The Iron Ore Train

We’ve had a handful of long bus, train and boat rides on our trip–going over the Torugart and Khunjerab passes, crossing the Taklamakan Desert, ferrying to Sulawesi, traversing the Balkan Peninsula, taking the COMANAV up to Timbuktu–but none has approached the chaos and uncertainty of the journey we just completed, from the Adrar to Nouadhibou on Mauritania’s famous iron ore train.

The iron ore train travels a few times a day from Zouerat in north-central Mauritania to Nouadhibou in Mauritania’s northwestern corner (link to map), carrying blocks of iron ore in hundreds of cars that form one of the world’s heaviest and longest trains, usually around 2.5 km long. Once a day, the train carries a passenger wagon, which most tourists (and many locals) opt to take over the free alternative of riding in one of the iron ore wagons (on which the Rough Guide says that the dust will work its way into your soul). Well, this sounded like quite an adventure, and, needing to go from the Adrar to Nouadhibou, we thought we would go for a ride this world famous train.

Our trip started at 8 AM in Chinguetti, a city of much peace and solitude that we were sorry to leave, when we caught a truck taxi for Atar, the main city of the Adrar, where we arrived a couple hours later. Atar being about three hours from Choum, the train’s sole stop between its origin at the mining city of Zouerat and its terminus at the port of Nouadhibou, and the train being scheduled to depart from Choum around 5 PM or so, we hung around Atar, using the internet and whatnot (there was no Internet in Chinguetti) until around noon, when we found another share taxi, this time to Choum.

The ride from Atar to Choum is said to be scenic, but even with high expectations what we saw was exceedingly beautiful–stark and endless rocky desert, with the huge cliffs of the Adrar Plateau nearby, and scattered, isolated tents and settlements. There was no way that someone who didn’t know the region well could possibly find the route along a track that seemed to keep disappearing and re-appearing, perhaps because even our driver lost it now and then, to regain it further on.

We arrived in Choum around 3:30 PM. Now, I didn’t expect Choum to be much–the only reason for its existence is as a service point for the iron ore train–but I did picture it as something like a town. No, it is pretty much a square–ringed with “restaurants” serving only tea and grocery stores selling only dry goods–surrounded by a bunch of ramshackle houses not so different from those in a sub-Saharan African village. There isn’t even a real train station, only a sort of shack as we would later discover. Surprisingly, considering that we were not in a big city or near the Senegalese or Malian borders, most of the residents seemed African, leaving us to wonder to what extent the current residents of the town had chosen to live there, or had arrived with some degree of compulsion from their employers (or masters or owners, given the supposed state of slavery in Mauritania, outlawed in 1981–yes, the eighties–but still persisting).

When we first arrived in Choum, not finding any ticket or train office, we just waited around. Hungry, but not finding any real food for sale, we ate the bread and canned tuna that we had brought along, together with ginger-pineapple flavored Foster Clark’s, a powder drink bought from a local shop. We played with the children who were begging us for money (and later dug out from the garbage and licked the empty can of tuna to see what it was that we had been eating). We watched the local men play some form of lawn bowling. Others were clearly expecting to board the train–they had luggage–and so we figured that we would just follow their lead. Eventually, a man told us that the train was coming at 9 PM, not 5 PM, which made us sigh but, well, it was not as if we hadn’t been warned that the schedule of the iron ore train is far from fixed.

The same man identified for us the ticket office, or rather the man in charge of selling tickets, and so we walked over and bought two, at around USD 10 each. The guidebook said that there were two available classes of travel–seats and berths–but the man didn’t mention anything of the sort, and offered only one type of ticket. We were told that the train was going to arrive around midnight, and that we should wait starting around 9 PM from a small white building on the horizon. And so it appeared that the train was already running seven hours late.

When we left the office, a dark-skinned, heavy-set man indicated to us in extremely broken Spanish that we should come to his house for dinner. (The Western Sahara, at one point a Spanish colony though a much neglected one, is still a sort of Spanish-speaking region, especially among the native Saharawi, as opposed to the Francophone Moroccans who have settled in the region after after its occupation/annexation by Morocco in 1975). Every time he spoke to us in Spanish, presumably the only language he knew other than his mother tongue of Hassaniya Arabic, he would look at a little crib sheet, with a short list of Spanish vocabulary written in the Arabic script.

