The Great Railway Bazaar
I like traveling by trains.
The rhythmic rumble of wheels clunking over the joints in the tracks. The steady stream of scenery rushing past the window, far from roads or flight-paths. Watching rural culture unfold in places I would otherwise never have seen, or even known existed. The space that trains occupy during their brief passage through a region is theirs alone; every time it is an identical path, limited by the parallel, steel lines.
Trains afford the time to read, to write, to think. To meet other passengers as time is taken out from the cabin, feeling the wind in one’s face whilst leaning out of the window. I am not talking about regimented seats of European trains, I am talking about the compartments of long-distance services with their corridors lining one side of the carriage, with groups of passengers congregating in their narrow space.
There is none of the monotony of franchised neon-signs announcing service-stations with their chain-stores & pre-fabricated restaurants. In the most unassuming of stations or stops, commerce is tied to the passage of the locomotive, laden with trays of bread and the local sweets.
I enjoy deciphering the names of stations in exotics alphabets, from villages that the world seems to have forgotten. Transliterating the imposing cyrillic of the former Soviet states, and unraveling the cursive script of Arabic or Iranian Farsi. Even at the gares of France, or the bahnhoff of Germany, this typography takes a different tone when viewed from a train window.
From Paris, I have traveled via Poland and the Ukraine to Russia. The night-train to Venice has led me to Belgrade & Istanbul, before boarding the three-day, once-a-week service to Iran’s capital. But having just alighted from the train from Alexandria, it was in the ticket office of the Egyptian State Railways in Cairo that I faced my greatest challenge yet. As I ordered my ticket, “no 2nd class” retorted the moustached man in a blue uniform. “For Egyptian men only.”
My protests that I was Egyptian (in decidedly poor & un-Egyptian Arabic) held little sway. For the first time in my travels, I was forced to abandon my comfort in discomfort & make the 15 hour journey down to Aswan in first-class, as the train followed the palm trees lining the Nile.
(I later learned that it is possible to buy 2nd-class tickets in the train. Lesson learned: never trust an Egyptian state employee.)