The ul­ti­mate round trip on the rails

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Cover Story -

Shortly be­fore half past six, the Re­gionale creaked and be­gan to inch away from Plat­form 10 at Mi­lano Cen­trale. The sta­tion’s arched ceil­ing slid back like a sun­roof, al­low­ing a blaze of or­ange light to ig­nite the car­riage. Wet with sweat, I peeled my­self off the seat and tugged down the win­dow as fel­low pas­sen­gers pulled open doors, wiped their fore­heads and fanned them­selves with copies of Metro. Within a few min­utes the train had gained pace, and a steady blast of air was be­gin­ning to make the ride more com­fort­able when a grand Frec­cia­rossa high-speed train slammed past in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, mak­ing our flimsy re­gional train rat­tle in its wake.

It would be two hours to Verona, so I picked up my Kin­dle on which Tim Parks was teach­ing me about the fid­dles and frus­tra­tions of the coun­try’s rail­ways in his book Ital­ian Ways. I soon put it down again and stared out at the vine­yards rolling past the win­dow, the bushes glow­ing in that won­der­ful evening light that Italy laps up and in which it basks.

In suit­ably re­flec­tive mode, I con­ceded that I was ob­sessed with trains. Five years ago I stepped off the Charmi­nar Ex­press in Chen­nai and marked my 80th train jour­ney around In­dia. Armed with noth­ing but a 90-day rail pass, an out­dated map, and ex­tra­or­di­nary naivety, I had trav­elled 24,855 miles – the cir­cum­fer­ence of the Earth – reach­ing the south­ern, western, north­ern and east­ern­most ex­trem­i­ties of In­dia’s rail­ways.

Lean­ing out of door­ways, perch­ing on steps and sleep­ing in the odd linen cup­board, I cov­ered the length and breadth of the coun­try in four months and was drawn into its warm em­brace by the whole rail­way fam­ily – from her royal high­ness the Dec­can Queen and the sleek and chic Durontos, to the puff­ing and pant­ing toy trains and thun­der­ing Ra­jd­ha­nis. I hung from the badly be­haved Mum­bai com­muters, had sweet dreams in the In­dian Ma­haraja’s dou­ble bed, and wit­nessed orthopaedic surgery on the world’s first hos­pi­tal train.

But it was through the cast of char­ac­ters who wan­dered the aisles, snored in the bunk above me or chat­ted by my side that I came to un­der­stand how the rail­ways had earned the nick­name “The Life­line of a Na­tion”.

A lit­tle se­cret: when I first ar­rived in In­dia, I didn’t care for trains. They were sim­ply the cheap­est and most prac­ti­cal way to travel (my rail pass cost £350 for 90 days, the same price as a first-class re­turn from Lon­don King’s Cross to Ed­in­burgh Waver­ley – and that price in­cluded sleeper ser­vices and most of my hot meals). But when I was back home in Lon­don writ­ing my book, some­thing changed: I found that I was mag­ne­tised by the sound of wheels on steel. Scrolling through tele­vi­sion chan­nels, I’d perk up like a meerkat at any pro­gramme about trains; at night, the dis­tant hoot of the over­land ser­vice through Finch­ley and Frog­nal felt like the mother ship call­ing me home.

So, a few weeks ago I left my job, packed my bag and boarded the 14:31 from Lon­don St Pan­cras to Paris Gare du Nord. Hav­ing trav­elled around In­dia in 80 trains, the most ob­vi­ous, al­beit daunt­ing, next step was to take on the world. Un­like Phileas Fogg and Passep­a­rtout (from whom I stole my idea) I don’t have a bet to win: the jour­ney is not a race.

I’ve never un­der­stood the bizarre need to com­plete a route in the fastest time pos­si­ble. Why waste an op­por­tu­nity to ab­sorb all that a place and its peo­ple have to of­fer by shoot­ing in and out? I could travel around the world in 10 trains; I could do it in a hun­dred if I wanted to. Eighty, I thought, was a nice round num­ber that would make the jour­ney a chal­lenge – but not an im­pos­si­bil­ity.

In the com­ing months, hav­ing al­ready trav­elled ex­ten­sively in Europe, I’ll make my way to Moscow via Riga for the big one (although I plan to take the trans-Mon­go­lian, dip­ping south at Lake Baikal to Ulan Ba­tor and on to Bei­jing, rather than the trans-Siberian). I have sketched out var­i­ous jour­neys in Asia – through Viet­nam, Thai­land, Malaysia and Ja­pan – fol­lowed by a route across North Amer­ica, from the Rocky Moun­tains to the deserts of Ari­zona. I will ob­vi­ously have to “cheat” and fly across the Pa­cific Ocean.

Much of the trip re­mains open: I want there to be spon­tane­ity. But the penul­ti­mate leg of the trip should take me wind­ing across China and on to

the an­cient route of the silk traders through Kaza­khstan, Uzbek­istan and Turk­menistan. Visas per­mit­ting, I will re­turn to Europe through Iran and Tur­key, and would like to con­clude the trip with the Venice to Lon­don route. And I will be send­ing reg­u­lar dis­patches to the Dis­cover sec­tion of The Sun­day Tele­graph.

