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In praise of train travel

What’s it about long-distance train journeys that brings out the little child in me. A sense of happiness each time I take my seat, listening to the train as it whistles past towns and the countryside. Hurtling through tunnels or racing with the setting sun. There is something that is magical and wonderful about train travel, letting me be the little kid that I always will be.
Whizzing through a tunnel between Mostar and Sarajevo
Whizzing through a tunnel between Mostar and Sarajevo

Hours spent watching from a window or door of a moving train, as scene after scene unfold. Striking up conversations with complete strangers as they get in at different stations, heading to places near and far, asking for and giving back nothing more than each other’s company for the duration of that journey. Except perhaps a few snacks and drinks that are shared and relished down to the last bite and sip. 

Watching the scenes unfurl between Hue and Danang
Watching the scenes unfurl between Hue and Danang

What’s it about train journeys that lets the mind be at peace. Perhaps knowing that you will eventually arrive at your destination, but choose to revel in the moment, here and now. Where thoughts are plenty, but just like the scenes that go by, each of them fleeting moments.

Making friends
Making friends

What’s it about train journeys that brings back memories. As the train speeds through towns and cities, you discover new places, trying to read the name of the station before it passes you by. Savouring a variety of local specialities, especially when the train made a halt for about 10 minutes or longer, quickly dashing to the nearest caterer on the platform or eagerly look forward to the vendors as they came into passed your coach. And lots of friendships forged, however momentary they may have been. When images stick in your head long after miles have passed, and you keep repeating conversations that you have had, many months and years later.

Striking up a conversation with another passenger
Striking up a conversation with another passenger

Back when I was growing up, shuttling between Goa and Mumbai was all about catching the overnight train. It involved two trains. The first leg of the journey was from Madgaon in Goa all the way to Miraj in Southern Maharashtra. After that, my aunt and I would rush to change platforms, and trains, all the way to Dadar in Mumbai. It’s only after a few journeys that I understood why we changed trains. In those days, the tracks in Goa were meter gauge, while in most parts of Maharashtra, the tracks were all broad gauge.

A diesel engine pulls along a passenger train in Punjab
A diesel engine pulls along a passenger train in Punjab

Kid that I was, it was always the window seat for me, in the direction of our journey no less, whatever happened. And should that window seat not be available, you’d find me in a corner of the train, sulking till something else caught my attention.

En route to Vienna
En route to Vienna

On one such journey, as my aunt and I were settling down at window seats that she had managed for the both of us, another family of four joined us. The father asked if one of his children could occupy one of the window seats. It doesn’t happen too often, but I grudgingly obliged. Even more tragic is that I let them have the window seat in the direction of our journey. But all that went out of the window as soon as they offered me some snacks. It was the first time in my life that I had struck up a friendship, albeit, a short one, on a train.

My travel buddy on most journeys around the world
My travel buddy on most journeys around the world

Since then, I have done plenty of train journeys in India, and around the world. There were short distance journeys that would last anywhere from an hour to three, between Mumbai and Pune to catch up with long lost friends over weekends, or Mangalore and Puttur, because there was a general strike and the only transport available was a train. Plenty that involved long distance, overnight journeys across states and international borders. Some done on an impulse – from Casablanca to Marrakesh.

Marrakesh station
Marrakesh station

Others borne out of necessity as it was more feasible than any other mode of transport – from Sarajevo to Mostar and back, or the overnight from Zagreb to Vienna, with hours spent at an obscure station just inside the Austrian border. One was simply for the thrill of flying down the tracks at over 340km per hour – between Hangzhou and Shanghai. And quite a few that took weeks to plan, like the epic Reunification Express from Hue to Ho Chi Minh city. Irrespective of distance travelled, each of these journeys have been an adventure by themselves.

Heading into Sarajevo
Heading into Sarajevo

Many decades ago, I went visiting the southern Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu from Mangalore. As the train chugged along in the dead of the night, cutting through the narrow strip that we know as Kerala all the way to Thiruvananthapuram, I remember looking out of the window, and as the train took a turn, I would see the engine pulling the bogies with its single beam of light shining a path ahead. I would imagine that the engine driver would have to be one heck of a driver to so expertly stay on track without jumping rail, spinning the steering wheel so well at each turn. Sigh, the innocence of childhood. It’s only years later that I understood how a train went along a track.

