through the Rockies, not around them – pt. 2

As the train pulled out of Glenwood Springs, I noticed a reddish haze in the air. At first, it was barely perceptible, seen only when it turned the disk of the midday sun blood red. Soon, we left Glenwood Canyon and continued west, the haze thickening the partly cloudy sky into a roiling mixture of reddish-black and grey. The source of the haze had not been apparent, but as we rounded a bend in the track, it was suddenly clear: the miles-long plume of thick, black smoke before us left little doubt. We were headed straight for a Colorado wildfire.


Before long, Forest Service and fire trucks were frequent sights at grade crossings.

By the time we entered De Beque Canyon, through which both the rail line and Interstate 70 run, the fire was burning on the tops of the ridges next to us and down the canyon walls. The sky became completely obscured, save for a crimson sun, by a thick smoke that appeared to glow red at times from the reflected flame. I ran to the lower level vestibule of my car and began taking photographs and video out of the window – which, when I pressed my hand to it, was almost scorching hot to the touch. A few tense minutes later, we were clear of the canyon, and the dispatchers at Union Pacific (who currently own the line) shut it down – we were the last to pass. The adjoining Interstate was shut down as well, and the nearby communities of De Beque and Palisade were put on evacuation notice. The fire consumed more than 12,000 acres by the time it was extinguished – but fortunately, no lives were lost.

The Zephyr passes through the Pine Ridge Fire as myself and a fellow passenger look on. Click here for the BBC version.

After a few tense minutes, we cleared De Beque Canyon unscathed and headed into Grand Junction, a city at the far reaches of the Colorado Rockies. From here, we would set out across the desert for Salt Lake City, arriving there early in the morning. The sun had begun to set, still hazy red from the fire to the east. I disembarked, along with the train’s passengers stretching their legs as a fresh locomotive crew did their checks before setting off for the night. The city’s former depot, a grand turn-of-the-century building, sits dilapidated next to the current station. It was built in the early 1900s by the Rio Grande, and was meant to be the centerpiece of the town; a place that the citizens of Grand Junction (which essentially exists because of the railroads) could take pride in as a representation of their community. Inside were 22 foot high ceilings and arched stained glass windows. Now, Amtrak uses an unremarkable 70s-era building next door that originally served as a restaurant for the depot. In February of 2012, a Texas-based realtor purchased the dilapidated structure for just over $188,000, though with admittedly no real plans to start with. Time will tell what happens to this historic structure, one which has no doubt seen some interesting, if better, times.

Onward now, as the locomotives sounded their horns, and with fresh crews aboard, we headed out for the evening. As the sun began to set, I headed to the diner car for dinner and a smuggled pint. The car was surprisingly lively, with groups of passengers scooting closer to the window to see what the eastern reaches of Colorado held in store. The Mennonites had returned, settling in en masse to the swiveling chairs on a whole side of the car to watch the sun come down behind the flat-topped mesas that stood guard to either side of our route.


Passengers in the Zephyr’s lounge car socialize as the sun begins to set on the Colorado Plateau. Just ahead lay the Utah border – and about 260 miles of desert.


In motion – the Zephyr’s lounge car as we cross into Utah

Spray painted on the side of one of these weathered red sentinels were the words ‘UTAHCOLORADO’ – denoting the literal line in the sand where the border lay. Eastern Utah is where sci-fi directors go when they’re looking for an alien planet to film on. Before the sun set, it cast the bizarre landforms of the immense desert in an unearthly glow. The Zephyr was picking up the pace now, the track straightening out as we exited the heart of the Rockies. We wouldn’t stop until we hit the tiny oasis of Green River, seventy miles ahead.


This siding, at a place called Brendel, held a number of flat cars carrying half-length metal casks marked ‘RADIOACTIVE’ – as well as a similar number of unmarked black pick-ups. Turns out this location is used to hold lightly radioactive mine waste from a uranium mine near Moab before its burial nearby.

We hit Green River just as the sun set, our train stopping for no more than a breather before pushing off again into the night. Ahead, we would cross the rest of the desert under the stars, climbing the last, faraway range of the Rocky Mountains in the moonlight before descending into Salt Lake City around one in the morning.


Night owls in the Zephyr’s lounge car around midnight.

