To watch the world go by

What’s the 11th item on your bucket list?

This was the WordPress “365 Days of Writing” prompt for January 3rd. I told you I wouldn’t keep up with it. Life (and the two-part season premiere of the Bachelor) gets in the way of writing sometimes. But something about this prompt stuck with me. I smiled when I read it, finding it humorous that the prompt-makers so accurately assumed that their readers would have a bucket list, that it would be numbered, and that it would have more than 10 ventures on it. As a group, I think it’s fair to presume that bloggers (who mainly consist of writers and photographers and planners and dreamers) would have such a list that is ambitious as it is organized.

And so I opened my bucket list (yes, it is typed up) and scrolled down to number 11, taking a few moments to remember the things I’ve already crossed off. The first few items on my list were smaller-term goals (focusing on school and what came immediately after) and after those, the list is not prioritized or ranked. It just so happened to be that number 11 is the one I have been dreaming about the most recently and one of the ones I am most excited to cross off. I have also, ironically enough, been meaning to write about it for some time now.

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Before spending a semester in Spain and traveling to Italy in 2010 (writing that just now really freaked me out…was it really that long ago?), where we frequently traveled by rail, the only train I could remember riding was the Grapevine Vintage Railroad (colloquially known as the ‘Tarantula Train’). These locomotives (the oldest operating steam engines in the south, mind you) run along the 21 mile Cotton Belt Route between downtown Grapevine, TX and the Fort Worth Stockyards, home to Billy Bob’s  Texas (the world’s largest Honky Tonk).

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These guys really liked us. 

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In D.C. I ride the train every day, but the trip is underground and packed with hustled commuters (who take up twice as much space in the winter with the added mass of coats). The commute is quick enough and I am thankful to live and work in such close proximity to the metro and have easy access to a public transit system that (with the sometimes too frequent extraordinarily frustrating exception) functions smoothly. But the ride isn’t pretty. It isn’t relaxing. Only on the occasions that I venture out of the city, to the fingertips of the metro’s spidery hands, do I truly remember the joy of train travel. Especially when I am traveling during sunset.

“Yellow” or “orange” seem insufficient to describe the magnificent streaks of color when there are words for the many nuanced shades in between. Sepia. Tangerine. Sandstone. Saffron. Turmeric. Blood orange. Amber. Amaranth. The nearly imperceptible moment where tulip petals transition from purple to pink. All strewn across a charcoal dusted blue sky. The sensory aspects of sunsets are almost more connected to feelings than sight. There is a warmth (literally and figuratively). A calm. A nostalgia for and comforting continuity between all of the sunsets you’ve ever seen.

And on a train, you get to watch uninhibitedly.  Granted, I can’t imagine anything more humbling and awe-inspiring than flying during sunset above a field of rippled clouds. But from a train, you don’t watch the rolling plains or cityscapes from above–you travel through them and are affronted by their enormity. In this way, you are much closer to being a participant than an observer. I suppose then that the drawback of train travel is that you can’t always climb the mountains you’re watching. Your hair won’t catch in the wind that whistles past and there will always be a glare on the window that stands between you and the world rushing by. There is a freedom in driving, namely the ability to control your itinerary, to stop and explore and resume traveling when it suits you. But on the road, the driver always carries a weighty responsibility. Views are caught in quick peripheral glances, lest their eyes stray from the road for too long. Or, one has to stop to appreciate a view and the act of traveling is suddenly hindered by the act of experiencing.

As a train passenger you are a passerby, but less so than on a plane. It is intimate and slow, but the closeness doesn’t come at the expense of the ability to relinquish all responsibility to your means of transportation and simply watch the world. Which is a luxury not afforded to drivers that I believe all travelers desire at one point or another. Here are some train trips on my list:

North America

With cars with glass-domed ceilings, passengers on Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer can fall asleep every night with uninterrupted panoramic views of the stars. And during the day, behold the dramatic white water views of the West.

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The Rocky Mountaineer has several route options, their most popular one being “First Passage to the West” that takes passengers on a four day journey from Calgary, through the Rocky Mountains, to Vancouver. There is even a “Coast-to-Coast” package that runs both east and west for a 13 day, trans-Canada adventure. Ambitious.

I really want to travel from Washington, D.C. to Seattle, both because I would love to see the United States by rail and because I think there is something fun in beginning and ending in Washington. For this one I think I would have to take a train to Chicago and then hop on board the California Zephyr towards San Francisco, crossing the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada, and all of the rolling mid-western plains in between.

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But the beautiful American views aren’t limited to the West (even though the historic allure of the open and wild will always feel freer). I’d like to take the Ethan Allen Express from NYC to Vermont when the leaves are changing. This National Geographic guide outlines the “Top 10 North American Train Trips” that includes routes of all durations and destinations across the continent. Check it out. Maybe if you have some time to spare, an extra few days of travel time spent on a train instead of a plane might be worth your while.