We went over to the man’s house, and drank the tea made by his young son in the elaborate local fashion. To pass the time and minimize awkward silence we shared photographs from our trip that we had on our iPod with the man and his precocious son. There was much interest in the great architectural and cultural sights of the Muslim world, such as Cairo and Damascus, and we were surprised by how easily they recognized all of the key politicians of the region, calling out their names when they saw them. But the only pictures for which the man would have us go back? Photographs of women, which he would admire leeringly (we were told once that one reason that Muslim women dislike having their pictures taken is that they are afraid men will use them for some prurient end–and so it may be!).

Our show and tell was interrupted by the sudden sound of a train outside. It was only about eight–four hours before midnight, when the train was supposed to arrive–but it was clearly here. We grabbed our bags and ran through the darkness for the tracks–not far from the man’s home–and then ran the couple of kilometers along the tracks to the small building where passengers are supposed to board. The darkness, our small flashlight and headlamp bobbing up and down, the frantic and sudden physical exertion, the sound of the endless train rushing past–it was nothing short of surreal. We made it to the designated place, and could see other passengers who had made it there by truck, but the train didn’t stop, it just rushed past.

Now, there are supposed to be three iron ore trains a day, only one of which takes passengers, and so it made complete sense that there could be another, earlier train to pass Choum without stopping. Understanding that that is what must have happened, we went back to the man’s house.

And good thing, too, because he had been preparing dinner for us. We sat down to enjoy a communal plate of pasta with a meaty stew, typically basic but hearty Mauritanian fare. Not wanting to experience again the mad dash to the train, we left shortly after dinner, and the man asked a friend to drive us over to the “station” this time, saving us the long walk in the dark. Parting, we offered the man a bit of money for our meal, which he accepted with much gratitude.

We finally saw what that little white building was–a shed. With a dirt floor littered with broken bottles and crumbling ceiling and walls, it did serve as a shelter from the ferocious sand-laden wind that was blowing outside, but just barely that, as there were holes in the walls. There were eight or so other people–mostly young men–who were also waiting for the train. One of them told us that the train was expected at 1 or 2 AM. We made ourselves as comfortable as we could, lying on the dirt floor using our backpacks as pillows. One group of men boiled tea–Mauritanian men often travel with a full compliment of the tools necessary to make tea, including a teapot, fuel canister, tea, cups, etc–by building a small fire in the middle of the shed and using the hot embers to heat the pot. Gradually, everyone started to fall asleep.

Around midnight, we all awoke to the sound of an approaching train. Everyone gathered their bags and rushed over to the tracks. It not being clear where the passenger car would stop, we jumped on to a couple of trucks that had been hanging about, so that the driver would drive us over to the right car. But again, the train simply rushed past–another false alarm. We trudged back to the shack, and went back to sleep.

Finally, around 3 AM, about ten hours past the time we had originally expected, the train came.

Boarding was, as we should have expected, a fiasco. With only one real passenger car already packed with men filling the aisle alongside the six-person compartments, most of which had more than six passengers, it was not at all clear where we could go. Finally, someone squeezed us in into a compartment that was not yet overfull–we had to push aside the current passengers, who were somewhat sprawled about and initially unwilling to yield any room, but we pushed and shoved ourselves enough room on the bare wood seat (the cushions were no longer in place) to pass the night.

Any upsetness over our squeezing into their cabin had mostly evaporated by morning, and it was a jovial ride to Nouadhibou. The train would start and stop with no apparent cause, and it was clear that we were running many hours behind, but no-one had been expecting to arrive on schedule. When the track turned south from its generally westward course, we knew we were getting close. We were about twelve hours behind schedule when we reached the 43 kilometer mark, at which some passengers hopped off and we passed another iron ore train, and arrived at Nouadhibou around 7:30 PM.