After sundown, I returned briefly to the vestibule of the car where I had witnessed the fire before. The magic window once again opened, and in the warm night air of the desert, I could see the distant lights of a power plant. They winked at me again and again as they passed behind ridge after mountain after canyon wall. Soon, the lights appeared just up the track, and swiftly flew past us into the night again.

I headed back to my seat, only to remember it had been given to part of a family before – sleeping bodies now occupied my whole row. I elected to become a nomad, and found myself a quiet corner of the car next door with a conveniently unoccupied row of seats. Across the aisle was a fellow traveler named Sam. I asked Sam if the seats were free, and in a Cockney accent, he replied “I dunno, I just sat down in this one!” Brilliant plan! I checked one more time above my seats for reservation slips, and, finding none, I settled off to sleep.

Julia tracked me down and roused me a few hours later, just short of 1.30AM. A few minutes later, I stepped off the Zephyr at my final destination, the promised land: Salt Lake City. The train squeaked to a stop and I disembarked under a star-filled sky.


Julia bids me farewell with one more dose of sass.

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through the Rockies, not around them – pt. 1

Travel in today’s United States is mostly about two things: the automobile, which is a fixture in every part of America, and the airplane, which made the vast expanses of the U.S. easy to cross in mere hours. However, one form of transport that was so crucial to the history of the United States is often overlooked in favor of these two: the train. Even though train travel in the U.S. (at least outside of the Northeast) is often seen as the domain of families and retirees it can still be a perfectly viable means of travel for those seeking no more than transport in style.

One of the most well known of America’s modern passenger train routes is the California Zephyr, a named train that has its roots in the postwar 1940s. The route of the original Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco was a cooperative hand-off effort of three American railroads, all now defunct. This relay race of sorts led passengers through some of the most beautiful parts of North America, including the headwaters of the Colorado River in the high Rockies, the strange desolation of the Utah desert, and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. The most difficult portion for the Zephyr to traverse, from Denver through the Rockies to Salt Lake City, was the job of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad – and this was no small task.

The gold and silver rushes of the mid to late 1800s caused a huge amount of railroad expansion into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in search of riches, and dozens of narrow and standard gauge railroad lines stretched between the unforgiving peaks. The engineering challenges were gargantuan; narrow, treacherous passages like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison proved almost impossible to build through, steep grades and treeless high mountain passes had to be negotiated, sometimes by blasting paths out of solid rock, and deadly winter blizzards forced shutdowns and stoppages again and again.


A map of the Denver and Rio Grande Western circa 1930, showing Colorado crisscrossed with rail lines originally built by at least a dozen companies. By 1930, the D&RGW had absorbed almost all of them into their dual gauge system – the lines in black are 3′ (90 cm) gauge while the red ones are standard 4′ 8½” (1.4 m).

The Rio Grande’s mountain routes have been famous since their inception for the staggering scenery along the way. Originally, mainline trains had to travel from Denver to Pueblo before turning west into the Rockies, then into the Royal Gorge of the Gunnison River and through the impossibly deep Black Canyon before climbing north over Tennessee Pass – the highest point on the entire US rail system. From the top of the pass, trains then descended the Eagle River valley (passing through Belden) and met the banks of the Colorado River, following it west again through Glenwood and De Beque Canyons before clearing the Rockies. This way of doing things was an ethos for ‘the Grande’; their motto was ‘Through the Rockies, Not Around Them’ – a bit of a jab at their competitors (and, ironically, their eventual owners) to the north, the Union Pacific Railroad. The UP used a much easier route through the gradual, easy grades of South Pass in Wyoming, whereas the Rio Grande went west the hard way – straight through the heart of the mountains.

However, as airplanes and automobiles took over for long-distance trains, the preferred way of crossing the Rockies changed – gone were the days of teams of locomotives shoving passengers over high passes and through smoky tunnels. In 1971, during the height of the Oil Crisis, all of America’s mainline railroads ceased passenger operations, handing them in bulk over to a hastily organized state corporation – Amtrak was born. However, the D&RGW, long known for its independent streak, shunned Amtrak and continued to operate its portion of the Zephyr route as the Rio Grande Zephyr until 24 April 1983, when further declines in passengers finally forced the Grande to hand the Zephyr route over to Amtrak.


The Rio Grande Zephyr waits for its final departure from Denver’s Union Station on 24 April 1983. Photo by Slideshow Bruce via Wikimedia.

