Cabin of the Mind

A cabin in a remote place – in a fold of the hills, on a hilltop, in the desert, on a quiet beach. It matters not where, but often have I contemplated its appeal. Perhaps it has two rooms, with a wood fire for heating and cooking. Perhaps it is made of raw timber with an earth floor. Perhaps it has no more than a bed and a small table and chair. Its appeal continues whenever I encounter it, while hiking, on a long-distance bicycle ride, or glimpsed from a passing train. And from time to time I have pondered finding one for myself and retreating into it to write. For my criterion is not whether I can escape the world as such, but whether I can write there. A remote cabin is one such place.

The appeal has been stronger during some periods. When I was undergoing a difficult breakup from my first marriage, feeling out of control of events as they unfolded, I longed for such a cabin. When I was under pressure at work, with an alarm clock waking me every morning before I was ready to rise, demanding I head off to do something I did not want to do for someone I did not like, my cabin became very appealing. During the lost years, when I lived far from my children, the cabin beckoned so that I might bring them there. When conflicts have arisen, over petty matters that seemed to draw everyone’s energy inordinately, I felt the cabin’s call. When I was weary and tired of the world and its ways, I thought of my cabin often. And if I was merely passing by, on a forest trail or on a lonely road, my cabin would appear and invite me to tarry for a while.

Yet I slowly began to realise that the cabin need not be a physical place, a structure of timber and iron and stone. My cabin also became one of my mind. It is a place I enter often, especially when the world is loud and maddening. The furniture is simple, with a corner to read, a small desk and chair at which to write, a view over vast vistas of the mind and the thoughts that lie there.

This cabin too is a place of retreat, of reclaiming myself and what I love to do. I can switch off to what is immediately around me and switch on to what is more important. No longer do my ears here the noise around about, no longer do my eyes see what comes from immediate impressions of light on my retinas. No longer to the demands of clamouring people, thinking only of what they can gain for themselves, call upon me. Soon enough they realise that I simply do not respond. Instead I am in another world, the cabin of my mind. Here my thoughts run, ideas arise in peace.

On this journey I have found the cabin again.

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The Innlander: One of the Unknown Great Rail Journeys

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I believe I am on one of the great unheralded rail journeys of the world – The Innlander. The train leaves from beneath the smoke stacks of the Mt Isa mine, in northwest Queensland; in fact, the station is part of the mine and the line is integral to that venture in the northern outback. It runs for almost a thousand kilometres, west to east, until one reaches Townsville a day later. And yes, given the distance and the time, it is a slow train, rolling contentedly across the arid landscape.

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We board as two of thirteen passengers, at a nondescript corner of the mine. The train has an engine and four carriages: one for luggage and freight, one for staff and two for passengers. Many seats will be filled at the stops on the way.

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We have seats only for the overnight journey, but comfortable and wide seats they are – three only across the width of the carriage. Two toilets at one end and a shower at the other, spacious and, again, comfortable.

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We are greeted in that curiously warm northern way, with an offer of free sandwiches, tea and coffee, and, should the need arise, a request to press the call button in the event of any ‘emergency’ – such as the need for chocolate. Dinner packs too seem to be complimentary, as is breakfast. So much for the pile of food we had brought for the journey (based on experiences from other trains).

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I am mesmerised by much all at once, the cares of the world falling away in a moment. The arid land out of the window, with its ant piles, tough trees and bushes, rough hills and red dirt constantly drawing my gaze. But then I find the lounge area – completely unexpected, for this is usually granted to first class passengers.

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Except that there is no first class on this train. Or rather, we are all first class as a matter of course. At discount prices. So here I sit, trying to look out of all windows at once, amazed that more people do not travel on this train. Perhaps they will, as we stop at station after station on the way.

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I talk with one of the attendants and find out that less than twelve months ago, the former conservative state government had cut out the dining car and sleepers, which attracted more to travel on the long journey. The logic is baffling unless aforesaid (and rather unpopular) government’s agenda was to close the line completely. Fortunately he and his minions are gone and the railway people are struggling successfully to have services restored. The lounge section is one such example, as are the free meals. An old couple follow me into the lounge, regular travellers on the service. He is stone deaf and would do well with an ear-horn; she is unable to make the hot water work for her tea. As she ponders what to do, we talk about the train – at some length. The sleepers, they tell me, should be back in a few months, for they have been fighting for them.

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I am unable to determine whether the scenery or the people on board are more intriguing. While I continue the relish the desert, its dust storms and bare hills, I become involved with the passengers. Some alight at Cloncurry, while others join us. A few solo men in search of work or adventure set off on the few streets of the town. One has a work shirt on, the other an old pair of jeans and pack with nothing but a book and a toothbrush. But the greater number are local Aboriginal people: a mother and two children, a triple of younger people, a few men and women travelling alone. At first there is relatively little interaction, but interact we do after a while. One woman with a weathered face discusses power options for recharging a phone or a computer. I offer to watch her phone while I sit in the lounge car. A large man waits while I take a photo, before we discuss toiletry needs.

