Three Miles High
The line out of Lima runs alongside the main road into the hills; buses, cars and lorries have little trouble overtaking the train which never goes much over 30mph. Yet even at that speed the train hoots much of the time, a mournful echoing hoot, which seems to contain more than one note in it though I could never make out if this was because it was a genuine chord or just one strong note with overtones. It hoots because of pedestrians. The Peruvians tend to use the railway line as a private pathway, even to drive their animals along, and at each suspicious bend, or small settlement, or possible crossing, the driver hoots. In the early days of the railway a great many Indians and llamas were killed; nowadays casualties are low and mostly confined to animals who die near the line and are dragged to a position where a court might conceivable hold the railway company guilty.
On your right (as the guide book might say) note the occasional small village, green and flowery, at one of which we stop to pick up schoolchildren who leave at the next stop. On your left, if you are quick, spot a vast ramp leading up to a bridge that was never built. It was to have led to the home of General Valesco, the man who led Peru from the sixties to the seventies, but who was ousted in 1975 before the bridge was finished and died shortly after. On both sides notice amazingly fertile fields, fed by the River Rimac, and beyond them see the brown hills getting bigger and closer, squashing the fields nearer to the middle. And a few miles ahead of us is Chosica, where the wealthier Lima people (or Limeños) go for the sunshine. A curious thing, this; for most of the year seaside Lima is hidden in a grey blanket cloud coming off the cold Humbolt current, and you have to go fifteen miles inland to rise above it. Not that it rains in Lima; its water supply is entirely dependant on the poor old River Rimac, which as a result reaches the sea as a tiny trickle, when it should be its proudest moment.
But today is one of those rare May days when the sun still shines in Lima and, although I am cheated of the moment when we burst out of the mist at Chosica, it means that I can go and sit on the train steps. The Peruvian railways – Enafer Peru, they are called – provide doors which you can open, steps you can sit on, and a speed that will not shake you off. The curious thing is that by one of the little-known subsections of the Law of Relativity Peruvian trains seem that much faster than British Rail Inter-City; sit outside in the sunshine with the wind whipping in at you, and the mournful hoot flying past you in tatters, and you feel carried along at a fair old rate, whereas inside the smooth smoked observation of the London-Manchester Express you hardly seem to be moving at all.
When Henry Meiggs built this railway in the 1860s and 70s, he realised early on that he could not go straight to the top. The grade from Lima to the lowest possible top point was something like 6%. The maximum gradient he could build was 4%. Anything steeper and the trains would roll backwards. This is what is known technically as an insoluble problem. But the Victorians had a knack of dealing with such problems, or rather of not admitting defeat, and Meiggs soon decided to use zigzags. He would build a line as far as it would go and then, when faced with a blank mountain wall or cliff edge, would have the line go backwards towards Lima but still climbing. After a few hundred yards, the line would go forward again and soon pass many feet above the same blank wall or cliff, having created a huge Z in the line to gain height. There was never much room at the end of those zigs and zags, and sometimes they were built out on wooden trestles above the void; sometimes trains had to change direction half at a time, which lost hours of running time overall.
At San Bartolomé there is only a zig, or perhaps a zag. The train runs into the station. The engine comes off the front, turns on a turntable, fixes itself to the other end of the train and goes off in an enormous arc round the next hill ending up facing the Andes again. It was now sunshine all the way. The hills were immense on either side though drier and browner than any we are used to. Not as arid as those near Lima, which are more like gigantic piles of builders’ rubble and totally unused for cultivation. Still brown, though, and sporting only the scrubbiest vegetation, like a man who won’t admit that his stubble will never become a beard. Sometimes the train ran high up on the hillsides itself, through short tunnels and over sudden bridges, but mostly clinging to footholds on the insecure-looking rock formations. Sometimes, usually before the next zigzag and another gain of height, it would return near to the valley bottom, and then there would be tiny fields, clusters of eucalyptus trees, wayside crosses, shacks and farms. Native women, too, mostly bent forward in a kind of fast shuffle-walk imposed on them by the weight of their loads, despite which they often contrived to be doing something else at the same time – feeding a child, knitting, sowing, reaping.
