December 22, 2007

Onboard the TAZARA Express

With a Mao-like wave of his hand, an elderly Asian man bid the train goodbye as we squeaked and groaned our way out of Kapiri Mposhi. China had built the TAZARA railway in the 1960s to link the formerly left-leaning countries of Zambia and Tanzania, and judging by its austere stationhouse and poorly translated Mandarin signage, it hadn’t changed much since the Great Cultural Revolution. With 1892km to go to Dar-es-Salaam, I was hoping the tracks weren’t made out of pig-iron.

We clanked through the Zambian countryside for an entire day, the only remarkable occurrences being the odd bone-crushing jolt or clanking past a decrepit rural station. At an estimated trip length of 48 hours, this was the ‘express’ train, not bothering to stop at the ghosts of what used to be tiny country outposts, long since overgrown and stripped of all their valuable materials.

When the train did screech to a halt every now and then, some equally shady figures raced to hawk fruit, freshly roasted chicken, top-up cards and cigarettes at window-side. Though the dining car had shockingly respectable food, it was a real novelty to ‘order’ from your berth, even if it brought about the usual gaggle of beggars and on-lookers. The panhandlers wanted pens, soap or empty bottles while others seemed happy to just observe all the commotion in a place where few people, let alone a train full of wide-eyed travelers, ever visited.

Chugging high up into the central African plateau, we finally crossed into Tanzania – with all the usual arcane hassles with visas, immigration, etc – at about lunchtime on the second day. Newly-planted maize lined the plains at the foot of the ‘serious’ mountains (that’s the only name for the range that people could tell me), checkerboarding the countryside in a mosaic of pastoral life in the highlands. Women and children bent double cultivating would pop up from the field, rudimentary farm implement in hand, to smile and wave at the passers-by. Remembering how I used to do the same sort of thing as a nerdy train-kid, I usually waved back.

This is the Africa I wish everyone could see, I scrawled in my journal (good penmanship was impossible unless the train was stopped). People look happy, the place is clean and even the beggars are shilling for respectable things. Many even dress in the most amazingly coloured local textiles – not the dirty castaways of first-world fashion trends. I think I’ll shed a single tear if I see one more kid in a tattered Quebec Nordiques jersey…

Descending into the infernal heat of the coastal plain on the final morning, I awoke hot, sweaty and hungover to find that I’d slept through the game reserve portion of the trip, missing giraffes, elephants and the like. A fair price to pay for a fun night with some Zambian guys, Finnish journalists and a bottle of tequila.

By the time it hit midday, we were making our way through Dar’s outer slums as the temperature went higher and people’s faces grew longer. This was more of what I was used to – the grudging acceptance of urban poverty and the desolate, filthy landscape it produced. At least if you were poor up in the mountains you had fresh air, beautiful scenery and the TAZARA train to keep you company.

1 comment:

Scott said...

There is just something about train travel eh? It is my preferable method of travel when trying to get acquainted with a country. So much is revealed.