It turned out I was actually better getting up at 6am than 8am! We walked over to the train station and were greeted by people renting us brown cushions. Apparently we needed it on the roof, as it was hard and metallic. There were also the usual food vendors selling snacks, though I was chuffed that knew enough about local prices and equipped with enough Spanish to counter against one of them trying to rip me right off. Hah!
Wasn't quite sure what to expect from the train, but Iris heaved a huge sigh of relief when she saw that there were safety bars on the roof of the train. She wasn't quite as keen on the idea as I was. She said she needed a couple of days of mental preparation. Though we arrived way earlier than departure, I panicked slightly at the sight of the number of people on the roof already, but there was plenty of space. Phew!
We parked our cushions next to the friendly New Yorker Ernie, whose accent was very nice. He was also very considerate and kind, and made sure that we were given the helping hand we needed when we had to hop through the train at the intermediate station. Well, I guess being a (Spanish) teacher to kids makes you more receptive to people's needs.
One thing though, I felt I was quite unprepared for the journey. Everyone seemed to be wrapped up nice and warm, with woolly hats and gortex jackets. We were in our jumpers, and though Iris had on her hiking boots, I was only in my sandels. Luckily the cold part of the morning didn't last very long, and I still haven't developed the cold which had been threatening me since arriving in Ecuador.
The scenery was absolutely amazing, and the thrice weekly train brought out loads of locals who waited for goodness-knows-how-long to glimpse and wave at the passing train. Children missed school to wait on unsuspecting rocky corners, and ran like crazy when handfuls of lollypops were thrown to them from the train. This also explained the presence of food vendors on the train, offering 5 lollies for $1, "for the children". Dogs too, were delighted at the train, and they chased the train and yelping at it.
The train was originally built to connect the coast of Ecuador to Quito - but don't quote me on this! The stretch between Riobamba and Sibambe, climbs up the Andean mountains, and is said to be the most difficult railway in the world to build. This was due to a huge piece of rock, apparently as steep and shaped like a Devil's Nose, and a series of switchbacks were required for the train to climb up and down this stretch. I was quite looking forward to this, as it's described to be a "hair raising experience", though the actuality was somewhat disappointing. Even Iris wasn't scared. Maybe if I have had a guide to point out all the various points of interests and information, I would have got more out of it.
Since the damages done to the lines during the El Niños rain in 1982-3, this is now the only part of the railway still running, due to its appeal to tourists. From beginning to end, it is somewhat of a tourist trap, costing $11 for the (supposedly) five hours ride. Not only are tourists lured to ride on the train, there is also a sub-business enterprise of "chasing the train" from tour buses. We spotted several tour buses with tourists waving at us along the way.
As it belonged to such an old network, we encountered several breakdowns. If I remember correctly, we had six derailments of various seriousness. The first one took about fifteen minutes to fix, the second about an hour, and at the fourth, we discarded the offensive carriage to be picked up on the way back. At the beginning, the tourists enjoyed climbing down from the train for a closer view of the problem, or simply to wander up the hill to use the nature toilet (at various stages of discreetness). After the fourth, I believe, we were quite used to it. At the end, we almost had no reaction when we felt the all familiar clunk-clunk, as the wheel again became dislodged, and the conductors encouraged us to walk the remaining forty minutes back (Latino exaggeration of course!).
At the earlier derailment, I nosed around the driver's cab, and got permission to look in the engine room. The driver was also very friendly and spoke with me as he navigated the wheels back onto the track. Surprisinly patient, considering twenty years of driving, and speaking to tourist people like me. Nonetheless, I felt like I learnt alot, and can suggest ways of helping The Network Rail (UK) overcome trivial track problems in the future...
However, no matter how technically challenaging the derailments, nor how stunninly beautiful were the various landscapes, nor the difficulties of keeping one's balance when standing up for a nice photography, it was hard to feel engrossed by everything after five hours - and especially when on an empty stomache. We got pretty restless, and I was even tempted to open my book and start reading - well, it was a pretty addictive book! Instead, Iris and I entertained ourselves by giggling alot, especially as there was a pretty fit German guy only half a metre away. Unfortunately his girlfriend wasn't quite as impressed, and despite his disappointment, and to her relief, we lost interest after about an hour.
Ten hours later, we arrived back at Alausí, for a connecting bus to Cuenca - the well trodden path for most people visiting Ecuador. Luckily the bus was waiting for us to return, though Iris and my priority was to dash into the nearby bakery to fill our stomachs! We definitely managed to cut back on our day's spending to compensate for the expensiveness of the rail ticket!