As one zig zag followed another, as we rushed through tunnels between gorges, as we emerged from the dark on bridges high over the Rio Rimac (looking much healthier up here) and banged into the dark again, it suddenly seemed the most natural thing in the world to be hooting up through the Andes. All this time the train had been climbing into thinner and thinner air, but to my great relief I found myself not affected by the height except for a certain shortness or breath – certainly not by any of the nausea or migraine that hits some people. But one or two of the Peruvians fell back suddenly looking very pale and gasping for life, and for them there was a man with an oxygen tank, or rather a bag, which he held under one arm and dispensed like a very primitive set of bagpipes. The nozzle was stuffed into the patient’s nose and he let them have two minutes worth; they seemed a little happier afterwards. He offered me some as well; never one to turn down a free drink of any kind, I took a few deep sniffs and felt absolutely no difference whatsoever. But I was glad to have met what must, I suppose, be the only example of a medical attendant working full-time on a train.
While the frailer among us had been quaffing oxygen, the train had left the gorges and cliffs behind and come out into an upland at nearly 16,000 feet. Although there were crags and peaks around us, one of them being Mount Meiggs topped by a stiff metal flag of the type later used on the moon, the train itself was running peacefully through grassy flatlands past a still and forbidding-looking lake, towards the top point of all. But it is not strictly speaking the highest piece of railway in the world. There is a branch line round the mountain to a mine which is higher, but only carries freight. There is a siding here which goes higher. There is even in Bolivia a small line with some claims to being higher. But what this is beyond any doubt is the highest regular passenger line in the world. That seems satisfactory.
Or would do, were it not that the highest point itself is inside the longest tunnel on the line. There is something rather anti-climatic about celebrating such a record in the dark – it is rather like insisting on climbing Everest only at night – and so the Peruvian authorities have wisely placed all the triumphant altitude claims on a notice board well clear of the tunnel.
The most extraordinary thing about the tunnel is that it lies on the watershed of the Andes. A river rising at one end would flow down to Lima, 100 miles away- at the other, it would flow east in the opposite direction, join the Amazon after many days and finally flow out to sea thousands of miles distant. This was once vouchsafed to an American VIP who was on a courtesy trip up the railway. The VIP demanded that his train be stopped in the middle of the Galera Tunnel and although somewhat surprised the train crew did what he asked. He left the train, strode into the dark and returned a minute later, buttoning his trousers up. ‘There!’ he cried. ‘I have achieved a great ambition. I have watered the Atlantic and Pacific oceans simultaneously.’
From now on we were descending. We had passed the train going the other way. We were more than halfway there and there was a feeling of arrival rather than departure, even though there were still several hours to go. From La Oroya we entered one of the most magnificent valleys I have ever seen. Wide and fertile, with maize and bullocks and eucalyptus growing everywhere, and distant hills grandly enclosing the horizon and even a thunderstorm growling to itself ten miles away (what a landscape it must be that has room for a thunderstorm while elsewhere business is continued as normal in bright sunshine) it opened the mind out as far as it could go.
The sun was now low in the sky and casting the most enormous shadows in each eucalyptus grove we passed though, as well as creating a golden dusty haze around the train. I had retreated again to the steps by this time, sitting in the open air as potent as champagne, simply content to watch the amazing valley slip by. Looking backwards was like looking along one of those endless French roads punctuated by perfectly placed tall trees (occasionally boys would run out of the woods as we passed to put their ears on the line and listen to the retreating vibrations). Looking sideways was like watching a prizewinning film on rural life in South America and my eye was especially caught by one woman in the fields, trudging homewards after a hard day, with a small bullock in front of her, and a smaller child behind her.
It was about a minute after that that the train came to a halt on a bridge. In Britain that would be no cause for alarm. A train ahead, perhaps. A signal. But in Peru there are no trains ahead, or behind, and precious few signals, and there can be only one reason for an unexplained halt: a mechanical failure. We Europeans did not realise this and sat in our seats for a short while, waiting for the train to go on; when it did not, we left the train and walked to the engine to see in a curious sort of way what was happening. The Indians on the train, wiser than us, knew instinctively that once stopped the train would not start again and one by one they gathered their belongings together and made for the main road visible in the trees half a mile away. Before long the train was empty of Peruvians and full of Europeans.
The engine driver, meanwhile, was busy inside the works of his engine, looking as if any moment he would stumble across the missing link. I had every faith in him. I had only marginally less faith when he re-emerged from his examination and asked the small congregation if anyone had a knife on them. At the third time of asking I understood his Spanish and said yes, I had a penknife on me. I tossed it up to him. He looked at it quizzically, thought it might do and disappeared back inside the guts of the engine.
