The train reversed down the tracks, the engine facing backwards, and passed the collected Swiss tourists, cameras ready. It returned five minutes later, the engine, circa 1896, facing forward this time as it pulled four aged, wooden passenger cars. Here was our ride, a relic of the Hijaz railway, the Zabadani Flyer.
“Why do you ride steam machine on weekend holiday?”
We had been picked up at the Hijaz train station in central Damascus by a bus, which took us to the “steam machine” station someway up the hills toward the Barada River Gorge. The man in the bus told us that he lived at the railway musuem, the steam machine museum, near the station and would utter that description — calling the train the steam machine — maybe forty times during our 2 and half hour ride north up the Gorge — through the remnants of the Barada River — to Ain El Figeh, the source of Damascus’ vaunted water supply.
The tap water is good to drink in the city — it shuts off around midday, since water is scarce and the desert is eating Syria — and Damascenes are proud of their potable public water. It’s nothing like Cairo, where a carton of bottled water was among the weekly purchases at the market down the street.
The Zabadani Flyer is the last running narrow-gauge steam train in Syria, on the famed Hijaz railway tracks that steamed out of Damascus to Medina, the target of so many bombs by Lawrence and his Arabs in revolt.
The Flyer used to push all the way to Zabadani, a mountain resort down 50 kilometers north of Damascus, but stops at Ain El Figeh now, where spring water is visibly scare. A service taxi can get you there in less than half an hour; the relic train takes more than two hours as it chugs along slow enough for families to stand and wave, say hello, and even ask how you are, as they line the tracks which run through suburban Damascus and along a main road that runs up into Wadi Barada.
The stops for tea, and to pump more water in the old steam tank, slow the trip even more, but this is the point: every Friday, departing officially at 7 or 8am — we left around 9:30 — and returning to Damascus by 4pm. Families and tourists are the target audience, and between the Swiss tour group, the Syrian television crew, and the clapping and singing consortium of teenage Syrians, the ride was as advertised.
I ate peanuts and battled a few hours of sleep for the first hour, sitting on a wooden seat, my arm out the window, and occasionally my head, into the morning light and the exhaust of the steam machine.