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Night eventually falls and weary do I become. Time to finish writing, brush teeth and put my feet up with a book to read until sleep comes upon me. Such is the arrangement of seats that I am able to stretch out my legs horizontally, recline the seat and fall into a deep slumber. Other passengers take different options. The large man I had met earlier opts to sleep on the floor, right across the aisle. He does so for about half an hour, with some of us simply stepping over him to make our way through. A conductor comes along and wakes him. Unlike most trains, she does not scold him and tell him to get back in his seat. Instead, she takes him to the other passenger carriage where he can stretch out in a similar fashion. A teenage Aboriginal boy stretches out beneath the single line of seats and sleeps well into the morning. During the night we creak into quiet stations across the north of Queensland, pass through a dry bush full of nightlife, and stop for more than an hour due to an electricity pole that has fallen over the track. Police and electricity maintenance vehicles light up the night sky as they deal with the pole.

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I wake after more than eight hours of good sleep and make my way to the end of the carriage for a highlight: the train shower. Towels and soap are present and the hot water flows freely. For some reason, beginning a shower at one place and completing it at another – in motion – never ceases to give me a thrill. I return to my seat to find a breakfast package waiting for me. A new conductor, who has joined us through the night, walks by and lets us know we will be an hour or so late, due to the electricity pole. We’ll get there, she says, at some time. As with previous announcements, no loudspeaker system is used, but rather quiet announcements to each group of passengers.

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After breakfast, I return to the lounge car and my spot of the previous day. Now I am joined by some more Aboriginal people, who snooze, talk in their local language and identify sights along the way. The laughing deaf man and his dapper wife soon appear, full of jokes and their ubiquitous cups of tea. Given their knowledge of the train, my sense is that on any journey on this train they will be here.

Too soon does the journey come to an end, with the now unfamiliar sights of buildings and human occupation. Townsville it is, one place in the massive tropical parts of Australia. We haul our untouched food supplies along in the sun, soon enough sweating away. We will eat it, some time soon.

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As we walk, I wonder: how can this rail journey be so unknown? Why do train travellers coming to Australia opt only for the overpriced Indian-Pacific and The Ghan? They are missing one of the quiet gems of rail travel.

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Train out of Pyongyang

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Nervously we sat, not daring to leave our train cabin. A border guard was searching through our bags and asking questions. But this was no ordinary border and this was no ordinary border guard, for we were attempting to leave the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Would everything be checked in minute detail? Would most of our purchases be confiscated and photographs deleted?

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We were on the T28 train, from Pyongyang to Beijing, about to pass over the border crossing, from Sinuiju across the river Dandong in China. More of that in a moment. I had been in the DPRK for only four days, although it felt like four months. Our small group had seen key sites in Pyongyang, rattled along a bumpy road to Kaesong in order to experience country life and see the Demilitarised Zone, and given a full dose of the DPRK’s perspective on the world. We were a sceptical liberals, social democrats, curious seekers for a real communist experience, and some older travellers with a wiser view of the world. Oh yes, a few communists were among us, keen to see old style communism still in action.

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But the rail journey was a real highlight, albeit for a handful of us brave enough to travel in such a fashion. Soon enough I realised that the rest, who had opted to fly out, had really missed an extraordinary opportunity. At Pyongyang station, I was astounded at the platform: not at the architecture or layout, but at the sheer number of northern Koreans. Were they seeing off visitors, I wondered? Were they here for the sight of foreigners in their ‘closed’ country? No, they were heading out of the country for work, study, sport and what have you. I should not have been amazed by now, but old preconceptions linger. Yet each day, the T28 train leaves Pyongyang for the 24-hour journey to Beijing, full of northern Koreans, while the T27 does the journey the other way, bringing Koreans back to their country. So much for the ‘closed’ borders.

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Some wore the badges of rank in the government. These were lapels pinned to one’s shirt or top. In some cases, both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il appeared on the background of a DPRK flag. In other cases, it was a single image of Kim Jong-Il in a small circle. The Russians once called them the nomenklatura – those who had shown their loyalty to the government over generations and were thereby given extra privileges. I could not help thinking of the Christian church during the Middle Ages – the last time another ideology was dominant in states. And I could not help appreciating the need to ensure that significant numbers have an investment in keeping the show on the road. They have done so now for almost 70 years.

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Departing Pyongyang Station, we trundled along at a perfect pace for rail travel – about 50 kilometres per hour. Our eyes looked outward, watching the countryside roll slowly by. The train passes northward from Pyongyang, in between towering and mountain ranges capped with snow even in early summer. The narrow valley was full of crops in every conceivable corner that was remotely level – even between the railway lines. Not to be outdone by the rugged landscape, farmers also grew hardy crops on hillsides. Arable land is valuable indeed, dotted as it was with groups of soldiers and farmers working the fields. Some mechanisation was evident, but the methods – especially for the rice paddies – still used traditional hand methods.

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Time passed, we talked, found our own spaces, and continued to peer out of the windows. And then it struck me: the land and its villages were incredibly clean and tidy. In Pyongyang and the other towns, I had seen many groups taking care of their collective public space, ensuring that the city remained spotless. But the countryside too was clean. Not a stray piece of paper or can or wrapper was to be seen. Did people reuse everything? I wondered. Is this a cultural tradition or perhaps due to the simpleness of life?

