Articles tagged with "train journey"

Novi Beograd

Novi Beograd

Early the next morning we headed down to the station to catch the train to Belgrade. I slept most of the way, waking only to see endless flat green fields occasionally. Last time I’d crossed a border into Serbia, the guard had been remarkably jovial considering it had been 2am. This time, it was the middle of a beautiful spring day but the man who stamped our passports was definitely not happy. He looked at my battered document with some disgust, but stamped us in eventually.

We got to Belgrade in the early afternoon and checked into a hostel. At first it seemed incredibly welcoming and cool. Over the next few days, though, we’d find that the Swedish owner was pretty weird, vaguely racist and generally a bit unpleasant to be around. Still, they made me a coffee and that made me happy, and it was good to be back in Serbia.

We headed over to the Belgrade Arena to pick up our tickets. Last time, I’d only crossed the Sava briefly, to go to a club on a boat, so I hadn’t seen Novi Beograd at all. Under clear blue skies I really liked it. It was quite quiet, and we stopped for coffees and snacks at cafes along the way to the stadium. We got hold of our tickets with no problems, and it was nice to actually have one this time. Negotiating my way past layers of security in Lisbon when my ticket never arrived had been challenging enough; I was glad I wouldn’t have to do the same in Serbia.


St. Pancras

St. Pancras

The Eurostar used to come into Waterloo Station. The terminal there cost a vast amount of money to build, and was then only used for 13 years. The new terminal is at St. Pancras, which cost an even more vast amount of money, but at least has a good chance of lasting for more than a decade and a half.


Train to Skopje

Train to Skopje

Early the next morning I walked down from Velania to Priština’s train station. I’d checked it out the day before, and found that one train a day left from here to Skopje, at 6.24am. The station was tiny and grotty, and I did not have any particular faith in the timetable. But I got there at 6.15am, after a nice walk in the dawn light through the deserted city. And the train left exactly on time. I was the only person on board.

The train wound its way through southern Kosovo, through forested valleys and alongside rivers. Only an hour and a half later, we were at the Macedonian border. I got no Kosovo exit stamp, but luckily I got a Macedonian entry stamp. I also made the acquaintance of an elderly Albanian man, who appeared at the door to my compartment carrying immigration forms and passports for himself, his wife and his daughter. For a moment I thought this might be because he was illiterate; in fact it was because all the forms were in Macedonian and English only, despite the large Albanian minority who live in the country. I filled in all the forms, and we all made it across the border.

It was a bright sunny morning. About half an hour after we left the border, we pulled into Skopje station. I wouldn’t have minded staying here but I didn’t have that many days left before I needed to be in Thessaloniki. So I just bought myself a great espresso from the station cafe, a snack from a shop, and a bus ticket to Ohrid.


Train to Belgrade

Train to Belgrade

The train was about an hour late arriving in Budapest. I’d been getting paranoid that I’d missed it. On board, it was busy. I found my way to a six seat cabin, in which I met two Serbs going to Subotica, two English girls going to Novi Sad, and a Hungarian who got off somewhere near the border. I chatted to the English girls for a while, then slept very badly. When we got woken up for the borders I felt so tired I hardly knew what was going on, but the Serb official who stamped me in was as jovial as any border guard I’ve ever met.

At dawn we reached Novi Sad. The English girls got off, and I had the compartment to myself. Dawn was breaking as we crossed the Danube, rumbling over a bridge that replaced one destroyed by NATO bombs in 1999. I slept until we got to Belgrade at eight.


Dublin

Dublin

By the time we docked in Dublin it was cold and raining. There was snow on the hills along the Irish coast. I got a bus to the centre of town, where I had a couple of hours to kill before the Belfast train. I walked along by the Liffey, took a few photos and felt like I’d seen pretty much all there is to see in Dublin on my previous two trips here. I walked up to Connolly station and got on the train heading north.


Ireland overland

Ireland overland

The annual National Astronomy Meeting was being held in Belfast. Having never been to Northern Ireland, I thought I would go, and feeling environmentally conscientious I decided to travel overland. My train/boat ticket from London to Belfast and back was the same price as a flight, and I’d see all the nations in the British Isles on the way. My journey started with a train from Euston to Holyhead. It was raining when I left London, but sunny in Wales, as I got on the ferry for the three hour journey across the Irish Sea to Dublin.


Nyugati

Nyugati

I walked towards Nyugati station. I didn’t have much time left in Budapest, and I wanted to try and get hold of the soundtrack to Kontroll. But I was out of luck – none of the shops in the huge shopping centre by Nyugati station had it. I would have to come back.

My flight was not until the morning, but it was leaving at 6.30am, so rather than pay for another night in the hostel and get up at 3am, I decided to go and sleep at the airport and get up at 4.30am. I got a late train out to Ferihegy, but when it got to the station I almost didn’t notice. We stopped for only a few seconds, and by the time I’d spotted the sign and got to the door, the train was already accelerating rapidly. I had to make a split-second decision – jump or not? I jumped, landed with a jolt but intact, and didn’t even have to do the combat roll I’d been planning mid-air.

It was an uncomfortable night at the airport. Sleeping on a hard bench would have been tiring even if I didn’t have a broken rib, and even if one of the cleaners driving around throughout the night hadn’t crashed into my bench with his floor-washing machine. Feeling injured and exhausted, I headed back to London.


Halmstad

Halmstad

We saw the sun setting over Denmark across the water. We arrived in Halmstad after dark, with our main aim being to check out the night life. But before we could do that, we needed somewhere to stay. My guide book said there was a place 4km out of town, towards the E6 motorway, so we headed out in that direction. We walked, and walked, and walked. My feet began to hurt. We walked on, and I started cursing Eldrik for travelling with a ridiculous wheely suitcase thing instead of an obviously more practical backpack. The constant rumbling got a bit tiring after a few kilometres, and eventually he started wheeling on the grass.

