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When Pushing the Boundaries Takes You on Unusual Train Journeys

When we invited travel writer Tom Chesshyre (author of six travel books) on a section of our Pushing the Boundaries escorted tour to Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania in 2014, we anticipated coverage in the travel press but hadn’t expected his experience to inspire and form part of his new book about unusual train journeys.  Here Tom takes an extract from his book and writes an observational blog about his trip with Ffestiniog Travel.

Before reading about his experience here’s what some of our customers thought about the tour.

Mrs M. M. Stephens, Cambridge - Pushing the Boundaries 2014
"Good mix of trains and culture, friendly, helpful and knowledgeable tour leader. Good English speaking guides." 
Mrs V. Beesley, St Helens - Pushing the Boundaries 2014
"As always, 1st class service and attention, especially as a new venture."
Mr & Mrs D. Lusby, Hampshire - Pushing the Boundaries 2014
"Accurate descriptions in brochure, blog etc."
Mr N. Tyldesley, Bolton - Pushing the Boundaries 2014
"Varied sights, smooth unobtrusive management. A great holiday - good mix of trains and culture. Journey to Tirano was best rail trip. Hassle free"

The idea for my new travel book about “rail enthusiasm”, Ticket to Ride: Around the World on 49 Unusual Train Journeys, was crystallised in my mind when I took a Ffestiniog trip through Kosovo and Macedonia. I was somewhat sceptical about the “love of trains” when I signed up, however by the end I was delving into the enjoyable (and harmless) world of rail enthusiasm, a pursuit that is so often the butt of jokes: “How many trainspotters does it take to change a lightbulb? Three: one to change it, one to take down its serial number, and one to bring the anoraks and the flask of soup.”

That seemed (so) unfair. Yes there were the trains and the train rides themselves, but there was also the jolly camaraderie, the encounters with locals, and – of course - the scenery. Old train lines, as I was soon discovering, take you places off the beaten track – interesting places you might never otherwise see.

In this book extract I describe the first ride and the excitement of the loco arriving, about to take us from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, to Peja in the south, overlooked by the “Accursed Mountains” of Albania. It’s a journey that inspired me to head onwards round the globe to places such as Iran, Turkey, Australia, America, North Korea, India, Sri Lanka, Finland, Russia and China… pursuing my new found love of trains.

It’s a sunlit afternoon at Pristina station and I’m waiting for the 16:30 to Peja from Kosovo’s capital. I am not alone. I am with about 30 serious and not so serious (and a few seriously serious) railway lovers. It had been quiet day at the station in the former war zone in south-eastern Europe, until our arrival, that is. All is definitely not quiet now. Most of our group has swarmed onto the tracks, brandishing cameras and snapping away merrily, even though there is not a train in sight. Other than us, the only two local passengers awaiting the train are a pregnant woman and an elderly man wearing shades. Their jaws drop as our motley crew runs amok, taking pictures of the station, the tracks, signal boxes, signs and sidings. Among rail enthusiasts, as I have already discovered during my short acquaintance, it is not just the train that is of interest. It is anything and everything train-related.

Clambering about the tracks appears to be allowed. A burgundy-capped stationmaster is watching with an expression that somehow combines indifference and complete disbelief. It is a bizarre scene. The rail enthusiasts with their expensive cameras are not at all shy or reserved, as some had been a few minutes earlier on the bus. They are taking over the short platform and establishing themselves, gung-ho and full of gusto. Several have lined up at one end in readiness for our train, which is due shortly. They seem anxious to secure the perfect angle, and a few have bunched together at one spot.

Pristina station has the look of a gingerbread house, with peach-pink walls and arched doorways. Black-and-white pictures of old railways and stations are to be found in the ticket hall. I am standing by one of these taking in proceedings when I am joined by one of the group, who shows me his ticket for the train, which he just bought as a souvenir. Peja is about 60 kilometres west and Ffestiniog Travel has chartered and paid for a private carriage – so the ticket is an “extra”. Then he points at the nearest, caption-less picture on the wall, recognising it. “Penn Station before it was demolished and they built Madison Square Garden on it,” he says, referring to the station in New York which I will be visiting in a few weeks’ time. It was torn down, he tells me, in 1963. Rail enthusiasts are full of such handy titbits.

We gaze down the platform. The pregnant woman rises and comes over in readiness for the train. I ask her if she has seen any trainspotters before. She is from Peja and has some English. 

“Nothing like this before. Not in my life,” she says.

There is a stirring on the platform. Everyone moves to the far end. The big event is coming soon. A faint trail of black smoke can be seen in the distance. The smoke draws closer and soon a large red locomotive with yellow streaks growls into view, rattling up with a blast of its horn and a series of shrill whistles. Cameras click as though we’re by the red carpet on Oscars night. There’s electricity in the air. This is why Ffestiniog’s customers have paid to come to Kosovo, for a journey that’s continuing onwards to Macedonia and Albania to the south: trains they’ve never seen before.

At this happy moment, I am with another member of our group, who has already quietly confided in me that perhaps he retired too early. Rail enthusiasts are incredibly open about their lives, I am also discovering. Earlier, he had been among the more subdued of the group. Now, however, he is transformed: elated and beaming, full of life.

“A proper loco pulling dead carriages,” he says. “This is what everyone was hoping for. They’re delighted.”

I ask what he means by “dead carriages”. It seems there’s always some term or other I’m not au fait with. “Usually there’s an engine under the first carriage,” he replies.

“Ah,” I say, and nod knowingly, as though I really knew this all along.

Actually, I’ve just learnt something – and it’s only the start.

I’m about to discover a whole lot more…

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