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By now I began to feel the pangs of hunger, as did my fellow travellers. I asked a conductor in broken Chinese: is there a dining car? Apparently not, even though the brochure boasted of such a car. My companions looked askance and tightened their belts. Until I mentioned that I had some food. Ever a cautious traveller, I had stocked up with various goods on the platform at Pyongyang: water, rice crackers, fresh vegetables and fruits. My stock became the lost dining car, supplying the five of us with necessary sustenance. Yet my stocks were not designed to last the whole journey and soon ran out. To our relief, at dusk and in China, many carriages were added – including a resplendent dining car with somewhat inflated prices. All of us made our way there, to stock up with freshly cooked food and Chinese beer.

Yet before we could get to China, we had that border crossing to negotiate, on empty stomachs.

Back to our friend, the khaki-clad border guard: he questioned me about my mobile phone, since he did not quite seem to believe that all I had was an old Nokia. ‘No smart phone?’ he said. ‘No, this is it’, I said. All of the books I had bought – mostly authored by Kim Il-Sung – drew scant attention. Not so a book carried by one of my travel companions. ‘What is about?’ He asked. ‘Who is that?’ He said, pointing to the cover. It happened to be a book about a Chinese philosopher and not a foreign book about the DPRK (of which they are wary).

Another companion had a large and prominent camera, to which our guard was drawn. He sat down and skimmed through the pictures. She was nervous indeed, for she had photographed pretty much everything in town and country. The guard spun expertly through the hundreds of photos and stopped at one. It was of two women in the countryside, topless and washing clothes. Our guard laughed! Yes, he laughed and said, ‘You can’t keep that one’. My companion laughed with him, apologised and deleted the photograph. But that was it. The rest were perfectly fine.

The examination turned out to be cursory and focused. We soon realised that our anxiety was generated by stories we had heard about leaving the DPRK. Everything would be checked in careful detail, we had been told by earlier venturers. Art work would be confiscated, most photographs deleted; even socks would be turned inside out to find anything prohibited. Not so, it turned out. The guards were polite and efficient, doing a job. The art work I had purchased was not even checked, my camera was given a quick glance and not examined, and my socks remained in my bag, along with everything else.

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And so we passed into China. Immediately, the contrast was obvious. How can one socialist country be so different from another? From quiet order we passed to typically noisy Chinese chaos. From painful politeness, we were immersed in Chinese openness. From simplicity we passed to complexity, from relative poverty and smallness, to relative wealth and sheer vastness.

We had little time to experience the contrast, for it was dark by the time we left Dandong, after yet another and even more cursory border check. So we settled into our bunks. ‘Soft sleepers’ they are called by local standards. If you have ever slept on a real Chinese or Korean bed, they were indeed soft. For many of us, they seemed hard enough. But that did not prevent my companions from snoring the night away. Nor did it prevent me.

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Too soon Beijing arrived, my second home. Out the front of the bustling Beijing Central Station, we parted with a shake and a thanks. As is the way with travel companions thrown together for a few days, only one of them contacted me by email afterwards. Her email was laden with photographs – the ones that the border guard had waved through with a well-practised glance.

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The Spaces of Japan

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A compact land with compact houses full of compact people: such is the pervasive image of Japan. Are not the simple beds of traditional Japanese homes folded away during the day to create some extra space? Do not the hotels have stacked capsules into which one slides for the night? Are not the houses themselves more like residences for dolls rather than people?

I arrived in Japan by ship, voyaging across the East China Sea from Shanghai. Two days it took, with a ship full of Chinese travellers in tour groups – for Chinese are not permitted solo tourist entry visas for Japan. As is the way of ships, ours – the Suzhou Hou – eventually kissed the shore and was embraced warily by the dock in Osaka.

In the southern reaches of the island of Honshu, it was indeed compact. Millions upon millions live in these parts, a tsunami of people finding their space on a small land. I began to make my way north, travelling by train. The ageing Shinkansens zipped from one metropolis to another. Kyoto, Nagoya, Kawasaki, Tokyo, Saitami – really a vast megalopolis finding ever new ways to fit human beings into ever more compressed space. The images I had formed from countless representations seemed to be confirmed.

Even the standard hotels were minimal affairs. With names like ‘Smile Hotel’, ‘Route Hotel’ and so forth, they all seemed made from the same mould. A rectangular block contained identical pods: a tight bathroom, a bed, a thin plank on the wall for some odds and ends, and enough floor space to edge along in between. At least I could step off the train and step into a hotel, for the Japanese still assume that many do indeed travel by rail. Some of those travellers – like me – inevitably need a room for the night.

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But I was not so interested in this Japan. So northward I pushed, onto the island of Hokkaido. By now the trains were simpler affairs, although their names claimed much more: Super Hakucho, Super Tokachi, Super Soya, Super Kamui, or Super-whatever. The engines might have had a flash appearance, but the carriages were minimalist. On one such train I plunged into the deep Seikan tunnel under the Tsugaru Strait, wondering about the continental fault line that produces all those earthquakes in these parts. The 50 kilometres passed eventually and, without a sudden inrush of sea water, we arrived above the surface in one piece.

