Here's an excerpt from my upcoming article for Emirates Open Skies Magazine.
There's something about long-distance train travel that conjures images of intrigue, mystery and romance. But why trains? Certainly, when you board a plane, you don't deign to imagine you will encounter a femme fatale or a mysterious masculine nomad in your row of seats. Certainly, when heading off on a 12-hour drive in a car, thoughts of rest-stop romances are the last thing on one's mind. But trains... Why is it almost a fait accompli that our minds expressly orient themselves to intrigue and enchantment upon embarking on an extended train trip?
Perhaps one can blame Dame Agatha Christie for this mysterious affair of perceived style. After all, she was among the first authors and auteurs of the 20th century to set a sweeping stumper on the rails. Murder on the Orient Express, published in 1934, is an enigmatic whodunit (spoiler alert: the whole train dun it) starring Christie’s ace detective Hercule Poirot.
On the silver screen, though, romance on the rails often eclipses intrigue as a plot device. In many screenplays, young lovers meet on a train. There's 1995's Before Sunrise (the second sequel of which, Before Midnight, was released this summer). Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy hook up on a train, prefacing a 20-year odyssey of philosophizing and unapologetic profundity. In Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), Cary Grant's character encounters the mysterious Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on the 20th Century Limited from New York to Chicago. After adventures involving crop dusters, Tarascan statues, and Mount Rushmore, the two are seen together in an upper berth as their train zooms suggestively into a tunnel. THE END.
I often wonder how many of the creative types who have married romance and the rails have actually taken a lengthy train trip. Because if they did, perhaps some of the more fragile might end up like one Anna Karenina, who, at the end of her story, was literally wed to the tracks.
As the aforementioned Transsiberian paints it, the caravan plying the tracks between Beijing and Moscow is filled with babushkas and pensioners, assorted raggedy backpackers, dirty cops, and drug dealers. On the Trans-Siberian (as I will stylistically refer to it) I traveled, I experienced nary a cop, dirty or otherwise, nor anyone trading in narcotics (not counting the train's doctor, that is). To clarify, though, rather than taking the "real" Trans-Siberian, the train on which one shares berths, baths, and board with Russian folk, I hopped one of the private excursion trains that has popped up post-Soviet Union.
Was there romance? Were there moments of transcendence? Was there intrigue? I won’t prematurely spill any beans, but I will say one lady (me) did temporarily vanish. Like the heroine of The Wheels Spin, I suffered from heat exhaustion prior to boarding the train. The malady struck in the Forbidden City. I headed to a Beijing hospital while the group headed to the train station. I re-joined the group two days later in Mongolia, boarding the Trans-Siberian in Ulan Bator.