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 now 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 more prudent 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 will eventually see me in a wheelchair.
This wasn’t the end of my plan to complete this journey though. Oh no.
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 should the expected wheelchair arrive sooner rather than later.
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 is too late for me personally now, 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. 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, but always when drinking cold water only – 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. Starting with the route through Europe that I actually did manage.
With a few minor changes. The biggest of these 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. 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 also a few countries/regions on the route which stand out:
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 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”.
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 (probably the most difficult section of the route).
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 32,000 followers, over three different accounts).
As for me personally? My physical travelling days are over. But not my travels. And not my fundraising.
I have devised a very clever way to continue travelling (but now only “virtually”), and of using these virtual trips to encourage further charitable donations. The first of these “virtual” trips is The Whisky Pilgrimage in my native Scotland. The first of many I hope.
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:
- 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 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.
[Hint: The book is also accompanied by a website, www.europebyrail.eu].
I will randomly select the winning comment, from all comments made between now and the competition closing date on July 31 2018.
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.