06 December 2010

The Aluksne - Gulbene Narrow Gauge Railroad

We drove to Gulbene to take a ride on the little narrow gauge railroad that runs between that town and Aluksne, where we are staying. Sadly, there is a bit of a blizzard going on and the scheduling didn't work out in our favor - we would have had to drive home in the dark along badly-plowed dirt roads, which was a frightening prospect. We still got to see the train, though, and the strange Gulbene station.
The rail line is the last, 33 kilometer long segment of the Stukmani - Vecgulbene railroad, which was built in 1903 and was originally 212 kilometers in length. Narrow gauge lines were once quite popular in Latvia, and in the Baltic in general, but are now considered something of a curiosity. The Aluksne - Gulbene train runs twice daily (the first train, strangely, is at one o'clock in the afternoon), and is both a tourist attraction and a working commuter line. The station of Gulbene is huge and ornate and empty. There were a few men drinking beers out of large cans and a smattering of people who appeared to be seeking shelter from the cold. It is a place that must have, once, been bustling.
Now, it is dark and echoey. The station cafeteria was a time-warp, with a few old women eating and a stern lady serving food. We ate some pea soup. Surprisingly, it was some of the best soup we've had in Latvia.The trains are pulled by diesel engines nowadays, made in Russia during the 1960's and 1980's. More functional than romantic, but still interesting.
Each of the three cars (that we could see) looked the same on the outside, but had different design schemes inside. One of them was modern-Amtrak, one was soviet-spare and the third was opulent-plush (above). When the train was heading out of the station, only the modern car was attached to the engine - and ten or so people on board looked less like rail tourists than like regular commuters.
The train pulled out, heading towards Aluksne, traveling quite slowly. We were sad not to have the courage to get on it, but we're happy that we made it home. We are holed up in a cabin by lake Aluksne, listening to the wind out in the darkness and watching the snow inch up our windowpane.

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