South America

Down south I’d like to catch PERURAIL and take the Andean Explorer from Cuzco (after climbing Machu Picchu) across mountains and plains to Puno, on Lake Titicaca.

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Europe

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Wait, yes I do. The Swiss Chocolate Train is most certainly at the top. This train takes you from Montreaux (a breathtaking town on the Swiss Riveria) to Gruyeres (the home of gruyeres cheese) where you visit the Gruyeres Castle and a cheese-making factory. If that weren’t enough, you then go to Broc and visit the Cailler-Nestle chocolate factory. You had me at cheese. Well, really you had me at Switzerland and mountains. But add cheese and chocolate (and the coffee and croissants advertized on board) and this day-long excursion might be my heaven.

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Next up is the Danube Express‘s 10-day journey that begins in Istanbul, crosses the heart of Transylvania, stops in Budapest and Vienna, and ends in Prague. Eight countries, wild rural landscapes, and architectural wonders in imperial cities. An overwhelmingly spectacular journey, to say the least.

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Of course, not all trains are worth the ride simply for the views. One day when I have a lot of money (haha) I would love to take the 2 day trip from London to Venice on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express that is described as a “step back in time to a world of romance, indulgence and adventure”.

train-travel-luxury-orient-expressYes, please. I want to sip champagne in a 1920s train carriage (that has probably once housed Kings and spies) while wearing heels and pearls, making eyes at a mysterious foreign stranger as a baby grand whispers softly in the background. Or something. Here are a few other luxury train trip ideas. A girl can dream, right?

But railroads are the veins of Europe and there are countless other memorable routes, such as the the Bernina Express that climbs over 7,000 feet into Swiss Alps and then descends into tiny Italian towns, the West Highland Line that travels along Scotland’s lochs and moors, and the Flam Railway that passes through Norway’s awe-inspiring fjords (pictured).

norway

Asia

In case you didn’t know this about me, I think about India a lot (and am 95% sure that is where I want to be after my stint in D.C., but that is a story for another time). I would love to travel India by train and I’ve heard a good way to do so is by means of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Starting in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, you travel through peaks, jungle, valleys, and tea gardens. Perhaps a week long journey through the north-west on the Mahajaras Express would be worthwhile as well, to marvel at palaces and caves.

India, West Bengal, Darjeeling, Batasia Loop, Diesel train known as the Toy Train of the  Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.

Australia

Of course, no adventure list would be complete with a train ride through the heart of Australia’s outback. The Ghan explores the beast of a country’s vast, untamed interior and surrounds you in red desert for three days before reaching tropical Darwin.

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Africa

Known as the Pride of Africa, the Rovos Rail will take you all across southern Africa. The journey that caught my eye was an 11 day journey across South Africa, beginning in Cape Town and ending with a safari in the MalaMala Game Preserve. The journey can be extended for 5 days so you can travel through Botswana to  Zambia to see the mile-wide Victoria Falls and do some more hippo-spotting.

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Any of these adventures would be a dream come true, but there is one journey in particular I have been dreaming about….

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Just kidding! Kind of. In all seriousness, the train trip I want to take travels across a third of the world, beginning with the towering domes of Moscow, following the footsteps of ancient travelers across Central Asia, and ending by sweeping across the Mongolian steppe and sleeping in a ger. I want to explore the untouched snow-capped lands of tsars, spice merchants, and legendary horseman and nomads. Honestly, I have no idea why this part of the world is at the top of my list. Maybe because it is a part of the world that is less talked about and the mystery is calling to me. Maybe it’s because I can think of no other way I would travel this land then by train. Unfortunately, the Trans-Mongolian and Silk Road routes are different. The former stays north, while the latter dips south. I guess I’ll have to make it a round-trip adventure!

Trans-Mongolian

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Silk Road

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The above maps are the routes Golden Eagle Luxury Trains take. While I’m sure this company is lovely, I found this group called Vodkatrain that looks pretty fun. It is a travel organization that designs Siberian/Mongolian/Silk Road/India tours ideal for young people (which they define as between 18-35) that support local guides and no itineraries. Really all I want to do is round up a bunch of equally wanderlustful, curious people and explore places like Lake Baikal (known as the Pearl of Siberia), Ulaan Baatar, and the many unnamed crossroads of history, dotted with mosques and bazaars.
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So tomorrow morning I will take the metro to work and soon enough I will venture out west into suburban Maryland. There won’t be mountains, or lakes, or temples. There won’t be steppes, or castles, or elephants. But I can dream of watching the sun set across the Mongolian plains. This is truly only the beginning.
**

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Comments:

  1. You know how sold I am on the Swiss Chocolate Train! When can we go? And better yet, can we talk to WMATA about fixing up the DC metro to resemble a European adventure? LOLZ

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  1. […] What have you always dreamed of? Writing a book, being in a musical, having a family, opening a coffee shop, traveling the world while climbing lots of mountains and riding lots of trains (like these). […]

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