After about an hour, we began to think that we weren’t in the right place. The hostel was supposedly on Växjögatan, and Eldrik grabbed a passer-by to practise his Swedish on. I could just about follow the gist of the conversation, and it went something like “Excuse me. Do you know if Växjögatan is near here?” “Växjögatan? I’ve never heard of it” “Um.. ok. Do you know of any hostels near here?” “Nope”

So we had definitely gone wrong. We were near a huge shopping centre, and there was a fast food place open, so we boosted morale by eating dirty burgers, then got a bus back into town to reconsider our options. Plan B was to check prices at hotels in town, but they were way beyond our means. We then moved onto Plan C, which was to skip Halmstad and head on to Gothenburg. We headed for the station, only to find that the next train wasn’t for almost two hours. So we quickly put together Plan D: we found a map of the town at the train station, and it appeared that my guide book had sent us out of town on the wrong road. We would head down what we thought now was the right road, and if we hadn’t found the hostel within 45 minutes, we’d get out of this place and head on. So off we went out of town again, and this time after about half an hour we found what we were looking for, the Hostel Laxen.

Once we’d recovered from our explorations, we got a bus back into town, and went out. After a few hours in the town centre I decided to head home. There were no night buses out in our direction, so I walked another three miles back out to the Laxen. In the morning, we walked back in, again, and headed north. We’d walked thirteen miles during our stay in Halmstad.


Helsingør

Helsingør

When we got to the station, we found that the next train to Halmstad wasn’t for another hour and a half. We decided that as it was only a couple of miles away, we might as well pop over to Denmark while we were here, and so we got on a ferry heading across the sound in the howling gales. Once we’d docked, we had about twenty minutes to spare for a quick walk around town, before we had to get on the ferry back over to Sweden.


Sinaia

Sinaia

Braşov had a laid-back vibe, and I spent another couple of days there doing nothing much at all but enjoying the fresh mountain air and sunshine. Eventually it was time to move on – I wanted to see a bit of Bucharest before flying back home – so I got a train to Sinaia, another mountain town on the line to Bucharest. I wanted to go up its cable car, which takes you up to 2200m in the Bucegi Mountains, but I’d picked the wrong day – it was closed on Mondays. So I just went for a short walk into the hills and a look at Peleş Castle, which was massively more impressive than Bran Castle. Then I walked back to the station and got the train to Bucharest. The sun was setting and I had a great journey under blazing red skies. I got to Bucharest late in the evening, jumped on the metro and headed for a hostel.


Transylvania

Transylvania

At Bucureşti Nord station I said goodbye to Cristi, bought a strong coffee for breakfast, and then got on the first train to Braşov. I found a window seat on the top deck. A lot of the Romanians crossed themselves as we pulled out of the station for the three hour journey into the heart of Transylvania.

We rolled through Bucharest’s northern suburbs under deep blue skies, and before long hills were rising from the plains. After an hour or so we were in the forested Bucegi mountains, where wild bears still roam. Rocky peaks towered over the train lines and although I was tired from the overnight train journey, I didn’t want to miss the scenery by sleeping. A couple of hours later we arrived in Braşov.

I liked the town straight away. The air was cool and fresh, the sun was shining, and the atmosphere was friendly. I spent a day ambling around narrow streets lined with grand old buildings, and took a cable car to the top of Mount Tâmpa. The mountain towers over Braşov, and once you’re up there you can’t see the very garish hollywood-style BRAŞOV sign attached to it, which reminds everyone which town they are in. In a blissed-out tired haze after my overnight train journey, I stayed up there fore a while in the sunshine, enjoying views over the town and its surroundings, and also enjoying being in Romania, which depending on how exactly I define ‘country’ and ‘been to’, might be the 60th country I’ve been to.


Night train to Bucharest

Night train to Bucharest

After a couple of days I’d pretty much covered Chişinău, and so I walked down to the station and bought a ticket for the night train to Bucharest. The train was quiet and I thought I might get a compartment to myself, but a few minutes before the train left someone joined me. When the train left at ten past five, I spent a while looking out of the windows at the beautiful Moldovan countryside rolling by in the evening sun, and then I got talking to my travelling companion.

He was called Cristi, and luckily he spoke quite a lot of English. He was Romanian but married to a Moldovan, and he said he thought Moldovans were friendlier and more honest than Romanians. It turned out that he was on the first stage of a journey to Italy, where he was planning to work for at least a year. Romania had been a member of the EU for nine months and he was taking advantage of the free movement of labour that this brought. He was leaving behind his wife, and didn’t know when he would see her again. As we approached the border with Romania, he said he was just starting to realise how much he would miss Moldova. Like the currency man, Cristi was bemused that I’d come to Moldova as a tourist, and particularly that I’d been to Tiraspol.

At nightfall we reached the border with Romania at Ungheni. We were leaving the broad tracks of the former USSR for the narrower ones of the rest of Europe, and our train was shunted into a yard where each carriage was raised, and the wheels changed. My passport was taken away by the first person to check it, and after an hour or so when the wheels of the train were back on it still hadn’t reappeared. Cristi went to ask the train attendants what was going on and they said that it was nothing, and we’d be getting checked again by immigration shortly. And soon enough another border guard appeared. He wanted to know why I didn’t have a Moldovan entry stamp, and it was really lucky for me that Cristi was such a friendly guy and spoke English. They had a conversation in Romanian, the approximate gist of which was “So, how come he doesn’t have a stamp?” “Because he came via Tiraspol.” “Why did he do that?” “Oh, he’s a tourist.” “Really? Get away!” “No, he really is.”

And with that I was into Romania. Cristi shared a colossal bag of Romanian chocolates with me to celebrate his return to his homeland, and I felt terrible that I had nothing to share with him to thank him for his help. He asked me if I could name any famous Romanians. I managed Dracula, the Cheeky Girls and Ilie Nastase – the last one made up a bit for the first two. In return, he named most of the royal family. His knowledge of Britain definitely beat my knowledge of Romania, but surely in a few days time I would know more.


