It had been more than a decade since I had been on a long distance train. Long train journeys are woven into the fabric of my childhood. Every summer Ma, Daddy and I would make the annual trip from Bangalore to Kolkata to see our families. When Anirvan and I talked about traveling by train instead of by air, all the old memories came flooding back, the excitement and the trials. We took high speed trains all over Japan, but the romance of train travel really kicked in in while traveling from Shanghai to Hanoi.
We'd always travel in summer--hot, humid and crowded. You went expecting to spend maybe an hour at the station before boarding your train, then ended up spending a day on the platform, never knowing when the delayed train would actually leave. Meanwhile, family members who had waited a year to see you consoled themselves by saying that they could wait one more day, as you consoled yourself in the hope and anticipation of seeing them. The train journey from Bangalore to Kolkata took 3 days and 2 nights with a stop in Chennai for a change of trains. It was here that everything fell apart. Our train would arrive late and we would miss the connecting train and would have to wait until the next day to catch it. Once we caught it, it would somehow go slower than expected and arrive even 12 or more hours late.
JAPAN: We discovered high speed train travel in Japan, with the Shinkansen, running at speeds of 300 km/h (186 mph. You could set your clock by the departure time, and the frequency of the trains allowed us to book our tickets the same day or the day before. The best part was the lack of security checks; we took the local metro to the train station, arriving 10 minutes before the train departure time. Trains and bathrooms were always clean courtesy of the ladies in pink. Train seats were turned around to face the direction of travel--great for avoiding motion sickness. Each seat had a little map of the train showing the nearest exits, bathrooms, etc. We loved these small design details. Kyoto to Hiroshima in 2 hours! Only one complaint: with high speed train travel, getting to your destination is so quick, there's really no time to explore train food!
SPEED: While in Shanghai, we took a 40 yuan ($6) joyride on a train pitched as the fastest you can go without flying: 431 km/hour (268 miles/hour). The maglev journey took us from the city to the airport, the first of a planned series of high speed rail lines around China. Electronic displays inside the train showed the current speed; the whole car buzzed in excitement as we hit the maximum speed. We covered the distance in a speedy eight minutes, so fast that we didn't get a sense of what was happening. We paid more attention on our trip back to town. We were two backpack-laden tourists coming to town from the airport (the irony wasn't lost on us). High speed rail is amazing; at these speeds, Bangalore to Kolkata would take about 4.5 hours, and San Francisco and Los Angeles could be covered in about 1.5 hours.
SHANGHAI: The shimmering South Shanghai train station was not what we expected after the aggravating experience of buying tickets in a city that prides itself as being global and tourist-friendly (pushing and shoving in long lines, incredibly limited English skills). But the station was grand, with high ceilings, rows of seating, good signage, and bustling with people. Before we knew it, we were on the train, on our way to Nanning. We settled into our cabin, a small room with four bunk-style beds, and few enough passengers that we had the cabin to ourselves. The cabin had blue-gold upholstery that was starting to show its age, reasonably clean but for a few baby cockroaches we ignored. I was also thankful for the Asian squat style toilets, which always seemed more hygienic that the western style ones.
IMMIGRATION: We arrived in Nanning late that night, and checked into a hostel; we bought our tickets for Hanoi the next day, and got on the train that evening. This was a newer train, but virtually empty. We dozed off in the glowing cream and gold berths, but before we knew it, it was 11 PM: we had arrived at the Chinese border. Groggy-eyed, we took our backpacks and lined up to be let out of the country. The procedure was quite simple and we were soon back in our cabins, waiting for our passports to be returned. An official passing by stopped and asked to see the book I was reading, flipped through it (a Mishima novel), and handed it back. (I later read that Chinese immigration officials would sometimes confiscate Lonely Planet guidebooks at the border.) An hour later, we stopped inside the Vietnamese border, to do immigration. Crossing an international border by train had been surprisingly uneventful--just the way it should be.
Tangy curd rice and the reddest hottest mango pickle, wrapped in banana leaf: heaven! We never failed to pick up this treat from Vijaywada, a small station somewhere between Madras and Calcutta. The curd and rice were rumored to be set together, giving it its unique taste. Oranges in Nagpur, biryani in some station in Kerala, milky tea in mud pots in Kolkata--every station had it's unique culinary delights. Watery rasam, spicy sambhar, rice and puris, potato curry, curd and pickles. Train meals were simple but satisfying, one of the best parts of the trip If you were lucky, your fellow passengers would share the food they had brought with them from home, usually dry, spicy treats, built to last the journey. Days were spent eating, playing games, sleeping, chatting, reading and looking out at the verdant scenery. River crossings were especially enjoyable and eagerly awaited by young and old alike.
FOOD: We had ramen for dinner that first night; we filled our cheap dried noodle bowls with boiling hot water out of the tap in our train car. Not the meal I had dreamed of, but it was warm and comforting. We went to bed early and slept in. The next day we ventured to the food car and managed to order boiled cabbage and an omelet. The cabbage was much tastier than we imagined, and we scarfed it down with white rice. The food car was a mess. It was customary for passengers to put fish and chicken bones on the tablecloth; either the servers couldn't keep up, or nobody really cared. (I have to admit that this challenged my sense of hygiene like never before.) For dinner, we had ramen again. Only a true Bengali can handle fish, two ways for breakfast: white rice with fish cake and sprinkled with dried fish. It delivered on the promise of what everyday train food was supposed to taste like. On the train to Ho Chi Minh City from Danang, we ordered the train meal and again we were served up rice, omelet, fish curry and greens in a yummy broth that they poured onto the plate from a kettle--wholesome, simple, delicious and affordable.
VIEW: Train journeys never had a soundtrack before. But in Vietnam, the music was everywhere. We had watched children, farmers, dragons, ducks and water buffalos dance, skip and play on the water puppet stage in Hanoi. The music was high pitched, rhythymic, and haunting, and it followed me everywhere. In cities, it was soft, but when we boarded the train and passed by green rice fields with water buffalos, egrets, and ducks, it became so loud that that it overwhelmed my emotions in a most pleasurable way. The Vietnamese countryside is stunning, and it glistens in the rain. I had heard that it was particularly breathtaking between Hue and Danang; our train hugged the coast and ascended the mountain. Waves thrashed on one side and the green mountains rose on the other. We couldn't decide which way to look, but one never knows what the window will frame.
WONDROUS: We saw our favorite view out the window near Nanning, China. As the train proceeded, we suddenly found ourselves in a magical landscape. The sun was setting and in that orange glow, limestone karst formations rose near and far. The karst forms themselves seemed mythical, changing into silhouettes. The sun set slowly and we took many deep breaths, in disbelief that we were watching this wondrous view from our humble train car. Sights like this are what train journeys are made of and the experiences and memories of which wash away those other minor inconveniences. Highly recommended.
Related slideshow: Train travel in 30 photos