Sunday, September 4, 2011

Raya '11 - Romancing the Ekspres Rakyat

I am not sure about you, but train travel spells romance for me.

Don't get me wrong; I am not talking about the Orient Express, nor was I talking about love and meeting anyone of the opposite sex on a train, though at one time or so in my life, I was hoping that Sheena Easton would be singing the Morning Train for me! ;-) Mind you, the maharajah taking the train in (Colonial) India would not come into the picture either.

Our trains are less spectacular than that in Europe - and perhaps India, but they are ours anyway.

And unlike driving, or taking the bus, train ride is not just a mode of transportation. It is a way of life of the days gone by. Way back to the year when James Watt designed the steam engine that would allow rail travel in Britain.
No, this is not the steam engine James Watt built
though it surely looks like one, hahaha. This is
a diesel engine still plying the peninsular for KTM. Honestly it should be
in the museum already, but amazingly it is still doing the job
Long before roads were available for travel in Malaya, we have had the Taiping-Port Weld track. That was way back in 1885 - that's more than a century later. And the schoolchildren in remote part of Kelantan would take the train to go to school even today, and to make it more interesting, this was way before train/LRT became a way of life for people in the Klang Valley.

Typicaly, train ride would cross the country side and the view can be spectacular, especially if the train needs to climb a mountain (as in Bukit Berapit in Taiping) as there would be tunnels and it would ply the route on the edge of cliff, and ravine and you would be clinging onto your dear life.

In Europe, the view of a train crossing the arch bridge can be majestic. It is beautiful.

Our bridges are not as spectacular unfortunately. They are typically made of steel instead, but still it can be good view if you can catch them crossing the Perak River.
This is of course not Sg Perak, It is one of the smaller river in the
Kinta Basin. I believe we crossed over the Perak River at dusk.
My only dream now is to ply the Vancouver-Calgary trip and cross the Rockies in a train. I was told the Chicago-Seattle train ride is equally spectacular.

One can buy a car; heck you can even buy a plane, but I have never heard anyone buying a train for one's private use.

So it was on this premise that I decided to take the train back home for Hari Raya. I thought I should try to relive the 70s again with our yearly train ride to and from Taiping. It was the romance of the 70s that lured me to this trip, and out of the blue, took a long and extended office break.

With the help of my new BlackBerry, of course!
This is the driver of the Ekspres Rakyat, South bound to
Singapore, departing on time at 1430 hours from KL
In some ways it was just like old time. The train was one hour late - as usual. KTM simply could never get this right, after all these years. To be honest, their Indonesian counterpart, despite the lack of modern facilities, run their train with clock-work precision.

Or at least for the 10 times or so train-rides I have taken to and from Jakarta to the various parts of Java.

M Nasir wrote of the same thing way back in the early 80s; that the Ekspres Rakyat was already late.

Sorry, I digress.

It was an hour late for my train; I knew I would not be able to enjoy the tunnel at Bukit Berapit.
I am not sure where this is and what this is, but somewhere in Perak,
I guess. Hahaha.
Beyond that, of course trains are all air-conditioned now, and one need not have to fight for one's seat no more. There is no more fans dangling from the ceiling providing much needed respite for the weary passengers. There was not any need for that. I miss those coaches.

I miss the feel of wind in your hair as one sneak a peek over the open windows, and being able to see the coaches through the open windows as the train snakes across the countryside. It is a long and winding track down the length of the Malay peninsular. I long to see the food vendors on the track converging on our coach and melodiously announcing their food for sale. "Nasik lemak, mee goreng, karipap" would be a typical sales pitch and it was pleasing to the ears of hungry passengers.

There was no need for the buffet coaches and the meals were freshly cooked and they were all home made.

They have killed romance out of rail travel. It was a bit sterile for my liking.

But I guess life moves on and waited for no one. Especially sentimental guys like me. This is one guy trapped in time, and he was hoping that everything else would too.

Still, despite the shortcomings, I thought it was a relaxing journey. I need not worry about the traffic, I need not worry about Kancils hogging the right lane, driven like they are the Ferraris.

