tkitching (tkitching) wrote,

3ft Gauge in the Sacred Valley

I've been a little bit worried about this bit of my trip. On my way to Machu Picchu, global icon, abandoned city in the clouds, I'm worried that I won't have anything original to write about this, that the whole trip will be a cliche, a re-treading of well-covered ground, frosted with a trite generic photograph to prove I woz here. After all, what can one say about one of the world's most famous and visited landmarks that hasn't been said before? Furthermore, if I'd spent two weeks here and not gone to Machu Picchu, that would have seemed contrary. Just the sort of thing an awkward sod like me would do. And at heart I do want to see it. I remember being fascinated by it as a child, reading how, uniquely, it was never destroyed by the Spanish, but slowly consumed by jungle, embalmed by greenery, forgotten. A fully formed Inca city waiting to be unwrapped by machete wielding, pith-helmeted pipe-smoking gentlemen, traveling as far into the jungle as their tea service and supply of Dundee thick-shredded Marmalade would allow. Part of that child-like romance still exists inside me, needing to be scratched, and consequently I found myself stumping up an obscene number of dollars I haven't earned yet in the travel agent in Cusco. Not a rip off on the local level, this it what it costs. And I reminded myself that the considerably higher living standards I saw in Peru compared to Bolivia have much to do with the fact they have a tourist industry capable of delivering great trips to large numbers of people. It's also worth mentioning that the prices for locals are much lower. Anyway, these dollars won't be wasted, and I sign over my credit card willfully. The machine asks me to take a selfie for security, and now my visual pin number is two confused eyes peering with panic through a large ginger beard. You'll do well to defraud that one.

There's two main ways to get to Machu Picchu. First there's the Inca trail, four days and nights of trekking through passes and jungle at high altitude. Demanding, grueling, epic. Some don't make it, getting rushed back on a stretcher with an oxygen mask. You earn the right to be there, conqueror of the trail. Nobody can deny your achievement, latest and most worthy King or Queen of the clouds. Or second, there's the 3ft gauge railway with complimentary drinks service. Being a railway enthusiast, the decision was a simple one.

First up though, we're taking the bus to a couple of other sites in the Sacred Valley. The Sacred Valley is epic, and there's so much more to it than just Machu Picchu. Hundreds of miles long, it drains a huge section of the Andes, and almost inconceivably, the water that runs off here will join the Amazon and flow out of the jungle into the South Atlantic a full continent away. If you decided to walk the river down to the sea, you'd trip over your beard before you got there. It's almost invariably narrow and steep-sided, with peaks thousands of metres above you rising near vertically from the valley floor. Rough edged boulders, broad and grim as municipal bus stations lurk aggressively in the riverbed, having dropped straight in from the heights above. I feel small and vulnerable.

We start our tour in Pisaq. Actually, we start our tour at the first of several identical, brightly coloured markets. Ostensibly to visit the loo, this is one of a number of times where our function as tourists is to be purchasers of stuff. A lady poses for photographs between a llama and an alpaca, helpfully providing a handy guide to distinguishing between the two. Llamas are bitter, evil creatures, who want to kick you hard in the balls, spit in your face and then slowly digest and shit out your hat in front of you, keeping eye contact throughout. Alpacas are friendly and willing to shed you a new hat whenever you need one. How two such similar creatures can be so different in presence is a mystery to me.

Having fulfilled our spending quota, we are allowed to proceed to Pisaq. This is an agricultural ruin, high up the banks of a tributary valley, between 3300m and 3700m high. There's a reasonably decent road that zig-zags up the hill, before terminating suddenly without a car park. We get off the minibus and head in. The side of this mountain has been converted from scree into a wondrous series of curving terraces. Dozens of them, each capable of bearing a considerable fat crop. Culverts and water channels allow irrigation in stages as required. It's an immense effort and covers acres. To have made rich and functional fields out of the broken side of a mountain is a fine achievement. Apparently, these were farmed continuously for centuries till the 1980s when the government took control of them as a historic monument. It's a good start to the day, and we wander back in fine mood.

And you've never seen such chaos in all your life. We were clearly one of the first groups of the day, and now a fleet of other buses and minivans have arrived at the abrupt end of this road. They can't turn, they can't move, there's honking and shouting all along this narrow ledge of hillside. People everywhere, trying to squeeze past vans, buses, mirrors pulled in to squeeze through gaps. There's only one thing for it. With all this squeezing going on, I buy a freshly squeezed orange juice from a local lady and perch myself on a rock to enjoy the spectacle. It is delicious as only unsweetened fresh juice can be.

