The Godfather of Trains: The Trans-Siberian

Oxana set down my green tea and a fork and patted me on the head. The dining car’s waitress had taken to mothering me since I boarded four days previously and seeing as she was the one who held court – and the keys to the fridge – I was more than happy to let her. At the next table a man in a singlet and slippers, scowled at my pot of instant mash and waved his hands, before tearing in half his buckwheat pancake filled with cottage cheese and tossing it across with a nod and a smile. Having watched him put away three cans of Stella since 9.30am, I obliged, and they were sweet and delicious.

The Trans-Siberian is the godfather of trains. Strictly speaking not a train but a route, it features on the bucket list of most rail enthusiasts, stretching more than 5,500 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok. But to mix things up I had chosen the more varied Trans‑Mongolian route (which veers away from Russia, dipping down through Mongolia into China), and broken up the journey by hopping off to ride the Circum-Baikal railway above Lake Baikal, and watch Swan Lake at the opera in Ulan Bator, before arriving in Beijing 11 days after setting off from Moscow.

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For the first two days I took up residence by the window watching leafless trees flash past until the scenery induced a meditative lull. Every few hours farmhouses and scarecrows in potato patches would breathe life into the greyness. But the real entertainment took place in the train’s corridors where passengers gathered to brew tea at the samovar or exchange stories – and during long-awaited stops where elderly women sold punnets of strawberries and young women in neon shorts hawked dried omul fish speared through the eye. At one such stop I rifled through the trolley of a lady who was picking her teeth while chatting to a friend, and offered her 90 roubles (85p) for a pack of playing cards. Even her son smirked and shook his head in disbelief that anyone would offer more than a cursory glance for what turned out to be a pack of 36 cards.

More than anything the train provided a geographical perspective that no aeroplane or car could ever match. Having picked up our location on Google maps in Moscow, I followed the blue sphere for five days as it moved across the globe, floating across territory that contained no cities, no lakes. But outside the window that territory was very much alive. At dusk on the eve of arrival at Ulan Bator rust-coloured sand dunes rose in the distance and rivers began to bend by the tracks. The sun threw stripes of red and orange across the sky, wholly unlike the mists that had hung across Siberia only days before.

Sunset over Mongolia

Sunset over Mongolia

Waking on the fifth morning, I pulled back the curtains to find Smurf‑blue sky and cliffs rising all around the train as it snaked into tunnels and burst out onto bridges over green water, at the edges of which squatted fishermen in wide trousers and bamboo hats. Stepping onto the platform at Beijing, I couldn’t quite believe how far I had come, but also how far there was to go…

Rail bookers (www.railbookers.com 020 3780 2256) offers holidays on the Trans-Siberian railway from £919 per person. As tailor-made rail-holiday experts they will create a unique trip for you, including stops along the way, hand-picked hotels and a range of excursions.

The World’s First Robot Hotel, Huis Ten Bosch, Japan

Yesterday I stayed at the Henn Na Hotel in Huis Ten Bosch in Japan, otherwise widely known now as the world’s first robot hotel and here’s what happened…

At 2.55pm everyone’s asleep. Behind reception a motionless girl is wearing a cream jacket and a smirk, her hair folded into a chignon. To her left is a velociraptor sporting a bow tie and a bellhop’s hat at a jaunty angle. With the exception of a foot-high robot that orders taxis, there is no one else around. The girl has a sign saying “only Japanese”, so I approach the velociraptor and say hello. Nothing. I wave and he stares past, his limp wrists poised.

“I’d like to check in please,” I shout, wondering if the robots are voice-activated. A door opens to the right and a man in a black T-shirt appears. “Check-in is 3pm” he says and goes back into the room. And with that the magic has gone.