Now, if I had thought hard about the matter it should have occurred to me that an engine driver who borrows a penknife from one of the passengers is not the most likely person in the world to have everything under control, and yet so imbued was I with the European notion that daddy knows best that even then I stood patiently by waiting for the train to go again. But by this time the train was no longer a dominant part of the landscape, charging imperiously through all it surveyed. It had become vegetation. Another derelict machine in that part of the farmyard where derelict machines are laid to rest. Once immobile, it was simply an object round which rural life could flow. A farmer returning home with his small herd of animals (one bullock, one dog, one goat) proceeded under the railway bridge as usual, that is, with great difficulty, and the few remaining passengers set to with a will to help him beat the beasts on their homeward path.
By the time the engine driver had admitted defeat and given me my penknife back, the train was almost empty. I picked up my heavy bags and set off for the road, fully conscious that at that altitude one shouldn’t walk a long way with heavy bags but not knowing what else to do. The road was lined with refugees from the train, all thumbing lifts. If I had been a lorry driver going to Huancayo, I would certainly have given a lift to a single hitchhiker, but faced with groups of thirty or forty I think I would have driven on. I know these lorries did. So I walked to the next garage to see if there was a telephone I could use, though I was not sure who I was going to telephone. A taxi, perhaps?
There was no telephone in the village, said the garage man. Nor a taxi either. However, his brother did have a car, and perhaps for a small sum of money he might be persuaded to drive to Huancayo…
Huancayo, according to the tourist brochure, is a convenient centre for many interesting places nearby. That is inevitably another way of saying that there is nothing interesting in Huancayo itself, and that is true. The railway line, which goes on from Huancayo, was built by the Peruvians themselves, the only line in Peru of which this can be said, and for economy reasons it is narrow gauge. They would like to have converted it to diesel engines, but can only afford to have replaced half of their steam engines – one old American-built Baldwin dates from 1920, the year the line was opened. They would like, above all, to have built the line as far as Ayacucho, the next big town down the Andes, instead of which it goes to Huancavelica, a mercury-mining town in the back of beyond and then peters out.
And yet almost as soon as the train started the next day, I knew that this was the railway line I had come to see. Partly, I suppose, because I was now the only European on the train, and I felt I was deep into Indian territory at last, totally surrounded by dark faces. Partly because on either side of the valley were covered in cultivated terraces reaching as high as the eye could see, remnants of the old Inca farming system. But above all because this line was not just, as the Lima-Huancayo line was, simply a means of getting somewhere; it was also a lifeline to the country we passed through. At every station people greeted relatives, collected long-awaited bundles, welcomed sorely needed supplies,got on with livestock for market, or climbed aboard to sell their produce to the passengers, not bothering to get off till the next station. One coach was almost entirely filled with a band of musicians going up to Huancavelica to play at a fiesta that night, at one of the mines. I saw the most Inca-looking of them wake from a deep sleep and get up to remove from the luggage rack a case containing, of all things, a tenor saxophone. From the case he took a carefully wrapped bottle and settled back into his seat with it. Nice to know that musicians are the same the world over.
The only empty space in the entire train was the lavatory, to which I eventually gained access. The main feature of it was a hole in the floor, casually decorated with a piece of porcelain, and as I stood there more or less successfully forecasting the jolts of the train I suddenly had a feeling that I was under surveillance. It was then that my eyes fell on two large sack lying on the floor. From the neatly tied neck of each sack projected the large head of a turkey; both were watching my operations with beady unblinking eyes. Who is this gringo? They seemed to be wondering. And what does he hope to find up this God-forsaken line to the back of beyond?
The answer, I suppose, is that I found the real Andes at last. This wasn’t the highest anything in the world, and it didn’t lead to Machu Picchu and the Incas hadn’t built the original railway stations, but this was the place in all Peru where I felt most at home, because it was least like home. I was deep in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the most marvellous scenery imaginable, among people who were not even talking Spanish, most of them, but the native Quechua, and the best bit was that I wasn’t going anywhere special. What seemed ages ago, but was only two days before, I had stood in Lima station staring up the line and wondering what amazing destination it led to. Now I knew.
To be continued