L’viv

L'viv

The next day it was raining heavily. Only a couple of weeks earlier, Ukraine had been in the grip of a fearsome heatwave with temperatures well over 40°C, but it had broken now. L’viv in the rain was not quite as enchanting as L’viv in the sunshine, and I decided to book a train to Kiev for that evening. To do this, I went to the ticket booking office in town, and reused a method which had worked a treat when I was in Moscow – I wrote down my destination in Cyrillic, the time of train I wanted, and the word for ‘sleeper’, and handed it over. The woman behind the counter passed back a demand for a modest number of hryvnia, I handed it over, and I got a ticket for the night train to Kiev in return.

The train was at 10pm so I had all day to kill. I met Johan and Brianna for lunch, which we had at a place that Johan had wanted to try out. It was called Kupol and the decor was pure 1930s. It was like having tea round a very old person’s house. After lunch I wandered around randomly, taking whichever street looked the most interesting and covering a lot of central Lviv in the process.

By now it was dark, and I set out to walk back to the station. I passed the impressive church we’d passed on our way in to town, took a slight wrong turn into a dodgy part of town, quickly backtracked and made it to the station unscathed. I left for Kiev at 10pm.


To the East

To the East

We arrived in Lviv in pitch darkness at 4.45am. I hardly remember arriving as I was tired beyond belief, but I know I found my way to a warm waiting room with my two travelling companions, Johan from Sweden and Brianna from the US. We slept in the waiting room for a couple of hours, before heading into the city at about 6.30am. As we walked out of the station the sky was just starting to get light.

We didn’t really know which way town was, but we guessed that it would be in the direction of some huge church spires we could see down the road, and we headed off. Our instincts were right, and after about twenty minutes we found ourselves in the centre of town. I found a hostel and straight away went to bed. I woke up at 2pm, anxious to get out and see the sights. It was a warm afternoon and I headed out to Svoboda, the main street, to check out the atmosphere. Then I walked up to the historic centre, Ploshcha Rynok, and looked around there.

In the evening I met up with Johan and Brianna for a meal. The first place we went to said they were sorry, but they had a power problem and so couldn’t do any hot food right now. So we went to a place a few doors away, but they said the same thing so this part of Lviv seemed to be having a power cut. So we stopped at the second place and had a salad.

After the meal we decided to have a look at Castle Hill. This proved to be quite an expedition as the paths up it were unlit. From the top, though, we got some great views of the town. I took plenty of photos. One long exposure was ruined when a large spider walked across my hand but some others came out OK.


Train to Hong Kong

Train to Hong Kong

It took me a while to buy my ticket to Hong Kong. The easy bit was knowing I needed to ask for ‘Jiulong’, the Mandarin for Kowloon. The much harder bit was finding the ticket office. After lengthy periods in three different queues in two different buildings near Shanghai train station, I finally got my hands on a ticket.

While I’d been in Beijing, watching China’s English-language news channel, one of the stories was that the national rail network had just been upgraded and all journeys were now quicker. If I’d taken this train a week ago it would have been a 24 hour journey, but today it was down to 20 hours. I got a China exit stamp and boarded the train. We headed out of Shanghai, and for hours we passed through its vast suburbs. I didn’t see any significant area of green land before the sun set.

It had been sunny when I left Shanghai. In the morning, we were in the rice fields of southern China, under heavy skies and with rain lashing down. I watched the terraces go by and we approached Hong Kong. I went in search of breakfast, and found the restaurant car just as they were packing away what looked like a magnificent feast. Luckily there was a small shop selling snacks, and I bought some small cakes to see me through the rest of the journey.

We stopped in Guangzhou for a while, then pushed on towards Hong Kong. Soon after Shenzhen, we reached the border, which couldn’t have been clearer – the concrete of Shenzhen abruptly stopped, and the green forests of the New Territories started. The train wound through the mountains, past small villages which became larger villages and towns and eventually the suburbs of Kowloon. At 1pm, on time to the minute, we pulled into Hung Hom Station.


To the north

To the north

On my first trip to Finland I hadn’t seen anything of Tampere beyond the train station. Arriving back there three years later was like a bizarre and intense déjà vu experience. As I had last time, I struggled for a while with ticket machines that unfortunately only display Swedish and Finnish text. I thought I could work out how to buy a ticket in Swedish, but was not quite confident enough to actually put my card in the machine and so I decided to buy a ticket on the train instead.

With a couple of hours to kill, I went for a walk around Tampere. It was late on a Friday night and things were pretty raucous. My guide book described Tampere as ‘the Manchester of Finland’, and just like northern girls back home, Finnish girls were wearing amazingly few clothes given the near-freezing temperatures. I walked up the main street beyond the centre, through a park, down to the river and then back into town, found a take-away pizza shop and took a giant vegetarian pizza back to the station.

My train arrived just after 1am. I got on board and sought out a conductor, but none seemed to be around. The train pulled out of the station and set off on its amazing journey north, and after a while a conductor appeared and sold me a sleeper ticket. I was sharing a compartment with a fisherman called Mikko, who kept on cursing himself for speaking terrible English though we were having a perfectly good conversation. He was quite drunk, and offered me some of his Finnish vodka, which he said was the best in the world. But I had to leave him to it, and I went to the restaurant car for a late night snack. When I came back, Mikko was snoring heavily.

I slept pretty well, and when I woke up at 9am we were in the far north of Finland, in an endless scene of forests and lakes, under a dark blue sky with just a hint of daylight in it. There was a bit of snow on the ground but barely any cover. Mikko said that in 20 years he had only known such good December weather a couple of times before. I got up and went for a coffee in the restaurant car, and spent the next couple of hours watching the sunrise set the sky on fire. Twilight seemed to last for ever and the Sun didn’t actually rise until well past 10am. In full daylight the boggy landscape looked a little bit more prosaic, and before long we were in the grim industrial outskirts of Rovaniemi, the capital of Lappland. It was 11am and I was three miles south of the Arctic Circle.