Since Japan’s now infamous robot hotel opened on 16th July, reports of dinosaurs, chattering bedside buddies and robotic porters have flooded the internet, most based on little more than press releases and PR-driven tours pushing a disingenuous line. This is not the hotel’s fault but a result of overzealous misreporting. Henn Na, which is part of the Huis Ten Bosch amusement park in Nagasaki prefecture – a Dutch Disneyland built to resemble the Netherlands – is used largely by Japanese families visiting the park with very young children and is no more than an extension of the magical kingdom, a 1hr 45-minute train journey from both Hakata and Nagasaki.

At 3pm the velociraptor jerks to life, and in an American accent says “Welcome to the Henn Na hotel. If you want to check in, press one.” Excited that everything is now up and running I start tapping my name on a screen when the man in black appears again and asks for my passport, while the dinosaur falls into a state of inertia. It feels like Keith Harris has just taken his hand out of Orville and slapped me with it.

Dejected by the human involvement and that there’s no robot to transport my luggage – this service is only available for residents staying in the A wing and is provided by two chargeable trolleys that stay plugged in for most of the day – I went to my room.

But I wasn’t alone.

On the bedside table sat Chu-ri-chan a cute little creature with a tulip-shaped head. Much like an in-room concierge or a Teddy Ruxspin in a pink dress, Chu-ri-chan switches on the lights, offers weather forecasts and provides a wake-up call. She’ll also perk up after being silent for an hour and scare the crap out of you. However, she doesn’t speak English yet. And there’s no reason why she should – this is a Japanese hotel after all.

The hotel itself is a beautifully designed modernist property with thoughtful additions such as an air-conditioning system that adjusts after detecting body temperatures, facial-recognition to avoid misplaced room keycards, and vending machines with games for children. It also offers breakfast at Aura, an organic restaurant that grows its own produce and serves the best scrambled eggs in Japan. But curious tourists who come to Henn Na expecting to be served green tea by Johnny Five and his crew will, I fear, leave underwhelmed.

The Power of Language

Constant train travel requires constant entertainment. Reading and gazing out of the window only last so long until boredom-eating and napping become the norm. During a four-day journey across Russia, I took advantage of a half-hour stop at Ilanskaya in Siberia, wove my way around the babushkas selling dried fish and wild strawberries on the platform, and bought a pack of playing cards—only to discover back on board that they contained 36 cards, reducing the range of games available to snap and memory.

However, my favourite pastime is pretending to sleep while eavesdropping on conversations—as long as I understand the language. Over the last eight weeks, my deepest sorrows have centred on my linguistic abilities, or lack thereof. Owing to my two-year stint in Chennai as a child, I can still read and write Hindi and Sanskrit, I read French at university, and have a basic understanding of Spanish and German, which extends to refusing sauerkraut with pork, asking for a pet rabbit for Christmas, and a few verses of The Beatles’ Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand. But in Portugal, Latvia, Russia and China, I struggled to the point of tears. A recent study by Washington’s Pew Research Center shows that European children are required to learn two foreign languages, while in the UK we begin at secondary school, and it’s not compulsory beyond the age of 15. This goes some way to explaining why I’ve often been reduced to little more than a gesturing mute illustrating my needs with photos, pointing and the kind of body language more suited to a toddler.

Alone. Mute. Confused.

Alone. Mute. Confused.

Nothing separates us like language. Stories become lost, needs are misunderstood, relationships stunted. Language is power. As you might expect, this has given rise to a few disasters, one of which took place at a laundrette in Florence. Living out of a rucksack, my daily choice of wardrobe is fairly simple: is it clean? I don’t remember the last time I saw, let alone used, an iron, so when I sauntered past a laundrette near my hotel, I seized the opportunity to offload the whole rotten bag. My Italian is awful, but the jolly-looking owner with a big smile and glasses hanging around her neck seemed to understand me. Esmeralda pointed to her washing machine and I nodded. She gave me a thumbs-up. She then put on her glasses, tipped out the bag that contained six balled-up T-shirts, two pairs of sweat-drenched cargo pants, eight pairs of underwear, one pair of socks and a cardigan missing several buttons. I pointed again at the washing machine to confirm that this was all one load and she laughed and high-fived me. I climbed onto a chair to point to 8 o’clock on her wall-clock and she gave me another thumbs-up. Thrilled that we were on the same page, I left.

