete us.  Of course, the final trip will be on one of the oldest lines in the world, London Paddington-Bristol.

Train travel everywhere was often long.  24hrs on a train now feels short, or at least not unusual.  We've spent 20 nights asleep or at least trying to sleep on trains.  It's amazing how time flies on these mammoth journeys, so often did we find ourselves halfway through in what felt like a blink of the eye.  It's more difficult than one might imagine to do chores, the trains often rock and sway so much that writing takes more trouble than it's worth and space is often at a premium.  Card games and gazing out of the window can chew up surprising amounts of time and there's often people to watch or to chat to.  It's remarkable how few people carry anything to occupy themselves.  What's certainly true is that train travel beats everything else.  Only ferries come close to the joy of being on a train, the romantically rythmic motion, the uninterrupted views, the feeling of detachment and the glimpse into lives.  The space, the freedom make the journey to be enjoyed and savoured rather than endured.  One has a berth and a bed, a buffet car and proper toilets - what more is necessary?

India was our primary train country - we covered more than 9000km there, from south to north and west to east.  Any journey on an Indian train involves first purchasing a ticket, which is rarely straightforward.  For a start, the ticket office doesn't sell tickets other than for short haul on the date of departure.  For all other tickets, one must go to the reservations office, usually in an adjacent building.  Sadly in many big stations, various touts try to misdirect tourists to the reservation office, as they want them to go to a travel agent who will pay them commission. Having dodged the touts and arrived safely in the reservation office, one can receive forms with which one can request trains.  Note the use of 'request' rather than reserve.  One then fills in all the details such as place of departure, the all important train number and your home address.  The nice person behind the counter will tell you if seats/berths are available.  If not, you will then have RAC/WL tickets.  These mean you may get on the train if enough people cancel.  RAC allows you to board the train, WL doesn't.  There are 4 levels of RAC and unlimited levels of WL.  WL80+ doesn't always mean you will fail to get on a train - there are various quotas available that you can request to take advantage of.  We often use the foreign tourist quota, there are others for VIPs, doctors etc.  Also, many people cancel at the last minute (cancellation is very cheap and so many people book multiple tickets for the same train) and many quotas are unfilled, thus allowing the WL holders to move up to having seats/berths.  It's all rather confusing...but some stations give us hapless foreigners dedicated desks to assist. These are rather hit-and-miss though, especially in the North.  At smaller stations, being European often allows us to speak directly with the station supervisor and get him to sort out problems.  The New Delhi station is especially good at dealing with foreigners, even using a whole different form system specially laid out for us dunderheads. 

Classes run in order of comfort and price 1AC, 2AC, 3AC, SL, II for overnight services and FC, EC, CC, SL, II for daytime services.  Confusingly, many daytime trains also have sleeper cars 3AC as well.  We've travelled on all classes except FC.  1AC consists of private cabins - we did this from Udaipur to Delhi - that are lockable.  2/3AC have double and treble bunks respectively in 4/6 berth open cabins, with a seperate line of double bunks perpendicular at the end.  These are comfortable enough for overnight journeys although there can be a lot of staring.  People are very talkative and it's rare not to chat a lot on these journeys.  The berths are quite cramped in 3AC when they're all down, usually all three people sit on the lower bunk and fold up the middle bunk.  There is a bit of an issue here though as the person occupying the lower bunk can in all rights just stretch out and force everyone else up onto their bunks, but mostly it's well handled.  SL is a significant step down, fine for daytime journeys but not really for overnights (we did it once, from Madurai to Trivandrum).  It's the same layout as 3AC but without aircon and significantly, anyone can board it, even without a berth, leading to very crowded conditions indeed.  CC is a good class, air conditioned seats and like a European service but of course much slower.  EC is a fancy version of the above and FC is a anachronistic dream, it appears to have been decommissoned.  By all accounts it features armchairs and very plush though not air conditioned facilities.  Class II is very very cheap and very very very crowded but acceptable, often cooler than the AC classes when moving because of the open cagelike windows/doors.  It's possible to do this as an overnight journey but would be unthinkably unpleasant.

