Lotus Cave – China – by Síle Tyrrell

2009/10/30


Lotus Cave – China – by Síle Tyrrell, originalmente cargada por Bass Tyrrell.

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Lotus Cave 22/10/2009
                        Lotus cave is a cave and
it was really amazing so I’m going to tell the story first.

We all rented bikes but Ailsa’s bike wasn’t the best so, when we headed
off for our cycle we went miles to far. And Ailsa’s arms started to ache
so mom went back with ailsa and dad and I carried on.
we asked for directions twice and went through little town with water
Buffaloes with huge horn running around FREE. And im the one who is scared
of all cow tipe things. So I rushed past them and wet around dad so if they
did want to charge their target would have been dad………….
hahahahahahaha. But after got into the cave it was amazing the colorful
lights were amazing and all the bats flying around you was amazing. It was
a good hours walk through the cave but worth dodging the Buffaloes.
On the way back I asked dad "would there be more buffaloes?" and his
respond was "probobly" but there wasn’t.

By the way Chingping is a really nice town.

sile tyrrell

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Lotus Cave – China – by Síle Tyrrell

2009/10/30


Lotus Cave – China – by Síle Tyrrell, originalmente cargada por Bass Tyrrell.

*
*
*
*

Lotus Cave 22/10/2009
                        Lotus cave is a cave and
it was really amazing so I’m going to tell the story first.

We all rented bikes but Ailsa’s bike wasn’t the best so, when we headed
off for our cycle we went miles to far. And Ailsa’s arms started to ache
so mom went back with ailsa and dad and I carried on.
we asked for directions twice and went through little town with water
Buffaloes with huge horn running around FREE. And im the one who is scared
of all cow tipe things. So I rushed past them and wet around dad so if they
did want to charge their target would have been dad………….
hahahahahahaha. But after got into the cave it was amazing the colorful
lights were amazing and all the bats flying around you was amazing. It was
a good hours walk through the cave but worth dodging the Buffaloes.
On the way back I asked dad "would there be more buffaloes?" and his
respond was "probobly" but there wasn’t.

By the way Chingping is a really nice town.

sile tyrrell

Guangzhou

2009/10/22

Guangzhou, originally uploaded by Bass Tyrrell.

Guangzhou

It is now two days since we arrived in China proper, on the train from Hong
Kong, and it seems very difficult to even access the blog. Whether this is
because the Chinese firewalls see wordpress (at least my blog) as
subversive, because the internet connections are poor or – more likely –
because the combination of controls that China imposes actually just slows
the whole thing down to such a crawl that connections are timing out I don’t
know. I do know my email client is not working properly, WordPress is
inaccessible and sites requiring secure access are slow and time out, making
life quite complicated as far as banking or most importantly booking hostels
is concerned.

We are happily installed in the Riverside Hostel located, unsurprisingly, on
the banks of the Pearl River with glorious if smoggy views across the city
and close to the old foreign enclave of Shimian Island. It’s not exactly
central but then Guangzhou doesn’t really seem to enjoy all that much by the
way of a centre and the metro – clean, modern and efficient – is a ten
minute walk. Even quicker, and landing us directly on to Shimian, is the
ferry that chugs regularly back and forth across the river.

Our three days here has worried us a bit that we are running out of steam:
where is that family that back in Ecuador and Perú never had a day without
something organised and some radically new experience? Here we planned a
side trip to Foshan, overslept, got to the station to find the Lonely Planet
was right when it referred to the station as a seething mass of humanity,
managed finally to organise tickets and then, after the train was delayed
for an hour, abandoned the effort as a bad job.

And went to Starbuck’s for a coffee. Oh the shame.

