Travel: Station to Station
NEWPORT – LONDON PADDINGTON, c1977 or 78
Before we commence on this spectacular trip down memory land, I should mention this post contains an affiliate link and with that let’s go!
Do you remember your first train trip? Me neither but this one will do to start. The (then) brand new Inter City 125 had started operations from South Wales and my father treated us to a trip to London. Super smooth or as smooth as UK train travel got or gets.
Photo Credit/s: Phil Sangwell/Adam Bryant. Timetable shot KH.
SYDNEY CHATSWOOD – SYDNEY GEORGE ST *now WYNYARD, 1985
The trip from the north suburbs was unique in that the double decker train seemed to cut directly across lawns! The novelty – if seated on the lower deck – was of seeing a collection of feet on platforms without much thought for whose those shoes and boots belonged to.
They were probably en-route to work while I had a brief respite from the horrors of comprehensive school and was soaking up every moment. The most memorable thing about this journey was of course that amazing view on taking the bend and seeing the Harbour Bridge for the first time. *Sad to say no photos from this time.
NEWPORT – PORTSMOUTH & SOUTHSEA, c1992 or 93
The rest of the eighties would have been jaunts on the local train up to Cardiff or the other direction to Gloucester. However, in the early nineties the boundaries between work and travel were beginning to blur.
I was checking out colleges to study my degree; Cheltenham, High Wycombe, Swindon and Maidstone to name a few. The route down to Portsmouth was interesting in that its route took in Bristol, Bath, Salisbury, Southampton and up the rather groovy ramp to P&S – and I can’t say I’ve done that on a train before …or since.
LONDON CHARING CROSS – MAIDSTONE, 1992
So to Charing X and the journey to Kent via Waterloo East and London Bridge. I think I may have done this a couple of times (once at night, and once during daylight) as I had two interviews at KIAD (Kent Institute of Art and Design). On the way was the mundane greyness of Deptford (or am I thinking of Dartford?) and the many platforms of barely used stations flanking south east London and the lower Thames corridor.
Beyond which lie my destination, Maidstone where I dreamt of doing my degree while listening to the Cocteau Twins on idyllic afternoons somewhere in the Kent countryside (well it is the garden of England).
Unfortunately the reality was that interviews did nothing for me and the so called garden resembled a Britain more akin to Quatermass; neglected, grafitied, the green fields I imagined seemed a long way off. So was a place at KIAD.
EDINBURGH WAVERLEY – DUBLIN via GLASGOW, STRANRAER and BELFAST, 1998
As a kid I had seen a show called ‘Great Railway Journeys of the World.’ One week was a trip through Scotland to Kyle of Lochalsh. While I came close to doing that very journey in 2006, this Celtic voyage remains the only time I’ve crossed Scotland by rail which in turn birthed the poem ‘Lyrical Scotland’ from Notate and also the recent Dating the Page.
Booking my ticket at Waverley the clerk says £50 dead. I pay the man. Come the day, I leave the hostel at an unearthly hour to make the 05.50 departure from Waverley. The sky once the sun appears, itself somewhat miraculous in this most creative of northern lands, is bright blue all the way to the west coast and Prestwick.
It is only when the peninsular on which Stranraer stands that the familiar white of the British isle regains control as the train rolls out to the pier and ferry onwards to Belfast. There a wait of two hours which feels much longer is ended by the arrival of the very fine train for the final leg down to Dublin. The Irish sea bathed in cool grey, the sky the same, now seen from its namesake nation.
On this stretch one last burst of Celtic magic is realised when the train seemingly runs through the middle of the lake at Malahide.
PRAGUE – VIENNA SOUTH, 2000
In Bohemia the train is slow (I think I mention all this and the Italian journeys below in my Nomad book) so here’s a passage from it…
The dirty station greeted me and the train; a relic from bygone times. One such as seen on Agatha Christie tales with compartments only with the newspapers missing. A Czech girl sat opposite reading Miller’s Sexus. Silence spoke.
A little late we pulled out on a five hour trek to Vienna (Wien). The Czech Republic is quite unique in that it’s one of the few places trains are cheaper than the bus. The reason? Buses are faster!