Just before 8pm, I pushed open her door and the bell tinkled. All my laundry was on the table top, ironed and slotted into a clear plastic packet. Esmeralda put on her glasses and began to tap into a calculator as I fingered the freshness with glee. Then she took off her glasses and turned around the calculator that read 109. The entire surface of my skin prickled with fear and she laughed and shook her head. Silly Esmeralda! She’d forgotten the decimal point. Only she hadn’t. She had forgotten to add an additional €9 and the total came to €118. You may recall that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Cameron sees the mileage on his dad’s Ferrari and goes into shock. It was like that, only more dramatic with a lot of pacing and flinging of hands. I could have bought new clothes for that amount. I could have flown home to London for that amount. Esmeralda’s smile had morphed into a smirk now, and I suspected that her English was a lot better than she had let on. She spoke into her phone’s Google Translate app and held it out to me where it read: “What do you want to do?” I wanted to reply: “Torch your shop.” But refrained and took her phone from her, enunciating “I. Am. Not. Paying”, before handing back her phone. It was the most passive aggressive argument I have ever had. In the end, I pushed her down to around €70, but it taught me a damn fine lesson and I made a mental note to learn Italian at the next opportunity.

On the other hand, there have been moments in my favour. After eight weeks of trudging around in flip-flops, my feet had come to resemble those of an elephant. So a few days ago, I stopped off at a Bangkok beauty parlour to have a pedicure. A French girl was sitting to my left waiting for her magenta toenails to dry, sipping at fresh coconut water and updating her friend behind the curtain with vigour on the extent of her stomach problems. Much to her horror, my therapist soon brought out a blade for my heels—something that is as normal in Asia as it is alien in the West. She watched open-mouthed, lowered her voice, and quickly became engaged in a furious discussion with her friend, who, judging by the ripping sounds, was having her entire body waxed. I listened with bemusement to her revulsion which was littered with “disgusting”, “foul” and “I want to be sick”. Eventually she told her friend, “She should be embarrassed.” At this last comment, I turned to the girl and asked her in French why I should be embarrassed. After all, I wasn’t the one who had just described how I had had diarrhoea for the last two days and couldn’t keep down solids. As she turned the colour of her toenails, I told her to try lassi and swanned off on my lovely smooth feet. Language really is power.

The story so far…

Shortly before half past six, the Regionale creaked and began to inch away from Platform 10 at Milano Centrale. The station’s arched ceiling slid back like a sunroof, allowing a blaze of orange light to ignite the carriage. Wet with sweat, I peeled myself off the seat and tugged down the window as fellow passengers pulled open doors, wiped their foreheads and fanned themselves with copies of Metro. Within a few minutes the train had gained pace, and a steady blast of air was beginning to make the ride more comfortable when a grand Frecciarossa high-speed train slammed past in the opposite direction, making our flimsy regional train rattle in its wake.It would be two hours to Verona, so I picked up my Kindle on which Tim Parks was teaching me about the fiddles and frustrations of the country’s railways in his book Italian Ways. I soon put it down again and stared out at the vineyards rolling past the window, the bushes glowing in that wonderful evening light that Italy laps up and in which it basks. suitably reflective mode, I conceded that I was obsessed with trains. Five years ago I stepped off the Charminar Express in Chennai and marked my 80th train journey around India. Armed with nothing but a 90-day rail pass, an outdated map, and extraordinary naivety, I had travelled 24,855 miles – the circumference of the Earth – reaching the southern, western, northern and easternmost extremities of India’s railways.