Plovdiv

Plovdiv

I got a night train back to Bulgaria. There were no fun people to share my compartment with this time, just an angry Hungarian who hadn’t much enjoyed Turkey and thought that more or less everyone had been ripping him off. The border crossing was quicker than it had been in the other direction, and we were more or less on time when we reached Plovdiv at 9am the next day. I met a Swiss girl in the restaurant car who was also going there, and we both got confused when the train stopped at a station in the outskirts of the town. We thought we needed to get off, but there was a very large woman with some very large bags blocking the exit, and the train only stopped for a few seconds. We thought we might not be stopping again until Sofia, but luckily we soon stopped at a much bigger station that was clearly Plovdiv’s main one.

The station was still quite a way from the centre. I walked up Ulitsa Ivan Vazov to the central square, and without any particular aim in mind I walked up the main street, eventually reaching the reedy Maritsa River. I crossed the river but soon realised there was nothing but suburbs up here, so I wandered back into town. I stopped to look at the incredible Roman Amphitheatre, which lay hidden for centuries, right in the city centre, until a landslide exposed it in the 1970s.


Back to Europe

Back to Europe

It had been a long day, starting as it had at 5am in Aydın. I was tired as I boarded the train, and would have loved to go to sleep straight away. Bu as we pulled out of Denizli, my carriage filled up with boisterous young Turks. The three in my carriage were very friendly, sharing food and practising their English. This mainly consisted of the two boys pointing at the girl and saying “prostitute!”, which she responded to by pointing at one of the boys and saying “wanker!”.

Night fell over central Turkey. In the morning, I woke up feeling angry with my guide book, which claimed that buses were always better than trains in Turkey. This was nonsense – I’d slept fantastically, and as I had a morning coffee in the restaurant car, we were rumbling along by the Sea of Marmara, with curls of mist rising from the waters. This was far better than the night bus to Denizli.

We got to Istanbul at 10.15am. We were two hours late but I was in no hurry. At Haydarpaşa station, I looked at the departures board, saw that a train to Tehran was leaving soon, and thought about what a fantastic journey that would be. But I had to leave Asia behind, and I got on a ferry back across the Bosphorous, to return to Europe for the time being.


Night train to Istanbul

Night train to Istanbul

As the sun was setting I walked north to the train station, to catch the train to Istanbul. At the station there seemed to be an organised scam operating, with people latching onto unsuspecting travellers, saying there were ‘tourist information’ and then demanding money for ‘help’ given. One of them spotted me looking at the departure board and ended up walking with me to the Istanbul platform. I tried to get rid of him but couldn’t, and ended up giving him a couple of leva, worth about 60p, at which he looked pretty offended. I saw another one further down the platform demanding five euros from a group of travellers.

We left Sofia at 7.45pm, and for the first few hours I had a sleeping compartment to myself. At 11pm we reached Dimitrovgrad, and suddenly there was a lot of noise in the corridor. I could hear a lot of American accents, and from what I could gather there was a large group of them all trying to find spare beds. I had two, but I had liked having the compartment to myself and so I was considering quietly locking the door and ignoring them all, but then my conscience got the better of me. I opened the door and asked if anyone was looking for beds.

And I was glad I’d asked because I ended up sharing my compartment with Dorna and Lauren from Iowa. They were part of an orchestra touring south-eastern Europe, and they were fun company. We talked for the next few hours, until we got to the border with Turkey at about 4.30am.

Leaving Bulgaria was easy, but getting into Turkey proved to be more long-winded. At every other border I’ve ever crossed by train, the border officials have walked down the train to stamp passports, but here at Kapikule everyone had to get off and file into a small building, where a couple of guards slowly processed the queue. If it hadn’t been for the crowds of Americans I’m sure we’d have been through within minutes, but as it was we spent almost two hours there. At one point, guards started shouting and blowing whistles, and it turned out that Lauren had almost got everyone deported by taking a photo of the train.

Finally I got my Turkish entry stamp, and we got back on the train. By 8am it was a bright sunny day, and we finally left Kapikule and headed into Turkey. I slept for a while. We finally reached Istanbul at about 1.30pm, five hours late after a journey of just 300 miles.


Florence

Florence

I met up with my girlfriend in Florence. She was in Perugia for a month but was soon going to be moving to Florence for nine months, so we went househunting there. It was phenomenally hot, and massively over-crowded, and I didn’t really like it that much. The best thing about the day was the views of the countryside as we passed through on the train.


Back to Trieste

Back to Trieste

In the morning I headed back to Trieste. I got a train to Opcina, and as we sped through the Slovenian countryside, the grey skies were gradually breaking up. As we descended there was less and less snow on the ground, and the air was getting warmer and warmer. At the Italian border it was a bright sunny day.

I got a bus from Opcina to Trieste, and then bought a ticket for the airport bus. I waited at the station for a long time, before someone came to tell us the bus had been cancelled. There were five other people waiting for the bus, and after we’d been refunded for our tickets, we headed for the station to get a train to Monfalcone. We were all on cheap Ryanair weekends, and we still had plenty of time before our flight. But at the station, confusion set in. We needed to get the train at 12.15pm, and by the time we’d all got our tickets it was 12.14pm. We rushed onto the platform, and there was a train there which half the group jumped on. But this train was on the platform next to where ours should have been, and I reckoned it was going to Udine. If it was the Udine train, it would not be stopping at Monfalcone and we’d miss our flight.

I told everyone what I thought, but no-one seemed convinced. I was sure enough to jump back off the train, though, and now that I had infected everyone with my paranoia, the group suddenly decided to follow. But disaster struck – the train doors closed before half the group could get off. A couple were divided – a girl got off the train but her boyfriend didn’t, and she was carrying all their money.

Luckily, the train driver noticed the panic, and opened the doors again. Our reunited group had now failed with the bus and the train, and our only option was a taxi. We got two taxis between us and made it to the airport with a few minutes to spare before check-in closed. We flew back to the London winter, relieved not to be stuck in Udine.


Train to Ljubljana

Train to Ljubljana

In the afternoon I got a train to Ljubljana. I shared a compartment with a Croat called Srečko, who was a journalist on his way to do an interview in Ljubljana. He said his German was better than his English, but my German wasn’t up to a conversation so we spoke in English. About half an hour out of Zagreb we arrived at the Slovenian border, and Srečko said that even now, eleven years after independence, he was still surprised by how close the border was to the capital.

