05 July 2018

Trains - India. Myanmar. Italy. Glacier Express. Russian Conductors. Summer in Berlin, Prague and Paris.

The train was Italian. 
We were 4 backpackers, headed to Venice from Lugano. 
The year was 1971. 

(It wasn't this train - TEE was way too fancy for us. But similar.)

Every seat on the train was taken. 
The aisles were packed. 
It was hot. 

We pushed through the train cars until we came upon the mail car. 
Bingo! No one there. 
We made ourselves comfortable on the huge sacks of mail.
Windows wide open, the entire car to ourselves. 

In that manner we traveled - in complete unofficial luxury - to Venice for the first time. 

Ah, Venezia! Che bella! -Well, maybe not the pigeons.

That was my first real train trip - I was hooked.

Train travel definitely beat the alternative at the time. No one I knew had their own car.
In the States, train travel is rarely a consideration. It's cars. And planes.
But Europe has such great trains-! We decided this year - it'll be trains.

However, we chose the year the French Railway system decided to go on strike.
SNCF has been on strike for 3 months now, and are still unhappy.  

Their system: They work 3 days, then strike for 2 days. 
For convenience, their strike calendar is published online.  

Of course, we bought our rail passes about 3 minutes before they went on strike.

Everyone grumbles - with hands thrown dramatically into the air.
The usual comment: "C'est la France." - That's just France.

But: we wanted to visit Mikey and his family in Berlin.
And we did take trains. Here's the story:

Béziers train station - on a non-strike day.
 I found an overnight train from Paris to Berlin. A Russian sleeper train.
My train book said Russian Railways trains are rather good - and it was right.

It wasn't easy to find. Back in 1971, train travel was cheap and easy.
You went to the train station, bought a ticket, and got on.

(Of course you had to have the right currency.
If not, you slept in the train station until the exchange office opened.)

Today, there's still no good centralized site where you can compare train prices and schedules like you can for airlines. This particular train didn't show up on any of the French train sites, or the German ones.
The Russian site was hard to navigate.

I finally found the train on a UK site, but they wanted to mail the tickets (people still use paper tickets?) to my UK address, which I don't have.

And - the train only runs once a week, on a Thursday night.
You have to scroll through a day at a time to find it.
But I had a great rail book that said it existed, so I kept trying.

And - oddly - these days train travel is often more exclusive than airlines. Who'd have thought?

We had 2 friendly conductors for our sleeping car. No English.
No French. They spoke a little German.

(Isn't this woman in the red beret great?
She's our conductor.

And the wonderful style of the woman in the hat?
She was Ukrainian, visiting her mother in Paris.)

We timed our visit to Berlin to make the best of asparagus season!
Not the skinny green kind we're used to, but the fat white asparagus.
"Spargel", which we ate for pretty much every meal.

And - we even visited a Spargel Farm. Really.

Mikey and Iris and baby Noah - at our asparagus picnic outside Berlin.
Look who's already got great taste in books!
More on that here:

Then - by train to Prague.

I'd last been in Prague in 1984.
The architecture is still wonderful, (and the food is somewhat improved).
However, this time, there were thousands upon thousands of tourists! Yikes!

I remember it as being echo-y and empty.
Foggy and a bit medieval-melancholy.

Prague. Busloads and busloads. Everyone using English to communicate. 
Determined to make this an all-train trip, I found another overnight sleeper train.
Austrian Railways - booked on a German website - from Prague to Zurich.

They often give you train slippers. They never fit Stan's feet.

Switzerland, as usual - is ridiculously beautiful. Even after working there for 5 years, I'm always impressed.

Then a day train back to Paris, where we had to wait a couple days for a non strike day.

Spring - not too hot. Not too crowded.
Perfect time to visit an art museum.
A meteorite exhibit.

And the mineral museum.
The natural history museum.

All within walking distance.

Our Airbnb was tiny, but - what a great view!
And - back home to Béziers by train.

Other memorable train trips?

The most bizarre of all has to be the "Bamboo Train" in Cambodia.
Whatever we were expecting, it wasn't this:

More on that here.

When another train came in the opposite direction, we had to lift our train off the track.
Wheels and all, to let the other train pass. Really.

The Nilgiri Hills in southern India.

A truly bouncing train in Shan State in Myanmar.
How can a train BOUNCE? But - it did. 

Sleeper trains in India - the best -

In the evening, they come in and make up your bed with fresh sheets and pillows.

Trains are a good place for friends when you're backpacking.

Heading north through Malaysia. This - was a really GOOD gang of international travellers!

- and night trains in China.

The Glacier Express in Switzerland, infinitely more civilized -

More about Swiss trains here.

And even one in the States.

We took a trip on the Southwest Chief from Albuquerque to Las Vegas, New Mexico.
It would have taken us 2 hours by car.

It's not far. It only took 4 hours by train.
(They were working on the railroad-)

But - sometimes, you know the phrase - it's the journey.

Las Vegas, New Mexico. Not a bit like the famous Las Vegas.
There's just something infinitely cool about train travel.

I know it's just a romantic notion.
People who have to take trains all the time might not agree.
But - I still love it.

The pleasure of being able to just watch the scenery go by.
Reading on a train.
Being able to talk to other passengers a bit.

And then, not having to park or wait for a jetway to appear.
Just - grabbing your bag and stepping off at a station, waving good-bye.

On to the next adventure.

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