Still, today has been fun, despite a downpour of rain that has made the city
look more than a little like West Cork (wet and with no taxi to be found).
As we arrived on the far side of the river, the fish market was just getting
going with live fish being tipped into baskets, some landing on the floor
desperately thrashing to find water before the fishmongers pick them up. A
few steps further on, we enter a market area full of the smells of eastern
spices. The stall fronts – neat and nearly identical – on the main road,
full of saffron and turmeric and chilli and huge bags of rice are only the
most visible part as tiny alleys wind their way back into a maze of small
shops, restaurants, and businesses that could be almost anything: a counter
selling chickens next to a man repairing bikes. As in Vietnam, anyone who
finds business a little slow for a few minutes just puts their heads on
their hands and goes to sleep where they are. Then, as suddenly as it
started, we were out of the market and in a bustling pedestrianised shopping
street, lined with clothes shops. At least for that hour or so we felt we’d
seen something of, maybe not the real China of 2009 – the shopping malls are
just as much the real thing – but of a China that is disappearing into the
globalised mass.

Tonight we try Chinese trains: an overnight to Guilin where we hope to see
something more rural and will be staying in a small village called Xingping.
We have yet to see if the Chinese definition of a “small village” chimes
with the Irish one, and unfortunately tomorrow’s weather looks like being
awful so it could all go wrong. I think a few cycles and a crawl through the
mud in the Black Buddha caves may be just what we need to put a spring back
in our step!

IMG_1329 Stitch.jpg

Pearl River by night.

A tale of two restaurants.

2009/10/10

Arriving in Hoi An late in the afternoon heat Ailsa and I let Julie and Síle explore the city a little while we explored the hotel pool, or at least that part of it not threatened by loose tiles on the roof, after which we had little energy for anything other than heading 100m down the road to Café 43, a very pleasant, good value small restaurant on the same quiet street as our hotel.

IMG_0241

A quiet Hoi An street.

We went to Café 43 because it was recommended by a number of guidebooks, and it is a recommendation that I can heartily endorse: for the most part the food was excellent – the exception being the girls’ pizzas that I strongly suspected of being ordered in – the service good and the ambience extremely pleasant. It is also excellent value in a country where eating out is generally cheap but the quality varies widely.

But such listings, especially when as in this case there seems to be a chain of guides that follow each other in recommending a particular restaurant, do not always represent good news for the neighbours . Café 43 was busy: not overflowing but with a constant stream of both drinkers and diners that kept them occupied. In the meantime, several other restaurants in the same street, offering similar menus at similar prices, languished empty, suffocated in effect by the same reviews that breathe life into Café 43.

So the following night we decided to take our custom across the road, to the Sun Shine restaurant.

IMG_0412

The Sun Shine restaurant.

We sat at the table nearest the entrance in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to encourage others to follow our example. There was a small family crisis when the menu came out, there was no spaghetti bolognaise (only spaghetti with beef and tomato sauce :(  ) and this was just too important an omission for one child to overlook, but a promise from Hoi (owner, chef and waitress) to provide a cooking demonstration and the discovery of pizza bolognaise (definitely ordered in this time: it was served by a girl wearing a scooter helmet who then disappeared as quickly as she’d arrived) eventually calmed the situation and we ordered.

Very nice food it was too, washed down with a few glasses of the local beer at 3000 dong a glass (that is about 12 cent). Hoi cooks the Vietnamese meals from scratch on a two ring stove using all fresh ingredients, many of the vegetables grown by her husband on his plot. Even the chips were proper chips, cut from a potato and fried on the spot. If the presentation lacked a little compared to their neighbours – who again had a nearly full house while we were Hoi’s only customers – then that may have as much to do with the fact that they can afford the extra staff as anything else. Hoi and her husband were charming and welcoming hosts, happy to invite us into their kitchen and show us how to prepare the food – we left not only well fed but also with a daughter promising to cook chicken with chilli and lemongrass at the first opportunity she gets, which seems an excellent investment.

