Rossiya Diaries: Moscow Love

The Hilton is an excellent choice for an overnight stay in Moscow, especially if one is planning to depart on the Rossiya the following morning. Three of the city’s nine rail terminals lie within earshot of the hotel, including Yaroslavskiy Vokzal, the starting point for the worlds longest train journey.

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Not only is it’s location on Komsomolskaya Square a convenient one, but the Leningradskaya Hotel (it’s original name) is a landmark building, one of Moscow’s “Seven Sisters”, a set of Russian Baroque skyscrapers, commissioned during the Stalinist era. The structure itself is grand and imposing; it’s lobby nothing short of opulent, and the rooms, stately. It is in one of them that SK and I meet, traveling companions on what is bound to be a journey of epic proportions.

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Bolivian wanderings, and a slice of Peru

First and foremost, a special shout out to Yesmy and Roxanna, the two amazing women working the reservations desk at the Amaszonas office in Uyuni. Without their efforts, a lot of what I am about to share would never have been possible. The guardian angels of Uyuni, as I like to refer to them, I will forever be grateful.

El Alto landings

The runway at El Alto is almost 4-Km long! Not for nothing though – at that altitude, aircraft land at twice their sea level velocity and need every foot of tarmac available to them. At 13,225 ft, El Alto is also the highest international airport in the world, and a gateway to La Paz, the world’s highest capital city.

La Paz itself sits in a bowl surrounded by the Cordillera Real, a branch of the Bolivian Andes, flanked on its south by the imposing snow-capped peak of Illimani (at 21,122 ft., the highest mountain in the range) and the equally impressive Illampu, to its north. El Alto lies on a plateau some thousand feet higher than the capital, and the drive down from there to La Paz offers some rather dramatic views.

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Frietag in Hamburg

Berlin Hauptbahnhof, that awe-inspiring steel and glass behemoth, is incredibly quiet for 7:45 on a Friday morning. We are on platform 7, some 3 levels below the main entrance, awaiting train 794, one of many Inter City Express or ICE trains that ply the German rails everyday. Part of an extensive high-speed network, the ICEs are some of the fastest in the world, and obviously, I’m excited at the prospect of traveling on one!

Our train to Hamburg is late though – not something one would expect from the über efficient Germans! Thankfully, its not particularly crowded, so we do get our choice of seats, and after a quick stop at a Berlin suburb, we are on our way, leaving behind the North German countryside in a blur…

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Chicago to Seattle, the slow way

1:45 pm – Great Hall, Chicago Union

Back in the day, the Pennsy and the New York Central offered through Pullman service from coast to coast. But that was then – the golden era of rail travel. Today, pretty much any rail journey from one coast of the United States to the other, requires a change of train at Chicago’s Union Station. The impressive Beaux-Arts building dates from 1925, and although it has been expanded considerably since, one would be remiss not paying a visit to its magnificent Great Hall. Flanked by two grand staircases – one of which was the setting for the most memorable scene in The Untouchables – the sweeping marble-floored atrium, topped off by a vaulted skylight, continues to provide a befitting gateway to any transcontinental journey.

The station still operates an exclusive lounge for sleeper class passengers, and it is here that the four of us convene, from different corners of the country, to embark on a 2,206-mile (3,550-km) journey to Seattle, aboard the Empire Builder.

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Ay, Chihuahua!

Rush hour, Mexico City

Securing a gate at Benito Juárez International is almost as difficult as finding a perch for your feet during rush hour in Mexico City – and the rush starts early, very early! The Metro system is thoroughly efficient though – trains arrive every couple of minutes – and at 2 pesos a ride, it is also one of the cheapest in the world! The airport is located just 5-km east of the city centre, and so even on a short layover, it is perfectly feasible to make a trip downtown – one that’s bound to whet the appetite and make you want to come back for more.

Mexico City, as we know it today, was built by the Spanish on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. As it was in Aztec times, the city is centred upon Zócalo, the sprawling main square, Latin America’s largest! The Metropolitan Cathedral, a stunning baroque structure, defines the square’s northern boundary. To the east sits Palacio Nacional, which, due to an ongoing protest, has been closed to the public since May! Two near-identical Federal District buildings make up the southern periphery, and to the west are a series of neocolonial commercial buildings. In the centre of it all, a larger than life national flag flutters in the wind. With the first few rays of sunlight piercing through, Zócalo is a sight to behold!

Located just west of Zócalo, the Art Nouveau lobby of Gran Hotel de la Ciudad de Mexico is absolutely stunning, and worth a detour from the main square. Formerly a department store, and presently a hotel, it was featured in the film “Frida”. Their rooftop restaurant doesn’t open till lunch, unfortunately, so if you’re looking for an al fresco experience, you have to make do with the nearby Holiday Inn. Thankfully, the price for a buffet there is a steal, and the views irresistible. The breakfast, as it turned out, wasn’t too shabby either!

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Andean High

Lest we forget Lima

A low haze hangs over the city, as you near touchdown at Jorge Chávez International Airport. Outside, the air is somewhat putrid and the eyes tend to smart. Traffic crawls along wide arteries and its not even 7 in the morning! You begin to question your very decision to stop over in Lima. But unlike countless others who skip it, in their rush to get to the Sacred Valley, you have in fact made the right choice! Lima’s worth more than just a second look – all it takes is one sunny day to lift the veil of smog, and a little bit of perseverance.

