Category Archives: Postcards From a Big Planet

Rials into rails in Iran (part 1): the Tehran-Shiraz ‘Nour’ sleeper

Everywhere you go in Iran, it seems, Imam Khomeini is there. A portrait of the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary Supreme Leader occupies rial banknotes, murals of his unsmiling face adorn the sides of buildings, and in hotels and public buildings his image hovers over you in the background. So too on approaching Tehran’s railway station, where having exited the Rahahan metro stop, Imam Khomeini (alongside current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) looms over the square and flanks the double doors that lead into the station.

Tehran Railway Station.

Tehran Railway Station.

Departure and arrival boards at Tehran Railway Station (with the English side unnervingly blank)

Departure and arrival boards at Tehran Railway Station (with the English side reassuringly blank)

After a couple of days in Tehran, I had arrived to take the 15-hour ‘Nour’ sleeper service from the hustle-and-bustle of Iran’s capital to its Shiraz, one of its historical capitals, in Iran’s southwest (see ticket booking details at the bottom of the post). Foreign travellers are required to check in at a passport counter to the left of the ticket checkpoint, where one’s visa and entry stamp are scrutinised and recorded – a privilege accorded to train travel, rather than the intercity coaches. A cursory mark is made on the ticket, and I am allowed to proceed through the checkpoint and its QR scanner. In the next hall a rather colourful mural in an otherwise functional environment exudes industrial might and power: wheels, tracks, locomotives, wrapped in the Iranian flag with Tehran’s iconic Azadi Tower as its backdrop.

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Industrial power.

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Line 5 for the Shiraz-bound ‘Nour’.

A passage leads out to the gantry that runs above the tracks, and then it is down to the platforms where staff check, check and check again tickets. On the train, manufactured in 2011 by the Changchun Railway Vehicles Co. of China, I find my way to the compartment, and what follows is a revelation. This is no tired European CityNightLine couchette, but a compartment with wide seats, each with its own upholstered armrests. In this four-berth that I travel on, what would otherwise be the middle seat becomes a fold-down table that is laden with a range of packeted snacks and a teacup – my first encounter with what would be a recurring sight of snack packs during other train and bus trips in Iran.

A rather classy touch is the patterned carpet a la a Persian rug that lines the corridor and compartment floor, although the purple-and-cream design of the bedsheet and pillowcases, less so. All for the grand price of 845,000 Iranian rials (about €24). The frequency of passenger services leaves something to be desired – there is just the one overnight train from Tehran to Shiraz (although a new, ‘luxury’ train, the ‘Fadak’, now also plies this route on alternate days) – but there can be few complaints about their affordability (for the foreign visitor) and comfort.

Roasted peanuts, muffin, wafer biscuits, juice box, tea...what else do you need?

Roasted peanuts, muffin, wafer biscuits, juice box, tea…what else do you need?

Patterns on the Nour: bedsheets and corridors

Patterns on the Nour: bedsheets and corridors

The Chinese-made sleeper compartment. The bed drops down from above, and between each seat is a drop-down table.

The Chinese-made sleeper compartment. The bed drops down from above, and between each seat is a drop-down table.

At precisely 4.20pm, a whistle blew and the train began to slowly make its way out of Tehran. The main compartment windows of the train are lightly tinted (I suppose especially necessary for the bright glare of the desert sands), but it has the effect of turning what is already an orange-and-red colour palette of stunning landscape even oranger and redder. The carriage guard comes around with a flask of hot water to fill up the teacup, and soon I am sipping away on a cup of black tea as the desert and mountains zip by. My companions for this journey, taking up two of the other seats, leaving one unoccupied, were a young husband and wife on their way home to Shiraz, one of whom spoke enough English to have a decent conversation, and would serve as my de facto translator for the rest of the journey. Like a good many other Iranians I came across, they were somewhat mystified by the idea of solo travel in a foreign land (I must come back and visit again when I get married, I was often told).

A flatscreen TV in the compartment (together with built-in audio, as well as headphone ports) plays a movie about a mute boy who is bullied a little and tries to run away from his family. It is always a pleasant surprise when you can understand enough of a movie in a foreign language, simply through the gestures and physical movement – so much so that when this exact movie appeared a week later on a coach between Esfahan and Yazd, I happily watched all of it again.

Outside Tehran, after a little bit of rain.

Two hours out of Tehran, after a little bit of rain.