For most of the journey to Ljubljana we were travelling down the valley of the Sava River. Out in the countryside there was thick snow, and the green river was hemmed in by steep forested mountains. It all looked pretty stunning, especially when new snow began to fall. Srečko said he often travelled this way, but never got bored of the scenery.


Trieste

Trieste

A week ago I’d missed out on a trip to Sardinia, when a couple of inches of snow had caused transport chaos and my flight had been so badly delayed that it just wasn’t worth going. So I was happy this week that the snow had long since melted, and when I bunked off the Friday afternoon at work it was not in vain. I was heading for the Balkans, and my route was via Trieste, because Ryanair was having another sale and the flights were very cheap. The last time I had been to Italy was five years earlier, when I went to Sicily.

My flight got to Trieste just after sunset, and as we descended over the Alps the snow was blazing red in the evening light. By the time I got to the centre of the city it was dark. Trieste seemed incredibly different to Sicily. It was part of Austria-Hungary for centuries, only becoming Italian in 1921. Then it was an independent state from 1947 to 1954. It definitely felt un-Italian to me. A wind was blowing in off the Adriatic but it was much warmer here than it had been in London.

I headed to the station at 11pm, and bought a ticket to Zagreb. The train pulled out of the station at 11.40pm, and I was on my way into Eastern Europe.


Västerås

Västerås

I went to Sweden with three friends for New Year. John and Dan were feeling wealthy and flew with SAS to Stockholm. Eldrik and I were feeling not wealthy and we flew with Ryanair to Västerås. We were all converging on Gothenburg. We landed in darkness to find Västerås covered in snow, and got a night train to Gothenburg.


Through Belarus

Through Belarus

I’d only meant to spend a couple of days in Moscow at first, but it had held on to me for six days and I really wanted to stay longer. But I was still almost two thousand miles from home and I had to be back at work in just over a week, so I bought a ticket for a train to Warsaw, via Belarus, and reluctantly left Russia.

Compared to the epic crossing of the vastness of Siberia, I thought the journey might seem quite quick, and it did. We left Moscow at 3pm, and it seemed like about five minutes later that we reached Smolensk. The Russian border was somewhere soon after Smolensk, but we didn’t stop. It seemed that Belarus and Russia were only nominally separate countries.

One thing this journey lacked was food. All throughout Siberia there had been home-made food being sold on station platforms, and it was delicious. In western Russia no-one was selling, except for a woman with a box of ice creams on Vyazma station, three hours out of Moscow. One ice cream is not an adequate dinner, and I would have eaten something more filling in the restaurant car, except this train didn’t have a restaurant car. The only other food available was a free croissant in the sleeping cabin.

We entered Belarus at sunset. I was sad not to be seeing any of this enigmatic country, but I only had a transit visa so I couldn’t stop off. I woke up in the middle of the night when we stopped at Minsk station, and got off the train to stretch my legs. I was feeling quite adventurous, being in what is always described as Europe’s last communist dictatorship, and a country with isolationist tendencies of almost North Korean proportions, but this feeling was shattered when I noticed a McDonalds in the station building.

I slept again until the border with Poland, which we reached at dawn. We stopped first at Brest, where everyone piled off the train into duty free and stocked up on booze. Vodka and toblerone were the only things on sale in the station shop. By now I was starving beyond belief, but didn’t fancy toblerone for breakfast, so I stayed hungry until we finally rolled into Warszawa Centralna station at 9.45 in the morning.


Into Moscow

Into Moscow

I don’t think I’d been tipping when I ate in the restaurant car. In China, there was no tipping. The first time I tried leaving some change on the table, the waiter came after me with it, thinking I’d left it by mistake. Russia was completely the opposite, and tipping lavishly is vital, especially when there is only one place to eat and you have to go there every day. But I had got used to not tipping, and I kept forgetting. By the final morning they had clearly got fed up of me. I was going to have a final breakfast with a bunch of people I’d been hanging around with, but the woman in the restaurant car wouldn’t serve me. Everyone else got their food, but my order was met with a look of extreme disapproval and a sharp “nyet”. Then we tried to play cards as we watched western Russia pass by, but the woman came over and shouted at us until we left.

Being hungry just added to the slightly melancholy air of my final morning. I actually didn’t really want to arrive in Moscow, and I would have been quite happy to sit on the train for another six days. The kilometre posts were now in triple figures, so we’d travelled more than seven thousand kilometres, and I watched them slowly count down. It seemed odd to feel so close to the end, when were still a few hundred miles away yet.

We got to Moscow’s pointy-roofed Yaroslavsky Station fifteen minutes early, after a journey of 132 hours. Just before I’d left Beijing I’d e-mailed a hostel to book a bed and a lift from the station, but they hadn’t replied so I wasn’t sure if I would be homeless or not, but there was a man outside the station with a battered car and a sign saying ‘Roger’, so off I went to the Hostel Sherstone.

I headed straight out into Moscow. I got lost on the way to Vladykino metro station, which was a good distance away through grim-looking estates full of box-like apartment buildings, and then got lost at the other end as well. Borovitskaya metro looked quite close to Red Square on the map, but I walked for quite some distance before I suddenly found it. I’ll never forget the sight of St. Basil’s Cathedral appearing in front of me, more preposterous and impressive in real life than it ever looked in all the photos I’d ever seen of it.

That night, back at the Sherstone, after I’d gone to bed and was laying in the dark, I had the sound of the train in my ears, and I felt like I was still rocking about as we clattered along the longest railway in the world.