Dusk at Kabaka Puttur station
Dusk at Kabaka Puttur station

There have been other adventures on trains in India too. During my university days, I chose to go to Nepal on an impulse, my first solo travel. To get to the border, I had to catch an overnight train to Gorakhpur. However, these were bad times for India as a country, when politicians were rousing up the populace, agitating for a temple in a place I only thought existed in mythological books and Amar Chitra Katha. We were stuck at Jhansi Junction for more than 12 hours as strikers had blockaded the path of our train.

Sometimes a journey is for the records
Sometimes a journey is for the records

I didn’t fare any better on my way back after the solo trip. Somehow, I ended up at Gorakhpur station with no money to head back to Mumbai. Which is when, in a moment of wisdom, I opted to head to Varanasi to see if I could stay with a bunch of childhood friends. Upon reaching the city in the wee hours of the morning, I realised that there was a curfew about town and had to wait at the station until the curfew was lifted.

I see you see them
I see you see them

You would think that was the end of my misery. Sadly, it wasn’t. My friends in Varanasi managed to, between them, collect enough money to buy me a ticket back to Mumbai with a few extra to sort me out till I reached the city. 

A railway crossing in Khamshet
A railway crossing in Khamshet

Well, a pickpocket on the train had other ideas. As we neared Mumbai, I realised my wallet had been stolen. With no money to hail a cab or even hop onto a city bus, I stressed. That is when one of the passengers offered me enough money for a bus ride back to my hostel where I was staying. Taking pity on me, a few other passengers offered me a light breakfast too.

Kabaka Puttur station
Kabaka Puttur station

As years went by, the frequency of long-distance train travel started to reduce, until I wasn’t travelling on trains anymore.

A view of Vienna station
A view of Vienna station
The Reunification Express
The Reunification Express

Since then, I’ve done plenty of journeys across Europe. From Western Europe through some of the former East bloc countries, and then some more. Sure, most of the train services in western Europe are super-efficient, working to clockwork precision that would ordinarily bring a smile on anyone’s face. 

The train from Oslo to Karlstad

However, there is something about travelling by train in western Europe that leaves you feeling that you’ve missed on something. Somehow, I didn’t feel the romance in train travel through these parts. Sure, they got you from point A to B effortlessly, in air-conditioned comfort. But somehow, I found them soulless, at worse. You can read a brief blog on my journey from Oslo to Stockholm here.  

En route from Oslo to Stockholm
En route from Oslo to Stockholm

Travelling through parts of Eastern Europe was, at times, like stepping back in time. You could make out a noticeable difference in the carriages and engines as you went further and further from Central Europe. Travelling from Vienna to Ljubljana, you still felt a part of Western Europe with well-maintained carriages. Then, as you progressed further south into Zagreb, the changes would be noticeable. Until finally hopping aboard the train to Sarajevo. The carriages looked and felt like they had seen better days.

Chugging along between Budapest and Prague
Chugging along between Budapest and Prague

Travelling between all these countries brought another joy – crossing international borders that one could only see drawn on maps, or visualised in spy thriller movies. Minutes spent peering out of the window as immigration officers collected passports and then walked out of the train. While they were gone, all passengers would be stuck in their respective carriages – the officers would make sure to lock each of them until they were back.

Border control at Volinja in Croatia
Border control at Volinja in Croatia

They would be gone for a while, sometimes up to an hour or so, before returning and handing over passports with a fresh new entry stamp to add to the collection. However, often, they were surprised to see an Indian passport with all the required visas in place. We even had our return tickets and accommodation to prove we were genuine travellers. An odd question here and a quick glance there and we were welcomed into their countries.

Dobrljin border station in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Dobrljin border station in Bosnia and Herzegovina

So, when my usual travel buddy and I were planning on travelling to Sri Lanka at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, it was natural that all our internal journeys were going to be by train. For our first travel, we opted to catch the morning train from Colombo to Kandy, all of four hours. After spending the New Year in Kandy, it was the journey that has become the most Instagrammed – the blue train to Ella. A disaster and a train sighting on the famed Nine-arch bridge later, it was finally the Night Mail from Ella to Colombo. But those are stories for another time.

Instagram worthy poses on the train to Ella
Instagram worthy poses on the train to Ella

Aah, the joy of travelling long-distance train travel. Whatever those memories, whatever those moments, it always brings a smile to my face. And then, I sit back, look out of the window, and think and wonder, when did I ever really grow up?

The big 'little kid'
The big 'little kid'
In praise of train travel
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