Why do all this by train? For me, fly­ing is ex­pen­sive and bor­ing, while car jour­neys are cramped and te­dious. Trains, on the other hand, take the trav­eller into the nooks and cran­nies of a coun­try and into the heart of its peo­ple. They are a mi­cro­cosm of so­ci­ety, em­body­ing lit­eral class di­vi­sion: in In­dia I could eat hot corn­flakes with the am­bas­sador to The Hague in a first-class car­riage, then 36 car­riages along, sit on wooden slats shar­ing pears in pa­per bags with a farmer from Gu­jarat. On trains I feel free: if I’m late, I can al­ways catch another – and I can carry as much lug­gage as I like, with liq­uids in opaque bags. I can eat my own sand­wiches, go for a wan­der, even move seats should I ob­ject to my com­pan­ion.

When I set off, my goal was to spend the next 10 months find­ing out whether the charm and char­ac­ter of In­dia’s rail­ways ex­tends around the rest of the world. Our Bri­tish trains have lost the sparkle and spirit of their hey­day, re­duced to lit­tle more than a tired, de­layed, grossly ex­pen­sive form of trans­port for jaded com­muters. But per­haps the glory of rail travel sur­vives in other coun­tries and un­doubt­edly there are pock­ets of the world where trains con­tinue to play a vi­tal role in en­abling com­mu­ni­ties to sur­vive and coun­tries to thrive.

With a one-month sec­ond-class Eu­rail pass in hand, I be­gan my jour­ney through Europe. From Paris I snaked down to Limoges and Clermont-Fer­rand, weav­ing be­tween forests and trundling over rivers tum­bling through the Mas­sif Cen­tral to Béziers, be­fore curl­ing down to Barcelona and blast­ing across to Madrid on the high-speed Ave op­po­site Rosita and Emily, two sleep­ing pen­sion­ers whose mouths had dropped open so far I could see the black plas­tic on their false teeth.

From Madrid I sat up­right overnight to Lis­bon, ar­riv­ing with a sense of awe and a cricked neck, then cir­cled the Douro Val­ley and back across Spain, hug­ging the coast­line to Cannes, and spend­ing the last week hop­ping be­tween Mi­lan, Verona, Florence and Rome. A Eu­rail pass is worth it if you’re plan­ning a se­ries of longdis­tance jour­neys: it pays for it­self in five or six train rides.

And if you have a fixed itin­er­ary, reser­va­tions can be made any­where from 90 days in ad­vance. But it has its re­stric­tions. I don’t like rigid plans and my best mo­ments have come through serendip­i­tous en­coun­ters with other trav­ellers dish­ing out ad­vice and redi­rect­ing me at a mo­ment’s no­tice. I don’t know what I’m do­ing next week, let alone in 90 days’ time – and I wouldn’t want it any other way. With a rail pass, though, this presents a few prob­lems.

At Mi­lano Cen­trale I met Marie, a 50-year-old de­signer from New Zealand. She and I struck up a friend­ship through a ses­sion of mu­tual sigh­ing and eye-rolling at the in­abil­ity of Ital­ians to form a queue – a queue, by the way, for a ticket to get into a sec­ond queue, so you can then sort out your pre-bought ticket.

That’s Italy for you. I like it, though, be­cause it’s as close as I have come to any­thing vaguely re­sem­bling the in­san­ity of In­dian Rail­ways in terms of bu­reau­cracy. Marie pushed her sun­glasses on to her head and pulled a face: “You think a rail pass gives you free­dom, but ac­tu­ally it’s the op­po­site. When you make a book­ing you have to stick to it or you end up queu­ing for­ever to change your book­ing and only get some of the money re­funded.”

And that’s if you’re lucky. Tren­i­talia agents in Florence re­fused to change tick­ets I’d booked two days ear­lier in Monaco by SNCF, which re­fused to amend a book­ing made two days be­fore that in Va­len­cia by RENFE. Each in­sisted the other was re­spon­si­ble for void­ing the tick­ets that were no longer needed and that any re­funds had to be re­quested by post. Need­less to say, I’ve racked up a for­tune on reser­va­tion fees, rang­ing from €5 for a seat from Avi­gnon to Cannes, to €35 for a high-speed ser­vice from Mannheim to Prague.

Ow­ing to tem­po­rary track re­place­ment and re­pairs, there were no trains be­tween Mu­nich and Prague when I wanted to do that jour­ney, forc­ing trav­ellers on to a five-hour-long coach jour­ney – my idea of hell.

So I took an un­planned and long­winded route via Mannheim and, just be­fore mid­night, boarded the 10-hour overnight ser­vice to Prague. It was the first sleeper ser­vice of my jour­ney, and I cleaned my teeth, picked my way back to my bunk and slid into my sleeper sheet, plump­ing my fleece into a pil­low. My com­pan­ion flipped off the switch and wrig­gled around be­low for a few min­utes un­til his even breath­ing told me he was asleep. I lay blink­ing at the ceil­ing. As the air con­di­tioner hummed and the train re­laxed into a gen­tle rock, a fa­mil­iar feel­ing came over me. It was the un­mis­tak­able feel­ing of com­ing home.

Rail takes you into the nooks and cran­nies of a coun­try

Mon­isha Ra­jesh on her trav­els, above. Right: the high­speed Frec­cia­rossa waits un­der the cathe­dral-like roof of Mi­lano Cen­trale sta­tion

The Shinkansen, the most fa­mous train on the Ja­panese rail net­work, speeds through Tokyo’s Ginza dis­trict

The train sta­tion at Jhansi, in Ut­tar Pradesh, In­dia, a coun­try Mon­isha Ra­jesh has al­ready ex­plored by rail

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