Over the Urals

Over the Urals

Today we crossed from Asia into Europe. The arbitrary line is marked by an obelisk which I imagine would be almost impossible to get a decent photograph, or even view of, from from the train, but everyone tries anyway. I tried, along with Martin from Sweden who I’d met in the waiting room at Beijing Station, and who’d been a regular in the evening games of Shithead. We walked down the train trying to find a window to try and spot the obelisk from, but people had been staking them out and every one was already occupied. Eventually we got to the restaurant car, and there was a door by the kitchen which was open, with just a small piece of rope to stop passers-by falling from the train. We thought this looked like a good place. But with two kilometres to go, the dragon who ran the restaurant car came and shouted at us, moving us on and looking like she wanted to kill us. By the time we found anywhere else with a view, we were already in Europe.

The dividing line between the two continents is the Ural Mountains, and we spent the day winding through them. They were very different to the endless steppes of Siberia, with rivers and hills and a generally verdant air. We reached Perm not long before sunset, leaving the Urals behind and now having only 1436 kilometres to go until Moscow.

In the night, an apocalyptic thunderstorm blew up. Lightning flashed all around, and rain lashed the carriages. The train suddenly came to a halt – a Russian-speaker who had asked a provodnik later told me it was because of a lightning strike to the overhead power lines – and we were stationary for a couple of hours. While we were stopped, the thunder was so loud and close that the carriages were shaking. Eventually the storm passed. Somehow, the train was restarted, and we pushed on towards Moscow.


Through the steppes

Through the steppes

With no border to cross during the third night, I got a good night’s sleep for the first time since leaving Beijing. I slept right through Krasnoyarsk and the Yenisei River, which I’d wanted to see, but I woke up in time to see us pass kilometre post 3933, marking the half way point of our journey. One thing that surprised me was how fast we were going. The only other trains journeys I’d done of anything like comparable distance were in Australia, and there the trains never felt like they really got going, rumbling along slowly and averaging about 30 miles an hour. Here in Siberia we were racing along most of the time, eating up the miles, but still needing six days to cover the whole five thousand.

All across Siberia, there were women on station platforms selling hom-made food. At Mariinsk, I’d just bought a tasty bread thing with potatoes and herbs in it, when an out of breath German guy accompanied by two angry-looking Russians rushed up to me and asked me if I could possibly lend him 200 US dollars. I couldn’t, but Andrew from Australia who I’d been talking to had lots of dollars, and by coincidence the German had a lot of Aussie dollars with him, so they came to a deal.

As the train pulled away, we found out what had happened. At a stop two hours earlier, the German had checked with the provodnik that we would be stopping for a little while, and then gone into the station building to buy some water. This involved crossing some tracks. When he came out from the building, there was a vast freight train going by on the tracks between him and us, and by the time it passed, our train had left. He’d got a taxi to the next stop, but arrived there just as our train pulled out. His first taxi driver didn’t want to drive any further, so the two of them got into a second taxi and chased us down. They caught us up at Mariinsk, but then the two taxi drivers demanded extravagant payment. With Andrew’s help, they were paid off, and the German was now laughing about the whole thing. I didn’t think I would have been.

In the afternoon we passed Novosibirsk and crossed over the Ob river. The temperature was 30°C, which seemed strange in Siberia. We had 3335 kilometres and three time zones to cross before Moscow.


Around Baikal

Around Baikal

I was excited to be in Russia. Getting a visa had been the most difficult thing about my trip: I’d got my Mongolian one with the greatest of ease at 10am one sunny Monday morning in June, and so I thought I’d try and get the Russian one the same day. I walked through Hyde Park to Bayswater Road, and quickly found the queue. Equally quickly I realised it was going nowhere, and I decided to come back earlier the next day. I did that, but it was beginning to look like getting a visa would be more difficult than I’d expected, because I queued for two hours, until the consulate closed, and didn’t even get into the building.

The next day was Russian Independence Day and the consulate was closed. The day after that I went into battle for the third time, arriving at the embassy at 8.15am. At 9am the doors opened and the queue moved forward, but it stopped before I got in the building. Three hours later, the queue hadn’t moved and I was still visa-less. It looked like some serious early starting would be required and so my fourth queue experience began at 6.15am, after I’d got the first tube of the day from Bounds Green into town. This time at 9am I actually got into the building, and I felt like a visa was within my grasp. But again I was denied. The queue moved interminably slowly and I got nowhere near the front. When the shutters came down at midday, a scuffle broke out at the front with someone who needed a visa urgently banging on the glass and demanding to see the consul.

I spent the weekend wondering whether to entirely rethink my plans. It seemed almost totally impossible to get hold of a Russian visa without paying wads of cash to agencies to do it for you. I’d already spent almost twelve hours in the queue and now the only option seemed to be to sleep on the pavement outside.

In the end I decided to do that. Late one warm evening early in my second week of trying to get a visa, I packed up my sleeping bag, thermos and a bag of sandwiches and headed for Kensington for my first experience of sleeping rough. I reached the gate, and to my relief I was the first person there. I bedded down outside, and thought that these were ridiculous lengths to go to. But I was in too deep and I couldn’t pull out of the battle. It was visa or death for me now.

At 2am another visa-seeker arrived, in disbelief that he was not the first in the queue. About half an hour later another person arrived, and people continued to join in ones and twos throughout the night. At 3am it began to rain heavily, and soon there was lightning and thunder. I crawled inside my sleeping bag.

By 6am it had stopped thundering, and an influx of people from the first tubes had started arriving. There were still three hours to wait until the doors would open, and my morale was slipping. I held on, though, and got into the building at 9am. If anyone had tried to push in front of me now, I would have killed them with my bare hands. I went to the window and handed over my forms, pulling twigs from my damp hair and brushing dirt off myself. Half an hour later, my forms had been processed, my passport was taken, and I was told I’d have a visa by the following day. As I staggered away, a security officer was shouting at the queue, saying that they were too noisy and that no more visas would be given out until there was total silence. I left the quietening embassy behind and went home to sleep.

Having gone through all that, I thought that Russia had better be good. And it was, here in the far east. When I got up we were in forests, but soon we reached the shores of Lake Baikal. It looked stunning under big blue skies, with misty mountains visible on the opposite shore. The waves virtually lapped at the tracks at times. We spent a few hours rolling along by the lake before reaching Irkutsk in the mid-afternoon.