Hoi is probably typical of many Vietnamese struggling to make a living on the edge of the tourist boom. Honest, hard-working and kind, she is putting two children through university in the hope that they will have a better future. It is difficult to make ends meet, and she is hopes daily for that lucky break that will see her too mentioned in one of these books and the steady trickle of tourists might turn their heads to her side of the road. She deserves it.

Settling in to Saigon

2009/10/04

Saigon (still the correct term for the area of what is officially Ho Chi Minh City we stayed in) is an absolute madhouse: like nothing we have seen so far even in Latin America. There are apparently 3 million scooters in the city, and they all seem to converge on any road we are trying to cross: it is a bit like swimming through a shoal of fish with the added spice that if they hit you it’s going to hurt. They’ve heard of traffic lights but seem to regard them as a general guideline rather than a rule as such – they hoot the horn more often and for longer when they go through a red light.

Each block behind the main streets is a rabbit warren of tiny alleyways (scooters head down here too) where people live, eat work and sometimes even sleep in the street (I don’t mean the homeless: some people just put a bed outside their door). Walking through the streets is to be accosted by a constant stream of street sellers offering anything from food to tours to books to occasionally themselves – I’m the one who needs a protection after dark! None of it is aggressive, but the sheer persistence gets annoying. (“Why not?” I was asked by a young woman whose offer to go “you me one hour hotel boom boom” I had politely declined. Does that actually need a reason? Well, actually, charming though you appear to be I am not quite ready on the basis of our 15s acquaintance to take the relationship forward quite that fast and anyway since I am carrying two pizzas do you not think maybe the other one might be for someone?) Julie bought a couple of books off a girl in a restaurant and two minutes later another woman – who we’d earlier refused to buy from because we were in the middle of our dinner – came back in to berate us for not having bought from her.

The real pity maybe is that this all distracts from the many Vietnamese who genuinely want to talk: to practise their English, help out – open a map on a Vietnamese street and within a minute someone will ask where you want to go, tell you how to get there (so far about 2 out of 3 get it right) – or simply find out a bit about you without taking the opportunity to try and sell you marijuana. The Vietnamese seem to love to talk: those tour guides that we’ve met certainly prefer it to listening. There is a cheeky sense of humour and willingness to be familiar as well – in one museum the guide greeted us by congratulating me on being “the most handsome man in [my] family” as I waited with Julie and the girls.

Saigon alley

A Saigon alley.

The city itself is generally quite clean and well-maintained: there are people sweeping the streets, trucks washing them down and gardeners weeding the flower beds on the roundabouts

Municipal gardener

A municipal gardener

Uncle Ho’s lop-sided beard does peer down from a few billboards, but apparently nothing like as many as in Hanoi. His statue, with his arm around a small girl carrying what appears to be a machine gun, gazes down a broad boulevard in front of the city council building: it’s probably good that his gaze is fixed because I am not sure that in life he would have approved of having a stock market ticker display just to his left, or a huge new gleaming HSBC office block on his left shoulder for that matter. Reminders of the war are all around and generally rather less thoughtful than that in Hiroshima: there is a good deal of “look at all the ingenious ways we had for killing Americans”. The Cu-chi tunnels, while providing an interesting insight into why the US was more or less doomed from the start, was a bit full of this kind of stuff (some peculiarly unpleasant man-traps on display with some almost pornographic commentary about exactly how long and how painful the resulting death and dismemberment was likely to be) and I declined the option of shooting 10 rounds from an M-16 in part because that all seems to validate this Boy’s Own view of war.

Cu Chi tunnels

In the Cu Chi tunnels. There are over 240 km of old tunnels in the area, including one that led into a US base.

Man-trap at Cu-Chi

Ingenious ways of killing intruders – often quite painfully

The girls have, naturally enough, been a bit nervous though they seem to be relaxing a little after a few days. They’re happier with the food than they were in Japan anyway: the lingering French influence means you can get good bread and coffee, both of which have been lacking since we left Argentina, and the centre of Saigon has a huge variety of restaurants so we’ve filled them up with pizza and spaghetti knowing that further north they might have to learn to love Vietnamese food. Next stop, Hué: ancient imperial capital and just hit by Typhoon Ketsana. No idea what we will find when we get there.

