Living life in the slow lane

With cheap airlines and package holidays dominating the travel industry, the pleasures of the journey itself are often overlooked. Adam Sloan discovers that there are endless possibilities for experiencing the world at a slower pace by train

What if I were to tell you that tomorrow you could take a train at York station, and, without setting one foot on an aeroplane, you could be in Singapore within two weeks, standing at the edge of continental Asia. Sound good? Of course, getting there would have been no easy feat; you would have passed through around ten different countries (that is, assuming you decided to take the easiest route) and eight time zones. You would doubtless have suffered setbacks of varying kinds: delays, breakdowns, and, of course, the odd stomach upset or two. Nevertheless, you would have taken one of the greatest journeys on earth.

There is practically no destination in Europe, Africa or Asia that cannot be reached by simply walking off the platform at Waterloo International station onto the carriage of one of the world’s great trains. The possibilities are endless. the destinations fantastic, but above all, it is the journey itself that really puts this mode of travel above all others. Long distance train travel allows you to indulge yourself and relax, basking in the romantic nostalgia of “how it is meant to be” rather than being cocooned at 36,000 feet up in an environment that is about as sterile as the journey it presents you.

My first experience of long distance rail travel was the journey through Canada’s Rocky Mountains, on the ‘Rocky Mountaineer’ from Edmonton, Alberta, to Vancouver. In Canada, the trains that pass through the Rockies can be kilometres long, and somewhere in the middle there will be a passenger car. The size and scale of the train reflects the grandeur of the setting it traverses, with the added anticipation of the city of Vancouver as your destination.
Of course, in this 21st century world of instant messaging, broadband internet and trans-continental flights, who can blame those that expect to be transported to their destination of choice, anywhere in the world, in the space of a day? But what should be considered is what treasures are being missed when you get the brief glimpse of a glowing lake through the gap in the clouds, rather than slowly moving around it, taking it in from a proper perspective. Why get somewhere in the space of a stressful day when you can do it in a relaxed week?

Last year a train took me a thousand miles across Australia, through some of the most barren and deserted landscape in the world, for three days and two nights, on the stunning Indian-Pacific railway. The flight would have taken five hours, but why rush? There was a hypnotic effect, looking out the window on that train, which passed over the longest stretch of straight railroad anywhere in the world. Viewing the odd eucalyptus tree or kangaroo made me realise quite how remote I really was.

The train allows you to experience a time and place in a way that no other mode of travel can. There are no worries concerning falling out of the sky, or plunging over a ravine (depending on how exotic the trains you choose to take are of course); one is left free to relax and enjoy the world passing you by, while making casual conversation with fellow travellers and local commuters. The train is often slow, and cyclists can sometimes be seen whizzing by; however, this reflects the pace of life that should be taken when on a relaxing vacation, allowing you to ponder, and finish that book that has been gathering dust for the last few months.

Above all, long-distance train travel encompasses the romance of all those great journeys that have been written and read about. You can still step onto the Orient Express as Herculie Poirot did in the classic Agatha Christie novel, Murder on the Orient Express, or at least the same-named successor to the original ‘Express d’Orient’ that first opened in 1883, between Paris and Vienna. Time can be turned back by stepping on one of India’s grand former imperial carriageways, generally regarded as the best place in the world for railway enthusiasts, such as myself, to travel.

For many of course, the ‘granddaddy’ of all railway journeys has to be the Trans-Siberian railway between Moscow and Vladivostok, in far-eastern Russia. The classic Trans-Siberian route takes around seven days, passing through some of the most remote places in the world. If just Siberia were a country in itself, it would still be the biggest in the world. Of course, you could always take the Trans-Mongolian route, stopping off in Ulan-Baatar (claim to fame: it is the coldest national capital in the world), or the Trans-Manchurian route, which takes you around Mongolia and down to Beijing.

This summer I will be jumping for a night on the historic ‘Red Arrow’, which travels between St. Petersburg and Moscow. It was this railway that transported the first Soviet government from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The track opened in 1851 and is one of the straightest stretches of railroad in the world. It is said that it was meant to be dead straight, however when Tsar Nicholas I was drawing the route on the map, he ran out of ruler and accidentally drew a small curve around his hand, before moving the ruler down and carrying on the line down to Moscow. The result is an apparently random curve in the otherwise dead straight track between the two cities.

For a solitary traveller, such as myself, a train allows you the choice to either relax in conversation with those around you (provided you speak the same language of course), or slip away into silent anonymity and the comfort of a good book. With careful eyes it can actually be said that a country’s trains can reflect a national psyche. Look at the Bullet Trains in Japan, or the Swiss railways, they are fast, efficient and practical. In contrast, the slow-moving, open air carriageways going across Zambia are relaxed and enjoyable, reflecting a more laid back way of life. The train may reach its destination in a day, it may not, but what does a few extra hours really matter?

For time really looses its meaning when there is not just a destination to be reached, but also a journey to enjoy.

For more information on train travel visit:

The Man in Seat Sixty-One www.seat61.com
Advice on travelling by train and boat to Europe, Africa, Asia and America.

Great Rail Journeys
www.greatrailuk.com
A York-based company organising holidays by train throughout the world.

2 comments

  1. For some serious slow travel try one of the really remote lines in Japan – perhaps to Abashiri up in Hokkaido or the train through the centre of Kyushu

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  2. Hi Iain,

    That sounds great. Everybody (myself included) generally has this image of Japanese trains as being somewhere where you are sealed in from the outside world travelling at 300kph or so. I can imagine the north of Japan though would be an excellent place to experience slow railway travel.

    Cheers,
    Adam

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