Train to Tibet


toms_journeyTom’s journey, Map Bristol Evening Post

(Click map to read the original Bristol Evening Post article.)

While looking up the distance by rail from Warsaw to Berlin for another post. I came across a classic travel blog, The Great Train Trail by Tom Troscianko and his travelling companions. Tom wanted to try out the new Qinghai–Tibet railway, he also had a last duty to perform in memory of his mother who had grown up in Minsk, now in Byelorussia, but once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. What better way of ‘connecting the dots’ than by train!

The journey from Bristol to Lhasa makes compelling reading. Here Tom writing about long-distance train travel and the difference between hi-tech and lo-tech trains.

The journey started with trains that were slick, but did not have the feel of homes. Temporary conveyances, like planes or cars. It’s a whole different feel when you get beds in the compartment. The compartment becomes your home, for however long the journey takes. Like a home, you can choose to be sociable and leave the corridor door open, and the curtains drawn. You work out how to use the gadgets – the power outlets, the ceiling fan, the bed catches… and you get yourself organised. Power outlets are great, it means you can watch dvd’s on the laptop, write the diary, look at pictures. The bathroom on the Moscow-Irkutsk train, with its cold shower, was a real plus. But whether you have these refinements or not, you gradually adapt to your temporary home. For a while, you are in “messing about” mode. This lasts a few hours. You talk more, do stuff, get up, sit down, and generally fret around. After this period, you get more quiet. Read a book, doze, wonder whether to make a cuppa from the samovar (we have excellent Twinings tea and real coffee bags; also the powder soups from Waitrose are good). So, life acquires a routine. You occasionally go for a walk, see if there are people to chat to, check which loo has the sweetest smell. At some point, you may go to the restaurant car which has a kind of pub feel to it – more conversations with strangers, cold beer on request, various items of food. All the while, the vista unfolds outside – forests, lakes, cities briefly glimpsed. Like eye movements but this time it’s the world which moves!

Then comes the night. Perhaps a drink in the cabin. Make the beds. Close the door, and perhaps lock it for that extra safe feeling. Watch the stars and moon outside. The occasional light. Snuggle under the clean sheets and let the train’s movement rock you to sleep.

Technically, the feat of running these railways is formidable, and seems to put UK trains to shame. In our 10,000 mile journey there were no delays due to faults in track, rolling stock, or signalling. The climate is very harsh. In winter, LPG gas burners are used at points to stop them freezing. The approach to technology is very different. Everything is simpler, “clunky”, and easy to service. Small items may break, such as aircon systems or light switches, but the train remains viable. Much greater use is made of human labour. Each barrier-controlled level crossing has a guard who stands to attention with a marker in the “all clear” position as the train passes. Each station has a stationmaster who also shows the “all clear”. Trackside structures are simple, often locally built, and painted in the pastel shades (blue or green) used across the whole railway. Other than that, there is none of the product brand which is so ubiquitous in the UK. The low-tech, highly redundant, people-hungry approach is viable because of the low wages, I guess. But it represents a railway culture in which the train is respected (the standing-to-attention exemplifies this) rather than being seen as a marketing opportunity. Part of my views here may be driven by some kind of nostalgia, but whatever the reason, the railway to Asia is an amazing feat of engineering.

If you like the above extract you might like to read The Great Train Trail in the order it was written. Here is the very first post. After you have read it click ‘June 2007’ scroll right to the bottom and read the posts from the bottom up. After you have read the June posts, scroll to the bottom again, click ‘July 2007’ and start from the bottom again. Enjoy!

One Response to “Train to Tibet”

  1. carol laidler Says:

    Hello, I’m Carol Laidler one of the two authors of the Great Train Trail. I am so happy to find your blog now. I had no idea. I am so very sad because my great Love, Tom Troscianko has just died. We were looking forward to many more adventures and many more trains.

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