Around the world. By train.


This is the route that I had planned to follow in my 2013 attempt to travel around the world by train. The journey that I was in the middle of when ataxia first struck.

Unfortunately, it has become a journey that I will never personally complete now. So I am putting the map here – in the hope that it will inspire, and help, someone else.

I had gone as far as Novosibirsk (Siberia) when I was forced to abandon the 2013 journey, as I had mysteriously started to fall over for no reason (and thought that it might be a good idea to return to Scotland and find out why).

17 months of medical tests later and I was diagnosed with the spinocerebellar ataxia. A very rare neurological condition which would eventually (and since has) put me in a wheelchair.

This wasn’t the end of my plan to complete this journey though. Oh no.

RTWbytrain? Why?

I’ve always travelled.

Museums and art galleries just don’t do it for me though. For me, travel is all about people. And experience. Sharing our knowledge – so that we all learn from each other. I see how other people live, and use the lessons learned to shape my own life. And others, hopefully, learn something about how I live.

Like many people, I want to meet “real” local people. But how “real” are the “real local people” that you meet while travelling? No, I didn’t just want to meet people who had some tenuous link to the tourism/service industry; people, and smiling/happy people at that, who really only wanted my custom. I mean “real local people”. People just going about their mundane daily existence. And to see how these people lived their lives (some friends of mine think that this is weird/boring, but people doing normal “boring’ stuff fascinates me).

And there was one place where a local interaction was pretty much guaranteed. And a place where local people would feel relaxed and have the time to interact with “strangers”.

A local train journey.

Trains are pretty unique in this regard. They are set up in such a way, so that some passengers/strangers sit facing each other. And if you sit two human beings together, face-to-face, eventually they will “converse”.

So, in 2012, I started thinking. As each of these smaller , local, train journeys had been so personally-rewarding, would it be possible to link them all together into one, rather epic, journey which would take me right around the planet?

My initial research indicated that this was indeed possible (except for the blue bits on the atlas of course). So I spent the next 18 months poring over train routes, maps and timetables.

And to make my task even harder, I decided that I didn’t want to travel on just any old train. No, I would travel on the longest, the highest and the most iconic trains on the planet.

And on August 12, 2013, I started what was to turn out to be my final RTW journey.

So what now?

For the two years that followed my diagnosis, and knowing that my wings were slowly being clipped, I indulged in the one thing that had fulfilled me all through my life. Travel.

This was only as far as mainland Europe though, as I wanted to be relatively close to medical help in Scotland.

I had also come up with a rather clever way of combining my travels with fundraising for Ataxia UK – the registered UK charity who are funding the research into a cure for this, pretty rare, neurological condition. Although any cure would come too late for me personally, I had learned a lot about ataxia after my diagnosis. And I learned that it also affects young children. Young people who will never have the chance to see some of the wonderful things that I have seen, nor do most of the amazing things that I was lucky enough to do. Things that we all, pretty much, take for granted.

In the back of my mind though, I always had the dream of completing my 2013 RTWbytrain journey. Although I was now waiting for that wheelchair to actually appear (it since has). Train travel is a mostly a sedentary business anyway, probably part of the attraction for me (the world comes to you), so it would now need to be a much-simplified route if required. The continuation of the journey would also now be a continuation of my charity fundraising efforts (a “round the world by train – in a wheelchair” journey would attract so much more attention, and so donations).

But it has recently become very evident that even this will not be possible. For as well as losing the ability to walk, it is also expected that I will have problems with my throat (which I have already started to experience). The problem is due entirely to my throat muscles becoming gradually weaker. So this affects talking (I am now rather hoarse at times – it’s not painful at all, just bloody annoying), and swallowing, especially when eating or drinking (I have choked a few times recently, and always only when drinking cold water on its own – but the signs are there).

So any ideas that I might one day complete this journey, in whatever manner, have now been abandoned. So this is the route that I would have taken (and I leave it here in the hope that it inspires/helps someone else make this journey).

Starting with the route through Europe that I actually did manage. With a few minor changes.

The biggest of these changes is how I travelled from Europe to Moscow.