If the city’s new and hyper-efficient Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, and its up-and-coming Metro are anything to go by, the city has a lot to look forward to. Looking back, however, the city’s own past is securely preserved within Centro Historico, Lima’s landmarked historic quarter. A walk along Jirón de la Unión, from Plaza San Martin to Plaza de Armas, is an eye-opener, and a lesson to any civil servant on the preservation and upkeep of historic zones in large cities.

Public squares – no matter their size or importance – are spotlessly clean; lawns are beautifully tended, and pedestrian-friendly streets abound. The historic district is brimful with well-kept heritage buildings, some dating from the 16th-century, in styles ranging from Baroque to Neo-classical, and materials running the gamut from adobe to brick. In between, a myriad of colonial-era carved wooden balconies – no less than 1600 of them – makes up for the lull, if ever there was one…

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The Jewel in the Subway Crown

The New York City Subway isn’t quite as old as London’s Tube. In fact, it isn’t even the oldest in the Americas – that distinction goes to Boston. But when it did open, over a century ago, it was a momentous occasion. One that would change the course of the city’s development, and give it the very pulse it’s known for today. The year was 1904. The 27th of October was the chosen date, and the station where it all began – City Hall, in lower Manhattan.

On the last weekend of February, I had the rare privilege to tour City Hall Station – the very birthplace of New York’s Subway – a station that has been lying abandoned since 1945. Here are a few chosen images and accompanying descriptions from my visit.

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We gather at the front end of the downtown platforms at Brooklyn Bridge Station. After checking in, we file into the first car of a terminating #6 train, which has just offloaded the last of its fare-paying passengers. Traveling some 600-feet around a sharp curve, we alight minutes later by the grand entrance that leads to the mezzanine level of City Hall Station.

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150 years of Tube’ing

Prologue

Browsing the magazine section at WHSmith in Heathrow’s Terminal 5, I come across ‘Modern Railways‘, one of many UK-based rail mags. Of the lot, its cover is most appealing to me – a special issue on ‘150 years of the Underground‘. Without further ado, I drop a few more quid than planned, and pack it in to my carry-on bag.

Despite my best intentions, the magazine remains there till its time to use the bag again – on a short trip to Bombay i.e. Reading it on the flight out of Delhi, I discover, to my utmost delight, that special runs are planned in London to commemorate the occasion – starting on the 13th of January – the very day I will be transiting through the city again 😉

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It is a chilly, gray January morning in London (shocker!) as I make my way from the Tube station to my cousin’s pad in Hampstead. A quick, but rather filling, breakfast in his neighbourhood, and then we’re off on our jaunt – me willingly, him not so!

Scurrying between the Northern Line platforms and those of the sub-surface lines at Moorgate, I glance at my watch – 12:08 – two minutes to departure! Rushing through the final stairwell, I exclaim, ‘I can smell it’. My excitement is contained momentarily by a tensile barrier, as I join hundreds of onlookers, who, like me, haven’t been fortunate enough to get a seat on the coveted train. Regardless, we’ve made it here, and just in time to watch her depart…

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Alpine Train’ing

There are plenty of window seats to choose from as we pull out of Cointrin International but at Cornavin the carriage starts to fill quickly. I soon realise that I’m sitting on the wrong side – the Swiss follow British running practices! Determined to find a window seat on the ‘correct’ side, I make my way to the dining car.

The Swiss rail system is every bit a marvel, and a complete joy to experience. Trains thread their way through the length and breadth of the country, connecting the largest towns with the tiniest of hamlets. Schedules are frequent, connections seamless, fares affordable and the trains themselves are comfortable and always punctual! Better still, the dining car is alive and well here and continues to uphold the gold standard in timeless rail travel – table linen, chinaware, waiter service and a full menu!

For me to ride these trains is nothing short of a privilege and the dining car brings back pleasant memories of saloon travel in India. I tuck into my croissant, take a sip of my stiffly brewed Lavazza, and check off ‘most desired rail system’ #2 from my list 😉

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Pueblo Pickings

‘Drink plenty of water’, he reassures me, ‘and welcome to Santa Fe!’ With that said, Tenzin, who mans the front desk at the Sage Inn, moves on to the next guest. I’ve just completed a marathon session of travel – 19 hours of flying later, I am 12 and a half hours west of where I started, with a 20C (66F) variation in temperature, and a 7000 ft gain in altitude! My body is in complete shock and begins to offer the first signs of resistance – a stiff headache! But Tenzin probably knows a thing or two about this – after all, he hails from Tibet! I heed his advise, drop my bags off, and head out towards Santa Fe’s newest attraction, which conveniently enough, lies across the street from my hotel.

One track mind

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway never quite made it to Santa Fe, or at least its mainline didn’t! And nor does its present day successor, the mighty Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Even puny little Amtrak gives it a miss, instead calling on Lamy, some 20 miles south. But regardless, Santa Fe continues to celebrate its place in American railway history through its most recent urban renewal project, the Railyard. This once decrepit railroad yard today boasts contemporary art galleries, performance spaces, a Hispanic cultural centre, a farmers market, boutiques and restaurants, and a beautifully landscaped park designed by New York-based architects. But most importantly, trains continue to roll in to its historic depot! And that in itself is a sight for my very weary eyes..

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