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Within Earshot of the Train

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No one should ever have shoved Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar into my hands.

Or allowed me to read its opening line.

“Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.”

The clatter of wheels on metal awakens a particularly dangerous wanderlust in me, the I-need-to-see-the-world kind of wanderlust, not the weekend getaway, but the ‘sell up move out’ instinct well honed by the generations of nomads who populate my family tree. These days the wheels may whoosh rather than clatter but the yearning remains the same. The convivial compartments have been replaced by rows of impersonal airplane seats but the people who ride the rails are often on a journey.

Train hallway

Today’s trains are impersonal, like airplanes

Theroux’s book enlightened me. “You can TALK to people on a train?” In an instant, the train mutated from conveyance to adventure, from transport to a window on the world.

My first ride was on the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul but the years have erased that journey, a lifetime ago, from my memory.

Time, however, has been kind enough to leave a few other recollections intact.

Like the vision of a selfish and arrogant Swiss photographer being wrestled to the ground by a jovial Australian as we crossed the Viaduct of Death in Myanmar… It was the 1980s, separatists inhabited the nearby hills, and we had been warned not to take photographs, but he wouldn’t listen. Armed soldiers were stationed precariously every few meters along the viaduct, scanning the horizon. Ours was a military train, our wagon the only unsealed one and a camera, seen from a distance, can look like a weapon, especially if a giant telephoto is attached to it. We collectively threatened to throw camera and photographer over the edge, and years later I still remember the look of horror on his face as ‘Big Oz’ lunged for his lens.

Train journeys can be educational, like my painstakingly slow journey from Pretoria to Maputo with Concepção in the mid-1990s. Each month, Concepção – her name betrayed Mozambique’s Portuguese colonial past – crossed the border to South Africa to buy bales of second-hand clothes for resale back home. The border seemed to draw a poverty line across the land: on the South African side, well-kept gardens and cleanly dressed villagers went about their daily business; on the Mozambican side, idle men shuffled along dusty streets or sat in front of dilapidated shacks, with the languor that sets in when there isn’t enough food to go around.

Train journeys can also be mindlessly tedious. Recently I rode from Santiago de Compostela to Barcelona, a solitary journey with passengers so grim I considered taking a break for a few days. Instead, I seized the opportunity provided by the window, a steady film reel of images from the depth of northern Spain.

Pilgrims in Santiago de Compostela

The final stretch to Santiage de Compostela; many pilgrims arriving on foot will leave by train

Train journeys can even offer life changes, by throwing solitary soulmates together or forging enduring friendships. They can shift your course and almost changed mine when in my twenties on the Paris-Geneva overnight I met an interesting gentleman with whom I spoke for hours. He was a police commissioner and suggested I should join the French police after my law studies. My life might have taken an interesting twist had I not misplaced his card.

I do have one unfinished train journey, one that occasionally occupies my dreams: the Trans-Siberian Express to Mongolia, land of my ancestors. My politicized mind holds me back, as I write not long after the evident discrimination of Russia’s leadership around the Sochi Olympics and in the thick of the Crimean crisis, where part of my family is also from. I’ve been to Russia and I will undoubtedly go again. But not yet.

Wherever it takes me the train at times feels like a mystical vehicle, a magic carpet winging me to places filled with treasures and wonder.

A good train unravels a country’s rhythm and unfolds its history. Sadly it is also a speeding bullet from which you can’t escape. You rush through fascination and you can’t get off.

On the newer, sealed trains I battle for breath, feeling deeply nauseous and gulping candied ginger to stay steady. 

No matter. I’ll just breathe deeply. And keep chugging. Because for me, there is no better way to see the world.

This post is Day 4 of the #Indie30 challenge – 30 Days of Indie Travel, by Bootsnall.


  1. David on April 14, 2014 at 7:53 am

    Beautiful story … I enjoy rail journeys as well. Something about the clacking of train wheels and the gentle swaying of the cars as you go to sleep in the sleeper cars that gets me everytime!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on April 14, 2014 at 10:34 am

      Thanks David – I love sleeping on trains! It takes me about five seconds to fall asleep with the rhythm…

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