Stories From the Silk Road: the Silk Road by Rail
Added over 5 years ago
By Paul Wilson
Silk Roadsters might be surprised to learn that in theory you can now travel almost the entire way from Istanbul to Beijing by train. Indeed, if you so wanted you could take the weekly Trans-Asia Express from Istanbul to Tehran, then from there to Mashad, then to Sarakhs/Saraghs, then Turkmenabat, Tashkent, Almaty, Ürümqi, and finally from Ürümqi to Beijing. I say 'almost' because there are breaks. For one thing, the Trans-Asia Express is actually two train rides connected by a ferry trip across Lake Van. Secondly, you must walk from one train to the next at the Sarakhs/Saraghs border crossing because there are no through trains - Iranian and Turkmen trains run on different gauges and this situation is unlikely to change in the near future. And finally, there are no direct trains between Tashkent and Almaty; you have to double back through western Kazakhstan via the town of Turkistan.
For decades, few foreign visitors used trains outside of China as they were slow, unreliable and inefficient - the Trans-Asia Express, for example, often took 70 hours - on a good run! Trains were largely reduced to transporting cargo rather than passengers and few governments seemed intent on reversing the trend. Train buffs eager to see old steam engines in action were also disappointed as they were withdrawn from general use everywhere, even in rural China, and could be seen only in museums.
Nowadays, however, train travel is seeing something of a revival and can be great fun. In China new fast stock is being introduced everywhere (in Shanghai they have the fastest train service in the world!). In Iran, the train-ride between Tehran and Sari is spectacular and if you are in Pakistan you shouldn't miss the opportunity of trundling up the funicular track to the Khyber Pass. Similarly, the Istanbul to Damascus train has been successfully upgraded, as has the Bukhara-Samarkand-Tashkent service in Uzbekistan.
Watch out for a new 'Iron Silk Road', too. Work has begun on a high-speed link between Almaty and Ürümqi and its designers are talking up plans to extend it into a 'Eurasian Land Bridge' to rival the Trans-Siberian Express. Critics, however, say it is just a pipe dream, pointing out that we are still waiting for the promised extension from Kashgar to Bishkek. Certainly, no one has as yet agreed to any new route between Kazakhstan and Europe, but Hu Jintao, China's president, has given the plan his personal backing along with US$750 million.
As Paul notes, back in the 80's when Bernard traveled the Silk Road, train travel in the region was a little different to the way it is now. In China, trains serviced the major cities and went from Beijing as far as Ürümqi in the far west, but that was it. The next leg on the Silk Road to Kashgar on the Chinese-Kyrgyzstan border took 3 days on a local bus filled with Muslim Uighurs (pronounced We-gur) traveling between local villages and a handful of Han Chinese visiting their rural relatives. Bus or train travel anywhere near the Chinese-Tibetan border was forbidden to foreigners, while traveling between India and Pakistan by train was particularly difficult for non-nationals, necessitating switchbacks and lengthy border road crossings.
Chinese trains were basic but reasonably comfortable even in those days. Each carriage had a boiler for hot water and passengers would serve themselves with tea, bringing their own supplies and tin mugs with them. Each carriage also had a female attendant who took care of cleaning and hygiene. Passengers brought their own towels on board, and these were hung at the end of the carriage on railings in a hierarchical order that was jealously guarded and scrupulously maintained by the carriage attendant. If a train passed a station without stopping, every station employee would assemble on the platform and stand at attention while the train passed through. Most trains within China ran with communistic efficiency and were accurate to the minute, even on the longest of journeys - in fact the railway timetable was the most popular reading material on board as it was both free and readily available. However if a train became late it would continue to lose time over the entire journey, required to give way to on-time trains by moving onto a siding until the way ahead was clear.
Indian, Pakistani and Middle Eastern train trips were often (and still are) a different matter. Timetables were virtually useless, with trains delayed by livestock traffic jams, the theft by locals of vital railway equipment and engine breakdowns in remote rural areas. Locals would avoid the cost of a ticket by riding on top of the train rather than in it, and livestock such as chickens would often accompany their owners inside the passenger carriages for safe keeping.
Whilst the trains themselves were generally quite orderly, buying a ticket anywhere was a completely different matter. Queues were unknown at that time (being a largely Western invention) and it paid for the intrepid traveler to visit the train station at least one day in advance to work out the best way to obtain a ticket. Getting onto a train was also an exercise in tactical maneuvering as tickets were not numbered and both buses and trains could easily be oversold. Passengers about to embark were corralled behind barriers, bags in hand and jostling for position. As the barrier went up, it was every man and woman for themselves in a mad scramble for the best seats, if you could get a seat at all...
Today of course traveling the Silk Road is very different. If you are planning a train trip visit Seat 61, a great website that tells you everything you need to know about the various rail systems of Asia and how they work. And don't leave home without Paul's book The Silk Roads, which comprehensively covers the entire Silk Road and all it's major cities and towns from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. And as always, happy traveling!
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