Jump ahead now, if you will, to the present day. In the middle of summer, I decided that a friend in Salt Lake City was long overdue for a visit. I booked myself a train ticket, and on the appointed day, my California Zephyr showed up at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station backwards – and nearly two hours late. The backwards part is perfectly normal, with Denver’s Union Station resting on a long stub of track that requires the reverse move for access. Today, it was track maintenance and a few passing freight trains east of Denver that held Train #5 up, but no matter; soon we would head out of Denver for the high country and begin making that time back.


Passengers wait to board the Zephyr at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station. Union Station, the Zephyr’s stop since the 1930s, is being turned into a regional commuter rail terminal, and will reopen in 2014.

With a smooth push, the Zephyr pulled out and we were on our way. My car was overseen by conductor Julia Thompson-Johnson of Chicago, a capable professional traveler. Amtrak’s conductors do far more than simply taking tickets; they are the masters of the rails, seeing to everything from extra blankets for toddlers in transit to midnight wake-up calls. I found myself a seat and watched out the window of the café car as the train pulled out of Denver’s freight yards and headed for the Rockies.

As we ascended up the Front Range, I noticed a group of people who looked as if they were from another century. They sported bonnets, dresses, and long beards for the men – members of the Mennonite religious order, as it turns out. Mennonites are similar in dress to their more well-known Amish cousins, and like them eschew most modern technology. However, their order permits them to travel long distances using trains, allowing this group to leave their native Ohio for sunny California. To these people, Amtrak is their primary link to the rest of the country – an essential service indeed.

As the train pushes into the Rockies, the terrain gets much more dramatic.

As we approached the Continental Divide, the mountains seemed to swell around us, as if they were trying to outsmart us, trying to trap the train in some nameless alpine crevice. Originally, trains on this route had to make a tortuous ascent up a 4% grade to the summit of Rollins Pass, well above timberline at 11,660 ft (3,554 m). Winter was not a kind season to the railroad, with blizzards stranding passengers in tens of feet of snow, even after a series of tall sheds were built over the tracks to protect them. By the early 1900s, the need for an alternative was apparent; the railroad was spending more than forty percent of its money on fighting the snow. Denver entrepreneur David Moffat had entertained the idea of a tunnel here as early as 1902, but it would take twenty more years of political and financial wrangling to make it a reality. The resulting masterpiece of civil engineering that would bear Moffat’s name was a 6.2 mile (10.0 km) long tunnel – straight through the Continental Divide.

The Zephyr approaches the Moffat Tunnel. It takes the train about six minutes to pass through James Peak.


Train #5 calls at Winter Park station, former terminal of the Rio Grande’s Ski Train – the last of the Grande’s passenger trains. The idea was simple: a train leaves Denver full of skiers in the morning, takes them straight to the slopes, and returns them to the city the same evening. The route survived under various owners until 2009.


The Colorado River begins in this high mountain valley, and the route of the Zephyr follows it from here to the edge of the Utah desert.


This stretch of the Colorado River is popular among whitewater rafters and kayakers like these. It is a tradition in these parts for rafters to salute passing trains with their rear ends – this group chose to refrain!

Ahead lay one of the most isolated parts of Colorado: Gore Canyon, a roadless chasm that nearly ran the railroad out of business trying to build through it. This canyon is inaccessable by any other means; only the Zephyr, a few hiking trails, and the Colorado River below allow people passage. This stretch of track was (and still is) an engineering marvel, with sheer drops, tunnels, and miles upon miles of rockfall sensors and fences. Rockslides in particular are a hazard here; in 1942, a huge steam locomotive hit a large slide while entering a tunnel here and derailed – straight into the wall of the tunnel, causing it to collapse and bury the engine until crews could dig it free. Our locomotives, however, remained firmly attached to the rails as we continued our climb through the heart of the Rocky Mountains.


D&RGW steam locomotive #1800 pulls an express passenger train through Gore Canyon in the late 1940s.

From here, our train follows the Colorado River along a rail line known as the Dotsero Cutoff. This shortcut allowed more than 200 miles to be shaved off the trip from Denver to Salt Lake City by connecting the Rio Grande’s main line through the desert of eastern Utah to David Moffat’s direct, tunnel-equipped line from Denver. This combination of routes proved its worth through longevity – it still carries thousands of tons of freight and passengers through the Rockies every month. The terrain changes here, too, as the jagged peaks of the central Rockies change to the weathered reddish sandstone and limestone of eastern Colorado.


