Friday, February 11, 2011

The train at the end of the world

"Welcome to the train at the end of the world!"

Well, that wasn't something you heard everyday. Our guide book had been somewhat disparaging about this train trip. It claimed that it was ridiculously touristy and the only way of reaching Ushuaia's national park at a slower pace would be to walk the distance. On both accounts, it had a point. It was rather like walking into a live-action 'Thomas the Tank Engine' set, with small carriages pulled by a steam train with an additional diesel engine for reinforcement. The countryside though, was beautiful, and since the main aim of the trip was to admire the scenery, the speed hardly mattered.

The train attracted a variety of passengers. While waiting to buy our tickets, I found myself standing behind an elderly lady in pointed patent leather shoes dragging heavily on her cigarette in the cold morning air. As the line moved forward, she dropped her handbag which spilled its contents over the gravel to reveal a lighter, more cigarettes... and an asthma inhaler.

In contrast to this sight, a man boarded the carriage in front of us in serious walking gear. Dressed in luminous yellow from head to toe, his waterproof trousers came up to his arm pits and his heavy duty jacket dropped to his hips. We speculated as to whether he actually hiked, or just spent his time traveling on cute little tourist trains telling smoking grannies with asthma inhalers thrilling tales of his fabricated climbs up all the peaks visible from the window.

Tourist trap or not, it was fun to think you were on the southmost train track in world. I had discovered a large globe in our hotel and, by lying on my back, had appreciated for the first time exactly how far south Patagonia stretches. Its tip is considerably lower than bottom of both Africa and Australia, at a latitude of 56, compared with 35-40. The equivalent northern latitude is around Newcastle and one member of our group tested the temperature of the Beagle Channel and declared Tierra del Fuego identical in every way to his Geordie homeland. The rest of us felt there were some small differences.

The rail road had originally been built for the transportation of prisoners, feeding a prison that had been built when Argentina wanted to establish a firmer presence in their lower borders. If desired, you could buy a full prison uniform from the shop by the ticket office. I considered getting one for my brother.

The hour long train ride ended in the park, where we hiked along the water and spied on Chile. In the center of the channel separating the two countries was an island on which someone had planted an Argentinean flag. Rather pointed, I thought.

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