Soon enough I came to see why the train on which I had just travelled was known as a ‘Super’ train. At the port town of Tomakomai, I boarded a ‘local’ train. What glorious machines these are: single-carriage diesel rail motors, which attain a breathtaking top speed of 40 kilometres per hour in between the stops. Actually, their main task is to stop, at every remote village and minuscule platform.

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Now I began to see parts of Japan that rarely register in the international image of the place. The rail motors rattled, banged and lurched in the way they had done for decades. I opted for the long, slow journeys to the corners of Hokkaido, to Wakkanai, Nemuro and Samani on the edge of the northern seas. The trains in these run a few times day, so one needs patience in order to find these far-flung and rarely visited places.

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In these parts the platforms were rusty and crumbling. Often, I had to wait for hours for the next connection. Or I would jump on a train, any train and see where it would take me. Each was of the single-carriage rattler variety, although occasionally – on a ‘busy’ line – two would be joined together. On the way, we stopped at one tiny platform after another. They took the word ‘platform’ literally, for usually there was just a flat piece of cement, without any ornamentation. Or, rather, they did have a single sign indicating the name of the place in question. Occasionally, a passenger would board, while another alighted. The number of people on board remained the same – no more than five.

The hamlets through which we passed gave clearer signs of the stagnation of the Japanese economy over the last couple of decades. Here was none of the flash of the big cities, with their impossible cleanliness, order and neon. Instead, weeds grew, houses showed peeling paint and sagging rooves, and few people were on the streets. I loved it, for this was the Japan I preferred to see.

I soon became used to the fact that my destination would be a few wind-blown houses huddled close to the railway platform. In such places, I engaged in watch-pointing-map-referring-and-signing discussion with the driver. Food? He shrugged, with a wan smile. Hotel? He shrugged again, obviously never having taken the time to explore the hamlet that beckoned to me. I smiled in return.

The challenge was upon me, and I scoured the town in question for some accommodation, any accommodation. Eventually, a modest hotel appeared, although none of Japan’s famed ‘love hotels’ were to be found in these reaches. And I could usually find a shop that reeked of fish. But it would also stock some fruit, the ubiquitous sushi and strange packets of crisp seaweed. A feast fit for a king or queen.

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Needless to say, I was the only foreigner in these parts, and no one spoke a language I knew. It was also early November, so the chill of an early winter seeped into my bones, ably assisted by the fierce wind. So after a tour of the place in question, looking out over the sea and dreaming of yet another ship, I retreated to the relative shelter of the hotel room, where an ancient heater, with its paint a faint memory, battled against the cold.

I had not imagined such places existed in Japan: few people, open fields, towering mountains, and sparse villages in which the houses felt more relaxed about the space around them. Far indeed from the compact megalopolises of the south.

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Last Ride on the Sunlander

‘Hurry up!’ The door handle jolted up and down, up and down, while the door itself banged and rattled with the pressure.

‘It’s locked!’ said the same young vocal chords to no one in particular.

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Without a shred of clothing on me, I opened the shower door a crack and peered out. Before me was small, curly-haired Aboriginal boy of about six, somewhat startled at the naked apparition before him.

‘I won’t be long’, I said and closed the door again.

As I emerged from my morning shower, someone yelled, ‘Shower’s free’. The boy grabbed his backpack and raced up the aisle.

‘Coming through’, he yelled, with his father following in his wake at a more sedate pace.

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Everyone smiled. Apparently, he had been running up and down the aisle, climbing on the seats, retrieving his small backpack from the overhead luggage rack, and busting for one of the great experiences on a long-haul train – a travel wash.

He was but one in a carriage full of Aboriginal people from the north – curly-haired and wearing variations of the black, red and yellow, the colours of the Aboriginal flag. Already in Brisbane, a number had joined the train heading north: a mother with four little children, a solitary man or two with magnificent grey and black beards, a young handsome couple. But by the time I woke from my lengthy slumber, our carriage in particular was full of Aboriginal people. At some time in the early hours of the morning they had joined our journey north.

By this time, we had already been on the Sunlander, the old and sturdy train between Brisbane and Cairns, for most of the previous day. With the night past, we had another day to go. The train trundles along at a little over 50 kilometres per hour, covering the distance of 1700 kilometres more than 30 hours. Generous stops along the way – 27 in all – allowed the smokers to get a breath of nicotine and tar and the rest of us to stretch our legs. And those stops are legendary: Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Proserpine, Townsville, and on. The Sunlander may not be as well-known as other long distance trains in Australia, but it is a journey that rivals the best.

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For a change, we had opted for the economy seats. Since the train was in its last year of travel after more than half a century of service, the seats were heavily discounted. At $61 each, it was an option hard to refuse (the sleepers were over $600 for a cabin). It was to be one of the last rides on the Sunlander.

Back at the beginning, as we waited at Brisbane’s Roma Street Station, she said, ‘Won’t it be romantic’.

‘Let’s see how we feel after sleeping a night in the seats’. I said.

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The train rolled into the station. Paint peeled from the carriages and rust holes poked through at alarming points. Each little movement was accompanied by clunks and groans and squeals. Between the carriages, you could peer directly onto the tracks slipping by beneath the train. Inside, the carpet had clearly known better times and the seats bore the stains of ten thousand travellers. If you are going to ‘retire’ a train, then it makes little sense to spend money on sprucing it up. Yet it still bore plenty of signs of its former glory: the toilets were spacious in the way of bygone assumptions; each ‘sitting car’ had a glorious shower with full running water at one end; and the seats themselves reclined forty degrees back so you could rest your head without it lolling about when asleep.

