THE MAIN TERMINAL of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway sits on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, white and gleaming, spreading out on the side of Pugu Road like the wide grin of a cheshire cat. On the interior, it is cavernous like the inside of some great whale Jonah night have inspected in his time. It could be my new train terminal in the United States or Europe, but its clientele is almost strictly African and its motif is Chinese.

Outside, in the large parking lot stand ornate lamps from the British Victorian era that were sold to the Chinese years ago and, in turn, have been sold to the Africans for their stations. Each lamp still bears the initials of Victoria Regina. "Dar es Salaam" is written in large letters stretching across the front of the station, and just below that, a speaker blares out the music of sweet African voices singing about Tanzania in Swahili. The songs bear striking resemblance to Chinese work and nationalistic songs.

Out on the platforms, the tracks stretch into the distance lined by swaying palm trees that whisper of villages and wildlife and mysterious countryside. Metal workshop buildings fill the grounds around the tracks and the sound of metal upon metal and gunning engines pours out of them.

Inside is a carnival of colors and sounds. The terminal is filled with bright light. People sit on benches situated in a rectangle on either side of a large balcony tht overlooks the main entryway. The empty space is filled with the quiet calypso-beat conversations in Swahili, children's laughter and the jingle of African music from portable radios. Parcels, baskets wrapped tightly with large pieces of cloth, boxes and suitcases tied with rope, are all lined up neatly in the middle of the floor, stretching back from the platform entrance gate 50 feet or more into the waiting room.

Adding an extra air of mystery is the occasional Chinese face seen wandering around the station, standing out from the many black faces and intermittent white onces. The Chinese wear dark glasses that make them look almost more like tourists or characters in a Grade B spy movie than the advisers and engineers they are. They have been here more than five years, and while their presence has diminished since the completion of the railway more than one year ago, they continue to intrigue both Africans and Westerners alike, despite their small numbers and customary solitude. According to reports from locals, the Chinese have stayed very much to themselves in the African environment and insisted on surrounding the railway during its six years of construction in a cloak of secrecy. That first encounter withthe Chinese presence begins at the station in Dar and continues throughout a trip on the Tanzam Railway.

A journey on the train is pleasant, though it's not the fastest trip by rail. But all things seem more laid back in African life, and it is one of her beautiful sides if a traveler leans back and relaxes with it.

The track, which is narrower than the conventional European or American counterpart, stretches over plains and around and through mountains that are so tall and dark, one can't distinguish them from tall black clouds that hang on the horizon at dusk.

There are still small things to work out, such as teh train's scheduling (it runs twice weekly), but the price is right for the visual and cultural treat it buys.

The dining car is extremely simple in its decor, and the menu is slim but quite palatable. It includes beef curry, omelets, steak and pork, and lots of beer. One Zambian passenger on the train began each day with a beer for breakfast and consumed the stuff throughout the day, until it seemed as though he might float away. Beer is the most popular of aperitifs here and many a bottle is consumed during the after-dinner conversations that fill the dining cars into the late evening.

That time of day is the best part of the journey for a foreigner, when everyone is lively and eager to ask and answer questions. A stranger can meet people from all walks of African life: a sports coach; a Tanzanian who is a student in zambia; a young mother whose husband is studying engineering at the University of Texas; a newlywed couple; the sailors; a son who is moving to a different city after a tearful farewell to his mother at the train station. There are chances to talk to Africans who one might not easily encounter under different circumstances.

And always, traveling in their own separate car and occasionally during in the club car, there are the Chinese.Throughout the trip, they show the African train conductors how to switch this off or that on, how to turn up the heat or open the vents or switch on the lights. At each large stop, along with other passengers, the Chinese advisers will disembark and be replaced by others. To see them intermingling on the platforms with the Africans in their brightly colored clothes is reminiscent of the colorful propaganda posters that are still posted sparsely in some areas of Tanzania.

Along the way, from Dar to the other end of the system in Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia, riders are greeted by villages of round, tatch-roofed huts, some villages sprawling for miles while others line only a few yards of track. Children scramble down the bare paths from their houses to the train and wave furiously to passengers.

