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Earth Sense: Railway travel offers beautiful scenery
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Railroads are an excellent means for experiencing the scenic beauty of mountain regions. Suitable for an afternoon excursion, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad is within two hours’ drive from Gainesville. Board the train in Bryson City, N.C., for a trip deep down into Nantahala Gorge.

The gorge got its name from the Native American term “Land of the Noonday Sun,” referring to the steep slopes that make it a shaded place throughout the day. The trip takes you across Fontana Lake, which has the tallest dam in the Eastern U.S. Some scenes shot for the movie “Forces of Nature” were made there, showing Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck on, and on top of, the train.

More pulse-pounding action is seen in “The Fugitive” with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, including a spectacular train crash staged right there on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad line. The Nantahala Gorge trip, with its views of the lake, mountains and whitewater river, is especially educational for children. www.gsmr.com provides details.

People with more time and money can invest in a grand adventure: the Chinese Qinghai-Tibet railway. Tomorrow marks the seventh anniversary of its operation. The 1200-mile trip takes you to Lhasa on the Tibet Plateau, a city at 11,975 feet elevation. That’s more than twice the altitude of Denver, Colo., and obviously not suitable for people who have physical problems in thin air.

On the train itself, oxygen apparatus is provided at every passenger seat and every train has an accompanying physician. There are plenty of other environmental challenges. Normal diesel locomotives won’t work in these elevations because the atmosphere is only half the density that you’d find at sea level.

The huge engines pulling the Lhasa train were specially made by General Electric in Pennsylvania. Several hundred miles of track are across permafrost. In order to avoid melting the permanently frozen ground and sinking into mud, the track runs on stilts.

More information about the reasonably priced tour packages, with pictures and videos of breathtaking scenery, is found at www.chinatibettrain.com.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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