Thursday, July 22, 2010

Rail Politick, part 2

I told you that story so I could tell you this one. 

I may have put the carriage before the horse, in fact. Feeling rambunctious, I began my conversation with you by praising Caesar (a cheeky suggestion, contra to the great Shakespeare and his crony, Marc Antony) with a short monograph on rail gauges and their circuitous connection to the Roman and Chinese imperial dynasties.

My singular interest in this subject is not unwarranted; in one month from today, I leave for the Asian continent with the aim of traveling from the murky fringes of the ancient Qin frontier to the periphery of the Roman Empire, traveling by rail and breaking gauge across China, the Mongolian steppes and Siberia into Scandinavia. I have founded this webspace to record this lengthy passage across 20,000 kilometers of steel rail. 

It is not possible to do this on a single rail network, of course. I will begin in Cambodia, where there are no trains; following the Mekong to Vietnam will allow me passage on 1000 mm gauge rail to China, where high-speed tracks bleed across the map, spreading like capillaries from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing into the terraced hinterlands and shifting loess bluffs (which mandate our favorite, standard gauge). To the north, the Iron Curtain still stands--1520 millimeters wide--as the tracks widen across the Russian tundra before settling once more into familiar dimensions at the European border: 1435 mm, the standard gauge, or a more comfortable 4'8½ inches for the homesick American vagabond.

These are the overlooked clock hands that chime away the passage of miles; time is of little consequence on a long-distance train. The rising and falling of the sun becomes a weaker rhythm than the constant swaying of the carriage and the blurred mile markers passing outside the window like lonesome cairns marking a worn pathway.

It is my hope that this record will prove to be interesting to you, perhaps as more than picaresque "traveler's tales" and something more concrete. For myself, I hope that it will proves useful as a way to practice writing while overseas and ultimately improve my abilities through repetition and criticism (which I count on you to contribute). I hope to write in greater detail about my route as well as some of the preparations which remain to be made in the upcoming weeks before I depart, so look for further remarks in due course.

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