Dinner takes place in the restaurant car. I’m not offered a huge range of options: ‘chicken and rice’ or ‘chicken pieces and rice’, but I suspect that Farsi speakers can explore the full capabilities of the kitchen. In any case, the extravagantly sized grilled chicken leg that appears before me is plenty to fill me up, washed down with a cup of doogh, the sour-and-salty yoghurt drink that I rather came to enjoy. 125,000 rials (or about €3.60 later), it is getting late and nearly time for bed. Lying in the darkness, with only the universal sound of Candy Crush from one of my new friends’ phone softly beeping away, my ears are gently popping too as the train climbs into and across the Zagros mountain range that slices across Iran’s southwest.

Dinner (which was much better than this photo suggests, by which time the chicken leg had been buried under rice)

Dinner (which was much better than this photo suggests, by which time the chicken leg had been buried under rice)

Tehran to Shiraz (via Google Maps)

Tehran to Shiraz (via Google Maps)

Dawn, near Shiraz.

Dawn, near Shiraz.

A little before 6.30am, knocks on the door from the guard serve as the wake-up call – just in time too, to greet the orange sky of the dawn that once again turns the desert grassland alight. And a few minutes after 7am, bang on schedule, the train grinds to a halt at the Shiraz railway terminus, completing its 900km+ journey from Tehran. This station is some distance out of the town, but a flood of yellow taxis await. My newfound friends give me a lift into the suburbs, where we part ways and I hop into a different taxi into the city centre proper. (I think a taxi from the railway station will be in the range of €13, or 450,000 rials). One of the clichés of travel can sometimes be about how friendly locals are to visitors, but I have never thought it to be true-er than in my two weeks in Iran. They generously offer to meet me later in the evening to show me around a little around their hometown, an offer which I am happy to take up – but that is a story for another time.

900 kilometers later, this Siemens locomotive comes to a stop.

900 kilometers later, this Siemens locomotive comes to a stop.

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Disembarking at Shiraz.

***

The iranrail.net website.

The iranrail.net website.

(Planning note: this ticket was booked through iranrail.net, which was a very straightforward process, with payment via PayPal. At time of booking and writing, TripAdvisor comments were somewhat mixed on their efficiency and delivery (there is also a clause, which is slightly unnerving to the traveller used to some modicum of certainty in making long-distance travel plans, in their t&c’s about defining ‘on time’ ticket delivery as anytime up to three hours before departure, failing which a refund is made). When I hadn’t received the pdf ticket after a week, I wrote to them via their website. Their response via SMS, however, was very quick in saying that there had been some issues with sending tickets to hotmail addresses, and once I provided a different email address I received the correct ticket within the hour. They do charge a €6 service fee, which seems entirely reasonable and I would have no reservations about making advance bookings through them, bearing in mind a little patience).

Part 2, a report of the Kashan-Tehran ‘Pardis’ fast train, as well as some notes on the Tehran Metro, will follow in a week. See a previous train trip report, 24 hours on the Bangkok-Butterworth International Express. All photos (except the Google Maps and iranrail.net screenshots) by Nick Chan.

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Postcards: The League of Nations lives on in Addis Ababa

High up in the dome of Addis Ababa’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, two murals depict the Ascension and the Second Coming, the latter, complete with a green horned devil and flames licking upwards to surround the masses. Below the dome, a semicircular lunette presents the Crucifixion. At the moment of my visit, the late afternoon light slants through the cupola windows to strike Jesus’ figure on the Cross, and light up the bright vivid colours that so characterise Ethiopian Orthodox iconography.

Ascension and the Second Coming, dome of Holy Trinity Cathedral

Ascension and the Second Coming, dome of Holy Trinity Cathedral

The Crucifixion

What catches my eye, however, is the lunette opposite, where rows of desks of suited men recede towards a dais of a further three suited men. Amidst the sacred – the cathedral windows are also filled with some rather splendid stained glass of biblical scenes – this decidedly secular scene forces a pause. Upon seeing the puzzled look on my face, the cathedral guide tells me, matter-of-factly: “That? That’s the League of Nations”.

The League of Nations, Holy Trinity Cathedral

The League of Nations, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Most visitors to the cathedral are drawn to the tombs of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife, just a few feet away in a side alcove, in imposing Aksum-cross-shaped granite sarcophagi. While Selassie died in 1975, a year after being deposed, he was not entombed here until 2000, in the cathedral whose construction he had initiated. Outside, the cathedral grounds contain monuments to war heroes and other Ethiopian luminaries – among others, English suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and former prime minister Meles Zenawi.