Snaking into the distance, to the left and then to the right

Inside our cabin–note the condition of the seats

Iron ore

Sheep and humans can ride for free on the iron ore wagons.

On Deprivation

I’ve written before that, from an unfavorable perspective, the western backpacker in the developing world can be viewed as “slumming,” visiting relatively poorer countries in order to witness/experience poverty and primitive conditions (see post of 11.19). I certainly would not generally agree with such criticism–the developing world has so much more to offer, in terms of history, and beauty, and the values of a more traditional world–but in at least one sense it is true: Backpacking, either traveling long-distance or hiking/camping with a backpack, is, for me, partly about deprivation.

Back in college, reading the Rule of Benedict in my medieval Latin class or the Life of St. Anthony for my senior paper in Ancient Studies, I used to daydream that I would have made a good monk. (A friend recently told me that such an attitude “belies a competitive streak incompatible with good monk-hood.”) I am unlikely to give up my present life to become a novice, but I do believe that, especially back in a time in which people had relatively fewer career and lifestyle choices, being a monk would have offered the combination of a disciplined daily routine and ample time to think that I would have found satisfying. Part of my inclination toward that mode of living is something of an ascetic streak. As much as I love to indulge myself–who doesn’t–I also believe that it’s important to temper pleasure with abstinence, to maintain the supremacy of the mind over physicality, to enforce self control over bodily needs and wants, to exert oneself at times when one prefers not to, to go without.

It is partly this ascetic streak that I believe backpacking gratifies. To a “professional class” person living in a big city in the developed world today, there are so many comforts at our fingertips. We have the choice of eating and drinking whatever we want, products flown in from around the world and prepared according to an encyclopedia of styles. We have unlimited amounts of hot and cold water and electricity, and soft fabrics and cushions for our linens, upholstery and clothes. To get from place to place is a matter of hopping in some sort of vehicle, with limited walking, and elevators and escalators eliminate the need to climb stairs. We never have to lift anything heavy–there is usually a machine or someone else around to do that. If there is anything we need, we can simply buy it, at any of a number of stores. For work, we fly business class and stay in five-star hotels. What greater (temporary) antidote to all of this, all of this softness, than backpacking? On the road, we’re forced to lug around heavy bags, day after day. We take twelve-hour-long share taxi rides, squeezed four in the back passenger seat, and sleep outside Milano Centrale. We walk for hours a day, carrying still heavy daypacks, and frequently miss meals or have very little choice of food. We’re so used to having most anything we want; now, the things in our backpacks (see post of 12.05) are effectively everything we own, all that we have access to. Damaged shoes? It’s slippers until we can find another pair that will do. Damaged recharger for the camera battery? No photos for no telling how long.

But this aspect of backpacking is not just about mortifying the flesh–it is about discovering what it is we really need, in order to live a rich and fulfilling life, and what is superfluous; it is a way to remind ourselves that so many things in our world back home are really just distractions, things we shouldn’t value highly or let get in the way, from the sorts of interactions and experiences that really matter, that are so much more valuable. It is also a test of what our bodies can endure, how much discomfort is surprisingly tolerable as long as we don’t let it get to us psychologically; bodily pleasure is, generally, relative. I know all of this may sound phony, given that I enjoy the luxury to travel for so long and mostly with all the modern conveniences, but it is heartfelt.


I have been forced to think about this because we just got back from a four day camel trek to see the Saharan scenery outside Chinguetti. How to convey to you the basic conditions on the trek? We paid roughly USD 16 per person per day, including not only our camels, but our guide and meals. And, we learned on our first day that it’s called a camel “trek” for a reason–most of the traveling is actually done by foot, not on the camels, because the camels cannot negotiate steep dunes with people on their backs, and naturally our route stayed mainly on the most picturesque high dunes. So there we were, in the Sahara, walking up and down mountains of sand, following our guide and three camels. We would break for lunch cooked over an open fire–pasta with tomato sauce and a can of sardines–and then continue again, trudging up and down the dunes, until we stopped for dinner cooked over an open fire–pasta with tomato sauce and a can of sardines–and sleep, in our sleeping bags under the starry sky.