At nightfall, as the cool African breeze blows in through the vents in the louvered shutters of the train windows, one can see fires in the black distance where farmers burn off their lands for the planting season. And in the predawn light, herds of buffalo and boars and zebras scurry away as the train makes its way through the game reserves.

The Tanzam Railway has long been a dream for Africans. Dubbed the Uhuru (freedom) Railway, it is owned jointly by the governments of Tanzania and Zambia. Its beginnings were as rocky as some of the terrain the railway travels through and few development projects have been so highly charged with political dynamite as this one - the third largest in African history. The desire by the Africans to have a good railway system in the East has spanned this century.

Oddly enough, it was Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia, who first envisoned the line as an essential link from the southern portion of Africa up to Cairo in 1906. But the problem has always been money and the terrifying terrain. Rather than face those odds, Rhodes detoured his line through the Katanga copper belt and into Angola to Lobito.

Nobody tried again until 1963, when Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda began to kick the idea around. He finally was hastened to total commitment to the railway's development in 1965, when the Smith regime in Rhodesia declared its independence from Britain. That move caused a breakup in the Rhodesian railway system, which was jointly owned and operated by Rhodesia and Zambia.

The passage of time became more ctitical but still aid from western sources was held up. Even the World Bank, which is often willing to take a gamble, refused a loan for the railway, its reason being the degree of underdevelopment in East Africa at the time.

The British went as far as having a feasibility study conducted and a survey mapped out. They came so close they had the Africans visualizing the project, but again the idea was tabled for further consideration. So it was, with great timing, that the Chinese grasped the opportunity of correcting their previous diplomatic blunders in Africa at the earlier beginning of the independence decade.

In this way, the Chinese beat other superpowers who dawdled at their own game in a strategically important area of Africa. They provided the Africans with something they desperately needed and wanted, and did it in such a way that the Americans and Russians were the only ones left with a bad taste in their mouths. It was a dream come true for the Africans, a reward for the tireless efforts of Tanzania's President Julius Nyerere and President Kaunda of Zambia, and it provided the Chinese with one of Peking's most impressive diplomatic public relations spectacles.

Offering a financial deal that would make a banker dizzy, the Chinese agreed to finance the construction and equipping of the railway by providing an interest-free loan of over 166 million pounds sterling, which the two African governments have until the year 2012 to repay. Payments begin in 1983 in 30 equal installments.A report on the building of the railway released by the railway authority states that all together as many as 100,000 Africans were employed during the six years of construction and as mnay as 15,000 Chinese workers and technical advisers participated in the work, alongside the Africans.

Together, these men and women built 320 bridges, 26 tunnels, 2,225 culverts and 822,200 meters of concrete drainage channels. Not to be ignored are the hundreds of small Chinese-motif houses built along the railroad for construction and living quarters.

With the advent of the rail system, Zambians have been provided with an alternate route for their exports and the Tanzanians now have a method of extracting and shipping the rich minerals found in their southern highlands region, an area known as Tanzania's rice-bowl. Ujaama or communal farm villages have cropped up next to the line's route, and the promise of more jobs and further development increases.

Time will indicate the ultimate utiltiy and practicality of the Uhuru Railway, but no one can deny that the Chinese will come out as winners. Indirectly, they have helped to nurture an already budding relationship between Tanzania and Zambia, which has grown still closer with bickering in the East African community (Tanzania-Kenya-Uganda). There has even been speculation about a future union between the two countries. This would be one of the most important spinoffs of the Tanzam line, especially on a continent where unions are difficult to form and keep.

(According to a recent report from Kenya, already petty nationalism is eroding some of the railway's services. For example, Zambian currency is not accepted for food and beverages once the train crosses the border into Tanzania. Yet the staff and customs authorities have refused to allow any money to be exchanged, leaving passengers hungry and thirsty for a full day.)

With the current African consciousness-raising and the push for African solutions to African problems, this other "Orient Express" seems to have appeared at just the right time, planned or not. And while the young African child waving furiously at passengers is unaware of the political implications, the Tanzam Railway may be not only the solution to some tough logistics problems, but also a dream come true in more ways than one.