In history books everywhere, the League of Nations is labelled as a ‘failed’ project of the 1919-39 inter-war period, an expression of both the potential and limits of Wilsonian liberal internationalism. Near the top of its catalogue of failings, if not at the top itself, was its impotence in halting Mussolini’s 1935 annexation of Ethiopia – or rather, Abyssinia, as it was known then. League sanctions were limited in their scope, and even then were not fully implemented by the other ‘great powers’. At the same time, France and Britain were hatching the secret Hoare-Laval Pact that would have partitioned Abyssinia and kept Italy on side against Hitler’s growing ambitions.

So what is particularly striking, and forces me to linger for a moment, is its commemoration especially here, in the cathedral whose completion Selassie had overseen in 1944, just a couple of years after his return from exile and the liberation of his kingdom from the Italian occupiers. Why would Selassie choose to depict an institution that he had hoped, upon Abyssinia’s accession in 1923, would protect its precious independence from colonial designs?

In the left of the mural, Selassie is standing addressing the League in June 1936, a king without a kingdom after having to flee to England via British Palestine and Gibraltar. His plaintive ‘Appeal to the League of Nations Assembly’ is the epitome of the hopes vested in international organization in the tussle between order imposed through force and the justice of sovereign equality:

“I assert that the problem submitted to the Assembly today is a much wider one. It is not merely a question of the settlement of Italian aggression…It is collective security: it is the very existence of the League of Nations. It is the confidence that each State is to place in international treaties. It is the value of promises made to small States that their integrity and their independence shall be respected and ensured. It is the principle of the equality of States on the one hand, or otherwise the obligation laid upon small Powers to accept the bonds of vassal ship. In a word, it is international morality that is at stake…

“…Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. Should it happen that a strong Government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give its judgment in all freedom.”

His New York Times obituary described this speech as “was a moment in history that few who witnessed it ever forgot”, but all for naught, with the Italian fait accompli gradually being recognised by the great powers and other League members.

On the throne of justice: see no Abyssinia, hear no Abyssinia, speak no Abyssinia”. David Low, Evening Standard, 24 July 1935

***

A couple of days before, in the hills immediately surrounding Aksum, in Ethiopia’s north (of which more in a different post), my guide had been keen to point out the jagged line of hills in the distance where the Battle of Adwa had been fought in 1896 (and beyond which lies Eritrea). There, the Abyssinian army successfully beat off the Italian offensive, forcing an Italian retreat and Italy’s recognition of Abyssinia’s sovereignty in the Treaty of Addis Ababa, a rare military success against a European colonial power by a non-Western state. As every taxi driver and guide I encountered during my weeklong stay was keen to impress on me, Ethiopia was the only African country to resist European colonisation and preserve its independence, an achievement made possible by Adwa.

View towards the Adwa mountain range, from the monastery of Abba Pantaleon, just above Aksum.

View towards Adwa, from the monastery of Abba Pantaleon, just above Aksum.

Forty years later, that sovereignty was again challenged with the force of arms by Italy, with Mussolini’s empire-building ambitions in Africa also determined to erase the humiliation of Adwa. Even though the League had seemed to fail Abyssinia’s expectations, perhaps even after defeat and exile Selassie still deemed his vision of collective security and international sovereign equality to be crucial to Abyssinia’s continuing survival. The inauspicious circumstances in which he pronounced them at the League in Geneva were, perhaps, secondary to embedding them in the national narrative via a mural at the centre of the Ethiopian church. These principles remain necessary, the mural seems to say, for how else are small states to be anything other than the playthings of the great powers?

In 1963, Selassie was to return to this theme in his address to the United Nations – part of which became the lyrics to Bob Marley’s ‘War’. With the decolonization movement in full swing, Selassie had just hosted the first meeting of the Organization for African Unity in Addis, drawing on Ethiopia’s special history of independence from external interference to urge pan-African regional unity. At the UN, Selassie decried continued colonial exploitation and (not unusually for an imperial autocrat of the time) professed the equality of all mankind, challenging the nations gathered at the General Assembly to possess the will to act:

“The goal of the equality of man which we seek is the antithesis of the exploitation of one people by another with which the pages of history and in particular those written of the African and Asian continents, speak at such length. Exploitation, thus viewed, has many faces. But whatever guise it assumes, this evil is to be shunned where it does not exist and crushed where it does. It is the sacred duty of this Organization to ensure that the dream of equality is finally realized for all men to whom it is still denied, to guarantee that exploitation is not reincarnated in other forms in places whence it has already been banished.”

