Trip of a lifetime; or that time we got the train to China...
This ‘trip of a lifetime’ began on Boxing Day, 2017.
The punctuation of a year that has meant we have been so many things to so many people we simply have not had the time nor the space to just be us.
We finish packing and we tidy the house and we throw the Christmas tree into the back garden so we aren’t greeted by a carpet of pine needles on our return home.
We put on our recently bought outdoor coats, we sling on the backpacks, we check for passports, and printouts and carefully packed currency.
We lock the door, we walk up the Sandown Road, and we wait for the 4a bus. The bus that yes, will take us to Belfast city centre, but ultimately, will take us so much further than that.
The first stop is Dublin. There are now three bus services to the Fair city, and so full of adrenaline and excitement and absolute exhaustion at having worked another festive season in catering, we actually struggle to pick one, but all of a sudden we are on a bus, drinking beers and marvelling at what is to come.
We spend the night in Blooms hotel, a cheap hotel near the bus stop. Boxing Night in Dublin city centre means most places we normally go are still closed for the holidays, so we find an Indian with gobi manchurian and dahl and Kingfisher beer, not quite knowing what is happening, or what to talk about, or how this even ended up being a thing we are doing.
The next morning, I unroll my yoga mat on the cold tiles of the bathroom. A bus to the ferry, a cooked breakfast aboard a ship, a dash around a supermarket to pick up something for lunch on the train, and we are suddenly on the most crowded train of the whole journey.
I realise that, actually, this IS the holiday.
The holiday does not begin when we reach Paris, or Moscow, or even Mongolia.
The destination of this particular holiday is in the journey, and this particular journey started with the 4a bus. I think at this exact moment, my shoulders start to extract themselves from the default position of around my ears.
We make it to London, and go to St Pancras station to get on a train I have wanted to get on for pretty much ever; the Eurostar.
We play Monopoly, and drink coffee, and just a short while later, we are in Paris.
We check into The Hoxton hotel, a design-led hotel that we have stayed in while in London, whose secret cocktail bar sets the bar for 24 magical hours in this great city; we drink coffee and eat croissants, we walk for miles, we stop for glasses of red wine.
I have my phone stolen, and we have no time to even register what has happened. Our train to Moscow has arrived, and we have to get on it.
It doesn’t take long for my annoyance to give way to acceptance, and soon Mr P unpacks our picnic supper and I have one of those moments that I’m sure some clever Scandinavian has a word for; one of those moments of just being so completely content with my two-day train journey and my husband fighting me for the last of the truffled brie, and our great adventure, that at that exact moment, nothing else matters at all.
The train takes two nights to pass through France, and Germany, and Poland and Belarus. We get off at every single stop, marvelling at the countries we are in, and giddy on life. The Russian carriage attendants watch us like hawks, making sure we are back on the train with cups of tea in hand before the train pulls away from each platform.
The train pulls into a shed in Belarus, so the bogies can be changed to Russian grade. We drink the last of our French wine, hand our passports over to the authorities, and get ready for Russia.
I’m not entirely sure it is possible to be ready for Russia at New Year. It is their major festive celebration, and over our two days in Moscow we see fire-works and street parties and the greatest decorations of all time. After the clock strikes midnight on New Years Eve, we sign our lives away and zip-line down a shopping street. On the way home, we give tobogganing a go, before falling into a bar for a swift half that turns into two that turns into being so hungry when we get back to our hotel we end up eating soup in the lobby at 4am.
I go to the Bolshoi ballet.
I have wanted to do this for so long that I felt tearful when picking up the tickets. By the time I sat in that box, with one of the world’s greatest ballets in one of the world’s most iconic theatres, I was weeping with joy.
Mr P meets me afterwards, and we go to a tap room he has discovered, and we eat nachos, and marvel at this quite extraordinary city.
Soon, it is time to get on the train to Vladivostok. We are to get off four days into this cross country journey, and those four days pass in a blur of charades with the Russians, reading books, drinking tea and beer and taking station selfies in rapidly declining temperatures.