To be sure, we had asked if any late cancellations for the sleeper carriages had come in at the last minute. It was not to be, even though the sleepers made up two-thirds of the train. A ‘sitting car’ it was, for the long, slow haul north. I did manage to persuade the conductors to re-allocate us seats in the last carriage, where the two-plus-one formation gave us wider seats and more leg room. But we were to share what was essentially a large dormitory with a bunch of fellow travellers for the next day and half.

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The result was one of the best rail journeys we have had for some time. But the big question is: what do you do for those long hours, especially in a ‘sitting car’ seat? To begin with, bring your own food. We could have opted for the microwave-warmed items of the buffet in the ‘lounge car’ (aka. mobile bar) or the overpriced fast food of the dining car with its variations on hamburgers. We could have brought on overflowing bags of chocolates and sweets, as some of our fellow passengers did. Or we could have gone Russian, and smuggled on endless bottles of vodka to wash down sliced sausage and cheese. But we did none of the sort. Instead, we went for bags stuffed with loaves of bread, oranges, apples, cucumber, mushrooms, bunches of celery, bags of nuts, cans of beans and a travel favourite of mine, processed cheese. At regular intervals from our seats, the sound of crunching could be heard as we devoured yet another meal of relatively fresh stuff.

And we made sure we brought plenty of material to pass the time. For me that included my Chinese workbooks and a few volumes of Stalin’s works – as one does on a long rail journey. More often I would put my feet up on the back of the seat in front of me and watch the land roll by slowly. Or hike the train: it was long enough for a serious expedition on foot, with its endless carriages strung together. At one end was the baggage car, which I could see through the window of the last carriage, and at the other end were the sleepers, into which I slipped on my explorations towards the front of the train.

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On those hikes, I engaged in studying the most intriguing part of the whole journey: other people. What do they do? Now the real advantage of travelling in the economy seats became clear. The seats in the various carriages were full of doddery old fogies, the down-and-outs using the cheapest form of transport available, the families with children who could not afford a sleeper, the couples who had struck up a relationship from the time we left Brisbane, and the odd backpacker. The two drinkers fidgeted, waiting impatiently for the bar to open. One in particular was obviously driven by his multiple addictions. Diminutive, with grey hair and a ragged red face, he was either dashing out at each stop for hasty puffs on a cigarette, or to the bar in his quest to empty their stocks single-handed. Meanwhile, the old fogeys snoozed and read and stayed put, amazing me by their ability to sit for hours on end without needing to go to the toilet. The children fidgeted and clambered over the seats, especially in the ‘lounge car’. One woman avidly read a massive book while chewing through endless packets of confectionary shaped like ‘bananas’. A plump couple sat and knitted for the whole journey – producing enough to clothe all of their grandchildren. Young couples pretended to sleep under the cover of checked blankets.

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At last, we arrived in Cairns, deep in the tropical north. Now it seemed like ages ago since we had left the relatively familiar (and for me alienating) surrounds of Brisbane and the reaches of the Sunshine Coast. There we had been farewelled by a big kangaroo that lazily scratched its belly as we passed – as if indicating that we would have plenty of time on our hands on the journey to come. Soon enough mango and palm trees grew freely among the eucalypts, with banana plantations and then swathes of sugar cane the further north we pushed. Alongside the cane fields ran the narrow tracks of the cane trains – really toy trains with tiny engines and oversized carriages for hauling their loads of cut cane. Even further north, the mountains begin to hug the coast. Here they trap the topical rains of the wet season, so they are covered with a jungle of vines and thorny plants and the towering trees of the rainforest canopy. Yet, on the other side of the rain shadow, the dry tropics soon appear. On the border between the wet and the dry snakes love to gather: the deadly taipans, innocent tree snakes, and massive pythons with a love for small animals, birds and especially chickens (which have the unfortunate combination of being both incredibly stupid and incredibly delicious for so many). And in the hinterland of Cairns, one finds the lands of old and not-so-old hippies, who had acquired land cheaply some years ago and were now sitting on real-estate gold mines. Long ago, they had made the jungle their home, amongst the pythons and bandicoots and cassowaries. To one such place we headed for a few days, the highlight being the open-air toilet.

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But as I sat and the pondered the universe on my throne, watched by a chicken and a couple of horses, my thoughts were already moving towards another journey: westward of the coast, the dry sclerophyll forest passes into the open grassland of the plains and then the arid zones of the interior. In this direction too does a train run, all the way to the mining town of Mount Isa. The Innlander, it is called, and it takes one across to the Northern Territory border. Next time.

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Review of Christian Wolmar’s ‘To the Edge of the World’

Review of Christian Wolmar. To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Railway. London: Atlantic Books. 2013

No reliable recent history of the Trans-Siberian Railway exists. Unfortunately, Christian Wolmar’s book does not fill that role. It is many things – advocate of the railway, entertaining read, anti-communist, ode to tsarist faithfuls – but it is not a history that will stand the test of time. For that, we still have to go back fifty years to Harmon Tupper’s To the Great Ocean (1965), and even there one encounters a curious mix of history and anecdote that also appears in Wolmar’s book.