***

The coda to this train of thought that began with a glance towards the dome of the Holy Trinity Cathedral came rather unexpectedly a few weeks later, while in Geneva for a conference at the Palais des Nations, the League’s physical home. Transferred to the UN after the League’s dissolution, the Palais is a glorious Art Deco pile completed in early 1936, just months before Selassie’s appearance before the League Assembly.

Up on the wall of Salle XXII, a mural titled ‘Construttori’ by Massimo Campigli depicts men at work during the laborious construction of the Palais. This ‘building’ of the League of Nations was one of the great experiments in global governance of the interwar period, but swept away by countervailing political forces of the 1930s. Small irony then, that far from Geneva, the League’s imprint is still to be visibly found in the sacred space of the one country where it was tested, and found lacking.

'Costruttori' (1937), Massimo Campigli, Salle XXII, Palais des Nations

‘Costruttori’ (partial view), Massimo Campigli (1937), Salle XXII, Palais des Nations

All pictures (apart from the David Low cartoon) by Nick Chan.

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24 hours on the Bangkok-Butterworth ‘International Express’

I wonder if Paul Theroux ever saw something like this, I thought to myself.

Beneath my observation point on the mezzanine balcony, a scout and guide troop was assembling itself on the open expanse of Bangkok’s Hualamphong station floor. After some cajoling from the troop leaders, a few densely-packed lines were formed, followed by the instruction to plonk themselves down on the floor en masse.

Sipping at an iced black coffee in an desperate attempt to cope with the stuffy humidity, I watched as the troop then suddenly dispersed to swarm some of the vendors around the station concourse, leaving their backpacks behind in their quasi-orderly lines. A short while later, new snacks and drinks in tow, the troop reassembled in their lines, and were then marched off to their train.

The station floor was visible once again, with no trace remaining of the organized chaos that had occupied that space for the prior quarter of an hour.

Soon enough, it was time for me to take my own leave, to pass under the portrait of King Rama V that gazed over the waiting hall, to board the daily 14.45 ‘International Express’ bound for Butterworth, Malaysia.

 

Scouts and guides on the Bangkok station floor

Scouts and guides on the Bangkok station floor

Bangkok's Hualamphong station

Bangkok’s Hualamphong station

The 14.45 International Express, train #35, ready for departure

The 14.45 International Express, train #35, ready for departure

***

Getting these tickets had been an adventure in itself. I had gone to Hualamphong three days prior upon my arrival in Bangkok, only to be confronted with “sorry, no more available” at the ticket counter. The agent, for dramatic effect, swivelled his computer monitor to show me a somewhat incomprehensible screen of numbers and letters. The important thing though, was that the seats on the train were all zeroed out. “Look!”

This was a little unanticipated. I later realize that I have arrived during a school holiday and was intending to travel at the end of this holiday, and on a Friday, hence the train selling out. Perhaps it was time to abandon the dream, and return to the modern default – to take the plane. While an extra day in Bangkok would normally be no cause for concern, this time was different: I had a family anniversary to get to Penang for on Saturday afternoon.

But back on the Internet, I find that the one direct daily flight between Bangkok and Penang is booked out. Few other options – either exorbitantly priced or involving unprotected air connections – seem to present themselves.

But then The Man in Seat 61 reminds me that the whole Bangkok-Butterworth journey is only undertaken by two carriages. Other parts of the train, and indeed other trains, run and terminate at Hat Yai, a little before the Thai-Malaysian border.

Armed with this sliver of knowledge, the next day I return to the station ticket counter, and ask for a ticket – on the same train – from Bangkok to Hat Yai. Success! At least I will get a thousand kilometres or so out of Bangkok. That train is due into Hat Yai at 6.30am, and I figure – or so the internet tells me – that I can get a bus from Hat Yai to Penang in time for the evening.

Thankfully, all this is moot when, in a final roll of the dice, I arrive at the station an hour or so before the International Express is due to depart, and ask at the ticket counter about this last leg, from Hat Yai to Butterworth. And lo and behold, a cancellation has meant that there is a seat after all. So I walk away from the counter, with a little quiet fistpump to myself, now with two tickets in hand for the same train – from Bangkok to Hat Yai in one carriage, and then Hat Yai to Butterworth in another. A little shuffling around will be required, but it is at least much more reassuring than taking the bus.

I also quietly thank the inefficiencies of the Thai railway, and the fact that it has not adopted airline-style dynamic ticket pricing. The price for this little bit of split-ticketing – which remember, has only fallen into place an hour before departure – is little different to a single through ticket, at 1497 Thai baht.

