There is a wonderful moment at the start of every train journey when you arrive at the station to discover what the next short chapter of your life is going to look like. Will it be this?
As regular readers of this blog know, in 2013 I traveled 6000 miles, mostly by rail through Eastern Europe, and after the “stolen” passports at the Hungarian border, the Gypsy train in rural Transylvania, and the ferocious Bulgarian immigration official (if that’s really what he was), I know that anything can happen. And to me, that’s the delight of train travel. You never know what’s going to show up on the platform, in your compartment, or upon arrival at your destination. As Evelyn Waugh put it in Black Mischief, “One learnt to expect anything, but was always surprised.”
I recently had the opportunity to discuss the unexpected delights of railway journeys with one of the most famous train travelers of our era, Mark Smith, better known as The Man in Seat 61. During a management career with British Rail, he was much struck by A) the advantages of going places by train, and B) the frustration of dealing with a travel industry that, as he put it, “only wants to sell you flights, flights, car hire, and more flights.” He launched a personal crusade via a website designed to inspire and assist railway travelers, and the hobby grew into a career that’s made him a household name among train buffs around the world.
What is it, I asked Mark, that so many people just don’t get about rail travel?
“People don't understand that by train (and for that matter, ship) the journey itself can be interesting, fun, romantic, adventurous, and an integral part of your experience,” he replied. “It's not just about 'getting there'! For those who have only experienced watching the hands on their watch go round on a long-haul flight, or droning down an eyesore motorway, that can be hard to grasp!”
The richer experience of a train journey can teach us a lot more than we’d learn from hours of in-flight movies. “Travel," he pointed out, "broadens the mind — at least it does by train and other local transport, as they reflect the country and culture through which you pass, and there's both the time and space to interact with other people.”
Sometimes those interactions take surprising turns. “I got engaged on a train,” he told me. “To my girlfriend of just 6 months, without anything pre-planned. It was the Venice Simplon Orient Express, somewhere in the Brenner Pass, and I don't even remember who said what exactly to whom. But it was a very special train and it weaved its special magic and here I am ten years later with a wife, two kids, a cat, and a mortgage.”
When asked for his most valuable travel tip, Mark advised, “Never travel without a good book and a corkscrew...” Words to live by!
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5/8/2015 01:43:22 pm
Sound advice! (Which, thankfully, I always follow!)
5/9/2015 01:02:37 am
Yes, a good book and a corkscrew are wonderful companions on the road!
5/8/2015 04:00:23 pm
5/9/2015 01:12:23 am
You are so lucky to have so many railroad men in your life, Noreen! And now Cara is marrying one. Please wish them both every happiness for me. And thanks for the link to "I Don't Feel Like a Train;" a great song about the journey; lovely warm visuals, too.
5/9/2015 07:00:05 am
I love travelling by train whenever possible. Well, almost always. Anticipating a delightful, nostalgic overnight train trip, my son and I took the train from Paris to Venice. It was a disaster, including having roommates in our tiny cabin, the train stopping while the authorities investigated criminal activity, electricity going off, etc. You can red the gory details on my July 19, 2013 post "Nostalgic Train Ride...in Hell" in my blog www.starrtreks.com.
5/9/2015 09:00:59 am
Dawn, I just finished reading the details of your nightmare train ride. What an ordeal! You had it all — the unexpected roommates with sound effects, power outage, possible nefarious activity, appalling bathroom. You don't get that kind of excitement on the average commercial airplane! Glad you survived to tell the tale.
7/5/2015 11:54:21 am
6000 miles by rail is a great distance to accumulate stories. I went to a wedding in India about 15 years ago. We landed in Mumbai and the wedding was in Chennai so we got the train - 24 hours. There are so many tales from that train journey that I wouldn't have if I'd been on a plane. Mostly good things though, nothing like Dawn Starr's story. Apologies for the flurry of comments from me in recent times, I'm catching up.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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