Ho Chi Minh City – first impressions.

2009/10/02

It was always going to be a bit of a culture shock landing in Vietnam after Japan, though you wouldn’t necessarily think it from the sleek, modern and air-conditioned airport terminal which could be anywhere. Our visa-on-arrival scheme, ordered online from www.vietnam-visa.com, turned out to be simple and mostly painless, though at first we missed the distant window down the far end of the hall and stood in the wrong queue.

When we eventually got out we were met by the promised driver from the hotel, who took us on a white-knuckle ride through the city passing through shoals of moped-drivers like a shark through fish: hooting wildly seems to be the local alternative to mirror-signal-manœuvre, or at least the mirror signal part.

In the dark, it was difficult to get much of an impression beyond the busy traffic, a good deal of lively night-life that seems popular with the foreigners and here and there a glimpse of some grandiose colonial buildings.

Not for the first time on this trip, we arrived at our hostel though to find they had given away our room though they had arranged alternative accommodation for the first night just round the corner. I have promised not to blog on this subject until I have cooled down a little …

Narita

2009/10/01

Narita has been known to me for the last 20 years or so only as Tokyo’s new (ish) airport though, at up to an hour and a half’s travel by train from Tokyo itself it wouldn’t have been at all surprising that only Ryanair called it that.

So despite picking a hotel in Narita city so that we wouldn’t have to move bags and baggage on the last day, we fully expected a dreary airport town with little to recommend it, a sort of Crawley with Japanese food. Certainly our guide book not only didn’t recommend it it didn’t even mention the place.

On first inspection though, once away from the station and its attendant convenience stores and that ubiquitous fast food establishment (they are not restaurants, whatever they may like to pretend) whose name begins with an “M” and ends with an “cDonald” it turned out to be a pleasant enough place with a nice main street with attractive shop fronts, traditional and more international bars and restaurants and was, in short, not a bad place to wander around.

On second inspection, we found the temple.

Now, this is Japan. Of course we have visited several temples (the Buddhists) and shrines (Shinto) on our travels around the country: not to do so would be like visiting the Vatican without ever going in to a church. But, beautiful though some of them are and although each is unique in its own way they do have a certain generic similarity and so, philistines that we are, we weren’t actually dying to see more. This seemed quite modern, modest in size and generally unpromising apart from a spectacular pagoda. But it was there, it was free, and I wandered in through the elegant, and apparently quite recent, gates to discover that this was the Nakitasan Shinshoji Temple and is one of the oldest, possibly one of the largest and certainly one of the most impressive temples in the whole country.

092809_1719_Narita1.jpg

The three-story pagoda, 25 metres high and dating from 1712.

External appearances are quite deceptive: what the site lacks in width at the street entrance it makes up for in depth. You get drawn in: at every step there is another building or path lying behind draws you in to see more. This temple continues building – the current main hall is an enormous, cavernous building built in 1968 but at least two of its predecessors, from 1858 and 1701, are still there. The site has been in use since 940, and they are not in a hurry to throw anything away.

Perhaps the most unexpected feature of all – because from the street all you can see is a few trees on the top of a small hill – is the park: 16.5 hectares of garden with ponds, streams and waterfalls (what Japanese garden would be complete without them) in a small valley completely hidden from the main street.

092809_1719_Narita2.jpg

The hidden forest – invisible from the road.

Now we have a tendency in the west I think to romanticise Buddhism: a religion of peace, we say. No, scarcely even a religion, more a system of philosophy. Barefoot smiley monks in orange robes, who eat lentils and won’t step on a cockroach in case it is their dead aunt reincarnated. That sort of thing,

But of course humans have an uncanny ability to make their gods in their own image, and Shingon Buddhism is no exception. The temple’s main deity, Fudomyo-o, is a cranky looking character altogether and carries a sword in one hand (to “cut away hindrances of passion and false knowledge“, apparently) and a rope in the other (“to draw in beings to the enlightenment“). Enough to send shivers down the spine.