Our driver is smart, and has already got the van out of this tangle, so we're soon on the road again, away from this madness. We're purposefully deposited in a silver jewelry factory, where a lady talks us through the jewelry making process with such machine gun efficiency that even though this is a short stop, there's plenty of time left to buy the products. I worry that if I should ever have any money, I'd soon spend it in a whirlwind of holiday guilt shopping. Thank goodness I'm skint. I've restricted myself to a brown felt hat, a toy condor called 'Evo' and a t-shirt on this holiday so far. Outside, a man is selling Peruvian flutes by continuously playing 'Hey Jude'.

After a lunch stop taken with gusto, we're on the road again to Ollantaytambo. Now this is a place and a half, and I immediately love it. Where Machu Picchu is adored for its preservation, this place is brilliant because it has been continuously inhabited. The streets of this town are all Inca up to the roofs, which are modern. The layout, the buildings, the engineering, is all historical and contemporary together. The guide calls it 'the living city of the Incas'. Perhaps this is their York, but without the overpriced scones. Crossing the river into the ceremonial part of town, a large series of terraces lead uphill to the Temple of the Sun. Broad, brilliantly constructed, it's like someone took a Welsh slate tip to be a jigsaw, and spent an eternity patiently putting it in the correct order.

Our guide is a real dude. He talks about these places with a passion, and great knowledge. It's more than a job, it's a calling to him. He fields questions with good humour, and comes back with brilliant answers. At the altar of the now destroyed temple of the sun, he talks us through the angles the sun rises at at different times of the year, about the immense cut stones of the temple wall, fully 60 tons each, and transported miles to be here. Apparently it was never finished, and there are more stones half way here, abandoned in the valley floor, forever awaiting the return of the Incas. Each one is cut and polished to a staggering degree of accuracy. They fit in odd shapes like they were stamped out of one piece. It's a quality of work that must have required untold man-years of effort; a dedication that can only have come from devotion. There is no need to make something this good, and in the modern world we never will again, for as long as practicality trumps perfection. This stonework is far, far better than it has any reason to be, and therein lies the point of it. I find a great satisfaction in sitting and looking at a job so well done.

Our guide shows us the destruction, explaining with pithy insight how each new religion intrinsically needs to overwhelm and destroy what went before. The great stones are untouched. Were they too big to wreck, or just simply too beautiful to touch? I want to believe it was the latter.

So to the station. Mid point of the Sacred Valley 3ft gauge railway. One of our group has gone missing, and our excellent guide is now hissing with anger. It must be their worst nightmare to lose a group member. It's not his fault at all. We were supposed to be meeting at the exit at the appointed time, and she is not there. A lady from Hawaii with more than her own body weight in photography paraphenalia. People are searching and calling out. Eventually, we go without her, leaving two behind to search, so the rest of us can get the train. She's already at the station, gormless look and too many lenses. I add her to my growing list of useless travelers. I will return to them at the end of the trip. They deserve their own contemptuous piece.

Every seat on this train is booked, and the platform overflows with rucksacks and roll mats. People, queuing urgently to get on the train that won't leave for thirty minutes. All panic and concern. Colonial accents, nasal and loud "Oh my God, what if we miss the train? I'm having a panic attack! Where's my Epipen?" Distressed with my fellow white-skins, I headed to the buffet for a coffee. The machine grinds and whirs and then you get your six Soles paper cup of brown caffeine. I took a slurp, and then stared at the cup in bewilderment.

Let me explain. Peru is one of the finest coffee growing nations in the world. Perhaps only second to Colombia. They know their coffee, and wandering quickly through the coffee museum in Cusco, eager to get to the interactive bit, you sense the reverence with which this drink is held. The care that goes into it, the reputation to uphold, the pride. The beans are beautiful, varied, and flawless. And yet. And yet, transport that same halo'ed bean through the door of a station buffet, anywhere in the world, and watch as it shrivels, ejects flavour like gasses leaving a stiffened corpse, and disperses in bitterness. I closed my eyes and instead of the Inca Rail service to Aguas Calientes, I was now waiting in the drizzle for the 16:32 Northern Rail Pacer-unit to Newton-le-Willows. This was truly a dismal cup of coffee.