The view featured: Corrugated roofs, pipelines, buildings in need of serious plastering, junk-yards or things that resemble such, factories, and a high ratio of unemployed graffiti artists. Surely the Czech government could employ some of them to add colour to the grey.
Midway, patches of snow appeared on the ground and fog lined the valleys as the land fell away, leaving the train to amble over bridges that straddle the gaping voids. Approaching Austria, their conductor took over then a couple of stations down, their police.
Exactly as I’d envisaged. Like something out of a spy caper, they asked not for my papers but my passport. I gladly handed it over. Again the moment was soured, no stamp. Everything got a lot neater after the border. A homage to German influence no doubt. For some reason the trains from the north land at Sudbahnoff (Wien south). *Wien South was demolished in 2010 to make way for the uber new Wien Hauptbahnhof.
ROMA TERMINI – NICE via VENTIMIGLIA and MONACO, 2000
Also from Nomad… Rattling through the night (probably all tunnels anyway) I attempted sleep. Rest is perhaps better word usage. Taking off my shoes not made for walking to soothe my feet, I ponder how many miles I’ve notched up over 30 years of trotting around the planet.
Speaking of tunnels Genova’s two stations are linked by the most tedious one; slow and long it reminded me of Celine’s ‘Journey to the end of the Night,’ possibly readable cover to cover in the time it took end to end. After an hour at Genova came the light over a serene Mediterranean.
Ventimiglia (Italy’s border town) unleashed a tremor of shock. In Rome the departure board read DIRECTO. The conductor enters my compartment. Stiff from a night on the makeshift seat/bed he points to my shoes and says “Everybody off.” Springing from relative slumber, I haggle with my shoes grab the pack and jump.
Waiting for the train in the slightly brisk morning surprisingly many people were up and about on the shoreline fishing or just waiting for first light. The gleaming Voyager la Region slid into view without a sound.
Climbing upstairs, I wonder if this is first class and I’m going to be busted. Setting forth, it’s a world away from the Italian trains. Whilst their Eurostar would equal this, the ones I’d taken were standard, all rattle class. Here I couldn’t even here the rails.
GENEVA – MONTREUX, 2006
In Switzerland the trains run like clockwork. They are also bloody expensive! Nonetheless I ended up on one leaving pretty, though lack lustre, Geneva heading east past Lucerne and Vevey (Nestle-ville) to Montreux which I remembered for its legendary Pop/Rock festival in the eighties. I think nowadays they only do the more refined jazz one to prevent riff raff congregating in their midst.
BRISTOL PARKWAY – GLASGOW CENTRAL – BRISTOL PARKWAY
via BIRMINGHAM NEW STREET, 2007
Another job interview in a far away place and so to Bristol Parkway (not really Bristol at all) and Virgin trains. “Take this one and change at Brum” says the guard on the platform. Hmm, ok then. And I was off on this unusual adventure which took me through Crewe and the Lake District. Not long after the Scottish border Lockerbie (scene of the horrific Pan Am crash in 1988) cruised by in the blink of an eye.
AUCKLAND GLEN EDEN – BRITOMART, 2010
Passage from Year Amid Winter… I caught my first Auckland train into town from the all new Glen Eden station, and thankfully a return ticket costs twice as much as a single not 10p difference as par the UK.
I was excited as a youngster on a train for the first time as the sky tower swung into view and finally pulled into the architectural splendour of the underground Britomart – presently as funky as New Zealand gets (as there is no tube or metro) with its coloured lights and shiny hanging spheres.
Public transport is often a bone of contention with Aucklander’s who see their cities infrastructure as inadequate considering its sprawling size; reportedly twice that of London. However a recent slew of development has seen most of the train station’s rebuilt with new signage (which strangely omits the Maori language).
On alighting at Britomart, I first studied the station interior and smile at the absence of ticket barriers (since installed). Also in Auckland is the fabulous Newmarket station which is also reached from Britomart and the New Lynn station is worth a look.
Photo Credit: James Pole (Britomart train pic)
ISTANBUL YENIKAPI – YESILKOY (near Ataturk airport), 2011
Well this was an experience, having escaped the dodgy guy with yellow rotting teeth who wanted some sort of payment for showing me where the train station was, I waited on the platform in the hope the train would make an appearance sooner rather than later.