But despite this rather belligerent aspect, Fudomyoo today presides over the peace pagoda that is the single most impressive building on the site:

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The peace pagoda

It contains, apparently, a time capsule with wishes for peace from world leaders, though the leaflet is strangely silent on the question of whether they were cut from those leaders with the sword and then drawn in with the rope …

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Cleaning duty

All in all, this was a fascinating stop. The temple has a steady stream of visitors, but nothing like the hordes we found in Kyoto or even Miwajima. And it’s even free.

Just watch out for the sword …

Kyoto

2009/09/23

Of all the pieces of advice we never received about Japan, probably the one we missed most was IF YOU ARE THINKING OF GOING IN THE THIRD WEEK OF SEPTEMBER, DON’T‼‼ This year the juxtaposition of the autumn equinox and another holiday on 19th September, together with an official bridge day to make it all a five day weekend, left this as possibly the worst time to head off on our rail passes: no spaces in the hotels, everywhere thronged with tourists and even some difficulties making reservations on the trains we wanted have made the trip run somewhat less smoothly than we would like. In particular, the hours spent on the internet and phone finding all the accommodation booked solid have made us seriously reconsider our policy of being spontaneous and going with the flow.

So from now on instead of being a spontaneous ad booking at the last minute we will revert to being completely disorganised and booking at the last minute. Ah well.

A second piece of useful advice might have been “if you must travel then, avoid Kyoto at all costs!” Hiroshima was crowded, but manageable. Kyoto was mobbed and is less easy to walk around. The buses were packed, with long queues, and the very nice people at the “foreigners'” Tourist Information (not to be confused with the normal Tourist Information Centre, which has little information not in Japanese) advised us to get a local train to a spot about an hour’s walk from the Golden Pavilion rather than wait what promised to be the same amount of time for space on a bus. The information centre, incidentally, is a bit of an oasis. On the ninth floor of the station building (in a department store so busy that the lifts down were full and skipped the 9th floor altogether) it is quiet, light, roomy, equipped with free internet and a variety of newspapers and magazines (in several European languages) and space to sit and read them.

It was a good choice, although I had to be deliberately vague about the length of the walk in order to avoid a mutiny. It was a hot afternoon – the morning having been stolen by accommodation searches, breakfast and the strangely magnetic attraction the shopping centre under the station seemed to exert – and small legs did not appreciate the exercise as much as they might. Still, we wandered not quite randomly through quiet residential districts and streets lined with small local shops and restaurants, all a far remove from the manic bustle of the centre. Stopping at one of the ubiquitous vending machines looking for water, the owners of the property rushed out, eager to help. But there was no water in the machine so, in a very Japanese way – courtesy being extremely important – they rushed off to get four glasses of water for us, the whole exchange being managed with many bows, lots of “arigatoo”s and not a few “onegai shimasu”s.

Finally we emerged on to the main road at the Ryoanji Temple (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon), another popular destination in the series of Kyoto’s endless series of huge and impressive temples and shrines (and a UNESCO world heritage site), but, philistines that we are, gave it barely a passing glance before continuing up the road to join the throng queuing for Kinkaku-ji Temple, best known for the Golden Pavilion.

The pavilion itself is stunning, no question, especially when seen from the far side of Kyo-kochi (the “mirror pond”), with its reflection in the calm waters. A place of peaceful reflection and contemplation, at least in another universe or at another time when there aren’t 10000 people fighting to get a photo of their friends or family in front of the classic image, we couldn’t linger if only because the movement of the crowd was bringing a new meaning to going with the flow and we duly ooh-ed and ahh-ed our way around the grounds before being spat out the far end.