The Zephyr takes a long curve along the Colorado River.

There are few places I’ve been to so far that even come close to the natural beauty of Glenwood Canyon. This rugged chasm in the Earth was carved out of the surrounding rocks by the Colorado River over eons, leaving some of the most spectacular land forms I’ve ever encountered. Since its first run in the late 40s, the California Zephyr has been specifically timed to pass through the canyon during the day regardless of direction, always giving its passengers an eyeful of western Colorado. Our train was no exception to this rule, and as we approached the canyon’s mouth, I gave up my seat on the upper deck of the car and found myself a spot next to a window in the lower vestibule – a window that conveniently opened, allowing me to indulge my habit of sticking my head (and camera) out of moving vehicles.

The sedimentary rocks that make up Glenwood Canyon also make this route particularly susceptible to rockslides. To prevent the inevitable accidents and derailments, the railroad devised a system of rockslide fences meant to warn oncoming trains. An electric current is passed through the wires guarding the track, and when a rock slide breaks the wires, the broken circuit trips a signal warning of the danger.


Julia Thompson-Johnson and the rest of the conductors sound the ‘All Aboard!’ at the Zephyr’s stop in Glenwood Springs, a city of nearly 10,000 people nestled in the heart of the canyon.

Ahead: the strange Utah desert – and a hot surprise! To Be Continued in Part 2…

leaps and bounds, part 2

It seemed like my backpack was getting heavier.

next stop:

This may have had something to do with the fact that it was slightly heavier with provisions for leg 2 of the run to Amsterdam (provisions being bread, cheese, and beer – it was Germany, after all).  It may have been the hundreds of kilometers I’d already covered that day.  Whatever the reason, train #2, IC 142 to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam squeaked to a stop at the platform in Berlin and I hopped aboard.  The tweet of the conductor’s whistle sounded the all clear, and the last of the train crew scurried back aboard.  With a hiss of air from the brakes, we pulled out of Berlin and made haste for the Dutch border.  This ride would be a 6 hour jaunt from Berlin, north to Hanover, across the Dutch frontier at Bad Bentheim, and on to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.  From Schiphol, I’d change to one last local train to Centraal Station, and from there I’d trudge to the hostel and pass out.

That’s 120 miles an hour, for those not metrically inclined.

Time passed quickly.  The ride through the north of Germany reminded me (for better or worse) of parts of Wisconsin.  I walked the train, dodging suitcases and bodies flung willy-nilly around the passageways.  It was a completely full train, carrying volcano refugees from all over Europe, people whose stress was palpable in any of the dozens of languages they were speaking.  We were all trying to get somewhere.  Today, I’d rack up around 1000 km (621 miles), crossing parts of three countries.  Based on some of the languages I heard shouted into mobile phones and tossed up and down the corridors, I’d say that some of the passengers beat my mileage handily.  The Dutch border came and went, with only a brief stop just barely on the German side to mark the occasion.  Bad Bentheim was a border control town back in the days before the EU, but with the coming of the Schengen Agreement, it became merely a crew change and a chance to stretch.  I welcomed the respite from the tight corridors of the train.  The sun would be going down soon.  Two hours to go.

The train pulled out for the last stretch to Amsterdam.  The passengers could feel the miles tick off; the chatter in the passageway turned less heated, the bags slowly left their homes in the aisles, and the shrieks of small children caged up in compartments for too long subsided.  Fields of giant wind turbines spun lazily in the distance, turned by the same winds that blew through the sails of the famous Dutch windmills decades ago. Picturesque farms dotted the landscape as we sped through the hills east of Amersfoort, blurring together into a sleepy haze as the sun finally fell below the horizon. No sooner had I begun to doze than the speaker shouted something in Dutch – I caught ‘Schiphol’ somewhere in there.

amsterdam, the netherlands

Schiphol Airport is one of the busiest airports in Europe.  Every year, 46.3 million passengers move through its halls, going anywhere from Moscow to Houston.  At this hour, Schiphol should be receiving late-night transatlantic flights, processing hundreds of passengers through customs, and sending off hundreds more for long-haul flights destined to awake in far-off lands.  Instead, there was nothing.  Not the chatter of the intercom paging in three different languages, not the shrill buzzer of the first bags coming off a late night flight, not even the ceaseless flow of passengers trying to get wherever they’re trying to get.  Iceland’s temper tantrum had not relented, and this night there were only a few holdouts left clustered around the information screens, hoping for some good news after being stranded for so long.

