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Byline: John Flinn San Francisco Examiner

There's something about a train that can reduce even the most cynical curmudgeon to a wide-eyed child. Take Paul Theroux, who has made a career out of being crabby. In ``The Great Railway Bazaar,'' Theroux writes a love letter to rail travel.

``Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it. Those whistles sing bewitchment: Railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink.

``If a train is large and comfortable you don't even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travelers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to.

``Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night's sleep and strangers' monologues framed like Russian short stories.''

The book is the story of a journey that would exhaust all but the most foam-in-the-mouth train buffs: Theroux rode the rails all the way across Europe and Asia.

It's entirely possible, of course, to experience that bewitchment in smaller doses. Three of my favorite rail journeys, for instance, can each be completed in less than a day.

Scotland's Kyle Line

This three-hour trip, from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, takes you through some of the most wild, unspoiled country left in Europe: Scotland's western highlands. It's a green, misty landscape, punctuated by solitary farmhouses and brooding castles. In this lonely country the wind always seems to carry the bleating of distant bagpipes. British Rail calls it ``the premier scenic rail line in Britain.''

The route begins in Inverness, near Loch Ness, and passes along the shore of Loch Garve. The rail line traverses places with names ringing with history: Achnasheen, ``The Field of Storm;'' Loch Gowan, ``The Loch of the Blacksmith;'' and Achnashellach, ``The Field of Willows.'' You pass the pretty village of Plockton, which sits on a bay with views north to the mountains of Applecross and Wester Ross.

The last 10 miles of the route to Kyle of Lochalsh, on Scotland's west coast, took Victorian engineers four years to blast and hew through uncompromising rock, sometimes requiring cuttings of as much as 88 feet.

Kyle of Lochalsh is the jumping-off point to the Isle of Skye. If you're up for more, you can cross to Skye, take a bus to Ardavasar and catch a ferry back to Mallaig, on the mainland. (Near Mallaig was where they filmed the charming movie, ``Local Hero.'') From Mallaig, another stunning train ride takes you to Fort William, at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Great Britain.

Switzerland's Jungraubahn

This mind-boggling feat of Swiss engineering carries passengers to the Jungfraujoch, a snowy notch high on the Jungfrau. At 11,333 feet, it's Europe's highest railway station.

To get there, the train travels through a tunnel carved inside the north face of the Eiger in 1912. Halfway up, the train stops at a little observation window looking out onto the Eigerwand's steep and icy north face.

Even in September, the Eiger was sheathed in icicles. A savage wind screamed outside the glass, and volleys of rocks came crashing past.

Nearby is a little wooden door that opens out onto the face, and it has played a major role in the lore of the Eigerwand. Many a grateful climber has used the window to escape from one of the lethal storms that lash the north face. But their danger is not over. Author Jon Krakauer tells of the alpinist Mugs Stump who aborted an Eiger climb in this manner. Not having the fare for the train, he set out walking toward the tunnel's entrance a mile away.

``Before he could reach daylight, he met a train coming up the tracks. The guts of the Eiger are hard black limestone that make for hard tunneling, and when the tunnel was constructed the builders didn't make it any wider than they had to.

``The Swiss take great pride on making their trains run on time, and it also became evident that this particular engineer was not about to foul up his schedule simply because some damn climber was on the tracks. All Stump could do was suck in his breath, press up against the rock and try to make his head thin. He survived the train's passing, but the experience was as harrowing as any of the close scrapes he's had on the outside of the mountain.''

At the top, the view on a clear day can stretch all the way to the borders of Switzerland. You can look straight down on the Grosser Aletsch glacier, the longest in Europe, which begins just below the Jungfraujoch and stretches for 13 miles.

Be forewarned: It's cold at the top, and even wispy clouds can obscure the view.

?Ecuador's Avenue of the Volcanoes

This ramshackle rail line from Riobamba to Guayaquil passes through a corridor lined by dozens of towering, snow-covered volcanoes, including 20,823-foot Chimborazo, once thought to be the highest mountain in the world.

When we rode it last year, the train consisted of a ``passenger'' car, which was really a metal boxcar with windows punched out of the walls and a hard wooden bench in the center; a flatcar that also held passengers and one ancient ``first class'' car, which looked like something Butch Cassidy might have robbed.

It was bitterly cold in Ecuador's central highlands; the conductors wore fur-lined jackets. But once it started to warm up, we did what many of the train's riders do: climbed up onto the roof to enjoy the scenery.

On this day the high peaks disappeared into the clouds, but there were plenty of other sights to see. We passed through tiny villages where the people wore brightly colored ponchos and the bowler-style hats typical of the Andes. Llamas lolled beside the tracks.

But half the fun was the festive scene up on the train's roof, where Ecuadoreans hosted an international troupe of budget travelers. A man with exceptional balance walked up and down the roof, selling candy and nuts.

We got off the train at Alausil and therefore missed the spectacular descent to Guayaquil on the coast, which the BBC once featured in a special on the greatest train rides of the world. This section - and in fact all rail lines in Ecuador - frequently is washed out or otherwise rendered impassable by nature. There is talk that it may be abandoned altogether some day. So, if you get the chance, ride it before it's too late.
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Title Annotation:TRAVEL
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 23, 1997

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