The platforms at Hualamphong

The platforms at Hualamphong

Last-minute repairs

Last-minute repairs

Carriage for the Bangkok-Hat Yai section

Carriage for the Bangkok-Hat Yai section

***

Bangkok’s Hualamphong station is a terminus, with the line heading northwards. The first hour of this journey thus is a somewhat tortorous crawl through the northern Bangkok suburbs. A multitude of level crossings, combined with the density of Bangkok’s road traffic, make it slow progress indeed. But then soon enough we begin a looping westerly curve, over the Chao Phaya river to finally head southwards.

One of many level crossings leaving Bangkok

One of many level crossings leaving Bangkok

The urban greyness of Bangkok soon gives way to the green of the countryside: rice paddies, palm oil plantations, and patches of jungle and overgrowth. On the train, however, there is a constant stream of people through the carriages and the hiss of the doors sliding open: ticket inspectors, railway police, catering staff, hawkers who hop on and off from station to station. There is even a cleaner, armed with a mop and bucket, whose valiant work is utterly undermined by this parade of people and their trail of shoeprints.

Paddy fields beyond Bangkok

Paddy fields beyond Bangkok

At least these are perhaps the most spacious train seats that I have ever been in. Wide enough to seat two, for the sleeper segment of the journey only one person is allocated to the seat. A giant pillow means that my best efforts at making progress with a book are defeated by dozing off to the clackety-clack sound of wheels on rails. By the time I rouse myself, the sun is beginning to set, for which my seat is on the ‘right’ side of the train to see the glowing ball of orange gently arc towards the horizon. The landscape is also gradually giving way to the hills and mountains in the distance, the Tenasserim Hills that mark the natural border between Thailand and Myanmar silhouetted against the setting sun.

Sunset from the train

Sunset from the train

Seats and cushions

Seats and cushions

View down the train carriage

View down the train carriage

***

Why is it that the more high-tech a train, the worse its catering options for the masses? Eurostar, the TGV…all you ever end up with is a microwaved gloopy panini. By contrast, the best train food I’ve ever had was on a slow Amtrak sleeper from Washington DC to Atlanta, ribs cooked to perfection and the chance company of a member of the US House of Representatives heading back to his district for the weekend. In second place was gloriously unhealthy early lunch on in a Czech dining car from Dresden to Prague, where the cook looked simply delighted to have a customer.

But on this train, the ‘Bogie Restaurant’, as it calls itself, is a site of frenzied activity. For some reason few people seem to choose to eat in the restaurant car. Instead, the car is half occupied by restaurant staff busily plating up meals, and then covering them in clingfilm to be carried through the carriages to the passengers. So I am largely alone for dinner – although it is by no means quiet, as the rattle of the wok competes with the sizzle of frying.

Plated and wrapped meals for delivery down the train

Plated and wrapped meals for delivery down the train

With nine different set meal options, now this is a kitchen worthy of the name! I go for the set with both fried pork and green curry chicken, which also comes with fruits and soup, and in a matter of minutes, fresh, steaming portions are put out in front of me on the checked tablecloth. Nothing is out of a microwave, instead all prepared a few feet away, and it tastes like it.

The Bogie Restaurant in action

The Bogie Restaurant during a lull in action

Dinner options on the Bogie Restaurant

Dinner options on the Bogie Restaurant

My four-course dinner

My four-course dinner

***

Making up the sleeper berths

While contemplating this overnight journey, I had stumbled across a YouTube video of the ‘turn-down service’ in action (again hat-tip to The Man in Seat 61). By the time I return to the sleeper carriages, the attendant is already well into his motions further down the carriage, and I am just in time to watch him at work. It is a supremely coordinated sequence, repeated bunk after bunk: a rhythm of unlatching the upper bunk that swings down from the ceiling, then latching it in; sliding the two seats together to form the lower bunk; retrieving, then laying out the mattress pads stored in the upper bunk; and finally, the fresh sheets that cover the pad and go over the pillow.

The result is a completely flat and relatively soft berth, wide enough to roll 180 degrees, and while the carriage is ‘open’ and not divided into individual cabins, curtains give a pretty complete amount of privacy (although not to sounds). Rather cleverly, there are small shelves built into the carriage ceiling for those of us in upper berths to store bags within reach of the upper berth. So given the relatively early sunset in Thailand, by 9pm most of the carriage has their curtains drawn, and I too, easily drift into sleep.

