Friday, August 18, 2006

Choo Choo Train

After a couple of uneventful days in Kota Kinabalu the yearning to travel by train overtook us. There is a rail line which runs from Kota Kinabalu, South, to Tenom, which was an administrative centre called Fort Birch in the days when Britain 'owned' the place. A steam train runs on a small section of the line from Kota Kinabalu to Papar. Nice as this sounds, it costs RM180 a ticket for the 4 hour return journey (including a meal). We'd read that the best section of the railway is at the other end from Tenom to Beaufort. We decided to go ride that section of the line. We just managed to catch the 8 AM bus to Tenom from KK. We were late checking out because Gemma was searching the room for a scrap of paper that her Mum had left a note on when we left the UK. Gemma had been using it as a bookmark and was quite disturbed by it's disappearance. Thankfully the bus had to turn when leaving the bus station and we were able to flag it down on the main road.

The first lesson they teach at Malaysian coach driver school pertains to the interior temperature of the coach. 'Never,' they are admonished, 'never ever, let the interior temperature rise above -4 degrees centigrade'. This is something that the drivers seem to regard as a sacred duty. This particular coach was even worse as it had lost the twisty airflow controls in many places, leaving huge holes blasting out freezing air. We put our fleeces on but that wasn't enough to prevent the early stages of frostbite setting in. We managed to find some discarded newspaper with which to block up the hole, which did seem to help somewhat.

Other than the arctic temperatures the bus ride was pretty good. It was a case of climbing into and back out of the mountains so we didn't see much Oil Palm. Instead we had just jungle and the odd area of stepped terraces being used to farm rice. In Tenom the sun was shining and everyone was smiling. We ate at a place called 'Double Happy Restoran' because we liked the name. Gemma had some difficulty with requesting a vegetarian meal, but I was able to cut in and sort something out for her. The only Bahasa Malaysian I know being food related. We had a couple of hours to wait before the train was due to leave so we sat under a tree by a park listening to the call to prayer wafting across the green from the onion shaped dome of the mosque, and watching the children scamper around on the grass.

The train departure time duly arrived and just prior to it we went into the waiting area to buy a ticket. The ticket office didn't open for a while and it was baking hot in the station. When I did get to buy our tickets I was very happy that they only cost RM2.75. The departure time passed and time crept on as we waited on the platform clutching our tickets. A succession of men knelt by the engine, pulling faces and scratching their chins. There was obviously a problem with the train. Being of an engineering mind I was able to proffer some advice, 'Hit it with a spanner.' About an hour and a half after the departure time someone obviously took heed of my advice because the train inched forward to the platform. There was a flurry of activity as the women on the platform loaded their enormous bags of pumpkins and other produce onto the front carriages. We walked right off the platform and climbed up into the rear compartment.

The train journey began well. It wasn't at all packed in our back compartment. I wanted to sit in the open doorway of the compartment but was beaten to it by locals. Instead Gemma and I had four seats to ourselves so I sat facing her and both looking out of the window at the view. The railway follows a river through a gorge with jungle on both sides. It's a very lovely and scenic ride. As we pulled along the tracks the occasional branch or root would clip the open window. Almost as soon as we pulled away the commercial activity began. Old ladies staggered up the train selling canned drinks from buckets. Dried marine animals caused much excitement with some hard bargaining for packets Cuttlefish bites and Satay Jellyfish Strips going on around us.

We passed scattered settlements along the way, stopping at some with platforms, others with just tracks into the jungle and bypassing others altogether. This region is a big white water rafting area and at one of the villages the train was boarded by Chinese people who'd obviously been rafting for the day. There were lots of them. The carriage was rammed and we had people join us on our seats, blocking us from getting up to the other side of the train to look at the view as we had been doing. Someone had an MP3 player and speakers and started playing the most godawful canto-pop. It was hard to continue admiring the view and so I sat wondering whether, in the century since the carriage was built, anyone had invented a device capable of measuring such minute widths as the foam in the seats.

In Beaufort a good deal of the passengers spilled directly into waiting coaches. Gemma and I walked into the town centre looking for a hotel. We landed at the aptly named Hotel Beaufort and checked in. We had dinner at a restaurant on the same block as the hotel. Again Gemma had difficulty trying to explain what she wanted and I had to step in. The weird thing is that I just repeated what Gemma had said to baffled expressions and was treated with, 'Ah, vegetables only, OK.' I think it must be an accent thing.

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