The Glamour of Train Travel

From Goodreads

I love traveling by train. We took it down to New York City for my 18th birthday and I fell in love. On my first trip to France, a few months later, we did the overnight train from Paris to Toulouse and even had a berth on that train, sleeping three high in the tiniest room imaginable. It was like an adventure and we had so much fun trying to shove our 6 almost to bursting suitcases into the compartment. When I studied abroad, the train was our way of getting around England and we even took the train to Paris from Waterloo (though the Chunnel was less than cool – I mean, it is just one long tunnel after all). I often did the overnight train from Chicago home during my years in Ann Arbor. This was mostly brought on by cheap train fares and my need to avoid air travel for a bit after several really bad flights in and our of Baltimore during my undergrad years. Plus, there is something so wonderful about the train. Settling into your larger seat with leg room, plugging in your lap top and watching episodes of West Wing as you cross Indiana and Ohio. You can see the landscape too, traveling at Christmas was wonderful; seeing the decorations on the houses, catching glimpses of the trees lit and parties happening as the train goes through people’s backyards. There is something wonderfully voyeuristic about train travel in that way.

So, imagine my excitement when I was looking for my Travel/Geography book for the summer challenge when an internet search led me to Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. Theroux gets on a train in London and goes all the way to Japan and back traveling as much by train as possible. He does this in the early 1970s so the book is quite dated but the magic of train travel never gets old. Theroux is quite likeable as a traveler and willing to speak to his fellow passengers and conductors, to learn as much about where he is as he can. Something the reader must appreciate because the entire book then feels like you’re traveling alongside Theroux.

He crushes a few dreams of mine. Apparently, at least in the 1970s, The Orient Express has lost a lot of the glamour you think it should have and that decades of fiction have saturated it with. You learn that the idea of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest in the world at over 6,000 miles is a better idea on paper than in reality. Or I wonder if doing the Trans-Siberian in the dead of December on your last leg of your journey when all you want to do is get home was perhaps Theroux’s problem at that point. Because for the most part, he’s an enthusiastic traveler who braves the unstable railways of a Vietnam not quite out of the war yet, who willing goes off the beaten path to see what he can find. He’s a lot braver than I would be so as a reader, I get to experience things I wouldn’t if I’d tried this trip myself.

I did find myself wondering what this trip would be like now, almost forty years since Theroux made it. Are the cars on the Indian Railways still as posh? Are the dining cars still just noodle booths throughout much of Southeast Asia? What are your companions like on the Trans-Siberian now that communism has failed in Russia? It would be a fun experiment – a lot more expensive these days I imagine than in the 1970s when it seems to have been fairly cheap to travel by rail (and still is in Europe so maybe this holds true everywhere?). Perhaps some day I’ll have four months to spare to try to navigate two continents by train. One can only hope.

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