Fortunately it did but this thing was literally a groovy train, jittering all over the place; it would have felt a lot safer had Turkish railways or whomever operated it remembered to attach doors! Istanbul’s public transport is (or was at the time) somewhat disjointed with metro, trams and funiculars. I believe things may have improved since (but don’t quote me on it).
HONG KONG – BEIJING WEST, 2011
This was my introduction to China. All 23 hours with barely a cracker to eat! Now you can do it a whole lot quicker but at great expense.
Passage from House of Many Faces… The train is more pokey than I imagine and the top bunk has little room to manoeuvre for me alone never mind any baggage. This is the beginning of many steep learning curves China would throw at me.
My compartment mates are two Chinese Americans who are also the first of many to exude a generosity that my fellow countrymen can only dream of.
Most of the trains inhabitants carry the kind of cheap pot noodles in round cartons that back in the UK you assume the Chinese wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, so it’s an eye opener to see they do embrace them with great abundance.
There is some hot water in a silver furnace and a small table with three beds on either side; a bottom bunk – the most expensive, the middle one and mine, the top, the cheapest and most difficult to get into. I am near the ceiling and have trouble bending my body to place my bags which are being passed up to me by one of the others.
There is no info on the train as to our location or the route we will take. I ask several times if the buildings outside are neighbouring Shenzhen but am told “no, still Hong Kong, China is big” they say. I can only agree as I expected HK to be a blip but it’s still going by outside a good 45 minutes into the journey.
We do stop in Shenzhen but there’s not much to see before nightfall and the vast array of neon that calls Guangzhou home. It too stretches some considerable distance.
A huge five storey plus building turns out to be nothing more than a fish restaurant and the night I spend trying to sleep is lost to periodic glimpses of villages outside with the excitement of a child at Christmas not quite believing that it’s the real China before me.
Several big towns with towering apartment blocks come and go but it’s anyone’s guess what they are called. It is too early for them to be Beijing so that when the capital does appear I almost expect it to be somewhere else.
The train has swung east a while back so I know the buildings in the distance could be it and after a few moments my Chinese co-travellers confirm it is indeed the outskirts. The brilliant blue of the day has become a hazy pink afternoon sky as we skirt the final stretch into Beijing West.
SHANGHAI SOUTH – SHENZHEN, 2012
This was probably one of my best travel moments yet and sadly because of reasons mentioned below no photo evidence.
Passage from House of Many Faces… This train was not just another T train, it was a migrant train and this time I really did have a seat and nothing else. The station has not even lit up the gate with the train number so when the procession begins I have to ask hurriedly if this is the right crowd I’m moving with. It is and it’s leading to one of the most extraordinary events in my years of travelling so far.
I get to my carriage to find the baggage stows above are taken. The table before me will have to do as the ramshackle train is packed. I am not sure what to make of this scenario and place my head on my bag to feign some sleep but can’t. I glance up to see Shanghai’s suburbs still rolling past.
It seems I am the only westerner aboard. When I ask the conductor how many stations we will pass through (with the aid of my phrasebook) I spy a comical scene where everyone is peering over their seats to see who the English speaker is. It is strange yet again the Chinese are hugely warm and generous making vast efforts to communicate via their phone dictionaries.
One guy on the opposite side of the carriage smiles and approaches me with “Hi, where you from, maybe we can be friend with me.” It is one of a series of how beguiling the Chinese are. I tell him Wales, incredibly my phrasebook does have a listing for Wales but not Sugar!
Having learnt from my previous jaunt through China I’ve bought sandwiches, nuts and tea with me. The Chinese have their pot noodles out in force. The two guys adjacent to me are the kind of archetypal Chinese migrant worker you might imagine. They are older gents, have very few teeth and watch porn on their phones.
In the tangled chaos of people, luggage and the train’s shuffling movement getting to and from a toilet was a mission. When I got to one I had to wait for it to become free, then I had to brace myself for what might be waiting to assault my senses when it did.
Normally a squat affair which is sobering to me as a male never mind a woman traveller. One of them is flooded with piss and the other adjacent loo has an equally wet floor I hoped from water not urine yet I doubt it, this was wishful thinking that really was a China Crisis!
Nope, the second loo is home to the alternative option of a steaming turd which has been fired by its previous owner only to miss the hole of the squat and lies festering on the surrounding porcelain. Either way the toilets on these trains are not for the queasy.
