Asian history is in fact defined, to some extent, by trains and all the wonders and the horrors they have brought into daily lives. Everywhere you turn in Asia you meet the train, whether in the local express that just drowned out your last sentence in a Japanese suburb, or that image of Marlene Dietrich slinking down the corridor in Shanghai Express.
Trains are how one senses both the natureand the human natureof a place, and they offer a perfect way into a continent known for its energy and its stillness. In South Asia, trains stand for all the ways in which people are connected and divided…In Southeast Asia, one sees, from the train and inside it, the 21st century bumping up against the 18th. China’s trains ferry money, mobility and crime across an enormous landscape. And on the Korean peninsula, the train offers the prospect, however dim, of building a connection, a link of sorts, between poignantly severed halves of the nation.
Trains are a great way to discover a country. There is a certain magic and elation in watching a train go by. For me, my childhood memories are punctuated by the train journeys between Mumbai and Pune, especially through the ghats (and the tunnels) in the monsoons. Sitting at a window, watching the world outside, imagining the lives of the people, seeing how the landscapes change – the train brings life as no airplane can.
Even in the US during my brief stay more than a decade ago, I once took the train from New York to California (Oakland). Took all of three days. It was a memorable journey. Met with people, chatted, saw the beauty of the land, and just relaxed…as time passed by.