JUST LIKE MANY OF AMERICA’S railroads, Zambia’s longest rail line was built by the Chinese. But the Tazara line, which links the landlocked country with neighboring Tanzania, wasn’t built by coolies. Rather, it was built by Commies.
IT WAS THE 1970S, AND, IN THE NAME of Afro-Asian friendship and fraternal socialist solidarity, Chairman Mao built the countries a rail line to the sea. The idea was to get Zambia’s copper onto the world market without having to rely on the old colonial network through Rhodesia and South Africa, whose governments denied Zambia access to punish it for supporting anti-apartheid groups. So thousands of Mao-jacketed engineers arrived, bearing blueprints for station buildings that could double as People’s Cultural Centers in suburban Shanghai. By the time they were done, they had laid 1,800 kilometers of track, starting behind the Stalinist terminus that towers over this dusty provincial town and winding their way to an even more brutal edifice in downtown Dar es Salaam.
BUT, AS MY WIFE AND I LEARNED repeatedly on our two-month trip across Africa, things have a way of not working out as planned. First, the world copper market collapsed. Then apartheid fell. Mao was succeeded by leaders more focused on the bottom line. Zambia and Tanzania don’t exactly have a lot of money to spend on railway maintenance. The Tazara line, in other words, is in pretty rough shape.
THIS WAS NOT A PROBLEM FOR ME. BY the time we got to Zambia, we’d already schlepped halfway across the continent overland. I was determined to finish the job that way, too. My wife wasn’t so sure. “Why don’t we just fly?” she asked. I said that would be like taking a cross-country U.S. road trip but flying from Kansas City to Las Vegas. She suggested that might not be so bad, either. “Aw, c’mon,” I said. “It’ll only be 40 hours. And we’ll be together.”
NEITHER POINT TURNED OUT TO BE exactly true. The train only lets men and women stay together if they’ve booked a whole compartment—and there were no empty cabins left. So I landed with three other foreign travelers, and my wife wound up with three very proper Zambian women. My conversations involved beer prices in various backpacker locales. Hers involved the apparently urgent question of just why she had not yet had a child. Luckily, we were able to spend most of our waking hours together, drinking beer under the weak dome light of the first-class lounge (a classless society apparently didn’t extend to railroads). We also spent significant chunks of time in the dining car, where the bathrooms still have Chinese lettering. I never did find out, though, whether Mao’s legacy had anything to do with the Jackie Chan movie looping continuously on the lounge’s tiny television.
AS FOR THE 40 HOURS APART, WE PRETTY much knew that was shot when the purser sat down with us at breakfast the first morning. “We had a little trouble with the loco last night,” he explained, apologetically. “We are a little behind.” How far? “Maybe six hours,” he said. We soon paused for another two hours. That made eight. And, a bit later, during another unexplained stop, I saw a locomotive—our locomotive—heading the other way on a parallel track. It returned a couple hours later, and we were on our way. After a fashion.
IT WAS ONLY AFTER WE GOT BACK TO civilization that I learned our ride on the Tazara train had been more than just an anachronistic lark. Nearly 40 years after the project sparked uneasiness in Western capitals, big Chinese plans in Africa were again on everyone’s mind. In Tanzania, the papers were full of news about the upcoming summit in Beijing for nearly every African head of state. Back home, we discovered stories like November’s New York Times Magazine piece speculating about China’s intentions in energy-rich Angola. They’re building them a railroad, too.
NO DOUBT THAT TRAIN WILL LOOK A lot different. After all, not long before we took our rickety ride, China opened a train into Tibet that is a technological wonder, whatever its politics. And, unlike the fuzzy expressions of international friendship that undergirded Beijing’s first foray into African railway construction, the Chinese projects in places like Angola have to do with oil and money—the basic stuff of self interest. Still, I couldn’t help but notice a parallel between our current anxieties about our fast-growing rival’s recent African forays and the cold war alarums over Mao’s foreign scheming. “The Chinese are our best friends,” a Tanzanian enthuses, to the author’s great consternation, in Shiva Naipaul’s 1978 travelogue North of South. Nowadays, the concern is that the Chinese are great business partners, but it’s otherwise pretty similar.
BACK ON BOARD, THE IDEA THAT THE eyes of the world might once have been on our train began to seem especially absurd by the end of day two—although that may have been because we had been drawn into a particularly frenetic drinking game with the irony-minded Western college kids who made up a hefty chunk of the ridership on our journey. Maybe someday, capitalist Chinese college kids will also have the money to take an out-of-the-way train mainly because it lets them tell people they went from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean overland. Since the stations along the line represent everything the People’s Republic is busily tearing down back home, the voyage might have some nostalgia value.
THE PURSER MADE A FINAL PASS through the lounge late on our second full day on board. We’d been gawking out the window all afternoon as the train passed through a wild-animal preserve. (Getting to see giraffes and elephants is one upside of Maoist railroad planners’ lack of attention to environmental niceties.) But now, he said, the fun would soon be over: We’d be in the Tanzanian capital, and on the coast, by 7:30. Which would have made it 50 hours flat. Needless to say, we were not so surprised when we pulled in at 8:15.
This article appeared in the February 12, 2007 issue of the magazine.