It was my Dr Zhivago fantasy period, and I had this wild idea that it would be compelling to travel solitary by surface all the way from Japan home to Britain – in winter.
‘How I envy you that railway journey,’ wrote Jan Morris, who fully appreciated the ‘special grace’ of travelling alone. Several days were spent transiting by train the massive expanse of the Soviet Union, and an uncertain seasonal ferry across the Sea of Japan to the east Siberian port of Nakhodka.
We disembarked at Omsk, or was it Tomsk, and the teeth-aching cold was such that breath crystalised and tongues froze if anyone was unwise enough to open their mouth. The grey platforms, steaming wheels and stolid Soviet silhouettes were discouraging, and I quickly climbed back into the carriage.
I remembered that time on the Orient Express when helplessly I watched the train with all my worldly belongings aboard chug out of the station – the stuff of nightmares – only to miraculously reappear after a few panicked devastating minutes. Character building stuff.
I had no such alarms on the Trans-Siberian, just surviving the bitter sub-zero temperatures every time I ill-advisedly alighted at a halt, and navigating the food where an expansive menu always seemed to have everything ‘off’ and only thick soup ‘on’. This became routine in the prescribed Intourist world of Soviet tourism, and was rather alarming at first. I adapted fast.
Frozen rivers became smooth wayfares for the winter trucks, and across a pristine snowfield from the relative comfort of my second class sleeper I witnessed a pack of wolves fleeing at the sound of our monstrous approach. The rich biodiversity of Lake Baikal was a disappointing expanse of frozen ice, fringed in skeletons of willow trees under a threatening sky. ‘The earth … spell-bound in a death-like winter trance,’ in the lone walker words of Kenneth Grahame.
The train windows were permanently edged with ice and outside the monochromatic views were truly bleak, but inside the atmosphere was cosy and encompassing. Large Russian ladies carried covered baskets of black bread and strong sausage with which I was plied.
Without any common language it did not take long to realise that these robust figures were worried about my slender frame – at nearly six feet tall and nicknamed ‘hatini‘ back at Tiger Tops in Nepal, I was unfamiliar with feeling dainty and delicate, never before nor since.
It was the winter of 1974 and I was returning from Nepal — the long way round. Following a solitary trek to Jomsom and an interlude in Kathmandu as an unsuccessful hippie, I had been working in Chitwan for a few marvellous months until the monsoon floods drove us out of the national park.