This is not to say I did not enjoy reading the book. I did so in bed in the evening, racing through the chapters and dreaming of my next journey on the Trans-Siberian. Wolmar writes lightly, if a little too hastily, so the text is easily digestible. To his credit, he focuses mostly on the railway itself. It is the real actor in this story, which runs from the long process in the late nineteenth century of deciding on such a massive project to its role today. Almost half the book concerns the railway’s construction, from the slow process of deciding to undertake the project, through a loving portrait of the man who made it happen (Sergei Witte), to the extraordinary engineering achievement of completing a 9,288 km line in a little over a decade (1892-1903). It passes through some of the most difficult terrain in the world – through remote mountains, vast forests, marshland, endless steppe, permafrost and areas with constant seismic activity.

The initial line ran in its eastern section through what was known as Manchuria, cutting out a long loop, running north-east from Lake Baikal and then down the Amur River to Vladivostok. It also relied on an ice-breaker to take the train across Lake Baikal, due to the forbidding terrain around the lake. Manchuria, of course, became a flash point, for the Russian tsar turned the Chinese concession to build the railway through their land into outright imperial expansion. A modernised Japanese navy also had imperial ambitions, so it was inevitable that a clash would ensue. The Russo-Japanese war (1904-5) was the result, and the railway was one factor, although not the prime factor, as Wolmar suggests. Due their severe losses in the war, the Russians decided to complete the north-eastern loop to Vladivostok, which was ready by 1916 – the year before the October Revolution in 1917. Yet, this focus on wartime is one of the weak points of the book. Wolmar has a hawkish bent for military matters, having a written a book called Engines of War (2010). Railways were, of course, as much military constructions when they were first built as anything else. Until the advent of aircraft, they were the fastest way to move troops and military hardware. So we find long sections on the Russo-Japanese War, the Civil War, and the Second World War. All the same, wars are interludes to the much longer peacetime running of a line, and Wolmar leaves one unsatisfied on that account.

He cannot quite decide whether the railway was a triumph or a tragedy. On the one hand, he exults over the greatest railway in the world, writing of its profound effect on Siberia. The commission in charge of the railway spent more money fostering Russian settlement in Siberia than on the railway itself. Whole towns were built, settlers were given reduced fares and financial assistance, and the agricultural and mineral wealth of Siberia began to make an impact. Some of the richest coal and oil fields in the world were opened up, and agricultural products such as grain and butter (yes, butter) flowed westward. The railway – at least the regions close to it – became woven into Russia as never before. On the other hand, he constantly notes the mistakes made. While he berates western naysayers, who were vocal from the moment construction began, he too joins the chorus from time to time. The line required constant upgrading, from the initial single track with its too-steep gradients and light steel, to the multi-line arterial that it is today. The cost of the construction was astronomical, a cost that the tottering tsarist regime could ill-afford during revolutionary times.

However, he reserves most of his carping criticism for the long era that the railway was crucial to the Soviet Union. No lover of anything that tastes remotely of socialism, he praises the monarchist Sergei Witte (minister of finance and in charge of the railway commission) to the skies. Meanwhile he berates the soviets for their misuse of the line. In passing, he cannot help note that the railway provided both the means for the massive industrialisation under Stalin, as also for the extraordinarily rapid relocation of industry eastward after Hitler’s invasion in 1941. Indeed, he hints that were it not for the railway and what it enabled, the Red Army may not have won the Second World War. Yet, he betrays a distinct wish that the White Armies might not have been so brutal, that the massive support (in money and equipment) for those armies might have been better coordinated, that they had used the railway to better effect, so that they might have triumphed in the Civil War that followed the Russian Revolution. That Wolmar’s father was Russian, sympathised with the White Armies and hated the socialists until his death is clearly a factor here.

However, it was the soviets that made the line what it is today, a massive arterial route that is fully electrified from Moscow to Vladivostok. Some of the most difficult aspects of reconstruction, with tunnels, better gradients, and multiple lines were undertaken by the Soviet government. Much of the line had to be rebuilt after the Civil War. The soviets too constructed the BAM, the Baikal-Amur Mainline that runs hundreds of kilometres north of the eastern section of the Trans-Siberian, from Tayshet near Lake Baikal to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific Coast. Perhaps one of the most formidable projects ever undertaken, it is 4,324 kilometres long, passes over and through impossible mountain ranges, alpine rivers, permafrost, and required the construction of 60 new towns. Begun in the 1930s, it was completed only in the 1991.

The paradox of the Trans-Siberian is that one usually thinks of it in terms of a passenger service. It takes seven days (six nights) to travel the full length, as I did in 2010 and will again in 2014. Wolmar cannot help providing anecdotes, either from his own trip on the line, or more often from others who have written of their varied experiences over more than a century. This practice is of course part of the genre of travel writing. One attempts to give a feel of the landscape, the people met, the quirky moments and crises overcome. I was often absorbed by these accounts, especially of the BAM and the appeal of travelling on the remotest line in the world (Wolmar relies on the entertaining account by the septuagenarian, Devla Murphy, in Through Siberia by Accident, 2005). While entertaining, it also reveals a dilemma Wolmar is unable to resolve. He cannot decide whether he is writing a travelogue or a history, and often falls in between both. The catch is that the prime purpose of the line was and remains freight. Massive amounts of minerals, timber, agricultural produce, and finished products are hauled over its length day and night. Indeed, it is far quicker to go overland with such freight than by the ocean. But the story of a freight line is far less interesting for the travel reading public, even though that would be a proper history.