The route that I actually followed required that I immediately travelled through Scandinavia. The Inlandsbanan in Sweden (now my favourite railway journey in Europe), only runs for its entire length for a few months each Summer (the rail tracks are covered by deep snow for the rest of the year), and the timing of my journey meant that I had to head there first.

So I actually reached Moscow by train from Berlin, Warsaw and Kiev after zig-zagging around Europe after Scandinavia. And not the route via Finland that I would have preferred.

I have also added a few lines too. One of the actual benefits of completing this journey “virtually” now, is that I have been bestowed with a degree of “poetic licence”. And I intend to make the most of that wee opportunity.

There are a few countries/regions on the route which stand out:

Japan.

The Cassiopeia train no longer operates. Its future was already in some doubt at the time, due to financial implications I think. So the Fukushima nuclear disaster was just the final straw (the track north, and the route that the Cassiopeia followed, passes close by the area affected).

Japan was also a place that I had planned to tour more extensively. Yes, Japan is famous for its superfast “bullet” trains. But these are only possible because of the extensive railway history of Japan. And, as a result of their previous work, there are minor lines everywhere. And some of these minor lines are really rather appealing.

It would take a whole year just to plan a visit to this one country. So I had a general idea of the backbone of my journey through Japan, but this would just be added-to “on-the-spot”.

South America.

There are some amazing railways/trains in South America. The biggest problem is that there is so much distance between them. And these distances can only really be covered by flying (I suppose you could always take a bus too – but you would be sitting on a bus for days/weeks). Due to the distances involved, I had come up with a very clever way of travelling, by train, via southern Argentina and Chile. There is no public train here (but there is a train). So, depending on discussions with the train operators (a mining company), my solution might not have been all that legal (and as it would also involve crossing a border, I would never recommend it to anyone else).

United States of America.

If you want to include all of the major US railway lines in one itinerary, and you want to end up in Vancouver, then it is very hard to plan a route (but it is possible).

Very hard to plan (probably the most difficult section of the route).

If you are travelling from west to east, as I was, then you absolutely must begin your journey from Portland. That is the key.

So enjoy – and send me a photograph of your rail travels if possible. Via Twitter is probably the easiest (as I can then share your photograph, and your Twitter tag of course, with my own Twitter audience – which now numbers well in excess of 20,000 followers).

As for me personally? My physical travelling days might soon be over. But not my travels. And not my fundraising.

Competition.

To help promote this map (which will be an excellent resource for anyone planning a long-distance rail journey – go on, do it!), I’m giving away a a copy of the latest edition of “Europe by Rail” – signed by the book’s authors Nicky Gardner and Suzanne Kries.

And this is no ordinary travel book either (I just wish that I had a copy of the 2013 edition when I was researching my original trip – as this book would have saved me a lot of time).

The most comprehensive European railway guide, this book serves two separate purposes:

  1.  As an inspiring book to read before you leave on your travels. If you are ever in need of travel inspiration, then this book will show you exactly where you should visit in Europe, and everything that you will ever need to know about travelling there in style;
  2. And an essential guide to constantly refer to when you are actually travelling on the most beautiful trains and railway lines that Europe has to offer.

The competition is now closed


The Book:

Evocative.

This one word sums up exactly what this book is. Railway guidebooks can occasionally be rather dry in their practicality. And this book is anything but dry.

With every page turned, you are transported to a world of steel rails, magnificent trains – and the natural beauty that can only be seen from Europe’s finest railways.

And this is no ordinary travel guidebook either (I just wish that I had had a copy of the 2013 edition when I was researching my original trip – as this book would have saved me a lot of time).

The most comprehensive of European railway guidebooks (I particularly like the 26 “Sidetracks” features, which inspire you to wander down the less-touristed branch lines too), this book serves two separate purposes:

As an inspiring book to read before you leave on your travels. If you are ever in need of travel inspiration, then this book will show you exactly where you should visit in Europe, and everything that you will ever need to know about travelling there in style;

And as an essential guidebook to constantly refer to while you are actually travelling on the most beautiful trains and railway lines that Europe has to offer.

Practical and inspirational.

This is one guidebook that you will return to again and again.