All the water we had was that which we had on us or could draw from oases–enough for drinking and cooking but certainly not bathing. All the food we had was that which we brought with us–there was nowhere for extra provisions. Fortunately we had some cloud cover, to keep down the heat and the glare of the sun, but we also feared rain–believe it or not, there has been rain in Chinguetti–given that we had no cover.

It’s almost absurd–why do we tourists do this to ourselves? Whether in India, or Egypt, or here–why go on these multi-day camel trips? We say that it’s to see the dunes, or to achieve a sense of solitude, but really it is as much about deprivation. However temporarily, it is about living in a way that allows us to recognize the essentials of life and really appreciate the simplest pleasures. A can of sardines, perfectly edible anywhere, becomes delicious in the desert; a simple cup of tea, so refreshing and renewing. Your limbs sink into a state of blissful comfort when it’s time for a break, the weight of your head off of your shoulders such a relief when you lie down. The freshness of the evening, as it sets in when you’re about to sleep, feels as good as any blast of air conditioning in the hottest of summer. Unmolested by the frenetic stimuli of city life, your mind reaches a state of relaxation such that most everything seems carefree, enjoyable, and even funny. You laugh spontaneously. It feels like, if you spent just a few more weeks in the desert, with the newfound clarity of your mind you could solve not only all of the problems in your life but all of the mysteries of the universe. Your senses become heightened, and so many things become, taken in isolation, so lavish, so curious, so beautiful. The cool sand, a few inches below the surface heated by the sun, that your bare foot digs into. The movement of the camels’ lips as they pluck food from the branches of the thorny trees.

Sunlight cast against the sharp reliefs of your own footprint, against the ripples of the dunes

The wonder of an oasis, palm trees objects of luxuriant beauty and shade

But the hardship does get to you. Even with a mere three and a half days of deprivation, I started looking forward to my first bottle of cold soda, and my first night back in a bed, when I got back to town. I was reminded not only that there are many things that I do not need, but that that there are many things that I enjoy and take for granted. I thought about all the choices of food I normally have, and the special traits and qualities of each one that make it so pleasurable. I imagined myself drinking all sorts of beverages, each one tastier and more refreshing than the water we had on hand. I was in a delightfully lighthearted mood, and knew that it was a result of being out in the desert, but still wished to be back in town. And, in the afternoon of day four, we were back in Chinguetti.

And so you get back, but your mind goes back to the desert…

As we surround ourselves with worldly things, and become ever caught up in the complexities of modern living, how do we return ourselves, at least in spirit, to the state of the desert, to the state of the trail, to the state of the wandering road? How do we maintain perspective? Is it enough to go backpacking a couple times a year? Is meditation the solution? Or should we incorporate deprivation into our daily lives? Back home, a concerted effort to reduce our worldly possessions might result in the disposal of only an ugly old coffee mug or a book that I’ve read and didn’t like. But now, a year away from it all, it all seems expendable. Why can we do without it for a year but not the rest of our lives? Is it even possible to achieve the desert frame of mind, such power of perception, in our everyday settings? These are all questions that merit so much more of our consideration than we usually accord. And, as we gradually approach the end of our year’s journey, they become more and more essential.

Lingua Franca

Given that there are hundreds of languages in the world, and much need for communication among people whose mother tongues are not the same, there has been in human history a persistent need for lingua francas, languages that extend their reach beyond one ethnic group to become a common language, a language that can be spoken by many as a least common denominator. In the seventeenth century, one such language was an admixture of Italian and other Mediterranean languages that came to be known as “lingua franca,” which name has grown to become a general term for all such common languages, whether Latin in the Western Mediterranean, Greek in the Eastern Mediterranean, Aramaic in the Levant, Persian in the Near East, Chinese in the Far East or Malay in the Pacific. Lingua francas change over time, often reflecting whatever is the hegemonic force of the era. Now, of course, the world’s lingua franca is indisputably English; English, thanks to global domination by the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century followed by the United States in the twentieth, has become the de facto international language.