Leaning out of doorways, perching on steps and sleeping in the odd linen cupboard, I covered the length and breadth of the country in four months and was drawn into its warm embrace by the whole railway family – from her royal highness the Deccan Queen and the sleek and chic Durontos, to the puffing and panting toy trains and thundering Rajdhanis. I hung from the badly behaved Mumbai commuters, had sweet dreams in the Indian Maharaja’s double bed, and witnessed orthopaedic surgery on the world’s first hospital train. But it was through the cast of characters who wandered the aisles, snored in the bunk above me or chatted by my side that I came to understand how the railways had earned the nickname “The Lifeline of a Nation”.

A little secret: when I first arrived in India, I didn’t care for trains. They were simply the cheapest and most practical way to travel (my rail pass cost £350 for 90 days, the same price as a first-class return from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh Waverley – and that price included sleeper services and most of my hot meals). But when I was back home in London writing my book, something changed: I found that I was magnetised by the sound of wheels on steel. Scrolling through television channels, I’d perk up like a meerkat at any programme about trains; at night, the distant hoot of the overland service through Finchley and Frognal felt like the mother ship calling me home.

So, a few weeks ago I left my job, packed my bag and boarded the 14:31 from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. Having travelled around India in 80 trains, the most obvious, albeit daunting, next step was to take on the world. Unlike Phileas Fogg and Passepartout (from whom I stole my idea) I don’t have a bet to win: the journey is not a race. I’ve never understood the bizarre need to complete a route in the fastest time possible. Why waste an opportunity to absorb all that a place and its people have to offer by shooting in and out? I could travel around the world in 10 trains; I could do it in a hundred if I wanted to. Eighty, I thought, was a nice round number that would make the journey a challenge – but not an impossibility.

In the coming months, having already travelled extensively in Europe, I’ll make my way to Moscow via Riga for the big one (although I plan to take the trans-Mongolian, dipping south at Lake Baikal to Ulan Bator and on to Beijing, rather than the trans-Siberian). I have sketched out various journeys in Asia – through Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan – followed by a route across North America, from the Rocky Mountains to the deserts of Arizona. I will obviously have to “cheat” and fly across the Pacific Ocean.

Much of the trip remains open: I want there to be spontaneity. But the penultimate leg of the trip should take me winding across China and on to the ancient route of the silk traders through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Visas permitting, I will return to Europe through Iran and Turkey, and would like to conclude the trip with the Venice to London route. And I will be sending regular dispatches to the Discover section of The Sunday Telegraph. Why do all this by train? For me, flying is expensive and boring, while car journeys are cramped and tedious. Trains, on the other hand, take the traveller into the nooks and crannies of a country and into the heart of its people. They are a microcosm of society, embodying literal class division: in India I could eat hot cornflakes with the ambassador to The Hague in a first-class carriage, then 36 carriages along, sit on wooden slats sharing pears in paper bags with a farmer from Gujarat. On trains I feel free: if I’m late, I can always catch another – and I can carry as much luggage as I like, with liquids in opaque bags. I can eat my own sandwiches, go for a wander, even move seats should I object to my companion.

When I set off, my goal was to spend the next 10 months finding out whether the charm and character of India’s railways extends around the rest of the world. Our British trains have lost the sparkle and spirit of their heyday, reduced to little more than a tired, delayed, grossly expensive form of transport for jaded commuters. But perhaps the glory of rail travel survives in other countries and undoubtedly there are pockets of the world where trains continue to play a vital role in enabling communities to survive and countries to thrive. With a one-month second-class Eurail pass in hand, I began my journey through Europe. From Paris I snaked down to Limoges and Clermont-Ferrand, weaving between forests and trundling over rivers tumbling through the Massif Central to Béziers, before curling down to Barcelona and blasting across to Madrid on the high-speed Ave opposite Rosita and Emily, two sleeping pensioners whose mouths had dropped open so far I could see the black plastic on their false teeth.

