Tuesday, 6 April 2010
15,000 miles by train
For the last 20 years I’ve been flying back and forth between London, where I live and Australia, where my parents and my brother’s family are, at least once every other year.
It’s a tedious 24 hour flight that feels endless and saps your will to live, particularly if you make the mistake of following your journey on the in-flight map channel, where a small plane charts your progress across the globe.
You start optimistic and enthusiastic. You watch a film, eat the meal, make a little small talk with your neighbour and then make the mistake of checking where you are. Horrifyingly, the plane has yet to leave European airspace and the enormity of the distance you still have to cover sinks in.
Many sleepless flights I’ve stared out the window and watched the lights of Europe recede, dawn break over the empty white Russian steppes, day spread over the lush green of central Asia and the deep blue of the Andaman sea and the sun finally set over the red earth of Australia.
Each time I’ve wondered about the people who live among the changing landscape below me: their day to day lives, their celebrations, crisis and concerns and their mutual oblivion to those of us flying 30,000 feet above them.
So this time round I resolved that I wouldn’t fly home from Australia. I would take the overland route, see it first hand and fully comprehend the distance from one side of the planet to the other. And what better way to travel than by train.
Trains have personality. Trains have style. A train in motion – the soothing cradle-like rock and roll, the constant clack and hum of the rails – is poetry to the senses. Trains travel at a pace that’s manageable: slow enough to see into people’s back gardens and voyeuristically engage with their lives for a moment but fast enough to make steady progress as they trundle on night and day eating up the miles.
Trains are sociable too; they encourage interaction in a way that planes and buses somehow defy. There’s no danger in moving around so you can wander through and find someone interesting to talk with. You sit with strangers, you eat your meals with them, on sleepers you even share a bedroom with them. And as you go along you learn about their lives, you chat about family, you debate the state of the nation. By the end of the trip you know something more about them and the places they’ve come from and why they are on the move.
And before too long, the journey itself becomes something more than a trip from A to B; it becomes an adventure.