Somewhere in the night, we have stopped and there is a mad dash to either leave the train, get onto the train and those seeking nourishment. Steaming pre-packed Chicken drumsticks are being handed through the windows from the platform.
My friend has bought me one despite my best intentions to avoid the imagery of the last steaming item that encroached my vision. I try and eat it (the chicken) but it’s tough as leather boots.
He leaves me at 2am for a freezing platform god knows where to be replaced by a guy who can speak English. By some coincidence, he too is going to Shenzhen so will provide necessary chit chat for the remainder of the journey. He asks why I didn’t fly to which I sheepishly reply that I couldn’t afford to. I am living off 5000RMB made from my stint in Beijing.
It turns out that while the migrant train was no five star deluxe it was an experience that enabled me more than ever to get by in circumstances unknown to me. The pygmy tribes of Borneo and the Incas of the lost temples of Peru were now in sight.
Approaching Shenzhen I am somewhat surprised that this modern metropolis and most wealthy city in China has some of the most shabby looking buildings I’ve seen so far. It seems the way of any train journey that trawling through the least desirable suburb is a pre-requisite of railway design.
GUANGZHOU – HANOI via NANNING, 2016
Passage adapted from House of Many Faces… Guangzhou to Nanning starts with an express and then it’s overnight by sleeper train to Hanoi in Vietnam. My first international trip in three years and only one of a handful of times I’ve travelled across borders by train (save England and Wales of course).
Hazy scenes of farmland, forest and the kind of karst rock formation famed in this area of China and northern Vietnam are known for speed by. A sprinkle of thin trees line the top of a ridge forming a barrier between the white sky and the train. Their presence delivers an engaging pleasure something akin to light speckles of rain on the skin.
The Guangzhou South station I departed from is replaced by the equally mammoth Nanning East where a lot of the trains from GZ now terminate. Mine however is scheduled to stop a bit further up the track at the more shabby and older central station.
There I find work ongoing to accommodate the forthcoming metro system – already operational from the East station though I didn’t see any others in use in the city so where it goes I have no idea. More importantly though my onward ticket to Hanoi is secured and I amble toward central for its departure.
Those who will journey with me include several dreadlocked hippy types with backpacks in their 20s who are obviously ‘doin’ Asia the real way man.’ Most passengers however are not surprisingly local or regional and in my compartment are two guys also in their 20s and a girl probably around the same age.
An hour or so after the ageing train slides away from the platform the night surrounds and will stay until we reach Hanoi. Why am I doing this? For starters it’s an adventure which may not last much longer; already a high speed line is mooted for the Nanning to Pingxian route and possibly beyond.
There will always be romance associated with train journeys in foreign lands; the Orient Express, The Ghan, The Trans Siberian and this one was irresistibly within reach.
The train stops twice in the night; once at Chinese immigration and again two hours later at the Vietnamese customs house. It looks like a hotel from a bygone age. Worse is it’s about 3am and I’m lugging my bags across low lying platforms to do formalities.
Back on the train I utilise my soft sleeper for the remainder of the journey. There are slender concrete apartment blocks of only a few floors, each standing side by side oblong against the impending dawn, they would be a cool place to live.
They are followed sometime later by a knock at the compartment door. The conductor tells us 20 minutes to Gia Lam. The appearance outside of a new cluster of buildings represent the beginnings of the capital city and the train slouches to its resting place in a far flung northern suburb. What I didn’t anticipate was taxi drivers in mass waiting on the actual platform! But this is Asia, expect the unexpected.
GUANGZHOU – HONG KONG, 2017
There is a separate blog on this, read the The Through Train here.
WARSAW CENTRAL – BUDAPEST KELETI, 2017
09:45 and I am standing on a platform (having vacated my Air Bnb moments before) waiting on a train to Budapest. It will be my first time in Hungary and to get there, the train will pass through Katowice, what is now Czechia and Slovakia. It’s gonna be a day long extravaganza arriving into Buda at 19:45.
Along the way will be three buxom Aussie women who alight in Bratislava. I don’t talk to them but it is nice to hear Aussie voices. Unfortunately there are also Brits, of the ilk that think running around the carriage in their underwear is an awfully amazing achievement. It is embarrassing to me and I stick to my end of the carriage.