Ready for sleep

Ready for sleep

***

The train is due into Hat Yai at what seems like an inordinately early 6.30am, although it is light by then. When I wake myself most of the other passengers are also well on their way to gathering their belongings, and the attendant comes by shortly to pack up the berths, and we return to our sitting positions. Unfortunately, however, 6.30am comes and goes and Hat Yai is no-where to be seen. Instead, groggily drifting in and out of sleepiness, even as the scene outside the window continues to brighten. It is not until around 9.30am that Hat Yai Junction finally arrives. I get my bag but insead of joining the exodus of the carriage, I head down to the part of the train continuing on to Butterworth, and find a new set of seat-mates, all equally half-asleep, even as the train inches backwards and forwards in jerky movements as it sheds its extra parts – most of the carriages and the dining car. A short while later, we pull out of Hat Yai, and head for the Malaysian border.

***

One of the more iconic modern examples of contrasting development trajectories is a well-known photo of forests along the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. In a neat, undulating line, the Haitian side is stripped bare, while the Dominican Republic remains densely forested.

'Open tracks'

‘Open tracks’

The change in crossing the Thai-Malaysian border is less stark, but noticeable nonetheless, at least in railway terms. On the Thai side, the tracks are ‘open’ – people happily/dangerously cross wherever they want and fields and buildings skirt right up to the edge of the tracks. Entering into Malaysia, however, the tracks are ‘closed’, fenced off with an strip of land between any development and the tracks. The Malaysian rail network has recently completed a double-tracking and electrification project right up to the border, so suddenly, overhead wires, and freshly-laid track ballast, yet to be weathered by the rain and pollution, also appears alongside the track that we are running on.

At Padang Besar station, immigration formalities for both sides of the border are completed. For the passenger, however, the most noticeable design difference between the Malaysian and Thai networks is that Thai station platforms are ‘at grade’ – level with the track, so the passenger has to climb up onto the train. Malaysian platforms, by contrast, are level with the carriage floor. So when the Thai carriage rolls into the Malaysian station, a stopgap solution is found – some planks that somewhat precariously bridge the gap between the carriage floor that is designed to plunge downwards to track level, and the platform.

Mind the gap – between the steps and top of the platform.

 

***

In his history of efforts at international government, Governing the World, Mark Mazower writes about the rise of ‘scientific internationalism’ at the dawn of the 20th century, when an international bureaucracy (that still remains with us today) began to emerge to attempt to coordinate and unify scientific expertise. The harmonization of technical standards – efforts to speak a common scientific language – was seen as a step to making the world a more peaceful place. The “metric movement swept most of Europe by the 1880s”, Mazower writes, and similar movements of standardization in other spheres were also underway, such as the adoption of the Greenwich meridian for navigation and timekeeping purposes.

The metric system, of course, saw only incomplete adoption – and the railways also saw a similar story, where in different parts of the world, different track gauge widths are used, the result of a mix of geography, technology, and the path dependency of sunk infrastructure costs. Even today, trans-European through train travel (i.e. the Paris-Moscow Express) includes a technical stop at Brest on the Belarussian border for carriages to be raised and bogies replaced, in order to continue the journey onto Moscow on wider Russian-gauge track than the European standard.

For my journey, therefore, the fact that the International Express chugs smoothly over the Thai-Malaysian border is also a quietly remarkable non-event. With both countries having adopted the same railway standard of a 1,000m gauge, the diesel-powered train is interoperable across the border, with only a change of locomotive from the State Railway of Thailand to Keretapi Tanah Melayu, the Malaysian rail operator.

View out of the back of the train at Padang Besar (while stationary). Note the overhead wires for electric trains.

***

From Bangkok to Butterworth (on Google Maps)

The ‘Express’ is a somewhat sad two carriages when it gets into Malaysia, trundling southwards for the final couple of hours from Padang Besar to Butterworth. As if to amplify the reduced stature of this train, the air conditioning decides to pack in for most of the remaining time on Malaysian tracks.

By the time we pull into Butterworth, some two hours behind schedule just before 3pm, it has been 24 hours since leaving Bangkok, the longest I’ve spent on a train. I once spent an almost similar amount of time – I think it was closer to 18 hours – on a Shosholoza Meyl sleeper from Durban to Johannesburg, and more recently, the 12 hours of a daytime train on the Overland from Adelaide to Melbourne. (I’m not complaining – bring on the Trans-Siberian!).

One of the trendy images that floats around twitter is a map of isochronic distances from London in the early 20th century, illustrating travel time, rather than absolute distance. As I disembark, It feels as if I have just walked out of the era of those maps, where travel is measured in days rather than hours.

