I’m currently reading “The Great Railway Bazaar” by Paul Theroux, an account of his journey across Europe and Asia and back again by train. He extols the virtues of train travel, and writes “nothing is expected of the train passenger. In planes the traveller is condemned to hours in a tight seat; ships require high spirits and sociability; cars and buses are unspeakable. The sleeping car is the most painless form of travel.” That it may be, but train travel can still be incredibly gruelling. I thought I’d list five of the train journeys I’ve taken, just for fun!
The Overnighter from Nanjing to Taiyuan (Shanxi Province), China; ~1000km, 20 hours
This was the most painful and possibly the most memorable train journey of them all. I’d taken a week to head down to Jiangsu Province before rejoining my travelling companions Sarah and Lucy in north-west China. The weeks soujorn had gone brilliantly- I’d see a lot- possibly the most spectacular mountains I saw in all of China in Huang Shan, the “Yellow Mountains”, and a famous and historical pair of cities- Nanjing and Shanghai. The hostel I’d been staying at in Nanjing was sociable, and as my train was leaving at 10pm on the day of departure I had a few beers with fellow travellers and the hostel owner before leaving for the station. The day before I’d bought my ticket- they’d ran out of sleepers, they’d ran out of seats, so all that was left was an “open ticket” that the railway official assured me could be upgraded on the train. I rocked up in a cheerful mood from the beers only to be told there were no empty berths, and I’d quite literally have nowhere to sit, let alone sleep, for the next 20 hours. I bunked down at the end of a carriage, spreading newspaper on the floor, cramped in with working class Chinese passengers who regarded me with great curiosity. They tried several times to speak to me, but as my Chinese was rudimentary at best and they had no English the only way we could communicate was by tossing cigarettes to each other throughout the night and smiling. In China pumpkin seeds are regularly eaten on trains and buses as a way to pass the time, and as time did pass our sheets of newspaper were filled with the empty husks of the seeds. The trouble was we had to stand up at every station to let people on and off before settling back down again. After a while the cramped passage where I was sitting got too much, and I headed into a carriage to try and stretch out a bit. Around 3am, with everyone dozing, I couldn’t help but lie flat out in the middle of the train carriage. I looked up at some point and a smiling Chinese face was beaming down at me, holding an empty Coca-Cola bottle- a present, to be used as a pillow. People covered me with newspaper too and by early morning I must have looked ridiculous! The train ride continued all of the next day until late afternoon, and I was offered a seat for a couple of hours by another Chinese guy- the kindness of strangers is one of the beauties of travel, and it’s a train ride I’ll never forget.
The Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing; 9258km, 1 week
One of the most famous train journeys that there is. Me and Sarah took the Trans-Sib through Russia and into China, skipping Mongolia due to the hassle of getting visas, but stopping off at Irkutsk to see Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, holding a massive 20% of the world’s freshwater. The week long journey didn’t take us through spectacular scenery, but living on a train for a week did give us as much train experience as you need for a long time! Our compartment partners were usually nondescript burly Russians, transporting goods from A to B, only staying a day or so at a time. Our only permanent companions were a couple from Scandinavia- Ted and his girlfriend, and a Swiss teacher called Yan, who introduced me to Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for the first time. Yan has to be the greatest train companion I’ve had. I’d taken Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment on that journey- in fact it went with me throughout Russia, China, Thailand, and then to Japan for two years- and yet I still haven’t read it! At the Russo-Chinese border the train has to be taken off its wheels and transferred onto a different gauge. This process takes several hours, and we wandered the border town on the Russian side, as grim and bleak a place as I have ever seen. The border had no warmth- a “real” border, full of realpolitik, mistrust and tension. Guards lined the Chinese side, and the “no-mans” area where the track crossed the border was heavily fenced in, surrounded on both sides by rolling hills with not a building nor a person in sight. It was a spectacular moment, and one I won’t forget. On the Chinese side we had our documents checked, and then rolled on to the Chinese border town where we loaded up on snacks and beer to last us the next day or so until we reached the Chinese capital, Beijing.
The Nozomi Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka; 403km, 2.5 hours
I caught the Shink numerous times during my two years in Japan- mostly the Nozomi, and mostly from Okayama to Osaka or Okayama to Tokyo. Yet the Tokyo-Osaka journey has its symbolic significance, taking the traveller from the Kanto region of business heads and shades of elegant simplicity to the Kansai region of fire, shochu and Japanese colour and comedy. The two regions of Japan are the most culturally interesting and distinct, but it’s the train we should really be talking about. The Shinkansen is a monument to beauty and grace, a god-like machine that travels at the speed of light while provided a travelling experience that’s like floating on a cloud. Its equipped with everything you could need; uniformed officials with requisite white gloves, bowing upon entering each and every carriage, bento boxes and Asahi beer to keep you tided over until you reach your destination, and a news ticker so you can keep track of the baseball scores. It also yields a surprising number of interesting conversations if you make the effort- Japanese people aren’t naturally drawn to speaking to strangers, but the surprise and intrusion their faces express upon first contact soon changes to interest and enjoyment as the conversation progresses. I like talking to strangers on trains- it speeds up the journey, and is surprisingly relaxing. As Theroux says in his book, “conversation …derived an easy candour from the shared journey …and the certain knowledge that neither of us would see each other again. The railway was a fictor’s bazaar, in which anyone with the patience could carry away a memory to pore over in privacy.”
The Painfully Slow Sleeper from Santa Clara to Camaguey, Cuba; 300km, 5 hours + 4 hour delay
The most frustrating train journey I’ve taken was the incredibly slow journey from one Cuban town to the next on a one month visit to Cuba. Having got to the station well on time, we had to wait four hours for the trains to leave- we even popped back to the casa paticulares in which we were staying, as well as buying cheap, strong coffee using our abundant supply of Cuban pesos. Eventually the train arrived- I had the window seat, which meant I fell sound asleep while Tim felt responsible for the security of the bags. Mind you, Tim would get his own back on the journey from Berlin to Krakov some months later when I was kept awake by the fear of us both being gassed…
Inter-railing, Madrid to Barcelona; 506km, 5hrs?
We took a lot of trains when inter-railing around Europe in 2003, and several stick out in my memory. I enjoyed the six hour trip up from Hamburg in Germany to Copenhagen, passing the stark and beautiful landscape of that area of the world, having the train shunted onto a ferry to cross form one island to the next as we entered the naturally sporadic island country of Denmark. I also remember the overnight train from Berlin to Krakov, when Tim slept like a log but I was continually awoken throughout the night by strange men appearing at our door; we’d heard a story of people being gassed on this route at the hostel we stayed at in Berlin, and my subconscious was clearly taking no chances. These are two journeys among many, yet the one I’ve picked was the relatively simple train from Madrid to Barcelona, around 5 hours (before the high speed AVE). We had seats, we had rolling scenery, and most importantly we had the best train food ever- crusty bread, Spanish salami, tomatoes and goats cheese- a snack fit for the gods.
I guess I’ve taken quite a few trains in quite a few countries. I agree with Theroux- train journeys are the best, providing comfort, companions and rolling scenery which the train glides through, not disturbing anything but merely observing. There are plenty of trains left for me to take, but I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about some of the ones I’ve taken!