The trains you can ride without leaving your desk

You've trawled through the pictures on Google Images, now ride the train from your miserable desk. Image: David Gubler

If you’re a full-on transport freak like me, there’s a problem. You want to go gallivanting around the world, riding all the trains, metros, and trams you can find, mixing TGV with Shinkansen, Deutsche Bahn with Amtrak, and so on.

But the harsh reality is that economic necessity means you have to do a job and get on with life most of the time, and not just sit on trains in a pensieve but ultimately aimless way.

Suffer no longer! Where once only a tiny minority would relish the opportunity of a 55-minute YouTube journey showing the entire journey on an obscure city’s metro line, the beamed-to-your-screen train experience is becoming more mainstream.

It’s early days yet, but here are just a few trains you can ride without leaving your desk. 

It's just like being there in person, honest. Image: Google Street View.

 

Switzerland's Rhätische Bahn

In 2012, Google Street View paired up with the Rhaetische Bahn, a local railway company separate from the country’s main SBB-CFF-FFS rail provider, to get one of the world’s most beautiful railway routes added to the Street View catalogue.

The 75.8-mile route of the Albula-Bernina railway line is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and just one of the stunning scenic routes that criss-cross the curious south-eastern part of Switzerland, where the accents are so lousy with thick Swiss German and Romansch notes that they can barely understand each other.

The Google team attached a specially adapted camera carriage to the front of a Rhaetische Bahn train, and off it trundled through the Swiss mountains. And now you can enjoy it over the cheeky Pret salad you bought as a Thursday-lunch desk treat. 

Mmmm, shiny. Image: Google Street View.

 

Japan's newest Shinkansen

Admittedly, as much of the pleasure for train buffs is the interior of a train as it is the route, the landscape, or the rolling stock itself. Who doesn’t love a tastefully decorated, well-laid out carriage, with plush but not over-exuberant seating and clear but not crude signposting and layout guidance?

As of last year, Google Street View (again) means you can step inside the Hokuriku Shinkansen, the newest addition to the Shinkansen “bullet train” network stretching the two and a half hours from Tokyo to Kanazawa, and explore the train’s three classes – Grand Class, Green Class, and Standard.

Spoiler – it’s a really really nice train. 

This looks more impressive when you watch the real video. Image: Expedia.

 

Norway's virtual reality train

The Flåm railway line in Western Norway passes through some of Scandinavia’s most beautiful scenery – soaring mountains, plunging valleys, crystalline lakes and dramatic rocky outcrops – and passes by Norway’s largest national park.

But Norway’s kind of expensive, right? Even if you can afford the social and financial cost of going abroad purely to ride on some good trains, the exorbitant cost of living and terrible exchange rate will hit you where it hurts the most, and in this day and age sometimes that’s just not worth it.

But thanks to a handy partnership with Expedia, the mountain line is available as a 360-degree video played at varying speeds to the soundtrack of Edvard Grieg’s Anitras Dance, or as a virtual reality experience.

I’m not entirely clear how that virtual reality experience works, but if you’re someone in the know with a VR-capable device, then this is totally something you can explore in your own free time, as long as the sensation of being virtually strapped to a train trundling through the mountains doesn’t freak you out. 

*Nerdiness intensifies*. Image: Google Street View.

 

Tiny train trips

And if all of that from-your-desk travelling feels a little strange and fabricated, you can dive right in and actually explore an entirely fake train-centred world.

Thanks to another Google Street View special, the extraordinarily detailed and intricate fantasy land of the Miniatur Wunderland – the world’s largest model railway, in Hamburg, Germany – is available from your computer screen. You can explore the ‘Swiss’ mountain valley where they’re working on a gargantuan new bridge, or pop into the Munich beer hall and hope that nobody tries to talk politics to you.

All in all, a world of fun available at the click of a mouse.

Don’t say we don’t treat you right. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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