Con­ti­nents

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Cover Story -

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

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