The actual journey itself is usually unsteady - Indian trains tend to rock violently from side to side at various points.  The toilets are not always in the best condition and do reek most of the time but we've both seen worse.  For some reason a small bucket for flushing with has been put on a very short chain in many toilets so people have to throw the water across the cubicle so they're often wet.  In 1AC carriages the toilets have shower hoses for the brave who may shower.  Standards of hygiene are such here that it's not so unusual to find people eating off the floor scant yards from a cesspit of a toilet, with cockroaches crawling all around.  The train doors are almost always open - so that people can hang out of them, a preferred position as it gives a good air flow.  Power points are provided for one to plug in laptops and charge mobiles, which is very very useful.  The toy trains from Coonoor to Ooty and the joyride in Darjeeling were great too - full of Indians living an alpine dream.

Almost every train echoes to the cry of chaichaichai as the tea seller comes past, selling shot-sized cups for just 5Rs (about 8p) a go.  No sooner is the chai man past then come the cutletcutletcutlet and samosasamosasamosa guys.  Each has the same tone, a distinctive deep nasal boom that rings around inside your skull.  These are almost always identical products, they come from a vat that follows a strict railways of india menu.  Variety can be found especially on the lower classes through hawkers.  Hawkers sometimes carry food though more usually they sell other things - books, toys, newspapers, jewellry etc.  Technically speaking they are prohibited, but this must be a joke Indian law rather than a real one.  Luckily the law about not cooking food on stoves in carriage seems to be a real one.  Beggars too are present on classes SL and II but we've yet to see them in the rarefied air of aircon carriages.  One train - the 432 Udaipur mail - was a real local train, stopping everywhere, including, it would seem, for food.  For once there were no food sellers at all and we had to wait 5 hung over hours until big stations came along and we could jump off and run to a shop for food and drink before reboarding.

When you finally finish the journey you are deposited at a station which is rarely a great deal of fun.  There should be a bin or two, a riot of people trying to force you back into the train so they can get on, porters and cabbies yelling for your custom and so on.  Very occasionally there's some useful information around.  The platforms have dozens of people sleeping while they wait for trains and vary wildly in cleanliness.  Big city stations often have mini villages set up along the tracks with the usual filth and squalor.  Various animals scuttle around if it's a bad station.

Chinese trains got us across vast distances too, further even than India, though faster.  The superfast Tianjin-Beijing train was awesome and very much a symbol of New China - it is a developed-nation train in every way.  The Lhasa train also was a masterpiece of engineering and of humanity's power, winding through such inhospitable terrain.  The Beijing-HK sleeper was an odd experience as there were armed guards glaring at us every time we went past stations.  The sleepers across to Nanning were jerky and full of the glorious throat-clearing morning chorus.  All Chinese trains had boiling water available, not that we realised that the first time and thus didn't bring cup ramen to eat on the way.  It wasn't a mistake we made twice and thereafter turned up laden with food to avoid the Chinese-standard fare on the train. 

It was nice in China how so many people seemed to be in large groups and would hop between carriages and compartment blocks, gossiping and chatting away cheerfully.  On the Lhasa train we managed to do the same, which was very nice indeed.  Every Chinese train was friendly except the Xi'An to Urumqi train which was somewhat like God's waiting room, stuffed with zimmer frames and elderly Chinese.  The Chinese trains have more space than the Indian ones - the side berths are replaced by folding seats and tables next to the window, providing a nice place to play cards.  There's usually more baggage space too, and even some up next to the top berths.  There's a strange system whereby you swop your ticket for a card when embarking and then again when disembarking.  Someone comes to effect the swop shortly before your station so you never get caught too unaware.  Chinese train border controls were a bit of a pain - emptying a bag at the Kazakh border and having to disembark at the Vietnamese. 

The stations were masterpieces of organisation.  No-one allowed in without a ticket, everyone shunted to waiting rooms specific to each train which then emptied to the platform when the train arrived.  Like India, China's poor move through the country by train and the stations reflected that - a striking illustration of migraton.  As in India, there's a seperate ticketing hall to purchase ticket.  It was easy and fast to get tickets in China - although lots of problems are reported we never really had any.  The control was evident on the train too, no hawkers, nobody on without a ticket and all toilets locked long before the stations come into view.

