Railway to Heaven by Matthew Woodward
Welcome to the first in a series of Recommended Railway Read blogs, where we invite you to delve into an excerpt from our chosen book to see if it piques your train travel interest. During this time of COVID-19 enforced lockdown we thought you might enjoy some armchair travel courtesy of a good railway read!
Our first book is The Railway to Heaven by Matthew Woodward who is a rail-based adventurer. He has completed several Trans-Siberian, Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian journeys from his home in the UK to distant parts of Asia. In 2015 he successfully completed a solo journey on the longest and highest railways in the world to reach Tibet by train. He has recently circumnavigated the world (as far as possible) by rail. Woodward writes for a variety of publications on long-range train travel and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical and Royal Asiatic Societies. He is a self-confessed coffee addict and carries an espresso machine wherever he travels.
Here is our chosen excerpt from his book and below he answers a few questions about his recent travels.
Chapter 5 – Checkpoint Charlie – the train from Berlin to Warsaw
Early the next morning I check out of my hotel. It isn’t actually that early, but I feel like I need a lie-in after so much beer and sausage the previous night. Back inside the glass-domed world of the Berlin Hbf, I stop for some coffee before heading upwards to platform 11. Up at the top of the escalator the platform resembles the hop-on point of a rollercoaster ride, but one without a queue. At the end of the platform, the tracks sweep out into thin air and over the top of some nearby buildings. A chilly breeze blows in from the east, so I take refuge behind a vending machine and stuff my hands deep into the pockets of my down jacket to keep warm. The next train to Warsaw is the EC43, and as it approaches it too looks like something from the fairground. The Polish locomotive belonging to PKP, Polish State Railways, is painted bright pink, Pantone reference Barbie. It pulls some traditionally coloured carriages adorned with the words Berlin Warsawa Express painted on their sides. Calling the train an express for the six-hour ride between the two capitals is perhaps tempting fate.
It isn’t a busy train, and once on board carriage 272 I find myself alone in the now familiar six-seat compartment. Seat reservations are pinned to a board outside the sliding door, and there don’t seem to be any others in here apart from my own. Spreading out in my comfy fenster, I relax as we navigate our way through the maze of tracks to the east of the city. My order of business is clear. I’m going to treat myself to a ‘full Polish’, the amazingly good breakfast of perfectly spiced scrambled eggs with sausages that PKP serve on branded bone china plates in their restaurant carriage. Today this is carriage 270, right next door to my home for the day. The only problem with this plan is that carriage 270 isn’t next to mine or anywhere else to be seen. When I ask the conductor, he tells me they have forgotten to add it to the train this morning. This sounds rather careless to me, but he says it like it’s quite normal. Was this just lost in translation, or has carriage 270 actually been accidentally abandoned somewhere in a shunting yard? Chef might be cooking breakfast unaware that he’s going to be alone for the day. But I haven’t packed any food for the journey, and I’m hungry. Reflecting on my fate, and guilty of breaking a long-range rail travel rule, I don’t even have any water with me.
Sleep comes without me realising how tired I actually am. I awake mid-snore with a jolt as we pull to a halt at Frankfurt (Oder), the Polish border. I continue to doze for a bit, but something feels wrong – it’s the sixth sense that wakes solo sailors and gets them up on deck before they hit an iceberg. After half an hour we haven’t moved. Out on the platform nothing much is happening, other than a few passengers smoking and waiting for news. Leaving the comfort and warmth of the compartment behind, I hop off to investigate. The conductor is standing next to the locomotive and is busy exchanging texts on her mobile. It could be either her lover or the office; her face is hard to read. She speaks some English, however, but the news isn’t brilliant. The train is due a crew change, but for some reason no one has turned up here to take over the train. We could be here for some time, and exactly how long isn’t clear.
I don’t know quite what comes over me, but in a moment of madness, I consider breaking another cardinal rule of long-distance rail travel: never let a train out of your sight when your luggage is still on board. But I need food, and it can’t be far away. I explain my predicament to the conductor, and she thinks about it, which seems to take quite a while considering how long she reckons we might be here. So I finish up by saying, ‘You promise you won’t leave without me?’ She smiles, looks at me with her kind blue eyes and says, ‘For sure.’
Running down the ramp to the tunnel between the platforms, I feel the sense of excitement of a schoolboy bunking off a double maths class. In the booking hall I find a small bakery and procure enough ham and cheese rolls to last a couple of days. I also manage to balance a fresh cup of coffee in my other hand before retracing my steps. It’s human nature not to want to be stranded, and this is exactly the sort of thing that I frequently have nightmares about. But I decide not to run back; it would end up like one of those children’s television shows where the objective of the game is to cross the finish line of the obstacle course with the most water left in a bucket. I’ve only been gone for ten minutes, and feel I can chance a more leisurely pace back to the train so that I can arrive with both a full cup of coffee and some dignity.
But on reaching the top of the ramp up to my platform I regret this decision, as the train is nowhere to be seen. Bugger. Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring!
Unfortunately, the panic part of my brain is firmly in charge, some sort of caveman wiring. Rational thought is overwhelmed by the mad person in my head. I look up and down the empty platform as though the train might actually still be there but momentarily invisible to me. Trying to read the platform departures board as calmly as possible, I can’t make sense of it. My train is missing, apparently lost in the German equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle for railways. There is no sign of the very existence of my train. It has been erased from history.
