Tickets (and one Eurail pass), including one fine for attempting to hop on a Mumbai commuter without a ticket dinner in Italy; to fall asleep in China and wake up in Vietnam. But the real flavour lay in the joints and hinges that held those countries together, the borders and the no-man’s-lands where currencies doubled up, cultures merged, and languages overlapped. These unique hubs, these beautiful bubbling spots that train travellers have all to themselves as they pass seamlessly from one side to another.
Trains take a traveller deep into the guts of a city, privy to the unedited grime and beauty. There’s no hiding from the voyeur at the train window who peers into your home and sees laundry drying; observes the evening family meal; spies on the lovers kissing on a bench.
In Pyongyang I stayed in luxury hotels, played 10-pin bowling and toured supermarkets – all the aspects the North Koreans want to showcase. But once the train had pulled out of the city and begun to canter through the countryside to Hamhung and Wonsan, the bones were laid bare. Lone cyclists would watch us wave madly from the windows, and after a carefully considered moment or two, would break into a smile and risk a wobble by raising a hand to wave back. And on close inspection, apparently abandoned carriages clothed in rust revealed squatters who lived on board, the occasional head peering from a broken window.
When I set off from London St Pancras last May, the plan was to travel as far and as widely as I could by train in the hope of emulating the zing and spirit of an earlier adventure riding on India’s
The bridge on the river Kwai, above; the Reunification Express in Vietnam, left