It’s quite a boon, really, for people such as myself who speak English as their primary language. Knowing just English, in this day and age, you can at least get by almost anywhere–someone will be able to speak enough English with you eventually. English’s dominance is such that, with some exceptions, if you are traveling somewhere and do not know the local language, you can without shame *expect* that people will speak English with you; it is almost as if those who cannot should feel guilty or embarrassed for not knowing English, despite the fact that you’re the foreigner and they on their home turf. Further evidence of the ubiquity of English is in conversations that you overhear between other travelers: A Frenchman and a German, or a Chinese and a Spaniard, will invariably speak to each other in English, of whatever standard, simply because it is the language that everyone has in common (these ESL-on-both-sides conversations can sometimes be quite amusing). In some countries, as in India, English acts as a lingua franca domestically–a Hindi speaker from North India will likely get by in Kerala in South India with English, given that Keralans speak Malayalam as their native tongue and are likely to speak English better than Hindi. (It’s ironic that American travelers (or would-be travelers) fear so much that they won’t be able to get by in Country X because the people there don’t speak English, given that, to an English speaker, lack of knowledge of foreign languages should almost never act as a bar to travel, to nearly whatever exotic destination. Besides, we’ve found that the ability to communicate verbally isn’t, strictly speaking, essential. There are only a handful of things one really *needs* with any frequency while traveling, and most of these are readily apparent. When you walk into a hotel, what else would you want but a room? In a restaurant, food? The look of somebody in need of a restroom is usually quickly and easily read by most anyone in possession of one. Looking for sights in a city you are not familiar with can be a bit more of a challenge, but even this is often made easy once you get yourself into the right area–people in tourist-frequented neighborhoods seem to think, “10 out of 10 foreigners who have walked in front of my house wanted to go the old cemetery… I will point them the way to the old cemetery!”)

That said, English isn’t dominant absolutely everywhere–not just yet. Traveling in Central Asia, one encounters a fair number of English speakers, especially in the countries that have relatively higher volumes of international tourism, but Russian language ability is far more common. In a land with so many different ethnic groups squeezed into a relatively small area, Russian acted during Soviet times and continues to act now as a linguistic common ground. Two friends of mine, one Tajik-ethnic Uzbek and one Pamiri-ethnic Tajik, have each told me that he speaks Russian first or second best, about as well as his mother tongue (Tajik and Shugni, respectively) and before the “national language” (Uzbek and Tajik, respectively) of the country in which he was raised. Traveling in Tajikistan without Russian can be, at times, a challenge, and it is an unlikely fact, given that we’ve never even been to Russia, that we have gained familiarity with several Russian phrases, thanks to our Central Asian travels.

And, in parts of the old French colonial world, French is still going strong. If I didn’t have my little bit of French, it would be considerably harder to travel in Madagascar or French West Africa–the class of educated person that would in other countries speak some English speaks French instead. For someone in these countries to know English means that they’re trilingual, either highly educated or very well-accustomed to dealing with foreigners. Even those somewhat accustomed to dealing with foreigners are likely to speak only French, given that most of the foreigners in these countries are still French (speaking of which, after Americans, it seems that the French are most likely to fear traveling in places where they might not be understood–and so, often choose to travel in francophone countries). The French, who seem to think of their global cultural and linguistic influence as Americans or Chinese think of their military or economic influence, no doubt work at maintaining the use of the French language in these countries, through institutions such as the widespread Alliance Francaise, present in over 130 countries (in Aleppo we met a Quebecois woman who was attending a French literary conference), although in some cases–as in French Indochina–English has already gained the upper hand.

It’s a bit funny, the ambivalent feelings I have about using English in these French-speaking countries. On one hand, I almost feel like they should get with the program and learn English. It is hard to see how English will give up its position as the international lingua franca. The U.S. is still too dominant, the countries of the European Union are likely to speak more and more English especially as EU membership expands, and the Chinese–perhaps the greatest threat numerically speaking–are extremely busy trying to improve their English skills (although I suppose Mandarin will become a sort of secondary lingua franca in East Asia–I imagine with China’s rise we will return to a world in which a well-educated Korean or Japanese person will know at least a little Mandarin). Not that the average Malian is going to need to work at a truly global level–for now they are realistically probably far better off learning French, in order to access jobs in the local market–but in the future even French language ability might only take you so far. I imagine, to be successful even in France, speaking English is helpful.

