Thursday, February 8, 2007

Five memorable train journeys

A shinkansen slows down enough for me to take a photo
as it enters to pick up passengers at a station

Last December, two family friends returned to Penang from Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A., where they now reside. As has become the norm, they came over to our house for a visit and chat. While shooting the breeze, this pair recounted with amusement one more time -- as they've done every time we've met up in recent years! -- how it is that I am the only person to date whom they've ever gone to pick up from Atlanta's train station (as opposed to the city's airport).

Although they have not gone so far as to explicitly state it, it's clear enough that their sense is that it will stay this way for a long time, if not ever! All of which goes to show that, especially in the U.S.A. and my native Malaysia -- both car countries as far as transportation preferences go, my liking for train travel is something which distinguishes me plus puts me in a (probably certifiable!) class of my own.

Maybe in the not so distant future, this will not be so. This especially in light of fears of global warming and other environmental concerns having recently got people realizing that train travel is one of the more environmentally friendly ways to go.

In the meantime, here's recounting details of five quite different train journeys that I got much out of embarking and completing; and which gave me cause to think that sometimes, the getting there portion is what makes for a -- if not the most -- memorable part of the overall experience:-

1) Butterworth, Penang to Ipoh, Perak (Malaysia), c. 1970s: Undertaken when I was a pre-teen, this train journey in question is actually the one and only train ride I've ever been on in my home country besides the short trips on the funicular railway that goes up Penang Hill. Also, since Penang island has no train apart from the afore-mentioned funicular hill railway, this particular rail trip is one that actually began on the mainland portion of Penang state over at Butterworth's train station (rather than my home island itself).

Because I was really quite young then, what I remember more are impressions rather than actual details of the journey. Just the same though, I'll maintain that the memories of travelling through miles of equatorial greenery and flooded rice fields and, also, past a scary-looking Chinese cemetery before ending up at an architectural wonder of a train station that's sometimes referred to as the Taj Mahal of Ipoh(!) are ones that I feel will always live with me... :)

2) London, England to Edinburgh, Scotland (Britain), 1980: At least back when I took this trip on one of those trains known as the Intercity 125 because it was supposedly capable of going at 125 miles per hour (but, actually, was recorded as being able to go up to 140 mph), a direct train from the English capital to its Scottish equivalent averaged about five and a half hours. However, on this particular journey, my travel companions and I were unable to pass up the opportunities to stop for a few days in historic York on the way up to Edinburgh as well as stop for a day in the cathedral city of Durham on the way back to London. So it all took up quite a bit more time than five and a half hours.

As might be imagined, all of the mentioned cities had a part to play in providing me with many a treasured memory. (E.g., we had the good fortune of being in the impressively atmosphere-rich Durham Cathedral as the sun began to set and consequently got an especially evocative visiting experience there.) Nevertheless, I have to admit that the part of this particular train journey that may well stick out the most in my memory is the extended scenic view of the magical looking tidal island of Lindisfarne arising from the sea that I got from my window seat; one which has left me with an agonizing "so near, yet so far" feeling and resolve that, one day, I will go there for a visit.

3) Denver, Colorado to Los Angeles, California (U.S.A.), 1988: If truth be told, this train journey was one that's actually too long for my liking. And it doesn't help that it's on Amtrak; not my favorite train service provider on account of many of its trains being slower than those in a lot of less economically wealthy, etc. countries, and their having not that much -- and quality -- choice of food on them to boot.

So, if I could do the trip all over again, I'd get off the train at Salt Lake City, Utah since the part of the ride west from there to Los Angeles can feel like a never-ending one through uninterestingly uninhabited and increasingly similar looking desert terrain. However, the portion of the rail journey that commences soon after one leaves Denver, which has the train going through the mountains as well as breathtaking mountain scenery, is out of this world, absolutely not to be missed and makes the whole trip feel worthwhile!

4) Dar es Salaam to Moshi (Tanzania), 1992: This overnight Tanzanian train journey that goes from coastal Dar es Salaam up into the East African country's northern highlands has to be most harrowing as well as exciting train journey I've ever taken. How harrowing you ask? One way to explain this is by letting you know that as dinner time approached, my travel companion on this particular trip -- an individual from Mainland China who has been on his share of trains in his native land -- and I sought to make our way to the dining car but when we saw that the carriages were jumping up and down, and at different times from one another, much like different parts of a carnival-esque fun house would, we decided to forego dinner in favor of a couple of oranges each and a few peanut snacks that we had brought along with us!

Another gauge that I'll offer up is that this Chinese man -- who, incidentally, had named himself Jacky so that, on account of his surname being Chen, his name would be easily remembered by Tanzanians (many of whom are fans of Hong Kong along with other movies)! ;) -- kept on muttering through much of the journey that "this is velly bad; velly, velly bad" and "we are going to die!". Until, that is, I crossly told him: "Well, if we're going to die, then shut up so that I can sleep and therefore die in my sleep"!!! ;DDD

5) Tokyo to Kokura (Japan), 2006: Aaaaaaaah! Would that all train journeys could be as comfortable, efficient, on-schedule, on-time, etc., etc. as this one on the Nozomi-503 class of shinkansen (i.e., bullet train) which took my mother and I from the capital of Japan over on Honshu island to the city of Kokura over on the northern tip of Kyushu island!!!

Right from when we were standing in line to enter the train and saw the cleaners go in and quickly -- but cleanly all the same! -- clean the insides of the carriages as well as efficiently flip the chairs so that all the seats would face the "right" direction, I knew that I'd be in for an amazing experience. The incredibly well-behaved passengers (which included a quiet cat in an incredibly cute portable cat box) only added to the train's charm. Ditto the interesting and often picture-book-looking landscapes that we passed -- often at great speed -- along the way. So even though I didn't get to see Mount Fuji on account of it not being a clear day that travel day, I still came away from the experience with the view that the time spent making this train journey was one that truly was well spent indeed. :)


Mikael said...

I also traveled by train, London-Edinburgh, in the summer of 1980, on iter-rail with some friends. No idea which kind of train it was..what memory you have!!! I do remember that it was a nice journey. The Scottish west coast made an even bigger impression (the Isle Of Skye!). Inter -Rail was a good way to travel...^^

YTSL said...

Hi mikael --

You went on the trip earlier than me. (My train journey was in the winter of 1980!)

As for my memory: Some things I really can remember for a long time but others...And with the train: It's easy for me to remember as I was on the Intercity 125 a lot as it served many, if not most, of the main British routes then. :)

alejna said...

Something else we have in common: I love train rides, too. And I've also been thinking of writing about some train travel...and train movies...

YTSL said...

Hi alejna --

We have so much in common it's kinda scary but also nice, huh?! ;D