The KLM counter was the center of the universe at that moment. A handful of people, maybe 20 or so, clustered around one obviously exhausted airline agent. She kept repeating the same litany she had been telling desperate fliers all day: no, there were no flights out that night, airspace over Europe was still closed. No, she could not refund your ticket; by now all the ticket agents at the counter had left for the night. Yes, she could help you find a place to stay for the night, but with all the stranded people, space was filling up fast.

A couple from Chicago walked up to her. The woman was pregnant; obviously so, and the man had clearly had too little sleep and too much coffee. They had been stuck in Amsterdam for 27 hours (he had been keeping track), having come here from Frankfurt with the hope of catching a flight back to O’Hare. The gate agent told them the same thing she had told the exasperated passenger before, then paused and added a morsel of hope to the stew of emotions brewing in the terminal. She told the couple that a few hours ago, in the dark of night, KLM had flown a 747 full of passengers out of JFK Airport in New York. The flight landed safely in Amsterdam only twenty minutes before.

“So you mean they might be flying tomorrow? Really?”

“Yes, ma’am, but I cannot guarantee-”

“But they might be flying tomorrow, right?”

“Yes, ma’am, they might.”

The couples’ faces lit up. Both had been running for the door, just like me, and the end to their inadvertently extended holiday was now in sight.

I returned to the train station beneath the airport and hitched a ride on a train to Centraal Station in the heart of Amsterdam. Sleep came quickly, the booming bass from the nightclub beneath my hostel bed notwithstanding. Earplugs, mate. Big must-have for trying to sleep at the fringe of the Red Light District.

leaps and bounds, part 1

«originally posted 21 April 2010»

The mood at Hlavní Nádraží, the largest train station in the Czech Republic, was foul to say the least. I felt sorry for all the people who were still queued up in that godforsaken line, probably still standing there cursing in twenty different languages, still aching for a cup of coffee or a cigarette after 3 hours of waiting and not a lot of moving. The ticket agents had their work cut out for them. Today was not the best day to work for an airline/rail service/bus service in the EU. Seventy-two hours prior, Iceland had begun spewing abrasive dust out of a hole in the Earth that nobody can pronounce (except maybe for the one ballsy CNN reporter I saw who gave it a shot), and all of Europe flew into chaos. Or didn’t fly, to be more precise.

The cloud spread like a plague, crippling Britain’s airspace first, then France, Spain, Benelux, and the rest of western Europe. By the time I realized the inevitable, Prague’s Ruzyně airport had been shut down, my flight to Amsterdam (on flight #666 – no joke) cancelled. Now I was left with a puzzle: figuring out how to get back to England for my rapidly approaching flight back to the States – without using planes. The train and coach networks of Europe could absorb some of the traffic, but how much and how fast? Would there even be tickets out of the Czech capital?

Leaving Prague was easier than I’d thought. From the monumental queue (near 3 hours for myself) came victory in the form of train tickets. The agent I saw at the station spoke English (thankfully, as my Czech is limited to about four words), and all I had to do was tell her where I needed to go.

“Amsterdam. Can I do that tomorrow?”

She typed for a few frenzied seconds, finally coming up with a solution.

“Yes, we get you there tomorrow. Change once in Berlin. This is OK?”

Taken aback, I stammered a “Yes!” and took the gift I had just been given. Despite all the intimidating queues, all the reports of overcrowded stations and packed, standing-room-only trains, despite all of the chaos caused by the Icelandic menace, I was able to get out of Prague when I wanted, go where I wanted, and for less than I paid for my ill-fated airline flight. I left the station beaming, freshly printed tickets in my hand; volcano be damned, I was going right where I needed to be.

