Friday, June 6, 2014

Tazara Railway, train travel adventure

Making a quick dash first thing in the morning to get our tickets, Danny came back with 4 tickets and a puzzled look on his face. Why 4 tickets? Well, turns out we actually bought 4 seats when we bought the compartment, so 4 tickets.

The railroad was built in the late 1960’s by the Chinese government. The president at the time told the international community, as they were condemning him for allowing the Chinese to build the train, that he would take it from whoever was willing to give it. No one else other than the Chinese came forward. Of course, as always, all supplies and workers were brought in from China, with very little of the Tshillings going to the local people. The station, Tazara Dar es Salam 
is very utilitarian and stark with little ornamentation that so often accompanies a main railroad station. The pictures seen up the "grand" staircase are ones that project the greatness of Chinese assistance to Zambia specifically and Zambia in general.
Finished in 1970, it now looks far older and like it could disintegrate within a matter or years. A little elbow grease and soap and water would spice things up considerably as the furnishings, etc remian intact.

Friends, Peggy & Gary arriving to sign the manifest before getting on the train

As we waited in the first class waiting room, we could hear classical music being piped in to the waiting area of the masses. Reminiscent of a bygone era, I felt like we were waiting for the Titanic or something, rather than a train in the middle of Africa. I could visualize all the patrons in their morning coats, top hats and embellished dresses and ornate head dressings, milling around waiting for the embarkation in colonial times. Alas, what really was, was a little different.

All aboard” I thought I heard but in reality, it was an unintelligible announcement for boarding, followed by a flood of people shoving and pushing to get to the quay and cars. A cacophony of colour, smells and voices followed us as we, along with the rest of the wave of humanity, headed out to our train car, C2, dragging our one case each.

 Wow, we are the third to last car on the train that has at least 15 passenger cars plus a dining car and a lounge, and every car is full. That is a lot of people. Boarding was a matter of shoving your case up into the car, and then dragging it down a narrow corridor to our compartment, no porter other than an attendant outside on the quay verifying the correct car, waiting to direct us to our compartment as would be found on Amtrak. People milling in the corridor, parting as we needed to pass, we found the compartment, numbered in roman numerals, C-IV.

 Could the paint job have given us an indication as to the train ride to come?

The embarking seemed to take forever with people waiting in the corridors, in their compartments, and on the quay
as last minute people kept coming.
 Finally a car drove up with 4 armed guards and a person – ah hah, our reason for delay.
 He and his escorts/guards and guns boarded the train and within a short time (maybe 15 minutes) we slowly crept out of the station. We were on our way! The excitement in the compartment was everywhere with all four of us expressing our opinions, hopes and expectations. 

The compartment itself was a two-tiered bed on either side, with the bottom bed the seat. The upper tier was not put up during the day and our bedding laid out on the beds.
The little table, under an open window, was covered in dust, which I wiped down with a Wet-One. The operative word here was “open window” as we soon found out. The window across the corridor from the compartment was also open allowing for a wonderful cross breeze. By leaving the door open, there was a constant breeze as well as a parade of passengers going by, affording a great opportunity for people watching. A young girl actually said hi as she passed, otherwise people looked in but said nothing in the way of greeting – but why should they, we did the same as we walked by other compartments later on.

Glued to the open window, watching the passing scenery, soon my hair was plastered down to my head with dust! Yup, the open window not only allowed for a wonderful cross-breeze, it also carried all the dust to be found on the outside. Oddly enough, however, it didn’t carry a lot of bugs. As the sun beat in the window, the breeze cooled allowing for a great experience seeing the countryside for the first time.

Our route started to climb immediately after leaving Dar es Salam. According to the map/sign in the station [photo] we would climb rather sedately up to 300m from the 34 m of Dar es Salam, then quite quickly to 1700m. As we climbed it seemed like we would slow down to nearly stopping and then go again. This continued for some time. Then we stopped. We waited and waited and waited some more when a man next door said that they had engine problems and we were waiting a new engine that was coming from Dar es Salam. The first breakdown has occurred and we have only been traveling for 1 1/2hrs. Maybe if we get it out of the way now, we won’t have any more.

On the move again, with a new engine, we settled into the evening. Dinner was the first thing on the list. The attendant came around trying to lock the doors for us to be able to go to the dining room but they wouldn’t lock – none of them. So Peg & I went to the dining room first while Danny & Gary stayed in the rooms. Walking from car to car, swaying back and forth, bouncing with the cars, we were amazed at the lack of safety features in the car joining/linkage area. One could easily loose a foot here. Still, we had fun as we moved from car to car, trying not to fall into someone’s lap in the lounge car and going from side to side in the compartment cars. The dining room with all the inherent smells of bodies and fried foods met us before we even got to the door. All tables were full so we had to wait. Wait but only for a few minutes before 2 burly men got up and moved to single chairs so that we could sit down. The third of the burly men continued to eat at the table. Striking up a conversation we found that he had traveled this same route for over 20 years and that the train had actually been shut down for a while, having started up again only a week or so before our travels. How fortunate for us as we had no idea that it had been closed down. They have a unique way of serving food: Only a soup spoon with which to eat the meal of which the protein portion is fried fish or chicken, eaten with your fingers; no serviettes to be found; and no drinks offered. At the end of the meal we noticed that one of the girls came around with a basin, a pitcher of water and a liquid soap container. They squirted the soap on the diners hands and poured water over them. Ha, no need for serviettes here. We requested to wash before we ate and then weren’t offered the same service once we had finished eating. Guess they only allow for one washing per diner per meal. After all of this, we returned to the car to discover that Gary and Danny had room service. Ha, no dining room experience for them.

Darkness overcame us very quickly. As the sun was setting I grabbed my camera to try for a photo.
Within 30 seconds the sun was gone. I barely had time to catch the sunset before it was gone. And the black of night came just as quickly. The stars were as bright as I had ever seen them. I laid on my bunk, looking out the window, without glasses, and saw the stars. They were beautiful. And oddly enough, being south of the equator, we could still see the Big Dipper just over the horizon. Would I have been able to hear the crickets in the moonlight if the sounds of the train hadn’t overshadowed the night? What an awesome feeling to go to sleep by.