With five minutes to spare, we casually boarded the now queue-less Inca Rail service, put our bags in the rack, and settled neatly into our comfy seats, without having to use an Epipen at all. The train left bang on time, moved fifty feet, and then stopped for fifteen minutes. Eventually we started again. A nine coach service made of three DMUs (Diesel Multiple Units) joined together, it was sold out. Each coach had windows in the roof as well as the sides, as the valley is so deep you need to see up to appreciate the totality of the view. The drinks trolley soon appeared to provide our complimentary drink and snack. I had an 'Andean Soda'. I wondered why there was a slice of turnip in it, but Jess pointed out that it was probably ginger root, and to stop being so bloody Northern.

The track was lumpy, the coaches bounced and rolled, and books and drinks slid off tables into unready, swearing laps. Infernal pan-pipes blared through the speakers. Idiots talked about TV and clothes. I turned my brain-filter on and watched the high mountains pass by, the green top of the jungle meeting the train heading down, the agricultural terraces flowed past, the riverbed full of spent missiles from the peaks. The light went. The Danish man on the table opposite me put his face straight down on the table and dribbled in shallow, pointless sleep.

Suddenly there were buildings and lights and smells again and the train stopped in the middle of the street. We were here, wherever here is. Aguas Calientes, the town in the cloud forest that exists to serve Machu Picchu. Carnival of hostels, restaurants, and the largest tat market I'd seen in Peru. It's basically a town centre with no suburbs at all, making it deceptively small. A guide took us to our hostel, up the hill. 'Supertramp'. It hardly seemed real. Beanbags, graffiti, dreadlocks. A trainer in fluorescent green and yellow mounted on a plinth. We had our briefing for the following day, and took dinner on the main square, at a first floor balcony. The menu was a triumph of mis-translation, being full of the sort of constructions that end up being better and more aesthetic language than an English speaker would ever manage. I considered 'Roasted of Trout', or 'Tenderloin to the Wine' for their poetry, rejected 'Guinea Pig the Furnace' as a bad idea, stepped quickly round 'Pleasure the Chef' (An Omelette!) without making eye contact, and ordered an Alpaca steak with chips. It was excellent. It was also happy hour, in this case from 10am to 11pm, but it doesn't do to be pedantic when it's three for one on beer.

Jess wanted an early night, and went to bed, so I hit the hostel bar for a quick nightcap. It's an early start for Machu Picchu tomorrow, so one jar will be plenty. Upstairs at 'Supertramp' is an experience. I followed graffitied signs on the whitewash walls up dimly lit staircases and through unpromising, secret doors until I broke through to the ceremonial chamber. There was a small but fascinating shower of people in the bar. An immensely hairy hippie in rags was talking to a perfectly dressed and stylish lady. They turned out to be a couple from America getting away from it all. I marveled at how different they seemed, how comfortable and happy they were together. Another lady was eating noodles at the bar, whilst the chef, a lady in a white hat with tattoos and piercings, stood directly in front, watching with arms folded. I didn't understand that dynamic at all. The bartender was a Colombian bloke. Young, shaven headed, big black piece of shaped jade filling the hole in his earlobe.

"You play?" he asks, pointing at my fiddle case, two questions in one. I carry it everywhere. You never know when you might need it, and I don't like it out of my sight.

"Sure, but let's get a beer first"

I get a beer, and settle in. There's rap music playing through the laptop speakers. It's warm, and the bar is blank sided, opening out above the street. After ten minutes, a large shot of Colombian rum is passed my way.

"Now you play?"

"Yeah!" shouts the hippy

It's clear that a man can be paid in thick rum for his music here so I oblige. I've never directly followed '50 Cent' before, and I'm already a few beers down, so it's rough and ready, but they like it and stamp and clap. The noise draws the proprietor and his girlfriend upstairs, followed by a couple more guests. A routine is established where we have two rap songs, then a tune from me, followed by more rum, and start again. One of the new guests is an Italian. Like me, he has an early start and has come for a quick nightcap. Like me, the session escalates. I'm the only Brit in the bar. There aren't more than two of any other nationality. We have a good laugh.

Eventually I pack up and re-trace my steps to bed. It's all swimming and I must be up for the Machu Picchu bus in five hours. The bed is impossibly long and comfy. I remember that rum normally makes me very ill. I go downstairs to get a bottle of water. An American is watching a game of college football on the hostel computer in the dead of night. He keeps shouting 'Yeah!' or 'Jeez, no!'. I get my water and watch with him. I'm not sure if he knows I'm here or not. It's Ohio vs Wisconsin, and one of them is his team, I don't remember which. It's overtime, and there has to be a winner. With 30 seconds to play, the internet freezes and so does he. Eyes bulging out of his head at the sheer unfairness of it all.


I sleep a fitful rum fueled sleep.
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