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Trundling out of Chengdu

‘What a weird pack’, says one of the rural men beside me. He looks it over carefully, its straps and belts and zips and its odd shape. Or at least, that’s what I guess he is saying, since my Chinese is rudimentary at best. His companion joins in and they engage in an animated debate, laughing and examining my pack once again. Not long ago, I had slung the pack on my shoulders – the glorious moment that signals it is time to depart, to take to the road. The feel of the pack’s weight first on one shoulder and then on the other; the tightening of the waist belt to shift the weight to my hips; a small adjustment and I am off.

A few stops on the metro line bring me to Chengdu North Railway Station. Most Chinese cities have more than one station, given the sheer complexity of the railway system which transports millions of people daily across a vast country. At the station, an old man carries an equally ancient bag from which the handles have fallen off sometime before the Cultural Revolution. An old and round woman with a shiny face from the humidity sits and eats and watches me write. A young woman clicks past on high-heeled footwear, attempting to gain some height from a reasonably low point. As is characteristic in the south, her face is rounder, with fuller lips and a matching fuller shape. Meanwhile, the two farmers continue to discuss my pack.

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If I have any lingering doubts as to the press of people, they are dispelled by the check-in. (Already I have gone through two checks, one a full security scan at the gate and the other for entry into the waiting room for my train.) Hundreds of black heads bob and sway as we shuffle forward. The smallest vacant space beside me is immediately filled by yet another person, in a way that speaks of small personal space. And if I have any continuing doubts as to my solitary status as a foreigner here, they are dispensed by my scan over the heads of those around me. The waiting room is overflowing with nothing but Chinese people. Do not foreigners fly, or perhaps take one of the new high-speed G-trains? Needless to say, I am somewhat of a curiosity.

On Board

More than twenty carriages await me on the platform, and more than twenty young women stand at each door to welcome passengers. Uniformed in blue, they hold their hands at the midriff with elbows out in the traditional indication of being there to help.

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The beautiful woman at carriage four smiles and holds my elbow to assist me up the steps. Do I look that old? Does she know in some way that I am a grandfather? Or is it the assumption that a foreigner is not familiar with such a train?

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A T-train it is, with its soft and hard sleepers, soft and hard – seriously hard – seats. The staple of the Chinese long-haul rail system, they trundle along at a comfortable pace for hours and often times days. My journey will take a full day, from the south-western province of Sichuan to Beijing. I must admit that I continue to be amazed by the Chinese rail network, which is surely the most comprehensive and efficient in the world. Some information: five types of train criss-cross the country. The oldest and slowest trains simply have a number, and they are the cheapest, since they specialise in hard seat and no seat tickets. All of the others are called “fast” trains, or rather, variations on fast. The K- and T-trains are “fast” and “faster,” since they were once the most modern trains available. Luxuries include beds, washing rooms, and dining cars. By comparison, most countries in the world with serious long-haul lines use similar trains. In China, the “very fast” trains are prefixed with a “D.” They too have beds and travel at a decent pace of 200 km per hour. Not long ago, they were the sleekest and most modern of all – and they certainly seem so to anyone who has travelled by train elsewhere. But now the “extremely fast” G-trains have arrived, and their network stretches ever further across the country. Belting along at more than 300 km per hour, they have dedicated tracks and brand new stations along lines that run for thousands of kilometres. The only other places with occasional trains like this are Europe and Japan, where they travel the ridiculously short distances characteristic of those curious parts of the globe. But with the G-train network, China has given yet another indication that it now leads the world in terms of technology.

As I wind my way along the corridor, I realise again why I prefer a train like this. Grandparents haul massive bags into compartments while scolding a grandchild. The ever-present attendants slip past in a way that indicates how easy and creative people here are with space. At my cabin door I am met by a waft of body odour. It seems to belong to the bald fossil, with barely a tooth in his mouth, in the bunk across from me. An additional flavour for the journey, I guess. In the bunk above a couple snuggles close in a way that suggests they may engage in the transfer of bodily fluids at some point during the night. But then their young son turns up and clambers into the other bunk.

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I try some rudimentary Chinese – names, place of origin, family, destination. That is about it, until the man from upstairs pulls out his smart phone and starts firing off words that seem like English. With the phone between us, we engage in a conversation of sorts, each searching for words to express what we want to say. Meanwhile, his son starts singing ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ in English. I join in, to scattered applause at the end. He is both dying to try out his English and yet embarrassed to do so. But we speak nevertheless, with me constantly rephrasing what I want to say until he registers the meaning.

