May 19, 2006
I’m in Tallinn, Estonia, and slept six of the seven nights between Beijing and here on trains. Monday night I slept in Moscow instead. The trans-Mongolian train was fine: five days passed pretty quickly, and I wasn’t bored at any point. Strangely, the knowledge that you’re going somewhere prevents the fact that you’re effectively just sitting around from getting boring, and it’s surprising how long you can happily just sit and watch the world roll past.
The train from Moscow to Tallinn was immaculate. The second best train I’ve ever been on (the best being the soft sleeper from Xi’an to Beijing which I took with Jess two years ago, and which is probably the actual best train on the planet: luxurious to an extent that defies belief, with leather sofas and a flat-screen LCD at the foot of every bunk), the Tallinn-Moscow train is all soft furnishing, teak-effect panelling and green velvet, with a little artificial flower in a vase in every cabin and a restaurant car like a smart cafe.
Tallinn is also immaculate. Beautiful and crisp and clean, and when I got off the train the sky was perfect dark blue, the warm yellow light of sunrise lasted all day, and even the shadows were crisper and sharper than anywhere else I can remember being (I’m wondering if this is to do with being so far north…). Everything here is crisp and immaculate and (to me) surprisingly Scandinavian. I suppose that shouldn’t really be a surprise, it being only about 40 miles from here to Helsinki. From the train I walked to a cafe in the Old Town, and the cafe, and the coffee, and the omelette I ate for breakfast, were also all immaculate. After a week sleeping on trains, a month travelling in China, and nearly three years living in a part of Asia where immaculate cups of coffee are very thin on the ground, I can’t imagine that there could be anywhere better than Tallinn on a beautiful day to make being back in Europe seem like a good thing.
Unfortunately, the next morning I woke up to cold grey weather which has continued, and become drizzly, today. But maybe that’s a good thing, because otherwise I might just have stopped in Tallinn and eaten omelettes here forever. As it is, I now have a ticket for the night-ferry to Stockholm.
May 9, 2006
Hello. Gosh, that bit of time went past quite fast: I was in China. Running around, seeing and eating Chinese things, mainly. But I’ve nearly finished, and tomorrow morning, early, I get on a Moscow-bound train. As you might imagine, the temptation is strong to sum up, in a 1980’s American feelgood sitcom style, the important lessons I’ve learnt. So:
- Travellers are mostly idiots. In fact, this probably just reflects the fact that people are mostly idiots, but being a traveller provides more opportunities than usual for demonstrating one’s ignorance and bizarre notions about the world because travelling encourages the (usually mistaken) belief that you’ve seen things and know something of the world and its workings. Also: it is possible to ride a boat down a river near Guilin, through some of the world’s most bizarre scenery and in clear, sunny weather, and – on disembarking – to hear your fellow travellers muttering that the boat trip was “so bad it’s actually funny“. Presumably because of the lack of a cutting-edge soundtrack or interactive multimedia light display.
- People are brilliant. Since leaving on my travels, it has begun to seem almost like a law of nature that almost the exact moment you become lost or confused, either physically or mentally, someone will tap you on the shoulder and say ‘excuse me’ and then provide the exact solution to whatever problem you are having, however abstract that problem might be (anything from ‘where can I sleep in this town?’ to ‘how can I charter a seaworthy vessel and crew at this ungodly hour?’). I don’t know why it should be that this happens every time while travelling, but almost never when staying-in-one-place.
- Embarrassingly, most non-British Europeans (travelling Europeans, anyway) seem to speak three or four languages fluently. I can speak three or four words of French and German fluently.
- Finally, a surprisingly useful trick: when presented with information that you don’t want to be true, it seems you can usually just ignore it and ask someone else until you get the answer you want. This is particularly useful when told that something is ‘impossible’. For example, if told that it’s impossible to get tickets for such-and-such a train, just ask someone else, and repeat until you get the required answer.
I’ll arrive in Moscow on Monday, and leave the following day for Tallinn, Estonia. After that, my route will depend how quickly I am able to locate a ship bound for the Kingdom of Sweden, in the far north, from where I have heard that it is possible to take another boat to the city of Newcastle. From there I will complete the journey to London in a locomotive of the Great North Eastern Railways.