Madrid Atocha station

Madrid Atocha station

From Madrid I sat upright overnight to Lisbon, arriving with a sense of awe and a cricked neck, then circled the Douro Valley and back across Spain, hugging the coastline to Cannes, and spending the last week hopping between Milan, Verona, Florence and Rome . A Eurail pass is worth it if you’re planning a series of long-distance journeys: it pays for itself in five or six train rides. And if you have a fixed itinerary, reservations can be made anywhere from 90 days in advance. But it has its restrictions. I don’t like rigid plans and my best moments have come through serendipitous encounters with other travellers dishing out advice and redirecting me at a moment’s notice. I don’t know what I’m doing next week, let alone in 90 days’ time – and I wouldn’t want it any other way. With a rail pass, though, this presents a few problems.

The view from the Glacier Express in Switzerland

The view from the Glacier Express in Switzerland

At Milano Centrale I met Marie, a 50-year-old designer from New Zealand. She and I struck up a friendship through a session of mutual sighing and eye-rolling at the inability of Italians to form a queue – a queue, by the way, for a ticket to get into a second queue, so you can then sort out your pre-bought ticket.That’s Italy for you. I like it, though, because it’s as close as I have come to anything vaguely resembling the insanity of Indian Railways in terms of bureaucracy. Marie pushed her sunglasses on to her head and pulled a face: “You think a rail pass gives you freedom, but actually it’s the opposite. When you make a booking you have to stick to it or you end up queuing forever to change your booking and only get some of the money refunded.”

And that’s if you’re lucky. Trenitalia agents in Florence refused to change tickets I’d booked two days earlier in Monaco by SNCF, which refused to amend a booking made two days before that in Valencia by RENFE. Each insisted the other was responsible for voiding the tickets that were no longer needed and that any refunds had to be requested by post. Needless to say, I’ve racked up a fortune on reservation fees, ranging from €5 for a seat from Avignon to Cannes, to €35 for a high-speed service from Mannheim to Prague. Owing to temporary track replacement and repairs, there were no trains between Munich and Prague when I wanted to do that journey , forcing travellers on to a five-hour-long coach journey – my idea of hell. So I took an unplanned and long-winded route via Mannheim and, just before midnight, boarded the 10-hour overnight service to Prague. It was the first sleeper service of my journey, and I cleaned my teeth, picked my way back to my bunk and slid into my sleeper sheet, plumping my fleece into a pillow. My companion flipped off the switch and wriggled around below for a few minutes until his even breathing told me he was asleep. I lay blinking at the ceiling. As the air conditioner hummed and the train relaxed into a gentle rock, a familiar feeling came over me. It was the unmistakable feeling of coming home.

On the sleeper train to Prague

On the sleeper train to Prague

If you want to book a rail pass with Eurail visit: www.interrail.eu

We’re all just a bit selfie-obsessed

Just for a moment, close your eyes and think back to the good old days before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Remember how, when you went on holiday, you would take a day trip to a historical site, climb to the top and take off all your clothes? Or perhaps when you went out for a romantic dinner, photographed your tiger prawns, then drove over to your best friend’s house to show them? No? Nor do I.

Earlier this month, four tourists were arrested for stripping naked at the summit of Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu and now face up to three months in jail. When I read the story over breakfast in a Rome hotel, I was more depressed than shocked. For the last six weeks that I’ve been train-hopping around Europe, my faith in the future of mankind has dwindled so far as to make me wince at the sight of tourists. Where once travel was a passive activity, it has now morphed into an aggressive, competitive sport. It’s no longer enough to slip into a city at night, stroll the streets by day, and leave as quietly as you came. Now you have to make your mark by scratching your name into a wall, airing your genitalia on a holy mountain or banging a padlock onto a bridge. It’s the travelling equivalent of taking a long drawn-out piss all over your neighbour’s front porch.

I first felt revulsion for the trend while walking hand in hand on the Pont des Arts last October. Paris’s bridges form the backbone of the city and are synonymous with romance, popping up in most art and literature. Yet, in 2008, couples began attaching metal padlocks to the Pont des Arts and throwing the keys into the water to symbolize their unbreakable love. Never mind that the keys are probably covered in sludge and littering the riverbed, the thousands of locks conceal the bridge’s original beauty and Parisian authorities have had to remove 45 tonnes of the dirty metal to prevent the bridge from collapsing. Padlocking these historical pieces of art is nothing short of vandalism. And if your relationship needs a padlock to signify its security, then you probably need to reconsider that relationship.

