Oliver Walston: Riding the Gravy Train
I make no excuse if what follows sounds like a blatant commercial plug. It is, however, not a plug and I must make it abundantly clear that I have no commercial connections with the company involved. I am, however, a very satisfied customer and felt it my solemn duty to inform the readers of LUSSO why this is the case. There, I feel better now I’ve got that off my chest. So let’s begin.
In addition to all the normal ailments from which old men suffer, I happen to have one which no doctor has yet been able to cure. It is called Itchy Feet. The symptoms are very simple so you don’t need a medical degree to diagnose the condition. You know you have Itchy Feet when you prefer travelling to arriving.
This fact irritates the hell out of my spouse, for whom nothing is better than to remain in one place long enough to absorb every museum, every palace, every vista and every marketplace at least twice. I, on the other hand, having passed through Immigration, find myself looking at the schedules of the departing train/plane/bus or camel. Maybe this explains why we rarely take holidays together these days. But rest assured, gentle reader, that in spite of this she still remains the woman of my dreams. Whether the sentiment is mutual remains unclear.
The only known cure for Itchy Feet is, of course, travel. And then more travel. But for the seriously acute cases like mine, travel alone is not sufficient. It must be travel to parts of the world which are difficult to reach. All of which might explain why I used to spend so much time and money wandering around the Arctic. I wonder, for example, how many LUSSO readers have ever visited the island of Jan Mayen.
Jan Mayen is a tiny sliver of rock between Iceland and Greenland, on which, the Norwegians have a base of less than a dozen people. Having persuaded the Norwegian air force to fly me out to Jan Mayen, I looked at my atlas and realised that there was another point on the map which was even more impossible to reach. If you look at the map of Greenland and examine the north-east corner you will see a spot which is called Nord or, sometimes, Station Nord. Here, some 600 miles from the north pole, is a group of huts in which no more than half a dozen Danish soldiers live. Once again my unfailing charm appeared to work and I found myself on a Hercules C-130 flying from an air force base outside Copenhagen to Station Nord by way of Reykjavik.
I could go on like this for a very long time but I fear it would induce readers to cancel their subscriptions to LUSSO so I shall desist. Suffice it to say that I am the first Englishman ever (repeat ever) to go through the North East Passage and only the second human being to go through both the North East and North West Passage. The first was a gentleman named Roald Amundsen. I must admit, however, that he did it the hard way whilst I simply sat toasty warm in a couple of icebreakers.
All of those arctic wanderings were fine until I reached the age of sixty. At that point, for some explicable reason, I found that I craved a bit more comfort, a bit more luxury. But, at the same time, I still wanted to visit parts of the world which were far off the beaten track. The solution seemed obvious; a cruise ship. However, most of these leviathans smooch serenely round the world visiting glamorous harbours where the passengers disembark to gulp pina coladas and buy straw hats. I did, however, discover a cruise ship which started on the Kamchatka peninsula of eastern Siberia and, having passed all the way along the Aleutian islands, ended up in Anchorage, Alaska. This was fine as far as it went but I emerged from the experience strangely unsatisfied.
And then, like that blinding flash of light which knocked St Paul off his horse and demanded to know why he kicked against the pricks, it came to me in the bath one day – it was a firm based in Cheshire and you can’t get less romantic than Cheshire which appeared to organise railway trips to some of the most inaccessible places in the world. The company is called GW Travel and was founded by a former wine-merchant named Tim Littler. It seems that Tim cares even more about trains than he does about wine whereas I happen to feel equally passionately about both. Anyway, GW Travel spend much of their time running trains around Russia. What caught my eye was an expedition from Moscow to Vladivostok along a little-known branch line off the Trans-Siberian railway line. This is known as the BAM, which stands for the Baikal-Amur Mainline and it runs through some of the wildest, remotest parts of this globe.
Fifteen days after leaving Moscow we arrived at Vladivostok and I realised that, at last, I had found my true calling in life. I had clearly been designed by Providence to be a permanent railway traveller always providing that the railway carriages were as comfortable, as luxurious, as delicious, as those provided by GW Travel.
Two years later I was minding my own business as I lay soaking in yet another two-hour bath when I learnt that GW Travel had planned the trip of my dreams. It was to travel by train from Hong Kong to Moscow by way of the new 16,000 feet high railway line to Lhasa.
All that was necessary was to do what comes naturally to readers of LUSSO write out a very large cheque. Now is not the place to describe this little journey in any detail. Suffice it to say that it is unlikely that GW Travel will ever repeat the project since not only was it extraordinarily difficult to organise but it was also extraordinarily expensive. But it made me realise that the remedy for itchy feet is now readily available at the flick of a credit card.
One problem remains and I must admit it is causing me sleepless baths every morning. Where do I go this year? Maybe on a steam-train through Arctic Russia or another steam train in northern China. Or possibly on the GW Travel expedition by rail from Bombay to Darjeeling. I’d better stop now because it is beginning to sound like an advertisement. And that would never do for a magazine like LUSSO.