Thankfully I’m joined by a couple from provincial Hungary who are heading home and point out things of interest. They alight before Buda and I am drawn to the low light and eventide that guides us into Keleti.
BELGRADE – SKOPJE, 2017
And so to the train for the overnight slouch toward Skopje and what an adventure that was. A train so bad I’m amazed it’s still in service!
No sooner had it oozed out of the platform did it stop for half an hour at a station with platforms half made and the other half collapsing into earth where the tracks should be. I should point out that the tracks were also a work in progress. Meanwhile, a local tram overtakes us with ease!
Like the UK there was no announcement as to why and eventually (again literally) we were on our way. The carriage seats were stained, the toilets stank of the algae that had been left to gather on the surface water of the bowl.
The only positive is that when Skopje appeared it was a slightly more agreeable 6am, the dawn was breaking and I was grateful not to be arriving in total darkness and more so to be off that flea-ridden wreck.
THESSA – ATHENS, 2017
Again I’m in seat 66 (it must be something to do with timing and reservation systems) but I switch to 65 to face forward. Coincidentally 66 has a stain on it but the cabin is in better condition overall than the Belgrade to Skopje run. Christ could anything be worse!? And the toilet has no foul smelling mould so an improvement there too.
For part of the way a young lad, possibly a student, is my compartment companion. Though we don’t speak, he reminds me of me 30 years ago and I wondered where he may find himself travelling many years’ from now.
The line down to Athens isn’t cheap but it’s one of the most mesmerising train journeys I’ve ever been on. So good you’re almost afraid to go to the toilet or the dining car in case you miss something. Mountains guide the train along from the sidelines.
Before long you find yourself in their midst gazing over gorges to the plains below. We weave right round the valley in a horseshoe bend gaining two perspectives on the new trainline being built.
Little ruined stone huts at varying intervals border the track, what were they? Who lived there? Perhaps the porta cabins of their day for the railway men, though I’d like to think they were homes for Shepherds or something in keeping with the Europe of old. In the mountains, the ruins of what may have been old churches perch precariously on rugged cliff tops.
I expect the journey to be topped off by an equally awe inspiring first glance of Athens swinging round the corner. But alas following the solar panelled plains, and like many other cities its industrial and residential outskirts appear from nowhere.
Soon enough comes that feeling of having to heave your luggage from the overhead stows and negotiate a new station in a new town. More ill conceived design, more steps. Outside taxi drivers hail me with verbiage as I make my way to the metro for a €9 ticket which will cover the duration of my stay.
HCMC – HANOI, 2017
There is a separate blog on this, read the Riding the Rails of Reunification here.
WARSAW – KIEV, 2018
The 17:50 departs Centralna and I pick it up in Wschodnia (east station) eight minutes later. Most of the train is plain seated inter city grey but my home for the next 16 hours is said dark blue carriage toward the end. No buffet car so I’ve stocked up on muesli bars for when hunger strikes.
My compartment is similar to the Beijing train with three bunk beds making up one side with a leather or pvc curtain and small table under which lies a sink or wash basin the other. It bears close resemblance to an Ibis budget room on rails. There is no space to sit upright so I can only lie down and as it’s already dark outside there isn’t much to see anyway.
Again like China my cabin mate is very generous handing over a banana and apple within moments of our meeting. He speaks little English but manages to ask where I’m from and when I say Valia meaning Wales he says England.
I show him the difference in our flags; the red dragon compared to the red cross. I don’t think he’s any the wiser but you can’t have it all. He also asks if it’s my first time in Ukraine. ‘Yes, it’ll be my 51st country’ I reply showing him my list of countries visited. He redeems himself by calling me a voyager.
The conductor is a woman with unruly hair as black as the night sky through the window behind her. A bit like a female Mika. She takes my ticket (presumably for the border guards at the Ukrainian border) scrawling UK on it before dissolving into the trains corridor. It could be a while before I see it again. Luckily I still have my passport.
At 22:50 there was a knock at the door. It’s the female conductor now with her hair tied back to tell us we’ve reached passport control. She is followed by the most glum Polish security officer who moans that he has to extend his arm an extra centimetre to reach my passport.