It is, after all, a journey covering well over 1,100km, a whole day on the rails compared to the sub-2 hour flight time that Google Maps seems to prefer. One of The Economist’s recent book reviews, of a airline pilot’s memoirs, speaks of the ‘place lag’ somewhat endemic to air travel, “the inability of our deep old sense of place to keep up with our aeroplanes”.

There’s none of that on this trip.

Butterworth station

The Malaysian KTM locomotive

The Malaysian KTM locomotive

***

A shuttle minivan takes disembarking passengers up to the nearby ferry terminal – and after some fumbling with change for the antiquated turnstiles, I am on the ferry across to Penang island. The haze limits visibility, but the giant hulking outline of a Star Cruises liner is visible in the distance, as are a range of other container ships: one Marshall Islands-flagged vessel has the same orange submarine-like emergency lifeboat seen in Captain Phillips, which seems somewhat incongrous in the density of the Penang harbour. But while the Horn of Somalia is on the other side of the Indian Ocean, pirates are also not unknown in the Straits of Malacca.

A view from the Butterworth ferry to Penang island

A view from the Butterworth ferry to Penang island

The ferry journey – a service that has been the subject of much recent debate between the state and federal governments, but seems to function adequately today – is just ten minutes or so before disembarking.

I make it in time for the family anniversary, where I am asked, somewhat incredulously: “You came by train?”

“Yes, I did.”

The State Railway of Thailand insignia

The State Railway of Thailand insignia

All images (except the Google Maps screenshot) by Nick Chan. Please do not reproduce without credit. 

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Postcards from a big planet: Echoes of Communism in Budapest

This is where statues come to die, gazing down not upon grand squares and mass parades, but simply each other: busts of Lenin confront ‘the heroic Soviet soldier’, and the granite muscularity of unselfish workers inspires only similarly weather-worn monuments of Soviet leaders. On the outskirts of Budapest, a collection of Communist-era statues and monuments forms Memento Park, a tourist attraction that, as the park guide put it with a grin, “shows you can make a good capitalist enterprise out of communist efforts”.

The rather lonely Liberation Monument - Memento Park, Budapest

Rescued from the wrecking ball and scrapheap, the park’s statues are organized into three figure-8 loops, this ‘infinity’ representation giving each sequence an ‘endless parade of…’ (liberation monuments, workers movements, etc.) label. I can’t quite decide if this is a nice little arty concept, or clever BS.

Heroic Soviet Workers - Memento Park, Budapest

Far from where they were originally installed and no longer serving a civic purpose, being brought to this park illustrates the politics of public art and the narratives of history represented therein. Understandably and unsurprisingly, in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, new popularly-elected governments sought to erase past markers and monuments of the Communist era, replacing Soviet heroes with those of resistance fighters and pre-Communist leaders. The same is true of many decolonized countries, where changing road names and introducing new events to commemorate are as much efforts at sweeping away the old system as they are of nation-building and forging a new narrative of a country’s past and future.

Lenin, circa 2011 - Memento Park, Budapest

Once upon a time, not so long ago, these statues and busts that would have looked down over Budapest’s hills and squares, representing a particular vision of society, the good life and models of emulation. What seems remarkable about the park, then, is its attempt to provide a reminder of the values and norms of that age, when the typical thing for the champions of any new system is to attempt to eradicate – sometimes brutally – all vestiges and symbols of the old.

For in our historical narratives lie claims to political legitimacy, and what these narratives contain shape the standards by which political life is judged. A resurgence in Communist nostalgia in Russia; contestation over the content of Japanese school textbooks about wartime atrocities; heady exhortations to the glory days of Britain bestriding the world – appeals to ‘history’, and the stirrings of collective identity and who ‘we’ are, mandate or limit particular courses of action, whether in foreign policy or otherwise.

In the process of removing these artifacts from public Budapest – one that is still ongoing – the contrast of their reorganization in the admission-fee statue park is a glimpse of one interpretation of history, written by those triumphant at one point in time, while a different interpretation is being forged today. Public space, whether in architecture or art, always contains the fingerprints of different generations and their values and claims to power, but which often requires a little bit of an archaeological trovel to unearth the different layers of history. The accumulation of this one collection of monuments relegated from the public eye presents this transition from one layer to another so much more vividly.

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Postcards from a big planet: order and more order in New York City

“It’s just like a big giant chessboard”, I said, when asked about first impressions of New York City. Directions were given simply – get to this intersection, then head two blocks west and three blocks north. The clarity of how Manhattan is organised seemed nothing short of astounding, and my elaborate sense of urban direction suddenly rendered redundant.