The former Soviet network carried us all the way from what is indisputably Asia to what is almost indisputably Europe.  Due to a lack of English/Kazakh/Chinese/Russian on various sides of ticket offices we travelled in surprising luxury - kupe (2nd) class.  The third class looked fine when we popped through on an explore - it was open-plan, so it feels in many ways less invasive to share space.  The slight problem with the kupe compartments were the cosiness - when two grumpy people are staring at you in such a confined space it feels a little invasive.  That said, the kupe compartment I'm sitting in now is fantastic and feel really like a long train journey should feel - spacious and comfortable.  We've only intermittently had people in here, too.  The compartment has 4 berths, 2 up and 2 down.  There are lots of rails, bars, hooks, shelves and ledges to put things on or in and a small folding table.  Under the bottom berth is a box for the bags to live in, and it's essentially locked by putting bodyweight on it.  Bedding and sheets are provided and clean and comfy.  Outside there are seats in the corridor, some 110v powerpoints, a toilet at either end and a samovar (water boiler).  There are nine compartments to a carriage, plus a guards compartment replete with three guards and a guards office.  On the way to Almaty, the guards stuffed their fat faces with food at every stop, loading vast piles of bread, lakes of soups and acres of salad into their compartment.

The only internal train we took in Kazakhstan was the No.1 to Astana - a Spanish designed superfast Talgo service.  Superfast on aging track means moderately fast by western standards but still the journey was a mere 12 hours rather than a day, which bought us time in Astana.  It was a swish modern affair but eminently unsensible for those of us with big bags.  Luckily our cabinmates had only very small bags, otherwise we'd have had to sleep with the bags again.  Changing the seats round was a real faff, requiring the summoning of a guard to unlock the top bunks and swing them don, then everyone to go in one at a time and make beds.  The space was just as limited in the corridor too, so we all had to file up and down when someone wanted to get past.  Those guys were pretty friendly, but almost everyone else has been very grumpy.  It's so stereotypically slavic scowling surliness.  We've shared our compartment three times this journey, and only once before, on the internationals.  Each time has been brief and we've only had a cabinmate for one night - a mumbling teenager for the final night to Almaty.  We started this journey with a freindly Kazakh who was travelling not quite as far as the border, then we got two butterball ladies to the border.  On the Russian side it's just been a couple of people for an hour or so at a time.  The vast majority of the time we've been in splendid isolation.

The borders have been pretty easy too - a strict check of the visas and passports, of course - with funky little laptops!  Bagwise they've had varying levels of indifference - no check at all when entering Russia.  Russia were confused by our nationality - English, British or UKish?  Phone calls were made, the appropriate box was located and we were logged in.  Entering Kazakhstan we ran into a well-spoken army man who spoke with great candour about his life on the border post.  He told us of his friends in the SAS, having to check the bags of Kazakhs bringing so much from China, the border boredom and the dangers of the land.  We laughed at first - "the hills are full of beers, very dangerous" then it wasn't so funny "they killed two men this year.  This is why it is dangerous.  We must kill everything.  Wolves, beers...".  Luckily at that point he was recalled by a gruff supervisor and we went on into Kazakhstan.  The scenery was then mountains, by Astana plains and then hills, forest and even rivers as we wound towards Moscow.

And of course we started the journey on what is still the world's most iconic train service - the Japanese shinkansen aka bullet trains.  Although we eschewed them after Nagoya in favour of local services, that first intercity trip was blindingly fast on a 16 coach Nozomi.  It remains the most beautiful train we've used.  Japanese trains are incredibly punctual, well-engineered and efficient of course and have the nice touch of allowing every seat to swivel so you can choose which direction to face.  Many of the prettiest journeys were in that achingly pretty land - Shikoku's Yawatahama-Matsuyama express in the dying light a particular highlight, but also the Kagome to Nagasaki.  All Japanese routes have names and often individually different trains, quite unlike the boredom of samey trains elsewhere.  So we travelled on Sonic Expresses and Romancecars, which was nice.  The local services that we used in Japan were our shortest journeys - mere four hour hops.  Of course, these trains were not intended for long-distance travellers with tonnes of baggage so it was often a struggle to get everything on.  The fellow passengers were always polite, of course and sometimes even friendly too.    The oyaji express from Hiroshima was stuffed with elderly baseball fans just out of the stadium.  Stations were mines of useful information - maps, lockers, timetables and everything efficient and speedy.  With the exception of the train to Beppu which was a real rural line, we always had plenty of options when looking at trains and never had to wait too long for one to roll around.  The stops were brief at most - often less than a minute, even for a change.  The food comes from stations and is, in an indisputably Japanese way, a Big Thing.  It's called ekiben, meaning station-box (of food) and regionally specific.  It's by no means unusual to find Japanese travelling for kilometres just to sample a particularly highly-rated ekiben.  We had hiroshima ekiben - salty and umami in taste, adorned with a whole okonimiyaki.

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