El tren - South America: a first time for everything - CycleBlaze

September 9, 2013

El tren

Our train - complete with observation balcony - awaits
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SOME JOURNEYS are worth making for their own sake. Some train journeys, especially. And since we are both tourists and cycle-tourists, we weren't going to miss one of the great train journeys of the world.

The train to Juno, far away on the other side of the mountains, takes more than 10 hours. On the way it grovels to the world's third highest rail crossing, up, up near the clouds. That's one reason it takes a long time - they detach the locomotive at the summit and fit a lighter one for the rest of the journey - but another is that even on the flat the train doesn't go that fast.

Traffic on the road beside the tracks generally goes faster.

But travel isn't best when it's fastest. Just contrast the glumness of flying with the lackadaisical speed of cycling. And when your train is redolent of the Orient Express and the seats are armchairs and the windows curtained and the lamp on your table has a shade, then you know it will be an experience to savour.

Travel the mountain and you travel in style, with a rose at every table
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For the first hours we climbed, gently at first, then more steeply, wheels sometimes protesting against rails, black smoke blowing back from the straining diesel. We rose through valleys of green powdered with hamlets and isolated houses where women in shawls bore unfathomable loads in cloth bags across their back, and men dug at dry, brown earth in the hope of producing something to see them through winter.

The train curved on and on, through countryside green but hostile
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And then we rose to the Alto Plano, the high plain, an arm's stretch lower than the great plateau of Tibet. The air grew thin and the earth with it. The further we went, the more forlorn the villages appeared. Fields looked untended or abandoned, although doubtless they were neither. Spirit-broken donkeys moved from isolated tuft of grass to another. Blank-eyed homes stood where you'd least expect them, sometimes with a wind fan to produce electricity but usually not.

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Down in the valley, buildings had flat roofs, because they're built more easily that way and nothing better is needed. Up here on the plain, they were angled , if not to slide off snow then to protect against rain. For it can't always be dry up here or nobody would live there.

It is inexplicable countryside, barren, dusty, but forlornly beautiful. The people here may perhaps yearn to live in a city but they would be out of place.

Lone men would appear, walk the tracks for a while, then turn off towards nothing at all
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The Spaniards hated it. The higher they got, the harder it became to breathe. One day they would have to conquer everyone, everywhere, but for the moment it could wait. Perhaps, like troops the Romans sent to Hadrian's Wall, coming up here was a punishment, a gulag for the least soldierly.

The trains run, of course, in both directions. It's best to start where we did and go to Juno, because then dusk drops in dark flakes as the scenery gets least interesting. Go the other way and evening shadows and failing light hide the beauty of the valleys.

The world's third highest rail crossing - and the sign is definitely for gringos rather than locals, you'll notice, because the height in feet is more prominent than in metres
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Whichever way you go, the train will stop at the summit. The locals know that, know that everyone will get out else to snap the altitude sign, and they're ready with woollen blankets, hats and shawls. There's no aggressive selling. That's not the style. Instead, sad brown eyes entreat you to take an interest, leave some money.

And then you get back on the train and start the long, gentle descent, eventually through the railside market of Juliac, impressive in its greyness and the way that, like towns of old, all the cycle dealers are in one area, the carpet sellers in another and the traders in pots and pans in yet another. We forget it in the supermarket west but that is the origin of road names such as Baker Street.

Juliaca looks anything but glamorous as the train passes through, but it does have an area of railside bike markets
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Puno came in the darkness. Orders came to remain where we were until station staff had unloaded our bikes, which have filled most of the luggage van. We wheel them out of the station and up a narrow hill of no great length and fall into bed.

Days without cycling can be the most tiring of all.

The sun sets before we reach Puno
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