One of my favourite truisms about rail travel is that the only way to guarantee you don't miss your train is to just miss the one directly before the one you actually wanted to catch.
I like trains and certainly, when possible, prefer them to planes. In fact my parents, who travelled extensively in Europe, never flew, so I well remember the excitement of long rail journeys, and looked forward to Tom Chesshyre's account of 49 "unusual train journeys" around the world.
"Trains are wonderful" says one of his fellow Amtrak passengers in the USA. "On a train, people can talk: they're going somewhere but they're not going anywhere. They have the time."
Indeed, as Chesshyre himself observes: "Trains seem to rattle out stories, as though the motion of the track acts to shake up thoughts and loosen tongues."
His tongue was certainly loosened up when he missed one train after an announcement that it was running late, and protested to an Amtrak official: "Where I come from, if a train is delayed, it does not usually become un-delayed."
Although his witty and entertaining book is dedicated "to all train lovers" I was relieved to find that Chesshyre is not a train spotter (aka "a self-employed train historian") as such. More of a "casual train lover".
And being a train spotter, we learn - especially in this digital age - is not just about collecting train numbers. On a rail journey between Pristina and Peja in Kosovo, a fellow traveller tells him: "I just take photographs. I must have taken hundreds of thousands." After checking his camera, he announces: "In the past two days I've taken one thousand three hundred and eighty. I'm click-happy. I'll make no bones about it."
In Turkey, Chesshyre meets another man who can't resist taking endless photos of trains. After yelling out "A train! A train!" he rushes off with his camera. "The funny thing is" says the man, "I have thousands of pictures but I never look at them It's like a woman with handbags".
Crossing the border into Iran on the country's first chartered tourist train, things start to get really interesting for the multi-national passengers. "In order to avoid mass arrest on arrival, all alcohol must be consumed before reaching the border" writes Chesshyre. "In the next five hours, we are to drink the bar dry or else dispose of bottles." Fittingly, on a train to Macedonia, another train enthusiast seems to Chesshyre to be "like a master sommelier assessing a rare wine. He seems to savour the whole experience, as though assessing the very essence of the train."
He gets around, does our Tom. In China (on a train, of course) he learns there's a saying that "a socialist train coming with a delay is better than a capitalist one that comes on time".
In India, as the Shatabdi Express sets out from Delhi to Agra, the intensity of human activity reaches near fever pitch. "Everywhere there are people" writes Chesshyre, "hanging out washing, scolding children, striding towards corner shops, gossiping, leaning against trees, scooping food from bowls, lying flat out, fastening bags, washing clothes, placing towels on heads (for protection against the sun), squatting cross-legged in doorways, gesticulating, pontificating, arguing, smiling, waving, gazing, letting time slip by."
On the Trans-Siberian Railway, Chesshyre resolves to keep himself occupied by reading the first page of War and Peace. This obviously tires him because he almost immediately pulls out the fold-down bed, thinking: "Only 1,357pages to go. My aim is to finish the novel of all novels by Beijing."
It must have been hard to sleep, because "this is the noisiest train yet".
Says Chesshyre: "Brakes, squeal, wheels judder, horns wail - almost constantly. Coat hangers on hooks jiggle against the cabin wall."
Chesshyre is always good in his descriptive passages, and his use of the present tense helps. On an Australian train, he writes: "A water tower advertises Kalgoorlie Beer. Old electricity and telegraph poles stand with twisted wooden fittings and wires hanging down. Rickety barbed-wire fences divide fields. A farmer with his head down, ignoring the train, inspects a crop. Jet-black crows peck in ditches. Light fades in a fusion of peach and purple as darkness descends, clouds parking quietly for the night above the tiny town of Cerrabin. Silos stand in silhouette. Long shadows stretch beyond the train, catching the shape of the wheels. Billabongs reflect the stillness of the sky. This is what trains in Australia provide: a glimpse of life on the ground that you just don't get on planes."
Sadly Chesshyre never does quite finish War and Peace.
Ticket to Ride: Around the World on 49 Unusual Train Journeys by Tom Chesshyre is published by Summersdale and available at Amazon at £6.99
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