The next morning, I showed up at Hlavni Nadrazi bleary-eyed and not quite caffienated enough for the impending 14 hour trip to the Netherlands. The station was packed again, and as the dark red-and-cream coloured Czech train arrived at the platform, the scene resembled something more reminiscent of rush hour on the Tube.

rush

We were away. I was in a compartment with a couple from Oslo, trying to get home after their flight was grounded two days before. The stories from the travelers who joined us were the same: long lines at airport counters, frustration, finally getting out on a train, more frustration. This volcano business is enough to make anyone completely mental. Bits of the Eastern Bloc flew past us as we bantered, mapping out hypothetical routes home, long train rides and last-ditch night coaches. Every now and again, out of the quiet hills of Bohemia, a crane or smokestack would pop out, reminding the passengers of train 179 what this country had been only 20 or so years ago. The hammer and sickle left their mark on then-Czechoslovakia, and while this influence is still readily felt in the now decidedly westernized Czech Republic, it is by no means overpowering. Just sort of there, hiding around the next 13th-century alleyway corner like a stray cat. The contrast is almost goofy in a lot of ways.

At last we had scenery to contemplate as the train sped up the incredibly picturesque Elbe valley towards Germany. Ancient castles dotted the landscape, every so often popping up on a bend in the river or a hilltop. The train was comfortable; a much more civilized way of traveling, certainly, than on an airliner. The hiss of the rails was the only noise, other than the sound of the people on the train. I found a seat in the dining car and ordered up a coffee. My seat provided a fantastic view out the window – which soon proved to be quite distracting.

Eventually the signs at the stations we passed changed from Czech to German. At our midway stop, Dresden, half the train deboarded and collectively blew off some stress as the passengers of Train 179 prepared themselves for the next leg of whatever journey they were on.

Back on the train, it was business as usual. Kids ran about, clogging the narrow passageway with giggles and the occasional shriek. First class was quiet, the businessmen who had been bumped from flights now calmer, burying their noses in laptops and Blackberries trying to coordinate meetings with people who were likely still trapped hundreds of kilometers apart. The train was never full, which was surprising given the huge queue at the station in Prague the day before, but it was packed enough that ‘Excuse me’ in every language I knew constantly flowed from my mouth as I fought through the people and baggage strewn about the corridor on my way through the train.

reserve

After four hours, my train pulled into Berlin’s Spandau station to drop off passengers such as myself headed for points north…my train to Amsterdam wouldn’t be here for an hour and a half. I bade my farewells to my compartment friends and jumped off the train and on to German soil. A sleek looking German ICE train hummed into the station, and proceeded to spew forth passengers, refugees from the Great Volcano Crisis of 2010.  As the doors closed, a girl moved down the platform with her bike, preparing for a journey of her own, free from the trappings of even rails.  I envied her freedom, but knew that soon I would be free – free from the grip of the Icelandic menace and back in jolly ole England.

breaking free

Next station: Amsterdam.

parting the iron curtain

next stop:

Life on the road is all about beginnings and endings. Many of these transitions are never really concrete; the ambiguous dividing lines between legs of a journey, for instance. A lot of times these are only acknowledged (or noticed) after their passing. Sometimes it’s easier to tell when these lines we’ve made for ourselves have been crossed. You can feel it that split second after you step off a train to somewhere new and strange, it’s late, and you’ve still a ways to go before you sleep. Or the first time you use a foreign language with success, when you realize the strange sounds coming out of your mouth are being interpreted and responded to by native speakers in a predictable fashion. Traveling is all about these sorts of moments – moments that change your perception of the world around you.

Our time in Berlin had finally run out. The road called, in this case one made of steel, and we headed to Berlin Hauptbahnhof for a ride to our next destination. We were bound for Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. The city of Vaclav Havel, the Velvet Revolution, and…goulash and beer? Something like that. Off the S-Bahn, down the escalators, and onto the platform we went. What would it be like in Prague? Would we find a holdover from the cold war, a Kafka-esque caricature on the Vltava? Or would it be westernized, more like the cities that we’d been wandering around in for a week and a half already? Before long, we’d find out. A string of scarlet-and-white Czech Railways carriages silently hissed onto our track. Time to boogie. We hopped aboard.

The train snuck out from underneath the station and onto the tracks headed for Prague. We were joined in our compartment by Colin, an American businessman from Portland sent by his company to help develop ties with renewable energy companies in Europe. The miles sped by as we chatted in our compartment, interrupted only by the ticket inspector who showed up soon after we left Berlin’s city limits. Kira and I settled in with lunch and a bottle of Bordeaux and watched the world speed by at 130 km/h, through the forests of northern Bohemia until we came upon the city of Dresden.

