Well kind of. Actually the only similarity between the Trans-Siberian and the Tazara is that they are both long distance trains.
The Tazara train runs from Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia all the way to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. The Chinese built it in the 1970s and it’s pretty obvious that not a cent has been spent on it since. In fact, when I was researching my trip the Tazara train had a big question mark next to it as there was never any accurate or up to date information on it.
I read varies stories on the internet, the train ran, then it stopped running at all, then it only ran to the border where you had to get another one… So I left on my trip not knowing if I was going to catch this elusive train or not.
While I was in Botswana I called the Tazara office in Lusaka and was able to confirm that the train would run on 26 December and that I could reserve a ticket and pick it up when I arrived in Lusaka.
The ticket office in Lusaka itself said a lot about the train before the journey had even begun. It was in an old building, on the third level and down a dark corridor. There were no signs so I knocked on the first door that I saw and inside was a lady sitting behind a desk with stacks of paper on it watching television. “I’m here to pay for my Tazara ticket?”, “Yes, yes come in.” I almost laughed. Then I was handed the ticket. A little piece of cardboard with a stamp on it (below).
Boarding was scheduled to begin at 1pm in Kapiri Mposhi, a small town three hours outside of Lusaka. But in true African style, the train didn’t arrive until 2pm and we departed at 3pm. It stopped randomly every hour, sometimes at a station sometimes just in the middle of no where. It was extremely loud, we had to almost shout sometimes to talk to each other. There was plenty of times when I thought we had broken down just because of the sudden jolts or abnormal noises coming from the brakes. The toilets were a hole in the floor with a toilet seat on top and a lot of the taps were not working. On the more positive side, the beds were comfortable and the food was cheap, even being delivered to our room by a waiter (it was first class after all!).
The scenery was amazing. Every time I looked out the window there was different terrain; flat ground, hills, mountains, rivers, farms, villages, red dirt, green grass. At all the stations there were people waiting to greet us and wave us past. It seems to be that the train is the weekly momentous occasion. There was always people selling things, mostly produce that was grown in the village, particularly mangoes.
I asked a boy holding a bucket full how much they were and he said “3 Kwacha” which is equivalent to about 60 cents. I asked him how many mangoes I got for 3 Kwacha and he just held the bucket up to me. One of the German girls I was sharing the cabin with said, “I think it’s 3 Kwacha for the whole bucket”. I couldn’t believe it but she was right. So we had 3kg of mangoes in a pile on our bench. “I hope everyone likes mangoes!”.
We arrived at the border at 3pm on 27 December and had to get our exit stamps and wait for the connecting train to take us across Tanzania. We all piled into a rundown old room that was apparently the immigration office even though there was no one manning it. Once we got our stamps they told us that the next train would be four hours away, so we passed the time by eating mangoes and playing cards. 7pm came and went and someone came and told us that it would be another hour, but 8pm also came and went with no train. Someone then said it would be a 10pm departure and they were almost right. The train finally arrived at 10pm and we departed about 10.30pm before arriving at the Tanzanian border post 15 minutes later to go through immigration, of which there was only one officer.
We were scheduled to arrive at 11pm on the 28 December, but we all knew that was never going to happen. We asked numerous people and every time we got a different answer, “we’ll be there by midnight”, “it will be early morning sometime”, “maybe about 7am”, “maybe about lunchtime”. It turned out to be 10am on 29 December, 67 hours after leaving Kapiri.
It had been a long journey, a very long journey. But I had shared the cabin with some great people and I also met others on the train that definitely made the time pass more quickly.
Then I read an article saying that the Zambian and Tanzanian governments are finally committing $25 million into revamping and improving the Tazara train. I might have to come back and use it again once it’s been improved, it might actually run on time but it probably wouldn’t be as memorable.
*post adapted from my trip here in December 2014 and from my original blog site elishasbigtrip.wordpress.com