In the evening I played cards in the restaurant car. Among the players this evening was a small Mongolian boy, whose parents were traders, travelling back and forth on the train, buying Russian things to sell in China and vice versa. This boy clearly had a lot of time on his hands to perfect the art of Shithead, and he won frequently.


Across Mongolia

Across Mongolia

I woke up at 5.30am, and saw a fantastic sunrise over the Gobi Desert. I couldn’t believe that I was really in Mongolia – to me, no country has a name that sounds more remote and forbidding. And the wild expanses were frighteningly empty. Nothing but grass stretched away into the distance as far as I could see. No signs of human habitation interrupted the view.

We sped across the country. Occasionally a single tent would appear in the midst of the howling wilderness, signifying that some solitary nomad was working the land. Then, in the early afternoon signs of people became more numerous, and we were approaching Ulaanbaatar. There were no buildings in the outer parts of the city – just tents. I’d never expected the capital to look like a giant campsite, but it seemed that even urban Mongolians did not wish to stray far from their nomadic roots, and were always ready to move on at a moment’s notice.

The centre of the city was a different story. Unpaved muddy streets ran between concrete monstrosity buildings, and the whole thing seemed to me to be the ugliest place I’d ever seen. I had been talking to an Australian journalist on the train, who was about to live here for a year working for an English-language newspaper, and I wondered what she was thinking as we pulled into the station. I’d have been thinking “Screw this, I’m staying on until Moscow” if I’d been her.

We moved on. Southern Mongolia had been flat and grassy; northern Mongolia was hilly and barren. The lack of population was striking, and I had a huge craving to come here and trek in the emptiness. That would have to wait for another trip though. I watched the country go by, mesmerised by it.

In the evening I went to the restaurant car. Last night it had been a Chinese Railways restaurant car; we’d ditched that at the border and picked up a Mongolian one, so I got the classic Mongolian meal of mutton. I met a few other travellers over dinner, and once darkness had fallen we played cards until we reached the Russian border at Sukhbaatar. Last night’s border crossing had been slow, but this one was even slower, despite there being no wheel changing operation. We arrived at 9.30pm, and spent a couple of hours going through the Mongolian formalities. Then we rumbled over to Naushki in Russia, and I was not surprised at all that the Russian formalities took a very long time. Part of the reason was the smuggling – a lot of people on the train were carrying a lot of goods on which they didn’t want to pay import taxes, and a lot of distribution of possessions had gone on. Maybe some people get caught; more likely, a bribe or two is paid here and there. Everyone in my carriage got through the customs checks OK, and at 5.30am we powered off into Russia.


Out of China

Out of China

My day started brutally early at 4am, and I finished packing with a hint of dawn in the sky. I left my flat for the last time at 5am, walked along to the East Gate and found a taxi. I was worn out by the time I got there, and regretted having bought so much stuff, which I would have to carry eight thousand miles home.

I watched the blocks of sky scrapers go by. As we drove along Chang’an, the sun was just peeking over the horizon, and the flag was being raised in Tiananmen Square. I got to the station in plenty of time and found my way to the waiting room. I got on the train at 7am, and found my way to my compartment. It seemed unbelievable to think that it would be my home for the next six days.

As we started to pull out of Beijing Station at 7.40am, I was feeling something like butterflies in my stomach with the anticipation of what this journey would be like. I watched as Beijing gradually melted away into the surrounding hills, and after a couple of hours we were in rural northern China. A few scattered parts of the Great Wall occasionally appeared on the tops of hills.

Tired from my early start, I slept a bit during the day, but mostly I was just watching the scenery go by. By 7pm, we were a few hundred miles from Beijing, and we were in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. An amazing sunset was the last thing I saw in China, and a couple of hours after nightfall we reached the border with Mongolia at Erlian.

We spent five hours at the border. First of all, all the wheels on the train had to be changed, because the tracks in Mongolia are wider than the ones in China. Then we had passport and customs checks from the Chinese, a long slow rumble over the border to Dzamyn Ude, and then more passport and customs checks from the Mongolians. The Mongolian entry forms were printed in Mongolian and English only, and so I made many Chinese friends in my carriage by filling in all their forms for them. I had offered the favour to my three room-mates, not knowing that they had about twenty friends in neighbouring compartments. My wrist was aching by the time we left Dzamyn Ude at 2.30am.


The ice planet Hoth

The ice planet Hoth

The journey from Myrdal took us back to Oslo across the icy wasteland of the Hardangervidda plateau. In the night, on the train to Bergen, I’d looked out and seen huge expanses of snow, and the daytime crossing was awesome. Occasionally in the middle of nowhere we’d spot a couple of cross-country skiers. I listened to “The Sun Always Shines On TV” by A-Ha for some good Norwegian accompaniment. One thing I liked about this bit of the journey was that the plateau starred as the ice planet Hoth in “The Empire Strikes Back”.

We got back to Oslo at about 10pm, and made our way to a hostel. We found ourselves sharing a room with an American traveller called Brian, and our arrival woke him up. He’d clearly had a massive Friday night out; he asked us the time, and when we said it was 11, he thought it was 11am on Sunday morning. He was totally baffled to find that it was still the middle of the night. He was too confused to hit the town again, so the three of us left him to recover and went out to check out Oslo nightlife.


Flåmsbana

Flåmsbana

The journey continued. We got the train from Flåm to Myrdal, a journey which takes you from sea level up to 860m above sea level in 12 miles. We climbed through snow-covered scenery, curling around corners so tightly that often we were looking right down on earlier sections of the line.

About half way up, we stopped at Kjossfoss. In summertime it’s a thundering and spectacular waterfall, so people said, but when we were there it was barely a trickle.

We climbed on to Myrdal. Here we realised that we’d made a huge error not buying lunch in Flåm – we’d thought that Myrdal would be bigger, being a stop on the main line from Bergen to Oslo after all. But Myrdal is not a town, it’s just a station, surround by high mountains, with no roads out and serving no purpose except as a place to change trains. We had a two hour wait on Myrdal station before the Oslo train arrived, but we enjoyed the fresh mountain air, blue skies, sunshine and total silence.


