The 'normal train' that crosses the Sahara

Story highlights

  • Photographer George Popescu took a 40-hour train ride in a remote part of Mauritania
  • His images show normal life in a place that's both harsh and almost surreal

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion. He documented slavery in Mauritania in 2011.

(CNN)This is a train most of us would not take.

It traverses a particularly remote part of Mauritania, an off-the-map sort of country in West Africa that's known to harbor modern slavery; hugs the border with the Western Sahara, which essentially is an international no-man's land; and rumbles through a largely lawless expanse of desert that is often seen as a good hideout for kidnappers and terrorists.
    That's the geography. Then there are the actual conditions of the ride. Ticketed passengers sit in enclosed cars that feel like the inside of a human washing machine. Illegal passengers, meanwhile, ride outside, often with livestock and on top of heaps of iron ore heading to and from a mine deep in the Sahara. They battle dust and sun and temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
      In October, Romanian photographer George Popescu took a 40-hour round-trip journey on this remote and seemingly dangerous route, starting in the coastal town of Nouadhibou, Mauritania, and ending at the mine site in Zouérat, deep in the desert.
      Photographer George Popescu
      But Popescu, who described the extreme conditions to me by phone, said he was struck by the train's normalcy. It's full of normal people trying to do normal things -- get somewhere, sell something or meet someone.