Dresden is a city which I fully intend to spend time in on my next trip to Germany, a city that rose from the horrific cinders of the Allied firebombing of February 1945 to become a modern, green city of three quarters of a million people. The scars are still evident; what buildings still remain from the prewar era are stained with soot from the firestorm. Today the only thing smoking were the handfuls of passengers clustered around the doors of the train, puffing down a cigarette before the conductor’s whistle caused them to leap back on board. This was Colin’s stop, so he left Kira and I the compartment to ourselves and with a handshake, our friendly train mate was off and on his way. For us: on to the border.

The forests and lowlands eventually gave way to the gorge that the Elbe River carves through the sandstone mountains which for thousands of years have been the traditional border between Saxony and Bohemia – and the gateway to the Czech Republic. Clouds began to roll in, and from the train’s route at the bottom of the valley we could see fingers of fog reaching among the trees. This part of Europe is staggeringly beautiful; it’s no wonder small spa towns like Bad Bentheim sprang up on both sides of the border over the centuries; it seems like a place as far removed from the urban conglomerations like Berlin as there can be. The train was quiet, families and businessmen alike settling in for a few hours’ nap before we reached Prague just past 9.30 P.M. On we went, the train slinking up the gorge and into Bohemia.

Eventually the signs on the station platforms flying past turned from German to Czech. Somewhere, miles distant now, we’d crossed over another one of those invisible boundaries, in this case the border between two now-Schengen states. Since 2007, there have been no border checkpoints between Germany and the Czech Republic, a sign of the former east’s western ambitions. The end of communism and the ‘Velvet Divorce’ between the Czech and Slovak republics meant the wave of western influence sweeping eastward would soon hit the banks of mighty Vtlava. Outside the train, the sun sunk down behind the hills, and we finally pulled into Prague under cover of darkness.

The doors open with a hiss, and I stepped out onto the platform and into the most alien place I’ve been yet. Culture shock is one of my favorite things, best when sudden and drastic. In this case, it came in several forms: the people on the platform speaking in strange, foreign tongues, the harsh greenish-blue station lighting, the darkness that hid the city streets around the train station from my prying eyes. At the station, we met up with a friend of mine from back home named Margaret. Margaret moved to Prague at the end of the previous summer, and had been teaching English and doing English-language tours around the city’s Old Town ever since. Her enthusiasm and ambition for traveling is matched only by her actions – when she tells me her goal is to live on every continent including Antarctica, I believe her. She may not exactly look like a seasoned hardcore traveler, but as with so many things, appearances can be deceiving.

Her apartment is down an old cobblestone street in the Nové Město (New Town) district and up an old, clunky Soviet-era lift in a remodeled block of flats. Though it may not look it on the outside, the apartment she and her flatmates share is as big, modern and comfortable as any I’d seen in the UK. The real attraction, though, is the view. From her roof, one can see Prague Castle standing sentinel over the sleepy city below, like a slumbering ancestral giant. From its perch it has witnessed war, revolution, renaissance, and everything in between in its more than one thousand years of existence. If these walls could talk indeed.

The next day, the castle got a little closer. I headed up the hill half expecting it to be empty; it was a Tuesday, after all. Upon arriving, it finally dawned on me that Prague is not unknown to the rest of the world; in fact, the masses of tourists now scurrying about in front of my eyes are among millions who now flock to this ancient city to see its winding streets and spectacular architecture. During World War II, Prague, though occupied by the Germans for the duration of the war, escaped the bombing that so many other cities of Europe endured. Because of this, there exists in Prague the feeling that you are in a very, very old place; one untouched by the passage of hundreds of years, tens of thousands of residents, and whatever régime you wish. The streets are narrow and nearly always cobbled rather than paved; the buildings crafted with a character that seems absent in anything less than two hundred years old.

Back at the castle, I managed to meet up with Kira and we descended the side of the hill above the roofs of the Malá strana (lesser town). From somewhere below, we heard the faint strains of a violin. Slow at first, then quickening, the music pulled us down the hill towards the alleys below. Its source was masked by the myraid passages between buildings, echoing off the time-worn brick until it reached us. Farther down the hill we found our musician.