Click the link to follow the journey in the series, Train Of Thought
It was two weeks to my departure and I was at a store kitting myself out for my 17,500km rail journey.
All excited, I shared the news of my coming odyssey with the young sales assistant. “London to Malaysia by train? Why don’t you just fly?” – was the response.
Deflated, I wanted to say: “Have you no imagination?” but I remembered that when I was her age, I too was more interested in the “now”– the destination being more important than the journey.
Even with my impatient youth long behind me, I knew I had to be happy in my own company for long periods to be able to undertake such a venture. My love of reading and the ability of well-crafted sentences to send me into a daydream took that worry away.
Sixty was a landmark age for me; two of my siblings did not make it past 57. The urgency was even more apparent with the fear that the Tory government would take away the free over-60 travel pass before I got there. Hence this coming of age had to be appropriately celebrated. From a simple journey on the Trans-Siberian railway, it morphed into a rail trip from London to KL. I had no idea how much it would cost or how long it would take.
The journey was also a much-needed challenge for me to recover some of that old confidence and self-esteem I had lost in the last three years. My knee replacement surgery had left me walking with a limp, unable to run for the bus, let alone do any sport. From being “young for her age”, I became old before my time. This journey would give me back that chutzpah.
But is this the best way to recover one’s chutzpah? For beneath this outgoing exterior is a wimp. A little fear is fine but I have often become so panic-stricken that I could not read a map in front of me. But the decision was made and I had to conquer my inner demons and board that train.
I would be travelling from London to Brussels, Cologne, Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow, Irkutsk, Ulan Bataar, Beijing, Shanghai, Nanning, Hanoi, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Poipet, Aranyaprathet, Bangkok, Butterworth and Kuala Lumpur.
My planning was haphazard, only completing my itinerary a month before departure. To ensure a smooth journey, I got my Trans-Siberian tickets from Real Russia, as recommended by the website www.seat61.com (the rail traveller’s Bible). It was costly – £189 (RM1,050) for three-nights in the Trans-Siberian plaskartny (third-class carriage) from Moscow to Irkutsk. A second-class cabin was £400 (RM2,230).
I have never been refused a visa but each time I travel to a country requiring a visa, I worry. It takes one country to refuse a visa and the whole trip is scuppered. I only needed a visa for Russia and China (and a transit visa for Belarus). Faced with such stringent rules as: “Your face must be square to the camera with a neutral expression, neither frowning nor smiling, and with your mouth closed”, I was taking no chances and decided to leave everything in the hands of Real Russia’s visa centre in London.
A major fear is finance. Like the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable, while my friends at home are retiring with a comfortable pension and an impressive property portfolio, at 60, my finances are in shambles. Having sold everything I had, including what was left of my mother’s jewellery that hadn’t been stolen in Malaysia, and my stable of Canon DSLRs, one afternoon I found myself slumped on my desk, sobbing. There was nothing left to sell.
Then, like a miracle, a letter came through the post the next morning about a pension from a Saturday job I did at my university. Having turned 60, I could claim my £1,800 (RM10,000) lump sum (a pitiful amount to my affluent friends but as good as a million ringgit to me). Friends and strangers also donated cash. I managed to obtain a few corporate sponsors. But what finally did it for me was my friend Esther Lau asking if she could make up my budget shortfall. I told her to be on standby for a loan in case I reached my credit limit.
Other fears followed. I had too many valuable electronic items. An elderly woman with two heavy bags is a magnet for thieves and I couldn’t afford to lose anything. My favourite item is a spiral bicycle lock to secure my two big bags to each other or to any railing on a train. A small chain would secure my daypack to my top bunk for those night visits to the loo.
I am given to bouts of extreme loneliness whenever I find myself in a tight spot in foreign climes. Language problems would surface as soon as I got to Eastern Europe, and the fear hit me while I was still in the warm company of veteran journalist and broadcaster Zubaidah Aziz in Berlin. Russia and China also scared me because they seemed to dance to a different tune than the rest of the world. But, like a habitual gambler, I had sacrificed everything to back this iron horse and I had to make sure it’s a winner.
Stay tuned for more stories of this journey every fortnight.