The views from the enclosed windows are not views that I have seen umpteenth of times while driving up and down the highway. May be I did not get to enjoy them that much, while I was concentrating on the wheels, but I have seen them all. While I would not say it was getting boring, but it could be getting stale. The train, on the other hands, tends to snake its way through the backyard of the country, so you get to see views seldom seen. You see people chatting, people waving to us on the train, sometimes as if they had only seen the train for the first time in their lives - even as their backyards faced the railway tracks.

With the completion of the North South highway in the late 80s, one could now travel the length of the country - from Thailand to Singapore, without seeing anything! They only had the destination in mind, so they missed out on the adventure along the way. 
Cooking up a storm, but I know I am safe in the train. It may rain cats and dogs,
but I need not worry about them. Alhamdulillah.
Now, the trains would let you see everything and laid bare to you everything this country has to offer. You would see the peninsular the way it is supposed to be seen. 

To be precise, the way it is. There was no pretension. There was no prop up for the tourists. It is an honest view of the way we were, and the way we are.

The blues, the reds and the greens going against the dark grey clouds
I remember the old days when the train would stop at practically all stations. Behrang, Malim Nawar, Tapah Road, Kota Baharu (in Perak, mind you), Chemor, Enggor, and Kalumpang are some of the stations that had become extinct in the face of modernization of the train and the advent of the express train.  Some are so small that you would not call them a train station - a 'halt' would be more appropriate. 

And yet the train stops by to pick up, at times, a singular passenger!

All onboard and ready to depart
As kids then with no sense of time, we would be happy to stop at any station. It was an eye opener for us, seeing things and lives beyond our hometown. 

To cherish on what we have, and to be in awe of what we don't.

A relaxing time for the KTM staff on the other side of the track. This is Batu
Gajah (new) station.
The train stopped by at Batu Gajah station, but it is a nondescript steel structure with no soul. I saw the old Batu Gajah station as it pulled away from the new station - it was abandoned and soon it would be in ruins. My heart sank; Batu Gajah is always special for me. It is also an old town, not unlike Taiping, and it is a town we grew up in.

I love this country side view, not unlike of Taiping. Big raintrees and green
padangs would dot the town. I'd like to believe that this is Batu Gajah. May be.
Unfortunately the pix was cut in the middle by the pole
As we started late from KL - late arrival of train from South, we were informed that breaking of fast would be at 1927 hours in the vicinity of Sg Siput. Originally the train is supposed to arrive in Taiping right at breaking of fast time, so luckily I had brought a bottle of mineral water and Kitkat, just in case and it turned out to be my saviour.

Kuala Kangsar station at dusk. I had many stares for having my
big camera and taking pictures of all and sundry. "Abang, abang ambik
gambar apa?" a teenager once asked of me. "Gambar nostalgia, dik," I replied,
truthfully. "Abang is on a nostalgic trip."
We arrived in Kuala Kangsar station at 1945 hours - I was hoping to see the old KK station, but just like Taiping counterpart, it is now a construction site. As day had turned into night, I could not recognize the KK town and its surrounding. The train supposedly traveled near my grandfather's house in Talang, but I have no clue when it did that during the trip.

So as the darkness of the night started to engulf the peninsular, we missed out on the Bukit Berapit tunnels. I tried to, but could not make head or tail of the near pitch black of the night and tunnels. 

I had lost the ultimate experience of the peninsular rail travel. You would know that the train would be approaching a tunnel as they would have switched on the yellowish menthol bulb dangling from the ceiling and soon after the day would turn pitch black save for the dim yellow light.

It was an exhilarating feeling and it is stuff romance is made of.

I arrived in Taiping at 2030 hours and had my proper meal of mee rebus at the train station. No Aya, the mee rebus here was mediocre at best. Good enough to fill up my empty stomach, but not good enough for second helping on another occasion.

Then only it occurred to me that this is no longer the 70s. Time had stood still for me, but time waited for no one.

With a heavy sigh, I made my way out, and started walking towards Sri Kota.
Taiping at last. I decided to have my meal first before proceeding home and
by that time (about 2115 hour),  there was no more cab left. I thought, "Am
I going to do what bapak did 27 years ago (12 Aug 1984) and walk home?"
Bapak did it because he thought the cab fare, at RM2.50, was a ripped off.
As I was walking towards SriKota, near the TNB station, I saw a cab
and paid him RM8 to take me home.

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