Soon enough, food is shared, as one does in these parts. Rockmelon, bananas, cherry tomatoes, and peanuts festoon the small fold-out table by the window. Multi-coloured cups of two-minute noodles follow – including my own. I have learnt quickly enough that relatively few people grace the dining car or even avail themselves of the food trolley. It may come clattering past at regular intervals, with its driver calling out that food is available, but people mostly avoid it. Why? It is simply too expensive. Better to get hold of the universal travel food – noodles and assortments of fruits and nuts – before departure and make your own meals. It helps that even the newest trains have a hot water dispenser at the end of each carriage. Here one may obtain hot water for drinking, or pour it into one’s tea flask, or fill a cup with two-minute noodles and let the boiling water do its job.

Meanwhile the attendants seem to be everywhere, always on an errand, always impossibly smart and always smiling. One comes to our cabin for the routine introduction to the carriage, while another cleans out the cabin bins every 30 minutes or so. Another stops by with a folder, into which she puts our tickets in exchange for a plastic card. To prevent ticket swaps on the way, I assume. The toilets too need a regular wash down, as do the bins where the locals love to put their soiled toilet paper. The carpet needs to be swept before everyone falls asleep, and the emergency mess – from a child – in the third cabin requires urgent attention. A guard stroll by and jokes with one of the attendants, while later be brings their meals from the dining car. The woman pushing the clanking food trolley comes by again, yelling in her mechanical way behind a clear face protector so she doesn’t splutter on the food. Multitudes of people need numerous attendants, but it is a good way to keep high employment.

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At times, I take to the fold-out seat in the corridor. In most other parts of the world, such a seat would seriously block the corridor; it may even be designated a hazard for emergency escape. Here, people simply make their way past the seated person. Even the rattling food trolleys manage to get by without a fuss. In a strange way, that small seat in the midst of the corridor bustle enables one to find some quiet space, as much mental as physical.

Out of the Window

By evening, the potentially randy younger man upstairs is already asleep. But he is doing his best to ensure that no-one in the carriage, if not the train as whole, will not sleep. His apnoeatic snores rattle windows, threaten to tear down curtains, and seem to shake the heavy carriage itself. No wonder his wife has slept long during the afternoon – clearly a survival mechanism in such a marriage. Somehow I manage to drift into sleep too, switching off to the thunderous noise around me and feeling the deeper movements of the train.

By then we have already travelled eastward from the Chengdu plateau. Nestled at the foot of the towering ranges to the west, Chengdu sits in a lush part of the world where rice grows and civilisations have flourished for thousands of years. Eastward are mountains too, a little lower but still toweringly jagged in a way that speaks of recent geological history. No wonder earthquakes happen frequently hereabouts. Through these mountains we pass on our way to Chongqing and then to the river basin of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) at Wuhan. Here we will turn north and travel along flatter terrain during the night.

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So I make the most of the daylight and soak up the landscape. On the journey to Chengdu, we passed through vast river plains and over never-ending bridges. But on this journey, we travel through the mountains after reaching the end of the Chengdu Plateau. We creep to the top of the range, only to plunge through endless tunnels and yawning gorges as we drop down, down off the plateau and into the river basin below. In between the tunnels, I see houses, with the typical pointed eaves, clustering in villages in folds in the hills. Ripening crops of late spring – cabbages, potatoes, local herbs, and green items I have not seen before – appear in pockets of rich, red earth where one least expects them. Odd corners, flattened rises, twisting valleys, terraces on the slopes, beneath overpasses; a list like this cannot really provide the feel of such a land where every conceivable piece of land is utilised. And there is no mono-cropping here, for in each small field a different crop grows – for mutual protection from pests, for giving off the best odours and signals that encourage their neighbours, for differential use of the soil’s nutrients. Terraced rice paddies follow the lines of creeks and rivers across slightly larger open spaces. On the lower slopes with their gentler inclines, the rice paddies are almost everywhere. Now that the plants are reaching maturity, the paddies are drained and the water pools beside them are full, awaiting the next sowing season when their contents will be needed again. Occasionally, the clothes of scarecrows flutter in the breeze. Unlike other places in the world with their single scarecrow to a field, here one finds many such figures. I ponder why one is not enough. And finally I realise why: since the fields are usually full of many tanned people, an equally great number of scarecrows is needed. The birds are simply used to seeing multiple figures at any one time.

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Chinese cities may be construction zones, particularly in the hinterland now that the eastern coast has had its major phase of rebuilding, but the vast majority of the country is rural. Through the cities and towns we pass, with their cranes and building sites and scaffolding. We stop for a while for the usual passenger exchange, for the eager walkers and smokers who wish for a breath of fresh air, but most of our time is spent ambling through tunnels, across bridges, along ridges and on the sides of mountains. I can look up and down the slopes, but rarely across an open landscape.

Arrival

My sleep is long and deep, and when I wake the snorer is up and about. He reeks of his morning cigarette, which obviously helps his sleep apnoea immensely.  But for me it is time to wash off the night sweat. In the washroom, I am jammed in with children (who stare) and mothers (who try not to stare). I strip down to my waist and soap up using one of the three taps. Rinsing leaves my pants doused with water, but I splash on while washing my hair. For some strange reason, not much is more pleasurable than a travel wash with a trickling tap. Refreshed, I fill my last container of noodles with hot water and await the run into Beijing.

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