The Golden Pavilion reflected in the mirror pond

The Golden Pavilion reflected in the mirror pond

By this time hunger, as well as tired legs, was taking its toll. The restaurant we selected (using the criterion of the first open place we saw) gave us another new experience. Rather than going to all the trouble of telling the staff what we wanted, we put our money into a vending machine and selected the appropriate button for our meal. Then – wonders of technology – an electronic voice told the staff what we had ordered. So much simpler than us just telling the servers ourselves. All cynicism aside (not an easy task for me) the result is good value: tasty, reasonably priced and as it seems with most Japanese fast food served on reusable crockery rather than stuffed into polystyrene boxes whose useful life is destined to be about 30s before they are abandoned to lie in landfill for a couple of million years.

An hour back on the bus gave us some idea of the size of the place, and took us past more huge temples and the Imperial Palace, but by then we were more than happy to head back to our Japanese-style room – futons on the tatami mat floor, or as Julie dubbed it “very expensive camping”. A good day in the end, if not quite the one we had planned.

On the Inca trail over Salkantay – day 1

2009/09/22

I’ve decided: the official “camino de los Inca” (Inca Trail) is clearly a tourist trap designed for over-organised under-achievers: who, seriously, knows what they are doing six months ahead of time?

I was feeling quite virtuous and well-organised when, two weeks before we were due to arrive, I contacted a travel agency (Incapoint) only to find that the official trail was booked out for several months: there are though a number of alternative trails set up since numbers were restricted in 2002: you can mountain-bike parts, take a series of ancient Inca paths at the other end of the valley or, and for some reason this caught our eye, get up at four in the morning to start the four day climb over the Abra Salkantay (Salkantay Pass) that the more adventurous Inca used to reach Macchu Picchu. You need to be young, adventurous and in good physical condition to attempt this trek, and ticking none of those boxes I decided to do it anyway. Seriously, it is described as challenging and although the distances sound quite modest for hiking over flat ground 17km is a long way when you are chasing one of the few available oxygen molecules at 4600m above sea level.

So it was that Éanna (17), Síle (11) and I found ourselves on a bus that was slowly filling up with other passengers while porters and guides outside threw luggage – we hoped ours, but it seemed quite random – up onto the roof. A long bus journey later we were dropped in the village of Mollepata, where we were to breakfast in one of a series of restaurants that, miraculously, seemed prepared with very similar and similarly priced menus. This breakfast is not included in the package (causing our party the first of a number of rows with the tour companies: it had been made clear to us but not to everyone) and was twice the price we had been told by the agent. Still, we ate gratefully and quickly, keen to move on.

The outskirts of Mollepata

The outskirts of Mollepata

Leaving Mollepata and starting to climb.

Mollepata is at 2900m, a height where in Europe we are used to finding glaciers or at least pockets of left-over snow but here in the tropical Andes it is a different story and the town nestles in a fertile green valley, not exactly rich farming country maybe – it is arid, sandy and many of the fields are perched vertiginously on the edge of a cliff – but you can see how it is possible to live and even make a profit from the land.

Setting out

Setting out

Setting out.

Starting out, we introduced ourselves with names and ages, my admission of being a lad of 48 summers provoking a sharp and rather unnecessary intake of breath. Most of the rest of our multinational group – 2 Poles, 2 Belgians, 3 Australians and one New Yorker completed the team – were in their twenties and thirties and appeared to regard such an ancient as a liability rather than a source of wisdom and knowledge.

The first days walk was mostly on a rough dirt road, with occasional shortcuts as Edwin our guide termed them: steep, winding paths that cut off a few bends in the road while also robbing us of breath. It was uphill, not usually steep while following the road but hot, dusty and relentless. Still, slowly but surely the mountain tops that had surrounded us in Mollepata were shrinking to the point where we were looking down on them from a considerable height, though the ones in front of us didn’t appear to be getting any smaller at all.

Mirando atras

Looking back.