In the end it’s me that reaches out as the hulk of cack stands in the doorway and can’t be bothered to move. If that was the Polish then god knows what the Ukrainian guards were going to be like.
In the early hours time distorts, it might have been a few hundred miles or a few hundred yards before another knock for the Ukrainian customs people to board. A middle aged women with wavy Metallic honey hair comes to ask business or tourism and about my baggage.
Thankfully she doesn’t make me open either case (in such a pokey space – if only they had been so kind on the return leg). She is chirpy and welcomes me to Ukraine. Moments later a strapping great guy in military gear comes to collect all passports. This is fairly standard but what isn’t is the train begins to move!
We end up in some sort of train depot. Perhaps they are changing the gauge, I have heard of such in Romania where they lift the carriage and set it down on a new axis. I don’t feel any levitation but whatever there is a lot of industrial pings and clanging.
I can see a sign which says no photography so I’d imagine it was connected to the immigration process. It takes a good couple of hours for the passport to be returned. *footnote, they may have been hiding illegal contraband in the train’s roof as I hear running above me and then on the return journey on the Polish side the customs team take to chiseling away at the roof with power tools!
Dawn comes around 6am, mostly woods and scrubland. A small town passes in the blink of an eye. A cemetery with floral garnished crosses. Another small station, Russian or Ukrainian name, no English. We are here in the former Soviet Union and I’ve managed to cross the border with only a feint stamp at the back of my passport.
“Kiev” my cabin mate declares, seconds later we pass Zhuliani airport and I know from my research that we are within four miles of our destination. A typical melee to get my bags through the train doors and onto the low platform below ensues. My cabin friend and I shake hands and head in separate directions.
ALBACETE – CIDAD REAL, 2019
Passage from Iberia Unknown… Trains can be unusual beasts and I find myself travelling north on a Seville bound train. Figure that out.
This would entail a swerve through the landscape to the north of Albacete. Through Spain by train, the clouds somehow don’t look real, like they were painted onto a backdrop for theatrical purposes.
The connecting train at Alcazar is a spotlessly clean Media Distancia which will almost cross the border (no ICEHOUSE pun) into Portugal. Its final destination is Badajoz.
The train is nicely chilled, perfect temp and it’s a beautiful afternoon to be traveling through the Spanish landscape; a mixed blend of green and parched browns and oranges. Fittingly enough there are windmills sitting on the hills of Quixote country.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
Meanwhile, stay tuned with things here at Kulture Kiosk via THE ATLAS or on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram where you can see some of my photos from around the world.
Right Down the Line – Gerry Rafferty (Newport – London)
Wind and Sea – Daryl Braithwaite (Chatswood – Sydney) *Daryl’s song is from the early nineties but fits the Sydney mood. If I were picking a song from that time it would be All You Zombies by Hooters.
Doesn’t Mean That Much to Me – Eg and Alice (Newport – Portsmouth) *I probably thought of David Sylvian’s Gone to Earth instrumentals too but they didn’t fit the playlist.
Mizake the Mizan – Cocteau Twins (London – Maidstone)
Passion – Gat Decor (Edinburgh – Dublin)
Sometimes God Hides – Robert Fripp (Prague – Vienna)
Night Train – Steve Winwood (Rome – Nice)
Parallels – Yes (Geneva – Montreux) *I thought of this one as they recorded it in Vevey on the same route.
Some Journey – Suzanne Vega (Bristol – Glasgow) *More so on the return, especially through the Lake District during evensong.
Emerald and Lime – Brian Eno (Glen Eden – Auckland)
China, Yellow Leader – Andy Summers/Robert Fripp (Hong Kong – Beijing)
Lost in the Humming Air/An Echo of Night – Harold Budd/Brian Eno (Guangzhou – Nanning – Hanoi) *The Nanning to Hanoi stretch was through the night.
Trains – Porcupine Tree (Warsaw – Budapest)
December Train – Steve Jansen (Thessaloniki – Athens) *This may not be his finest moment but it did illustrate the dry arid plains greatly.
So Sorry I Said – Liza Minelli (HCMC – Hanoi)
Come Undone – Duran Duran (Warsaw – Kiev) *More so on the return.
Don Quixote – Nik Kershaw (Albacete – Ciudad Real)
Photo credits: KH except where stated.