Train to Adelaide

Train to Adelaide

It would take 24 hours to cover the thousand-odd miles to Adelaide. As I settled into the blissfully cool air conditioned carriage, I looked at the spare seat next to me and thought it would be great if a cute girl happened to be booked onto that seat. As I thought this, a cute girl appeared at the end of the carriage, walked down and took the seat next to me.

As we rumbled out of Central station, we started talking. The train clacked along slowly, the engines struggling to haul the great body of the train up out of Sydney and into the Blue Mountains. After a few hours we’d crossed the Great Dividing Range, and we accelerated down into the endless plains of New South Wales. By nightfall me and the girl were still talking, although we were both English so we hadn’t found out each other’s names yet.

When we woke up in the morning we were in the red deserts of New South Wales, not far from Broken Hill. I looked out the window and saw two kangaroos bouncing off into the distance. Me and the girl went for breakfast in the restaurant car, and finally got around to introducing ourselves. During the morning, a conductor reported regular news from a World Cup qualifying match between Australia and Uruguay. Australia had to win to qualify, and initially the word was positive, but the conductor became increasingly forlorn as the Australians went down 3-0 to the South Americans.


Munich to Paris

Munich to Paris

The next day dawned bright and very warm, and seeing as it had been so pleasant the day before, I went back to the Englischer Garten. I couldn’t really afford to do much else.

But by the time I’d got out of the U-bahn, there were clouds in the sky, and it was getting cooler. Soon it had started raining. I thought I’d walk on through the park, in the hope that it would soon stop, but in fact just as I got to the point furthest from any shelter, the rain started really lashing down. By the time I got out of the park, I was absolutely sodden, and considerably less cheerful than I had been. I went back to the station to go back to Paris.


Paris to Munich

Paris to Munich

When I went to sleep I was the only person in my carriage, but when I woke up I was surrounded by commuters, who looked as if they felt far too respectable to be sharing a carriage with a shabby backpacker. After a 10 hour journey, we arrived exactly on time at München Hauptbahnhof.

I headed for the Englischer Garten, a huge park stretching along the east side of the city. There was a sudden heavy rainshower when I arrived and I hung around under cover in the Hofgarten. Eventually, the rain stopped and the sun came out, and a Ukrainian violinist appeared. He began tuning up. After a few minutes of scratchy unpleasant noise, he stopped, paused, and began again. I realised he was actually playing a tune, and left quickly.

I sat in the park in the evening sunshine. There was a group of percussionists playing nearby, and I could hear a brass band playing somewhere further away. I wandered off towards the sound of the music. It turned out to be a traditional Bavarian band playing, all in lederhosen and silly hats.

I stayed in the park until it was almost dark, and then wandered back into the city via grand streets lined with grand buildings.


London to Paris

My plan had been to go to Budapest after my exams had finished. It started out as nothing more than a vague idea, but gradually I began to think I would actually go, and finally, the day the exams finished, I packed my bags and decided to have a crack at it.

In the morning, I headed for town. For probably the first time in my life, I arrived there before anything was open. I really wanted to get on the way, and so I decided to skip buying a few essential things and head for Victoria. There, I found that the international ticket office had been closed down. Apparently, there are other branches at Euston and King’s Cross, but given that the only place you can go from those stations which can remotely be called ‘abroad’ is Scotland, their use there is limited. So I bought a ticket to Dover instead, and got on the ferry to France. The weather was great and the boat was almost empty, so I spread my things out over several tables, and enjoyed the ride.

Calais looked grim, and when I got to the station, I found that there was a train to Paris going in 10 minutes. I bought a ticket and headed east. Despite the train being almost empty, the conductor moved me on when he checked my ticket, as I was sitting in a reserved seat. He sent me off down the train, but there seemed to be no way of telling which seats were reserved and which weren’t. He had to move me on twice more before I got it right. He then stamped my ticket seven times, muttered something in French which I assume was something like “idiot foreigner”, and stomped off.

At Boulogne, the train filled up with loud and obnoxious schoolkids. As they raced up and down the carriages, throwing things, picking their noses and burping, I found myself talking to a Pakistani bloke. He seemed to have been a refugee in most western European countries, and from what I could gather, he’d just been deported from Britain, and was going to try his luck in France. He’d already had experience of French bureaucracy – “Government write very much paper” – and didn’t hold out too much hope of getting very far.

We arrive in Paris at 9pm. I walked from Gare du Nord to Gare de l’Est, and tried to buy a ticket to Budapest. But I was too poor and my card was rejected. So I revised my plans, and, seeing as there was a train to Munich leaving in 20 minutes, I bought a ticket and went there instead.


Indian-Pacific

Indian-Pacific

To get from Perth to Adelaide we took the train. We rumbled out of East Perth station in the early afternoon, and until nightfall we wound our way through some fairly green countryside. At 11pm we arrived in Kalgoorlie, and in the morning we were deep into the desert. The line was a single track, and so the train would occasionally stop at a passing loop in the middle of nowhere, sometimes waiting for a long time for whatever was coming in the other direction. An announcement was made that getting off the train at any point like this would be a seriously bad idea. “If you get left behind”, said the announcer, “you will die.”

On the second day we travelled along the longest straight stretch of track in the world, three hundred miles without a single bend. It was monotonous enough for me; I wondered how the drivers did it without going insane. I thought we might be able to get up some serious pace with no corners to worry about, but we continued on at the stately pace we’d been running the whole way. Over the whole trip we averaged just over 40 miles an hour; if there was a TGV line here, you could do the journey in about ten hours.

In the afternoon of the second day, we stopped in Cook, formerly a reasonably sized village but now with a population of two. A sign at the edge of town said “No food or fuel for next 862km”.

In the middle of the second night, we stopped at Port Augusta. I got off the train to stretch my legs, looked up and saw a bright meteor run right down the length of the Milky Way. Early the next morning we arrived in Adelaide.