The Journey: Overland (and a little bit of water) by train and boat for 15 days to see my daughter in Japan. At the time of writing we’re still travelling but now have enough regular Wi-Fi to upload these posts.
Like all good trilogies, this one begins with Episode Four. The prequels will follow. And it’s not actually a trilogy either.
I’m woken by the sound of a door lock turning. I glance towards the door but no one has opened it. V is lying in the middle bunk peering round the window blind.
“I think we’re in a big city,” she says. I debate briefly with myself whether a possible big city is worth getting up for. S has no such struggles and stays asleep in the top bunk. Reluctantly I swing out of bed and pull up the blind. It is indeed a big city. You can tell that. Its buildings are not understated or lacking in confidence. It’s a big city that I then think I recognise.
“Looks like Berlin to me.” I hadn’t registered that we were going to go through Berlin, though when I think of it, what other way would we have gone? We gently bend our way through sites I recognise but have never seen before. Then the city landscape changes and the buildings become less impressive, less confident. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to predict that we are about to pull into the Ostbahnhof. Which we do. East Berlin still looks to me like it’s playing catch-up.
I’ve seen enough, but am beaten to the door by V who too has morning ablutions on her mind. She can’t open the door. For goodness sake, how can she not open the door? Try again. No, she still can’t open it. Sighing theatrically I brush past her and open the door, or would have, if it had opened for me. I can’t open the door either.
V presses the button to call the steward. The call light shines briefly and is then turned off. No one comes. She presses the button again but it doesn’t light up this time. She presses it again. It has been deactivated. V hammers on the door. S stirs and tells his mother not to bang the door. I tell her to bang as much as she likes. We are locked in a railway compartment in East Berlin. The door is locked and the window doesn’t open. There’s no other way out. I want to go to the loo. What’s not to bang about? No one comes.
This time she bangs and shouts loudly. She shouts and bangs again. If you were prone to panicking, now would be a good time to panic. There is a sound at the door. It sounds like a lock being unlocked. The door opens and the steward walks in. He responds with a shrug that would have made a Frenchman proud. What do you mean you were locked in? We were locked in. Locked in in East Berlin. Train travel is all about metaphors.
I’ve never been a train-spotter. As a small boy in Belfast I did get a frisson of excitement riding in a trolley-bus, periodically stranded, then waiting while they hooked the trolley back onto the overhead electric cables. I also wrote down bus numbers religiously for a few months, until I realised that they always sent the same buses on the routes I usually travelled on.
I am not a train-spotter. However, the first day of our trip across two continents by train saw me tweeting pictures of trams and train engines at will as we boarded six railway vehicles in one day. We’d had a dry run of the journey’s start a couple of weeks earlier when we three had had to travel down to the Russia visa processing centre in London to have our fingerprints taken. V was upset by the state of the train that day and I ended up leaving stuff on board it that lost property never found. But at least our fingerprints were found to be more acceptable than Nick Clegg’s and unlike him, were able to go ahead with this visit.
We started off with a tram to Manchester’s Piccadilly Station. It’s a journey I’ve made hundreds of times, though rarely with quite as much anticipation. We arrived in plenty of time to catch the 10.55 to London Euston. This time Mr. Branson’s team had cleaned the train properly and given us a window seat that actually had a window next to it.
At Euston certain members of my party baulked at walking the short distance to St Pancras International, so we descended into the bowels of the earth and went one stop on a Seven Sisters tube train. This was a novelty for me, as in recent years I’ve tried to resist the temptation to turn into a mole every time I arrive in the Big Smoke.
We arrived at St Pancras just too early to check-in. We struggled round with our cases and bags for a few minutes until a young man with a rucksack took pity on us and moved seats to let us all sit together. I wandered off outside the station to find somewhere to post a letter, and by the time I’d done that (and walked the equivalent of twice the distance from Euston) it was time to board.
Eurostar check-in and security was hot and bothered and seemed to take ages. Our tickets wouldn’t scan so we had to change lanes. Lanes merged as we were funneled into security, and then out again the other side into the departure holding area. We weren’t held for long.
We boarded the Eurostar, boarded it for the first time ever, actually. Surprised for some reason to hear the English conductor rattle comfortably through a number of European languages. Made some last minute phone calls as we sped under the channel until the first glimpse of French sunshine cut them dead in their tracks. Arrived in Brussels on time and still without losing anything or anyone.
The train to Cologne left twenty minutes later. It was pretty full and there was a fair bit of musical chairs as people agreed to move to let people sit beside their friends before having to move back again because their new seat turned out to be reserved for someone else. There was a school or college party on board and the loud mouth of the group was sat directly behind me. The teacher kept coming back to ask him what the problem was, and kept being told “we’re only playing”. It seems there is no word in German for ‘bants’.
The train was held up for twenty minutes before Aachen and arrived twenty minutes late at its destination. We still had time for a MacWi-Fi meal, a shop for drinks and food, and a walk in the rain around the cathedral area. We waited for our sixth and final train of the day while trains with carriages bizarrely laid out as bike sheds or works canteens trundled through.
Our train, when it arrived, had our sleeper carriage at the very front, next to the locomotive. We allocated the three bunks in our compartment and investigated for sink, wardrobe and plug socket. For a moment I thought there was also a toilet or shower, but when I slid back a sliding door I was suddenly face to face with three men in the next carriage. One of them was the guy who had given up his seat for us at St Pancras. We exchanged surprised glances and I closed and locked the door.
Carriages and engines were shuffled sometime during the night so when we were finally released from our East Berlin incarceration, we were still on the Jan Kiepura sleeper, but it was a totally different train. Spooky. Chatted with J from the next compartment. He was doing the same journey as us but taking slightly longer about it.
We crossed the border at Rzepin and the attendant brought us some hot water, tea bags and a caramel-filled croissant for breakfast, hermitically sealed in a foil bag. It may have been sealed after the taste had bolted. Outside the window orange-red poppies began to line the trackside with tall skinny trees forming a consistent background that I didn’t know the name of. We arrived into Warsaw. We disembarked with J, changed some Zlotys with him and left our luggage in the Left Luggage. Good place for it.
With a few hours to get a taste for Warsaw I was drawn like a moth to a flame-thrower by the Palace of Culture and Science, the domineering edifice of Stalinist architecture just across the road from the station. It also housed the Tourist Information Office. They recommended taking a ride in the lift to the viewing platform on the 30th floor of the building.
It was good advice. The lifts, though, were operated by unsmiling women from an earlier era. They had serious haircuts and even more serious facial expressions. They probably said ‘Have a nice day’ as we reached our destination but it sounded more like ‘If you fall over the edge I’ll not be scraping you off the ground below.’ The 360 degree views from the building were stunning: the constant churn of the trams and traffic; Stadion Narodowy in the distance; the view over to Most Srednicowy bridge. I can now say I’ve see the whole of Warsaw. From a distance. And a great height.
When we descended from this giddy height there was just time for a Hard Rock Hamburger before we made our way back to the station for the next train and the last leg of our journey to Moscow.