Enterprising locals had set up a number of stalls on the route to sell water, fizzy drinks and snacks at reasonable prices (especially considering the effort involved in getting the supplies up there): much welcomed but the accompanying rubbish was a real disappointment. A continuous trail of plastic bottles, wrappers and other detritus lines the route. Mostly, according to the guide, this is not the fault of the hikers but of the support teams: the cooks, the porters and the local traders. I don’t know if the hikers can be absolved quite so easily but it is certainly true that the campsites and lunch stops were not well-maintained and it was depressing to arrive at a stop and leave the rubbish we’d collect on the route in a bin, only to find an open tip on the slopes as we left the stopping point.

Agua

One of many stalls servicing the hikers.

As day turned to evening, we continued the relentless climb, the temperature began to plummet and we finally caught sight of the peak of Salkantay and, nestling beneath the glacier, the campgrounds for the various tours.

salkantay_aparece

The snow-capped summit of Salkantay finally appears behind the valley walls.

By the time we reached the camp, at some 3600m above sea level, it was close to freezing if not already below. Any expectation anyone might have had of a session round the camp fire was quickly dispelled: we had neither fire nor energy: we drank tea, ate wearing gloves and collapsed into the tents to try to sleep on the hard stony ground, though not before we managed to gaze in wonder at the stars: the Milky Way lit up the night sky in a spectacular display that far outshone the best I have ever seen it achieve in the north. Little wonder the Incas knew a thing or two about astronomy.

Off and on the rails.

2009/06/08

To travel hopefully, it is said, is better than to arrive. When it comes to rail travel in Argentina – a country whose vast expanses are criss-crossed with tens of thousands of kilometres of track, mostly unused since privatisation in the early 1990s – the hopefulness can evaporate before the travelling has even begun: my determination to travel entirely by surface transport during our stay having already been sorely tested by the suspension of services on the Tren Patágonico from December 2008 to March 2009 (though happily this is back in service), news and travellers’ blog reports about the terrible state of the track and well-publicised delays and cancellations.

Arriving at Retiro station in Buenos Aires for our trip to Tucumán and the north-western provinces, all appeared well as we settled down for a coffee in the smart café, redolent of old-style railway stations before some bright spark decided there weren’t enough shopping centres in the world and decided to turn stations into retail opportunities, all bright lights and fast food.

Waiting for the train at the Café Retiro

Waiting for the train at the Café Retiro

Appearances turned out to be deceptive however, and five hours later the view was of a spot only a few short kilometres down the track:

Waiting for the 'plane

Waiting for the 'plane

The train, it turned out, was not running today. There would, instead, be a replacement bus service. Not that this information was being made readily available: it took persistent questioning (along the lines of so where is the actual train then) to get Ferrocentral to admit that, actually, there wasn’t one and even more to tell us that the bus service was to be exclusively in the “semi-cama” (half-bed) class: while that mightn”t sound too bad Argentina is not immune to the kind of name inflation that sees first and second class replaced by premier and standard (the train has four classes of travel of which “first” class is the second-lowest) and semi-cama is just a fancy name for a seat that reclines slightly and is a long way from the wide, comfortable, flat beds offered by some bus companies on long distance routes. We declined the offer of 24 hours in a sitting position, unable to read or work, and regretfully headed for the airport. Refusing to let experience triumph over hope I did book my return trip from Tucumán: they must run sometimes!

So it was that some five days later I once again travelled hopefully to the railway station, this time  in Tucumán. Rather more austere than its counterpart in Buenos Aires, this station has no smart café, nor did it have left luggage lockers (though happily I found a hotel on the other side of the square that minded my rucksack for a couple of hours so I could wander round the town) but it did, almost unbelievably, have a train. A very popular one too, with the queues snaking out and round the block, while street vendors made sure everyone was well provided for with water, choripan (sausage in a bun) and other travel essentials.