On the other hand, I feel guilty. A French-educated man in Madagascar, say, has done his part, by learning a second, global language. Mastering the French language was his way of ensuring that he would be able to communicate with people such as myself, visitors from the outside; when I can’t speak French, that system is thwarted. French, not English, is the lingua franca in Madagacar, and we’re not holding up to our end. I also wonder if French tourists and expats (who seem to outnumber people from all other countries combined in places such as Mali or Madagascar) are glaring at me behind me back when I speak or try to speak English with locals in these countries, because they see me and other English-speakers as messing with the vestiges of French cultural dominance. I mean, when a local person greets me with a “bonjour” I could say “bonjour” back instead of saying “hello,” I can thank them with a “merci” instead of a “thank you,” and I could try harder to make use of my broken French, right? To some extent I choose not to, which is perhaps inconsiderate to the French-speaking local (although I do believe that everyone understands “hello” and “thank you,” and that my pathetic attempts to speak French might end up being more confusing than a combination of English and Derek’s pantomime) and irritating to French tourists and expats witnessing my linguistic transgression.

But, perhaps the French tourists and expats need to get with the program too! I do not think that world peace and a new Tower of Babel will be the result of everyone learning English, and do feel sorry for all of the languages dying around the world, but certainly a world where we can all speak to each other may be a more harmonious one; at the very least, it will facilitate trade, tourism and cultural exchange, leading to greater interdependence and understanding. English, with its relatively high levels of both precision and flexibility, its proven ability to incorporate words from other languages and its relative disassociation from any nationalistic agenda, seems as good a language as any to take this role, and so why not forge ahead?

Christmas in Chinguetti

Chinguetti Mosque

Chinguetti is one of the great cities of the Mauritanian Sahara, a place with an ancient history as a settlement, an island of culture and relative urbanity in the middle of a desert wilderness. Chinguetti is famous as a West African center of the Muslim faith, for its manuscript tradition attested to by thousands of volumes, and for its role in history. But like Timbuktu, a city of similar background about a thousand kilometers southeast across the Sahara, it is today almost swallowed up by the sands, clinging to its only remaining significance–that as a tourist destination.


But quite a tourist destination it is. The ruins of the old town, charming minaret aside, are not much of a draw, but the location could not be more spectacular. The desert around Chinguetti is the real deal, the Sahara of one’s wildest dreams. Fantastic dunes lie just meters from town; even higher dunes and romantic oases within a short 4×4 or camel trek away. Within reach are beautiful and desolate landscapes, archaeological sites and even an enormous meteor crater. With, believe it or not, direct flights to Paris, the Adrar (the region of Mauritania in which Chinguetti lies) is one of the most beautiful and removed, yet highly accessible, travel destinations I can think of, utterly peaceful and away from it all. [The flights were suspended for most of 2008 due to an incident near Christmas 2007 in which a French family was killed in a kidnapping attempt and to feared political instability following the 2008 (peaceful) coup in Mauritania. Quite contrary to the travel advisories, however, I could not imagine anything bad happening to a tourist in the parts of Mauritania that we visited (we had checked with the helpful U.S. embassy and a local Peace Corps volunteer before coming), and we only benefited from the resulting quietness and bargains on lodging–rooms were available for as low as USD 3.20 per person.]

For others out on an extended trip, holidays can be sad times, reminding them that they’re away on days they would normally be sharing with loved ones. Such travelers often gather around others of their nationality or religion at a backpacker or expat bar or restaurant, trying to recreate a sense of home. Frequently they’ll send forth emails trying to make the situation sound as positive as possible–“Hey man, I’m enjoying Christmas from this beautiful beach in Thailand!”–but if you look closely, there’s sadness. But we ourselves really aren’t that big on holidays (see post of 11.27), and so Chinguetti is as good a place as any to spend Christmas.