The station staff man sees me before I see him. He’s the sort of chap who carries that plastic baton to wave in the air to let the driver it’s okay to depart, and he’s had time to work me out as I shuffle over. ‘EC43,’ I ask him. ‘Where is the EC43? Warsaw?’ He understands me but pauses before answering, giving me a rather pitying look up and down. Then he waves his baton in the air as if performing a conjuring trick, and points at that very train, still sitting forlornly without its crew on the opposite platform. It has of course always been there and in my haste I have emerged on the wrong one.
Interview with Matthew
Why did you choose Tibet as your destination?
After much studying of my vintage 1956 National Geographic map, I realised that I could fuse together two journeys that I wanted to make - the Trans Manchurian and the Qinghai-Tibet railways - broadly speaking the longest and highest in the world. Tibet is such a fabled place and my desire to visit became almost unstoppable after reading Heinrich Harrier's book Seven Years in Tibet. Oh, and some classic Tintin too! The Lhasa train has only been running since 2006. It is a staggering piece of civil engineering - 675 bridges, 550 km of track on permafrost, the highest tunnel in the world (over 1km long) and the highest railway station in the world at Tanggula, where the pass reaches 5072 m. Having completed both the Trans-Siberian and Trans Mongolian routes before , this was also a new way to cross Siberia and enter China directly from the north.
How long did the journey take?
It took around 30 days to reach Hong Kong. It could have been done more quickly, or much more slowly of course. As well as Lhasa, I spent some time in Warsaw, Berlin, Moscow and Beijing along the way.
Did you encounter any major problems?
Well, I didn't get arrested or deported from anywhere, but you will have to read the book to find out! I will confess now that much to my embarrassment I did manage to lose my train in Poland. Altitude sickness was a problem, and I was a little weak and feeble up there in the thin air. And then there was the border where I became stuck in 'no mans land' as my passport was declared as fake. I'm saying no more here.
Was there much culture shock?
Not surprisingly, visiting the temples and monasteries on the Tibetan Plateau was like time travel, places where little seemed to have changed since the 16th century. But I also saw both sides of modern-day China. The ultra-modern consumerist society in the big cites and the relatively poor workers and farmers from the provinces living a very different life. The train system is similar; modern high-speed trains sit next to much older slow trains. My shock was perhaps how things that were totally unacceptable on some were very normal on others; some things that I wish I could 'unsee'..
What was the most memorable part of the journey?
Anyone who travels off the beaten track knows that the best part of such a journey is often more about the people you meet rather than the places you see. Nowhere is this truer than on the rails. Train travel allows people with no prior connection to co-inhabit a tiny sleeper compartment, to share a seat in a bar or a table in a restaurant carriage. Time to talk, to understand alternative cultures in the ever-changing environment. There is also something about rail travel that attracts interesting people, and also brings out the weird and wonderful characters. Perhaps it’s the close proximity, the unfamiliar environment and the availability of weapons grade vodka. I'm always happy in Siberia, but on this journey both Lhasa and Hong Kong were very special to me, for very different reasons.
Did you meet some interesting people along the way?
You bet. I will never forget the staff on the Vostok, especially Sergei and Valerie. In Tibet my local guide was called Tenzing, and he was an incredible chap. Characters emerge all the time on the rails, chance meetings in corridors or in the dining carriage. On the streets of Beijing I met a man who I named The Scorpion King, and at the border with Russia and China I met a couple of Swiss men who I named Batman and Spiderman, owing to their 'special powers'.
Why don't your books have pictures in them?
The reasons are partly technical and partly personal. I want my pictures to look good, and I don't much like images printed in black and white on normal paper. I also like to think that most readers will have their own sense of the people by the way I write about them. But of course my books are a real life travelogue, and for those that prefer, I can share pictures in full technicolour on this blog. I hope to find time to write a separate blog post to introduce some of them to you.
Would you do it again?
I would love to spend more time in Tibet, but I'm looking for some new and very different experiences at the moment, particularly in other parts of Central Asia, North Africa and the USA.
Do you speak any Chinese or Tibetan?
Almost none. I got by using a book of pictures of things that I could point at and with a few apps on my phone. Translation apps have become a bit of a game changer recently and allow simple communication. I sometimes take pictures of things like food dishes and show them to order them or ask diners to show me which their dish is on a menu. If all else fails I will try a mime, but it can go badly wrong, like the time I asked a Russian chef for eggs for my breakfast on the train from Warsaw to Moscow.
Is it hard to get a visa for Tibet?
Yes and no. You don't need a visa for Tibet, but you do for China. You need a permit to travel in Tibet that is only available if you have a Chinese visa. Permits are not always available on certain dates and times of the year, but these are not published so it can be a bit of a waiting game. That's where a good travel agent becomes indispensable.
What is the food like on the train?
Mostly pretty good if you don't mind simple cooked dishes. You need to bring some rations for times when there is no restaurant carriage. Platform food can also be fun if you are prepared to take gamble. I enjoyed amazing caviar in Siberia, fry ups for breakfast, and fiery noodles in China, all on the rails.
Don't you get lonely travelling solo?
Never. I think the lone traveller has the advantage of being able to talk to anyone and everyone. Whilst I have moments when I really enjoy the solitude of being alone in a new landscape of alien place, I love talking to strangers and have met some amazing people on my adventures - and this trip was very much in that vein.
Where to next?
I'm beginning to get superstitious and not reveal my new plans until the trips are complete, but I will be going on a mini adventure to the Sahara soon, and then the next big trip from which I hope a book will be written. My desk is piled high with books researching the journey at the moment, always an exciting time.
We hope you enjoyed the chosen chapter. The Railway to Heaven by Matthew Woodward is published by Lanna Hall in paperback at £8.95 and Kindle at £3.99. Visit Matthew’s website http://www.matthew-woodward.com/books/ to find out how you can purchase the book and see other books he has written.