But the madness doesn’t stop there. Last week, I visited Juliet’s balcony at the Casa di Giulietta in Verona. There is no evidence that the Capulet family ever lived there, yet the city dines out on the tale of the star-crossed lovers and the walls in the courtyard below the balcony are covered in handwritten letters to “Juliet” from tourists who use chewing gum to attach their notes. Even Verona’s clock tower has succumbed to the abuse. With a panoramic view of the city’s terracotta rooftops and the river running along the periphery, it’s a spot of peace high above the main piazza. After climbing more than 300 steps, I reached the bell tower, only to find the walls and the grand old bell itself covered in graffiti. Did Olga and Georg really need to scratch their names into its rim? Was Glenda so oblivious to his affections that Marco was compelled to tell her on 8 December 2014 that he “hearted” her and deface the brickwork of the artist who built the façade? Would Fabio declare his love for Betta across a painting in the Louvre? Maybe clip a padlock onto The Thinker’s little finger? If the answer is no, then maybe he should think about why he did it here. As I crossed the Castel Vecchio bridge at night, I climbed onto the brick ledge and shuffled along to gaze at the river bubbling below. It tumbled in the glow of the streetlamps and I had an overwhelming sense of calm as I stroked the clean surfaces and admired the loveliness of the structure. But there it was. Like architecture’s answer to herpes, one nasty little padlock had appeared and it was bound to spread its disease. Verona’s mayor has responded by issuing fines, but it begs the question: where does this compulsion come from?

I fear it is part of the growing desperation to be a part of the story, to be seen and heard having a good time, all the time. It’s not enough to stand before the remnants of the Berlin Wall and absorb the enormity of all it represents; the experience is apparently enhanced by taking a photograph of yourself in front of it to tweet, post on Facebook or hashtag on Instagram. Heaven forbid anyone think you weren’t ever there. The greatest irony is that these people feel their experience is heightened, the immersion greater, when the truth is that the magic of travel eludes them.

A Korean couple sat at a table next to me in Florence filming each other eat. She held her camera under his fork, as he ate his penne rigata and veal ragu, and giggled. He filmed her poised with a forkful of rare steak. For more than one hour, the two of them photographed each other’s tiramisu, napkins and wine glasses, and exchanged no fewer than seven or eight words. I looked around at the restaurant and wondered, would they be able to describe the vintage wine cases lining the walls, faded at the edges? Would they remember the warm smell of fresh rosemary in vases, the murmur of voices and the sound of the first glug from a newly opened bottle of wine? Had they even noticed their table was an old barrel bottom? I’ve always erred on the side of the flâneur, strolling around observing the city. I’m pretty awful at taking photographs and hate carrying a camera, but I sometimes wonder whether my mind’s eye draws in more than any camera ever could. Balzac described flânerie as a science or “gastronomy of the eye”, but I fear that tastes have changed and if we are now a society that has to take naked photos at a historical site to enjoy the experience, then we are all the worse off for it.

Madrid’s Grand Budapest Hotel

Hopping around Europe over the last month has been enormous fun and we are currently at the Palazzo Victoria in Verona digesting a late lunch of lobster, mashed potato and herring eggs – who knew eh? It does work in case you wondered.

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It might seem like the stuff of dreams, leap-frogging from one hotel to the next, but over a stretch of nine months, it’s normal to miss creature comforts: PG Tips from your favourite mug in the morning; BBC breakfast news; ironed clothes (rather than what’s least smelly). But what makes it easier is when staff go that extra mile to make an effort for guests and to make sure they feel more at home. And so far the place we found that was at The Urso in Madrid (click the link to read about it).