It wasn’t the replacement of street names with numbers that was disconcerting, but the uniform regularity of it all, with each block virtually identical, thus providing an instant sense of distance and location. 110th Street? You know immediately that that’s far from 14th Street. Equally disorienting were the clear views down each street, traffic light colours gently blinking away – but the symmetry of the towering skyscrapers receding into…nothing. No Arc de Triomphe or St. Peter’s Basilica marks their end, instead seeming like a technical lesson in perspective drawing out of an art class where the lines recede into infinity.

Looking South down Fifth Avenue

The explanation came by chance in the terrific The Works: Anatomy of a City, explaining how the city’s infrastructure functions and its design: in 1811, two hundred years ago, city commissioners approved a masterplan for Manhattan’s future development, the city up until that point confined to what is now lower Manhattan, with the result being the same grid layout that bewilders me today. From the commissioners’ report:

“That one of the first objects which claimed their attention was the form and manner in which the business should be conducted; that is to say, whether they should confine themselves to rectilinear and rectangular streets, or whether they should adopt some of those supposed improvements by circles, ovals, and stars, which certainly embellish a plan, whatever may be their effect as to convenience and utility. In considering that subject they could not but bear in mind that a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and that straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in. The effect of these plain and simple reflections was decisive….

“…To the better understanding of the map, it will be proper to recollect, in examining it, that the term avenue is applied to all those streets which run in a northerly direction parallel to each other. These are one hundred feet wide, and such of them as can be extended as far north as the village of Harlem are numbered (beginning with the most eastern, which passes from the west of Bellevue Hospital to the east of Harlem Church) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12.”

As a NY Times piece earlier this year on the plan’s anniversary noted, its legacy is notable as much for the grand vision itself, as it is for the fact that it has persisted over the city’s rapid development in the past two centuries:

“What I found absolutely remarkable,” said Hilary Ballon, an urban studies professor at New York University and curator of a future exhibition on the grid for the Museum of the City of New York, “was how the city had a commitment to executing this vision, which required a pretty significant transformation in how the city worked — a greater degree of governmental authority, changes in the taxation system to fund this road building, and a multigenerational commitment to its implementation.”

The Manhattan Street Plan of 1811

In the clear lines of Manhattan’s streets is the result of a particular vision of what social life should look like: orderly and organised, rational and rigorous. It is perhaps the city planner’s dream – as anthropologist James C. Scott richly illustrates in Seeing Like a State, governments elites across space and time have sought to streamline and rationalize diverse ways of living into a narrower set of possibilities, ones that can be monitored, and ultimately controlled by state authorities. (It is an urge for neatness and straight lines that anyone who has played SimCity well knows – suddenly, the real-life model for the game’s recommended 6×6 grid in which to zone land and bound by streets appears before my eyes).

Such efforts – whether in urban planning, the consolidation of a common language, agricultural schemes, and so on, as Scott discusses – are efforts at legibility, trying to turn a great mass of people and livelihoods into something comprehendable by governing authorities. There is nothing ‘natural’ about Manhattan’s grid layout, which instead treats the island as a blank sheet of paper, largely ignoring topography, exisiting communities and ultimately, seeking to construct a new social reality without much regard for whatever might have been there before. Against the uniform city blocks, Broadway’s diagonal path across the island seems almost aesthetically violent. For in the straight, uncompromising lines of urban grid layouts lies a confidence in top-down social engineering: a better life lies in a strict adherence to a Plan, designed by experts to be economically efficient, spatially functional and in such a utilitarian achievement, constituting a marker of human rationality and ‘progress’.

A recent story in the Times illustrates in a different way, the quest of governing authorities to count and monitor all that goes on – because if you can count it, you can change it. For Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s mayor, progress is measured by change in some 478 indicators, all of which presumably have their own plan or strategy intended to drive improvement in the numbers.

“And since becoming mayor nearly a decade ago, he has minutely quantified virtually every detail of his government, from the number of mentally ill inmates in city jails to the days left in his current term. A video screen at City Hall regularly updates the progress of dozens of agencies in meeting their goals.

Scott’s book is a litany of the many failures of such plans and attempts at social engineering and creating Utopia here on Earth (the subtitle is How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed). So perhaps the surprising thing about the Manhattan urban grid is that is seems to work (I’ve been here two weeks; maybe actual residents will think differently). But if the linear city structure of Manhattan represents a successful imposition of order onto an urban population, the persistence of this plan contrasts with another high-profile attempt at urban grand designs somewhere else in the world – part II follows, sometime next week.

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