Passengers converge on the station in Tucumán as the departure time nears

Passengers converge on the station in Tucumán as the departure time nears

It’s one of the ironies of the crumbling rail network that the few trains that do run are hugely popular, and significantly cheaper than the buses despite a 30% fare increase (on this route anyway) at the beginning of May. Hopefully the extra funds will be used to improve the track, and possibly expand the service.

The train turned out to be modern and comfortable. My sleeping compartment was narrow but pleasant enough, with a sink which, with the lid closed, doubled as a small table and – joy of joys – a power point for my laptop. Laptop, camera, various books, my mate – the tea-like drink everybody carries around with them – and the scenery sliding slowly past outside: what more could one ask for?

The train’s comfort was in sharp contrast to the urban Argentina unrolling outside the window as we left Tucumán: railways rarely travel through the best suburbs and here I was seeing a part of Argentina that for the most part remains hidden most of the time.

Children come out to greet the train

Children come out to greet the train

The track is lined with children coming out, as children do everywhere, to wave the train on its way as it passes very nearly through their living space – “house” would be altogether too grand a word. A wide variety of makeshift structures are visible, from the small but immaculately maintained to some that are only recognisable as a place where someone lives because of the washing-line outside.

Scraping by on the outskirts of Tucumán

Scraping by on the outskirts of Tucumán

Horses, dogs and even pigs wander through the settlements, some of which also seem to double as municipal tips. These are the people that service the cities, recycle the cardboard and plastic bottles and sell small items on the streets largely ignored by the wealthier parts of the population and indeed the entire political system.

Leaving the city though, the outlook improved steadily. The sun sank below the cordillera de los Andes, lighting the western sky with a spectacular orange glow, as if there was a huge ball of fire behind the mountains – which, of course, there was.

The sun sets behind the Andes

The sun sets behind the Andes

Meanwhile, urban slum gave way to small, rural, chacras or smallholdings that, while sometimes build from much the same selection of available materials were much neater, better maintained and generally with an air of greater prosperity.

// photo to come.

As darkness fell, I headed for the restaurant car. If I were Paul Theroux or Eric Newby, I would have fascinating tales to tell of my fellow travellers who would have been queueing up to tell me their life-stories. Even Bill Bryson would have had the odd anecdote about a child picking their nose as he ate his soup. Sadly though, the restaurant car was empty apart from me and one young man with his nose buried in a book: clearly this wasn’t going to be one of those moments around which an entire book could be woven. The food though was good, if heavy on the red meat – the vegetarian option is “bring sandwiches”.

The morning brought an altogether different type of scenery: the flat plains and farmland of the province of Santa Fé. The restaurant car was livelier, though the breakfast seemed designed to make sure you’d be really starving by lunch and no-one seemed that inclined to strike up a conversation with the dishevelled looking bearded old man in the corner.

A family group breakfasts in the dining car

A family group breakfasts in the dining car

The little family group – a dad and his daughters who may or may not have been twins – shows the benefit of the train: the ability to move around and to sit and chat at a table, rather than trying to eat your breakfast while staring at the back of your neighbour’s seat and trying to keep your elbows out of the way of the person next to you.

And so the day continued, passing through vast plains, some small towns and the city of Rosario on the way back finally to Buenos Aires where the train disgorged us into an unseasonal heatwave. There’s no question in my mind: if it runs, the route is even open and the timetable permits – three big ifs – the train is the way to go.

Distance is relative.

It is difficult for Europeans to appreciate the distances involved in travel in South America: wikipedia has this nice map superimposing the old railway network on a map of Europe.

Argentine rail network superimposed on Europe

Argentine rail network superimposed on Europe

My trip, Tucumán to Buenos Aires, translates roughly as the equivalent distance between Carlisle and Berne – a journey which even with our high-speed rail networks takes (according to bahn.de) a minimum of about 18 hours, so maybe Argentines shouldn’t beat themselves up too much over the 25 hour journey time.