At one point, I wonder if I am bored.
I realise I am anything but.
I am lying on a bed, reading a book, with Russia passing before my very eyes.
It is quite magical.
Four days later we jump off at Irkutsk, and are met by a tour guide to show us Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world.
We go dog-sledding, and hike to a pretty spectacular viewpoint, and marvel at just how cold and how beautiful it all is.
We spend a night in a youth hostel, the shagging teenagers a few bunks up reminding me a little too much of my own, misspent, backpacking youth. The train early the next morning comes as a welcome diversion.
Most of the first day of that journey is spent travelling alongside that beautiful lake. Even I give up on books, so transfixed by the beauty of the landscape, the waitress in the restaurant car offers me vodka to snap me out of it.
The next day, we are in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
We check into our hotel, and are upgraded to a suite, so we buy Russian champagne and pretend to live the high life. The next morning we are collected by Bert, who owns a smallholding nearby, and we set off on the ice road, eventually making it to our yurt.
After dinner, walking back to aforementioned yurt, we have the moment.
Looking up at those stars.
They were brighter than anything I had ever seen.
There were more of them.
They seemed closer.
It was as entrancing as the Bolshoi ballet, and as exciting as the dog-sledding, and it was just us.
Me and him.
Marvelling at this Earth.
It was, however, minus 30 degrees, so the moment really only did last for a moment.
We set an alarm for every 2 hours, stoking the fire with wood and nipping outside for one more gawp at that spectacular sky.
The next day we walked and we walked. We found a snazzy hotel and were the only customers the 17 working staff had seen for days, so we sipped wine and ate the complimentary peanuts and got really, really excited about one more night of star gazing.
The morning after, we hitched a ride to the bus station to get us back to Ulan Bator. We met up with my friend for vegetarian food and stories of the Peace Corps work. We bought her and her boyfriend beers that seemed cheap to us, yet cost as much as their rent. We got upgraded to our suite again.
All of a sudden, it was time to go to China.
My mind was in overdrive.
I had last been to China fifteen years before, teaching English as a Foreign Language in a city called Nanjing. My mother had come out to visit me and we had spent a couple of extremely happy days exploring Beijing.
How come now I couldn’t remember the details?
How come I had half a memory, yet couldn’t fill in the blanks?
How could I try to bring any memories I did have back?
We went to the Chinese restaurant car and the memories came with the first taste of that rice, cooked in a giant rice cooker. I am quite certain that many Chinese restaurants cook that exact brand of rice in exactly the same way, but that staple flavour of my diet brought it all flooding back.
Then, in Beijing, I realised that it would be impossible to remember; it is a huge, sprawling city that has evolved beyond words. So instead I enjoyed watching the locals perform their aerobic in the temple of heaven, I ate my way round the city on a food tour, I shrieked with glee as we descended from the Great Wall in a toboggan.
Basically, I made some pretty awesome new memories.
But despite new security checks, and seemingly orderly queues, and possessions in wheels suitcases instead of checked tarpaulin bags, the chaos of Chinese train stations will never change, and I feel like Mr P gained a whole new respect for his wife when he realised that I had negotiated these stations every weekend for a whole year of my life, that I used used my basic Mandarin and naive charm that only comes with being out in the big bad world for the first time at 18 years old, and so 33 year old me used even more basic Mandarin and slightly less naive charm and got us onto the overnight train to Nanjing.
The scene of that year.
It was an era where personal technology was so non existent that I was able to check email once a week and had to use the business suite of a fancy hotel to print something.
33 year old me could afford to stay in that hotel.
And, again, it was one of those moments.
I stroked the fluffy bath robe and marvelled at the view and could not believe that I had managed to make this exact moment happen.
Except I need to talk about that view.
15 years ago the height of shopping sophistication in Nanjing was the display of Gillette razors in the local department store.
That view took in Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Tiffany.
18 year old me couldn’t afford the razors.
33 year old me couldn’t afford what had replaced them.
Some things truly never change.
I took Mr P to see the school, and when they were trying to find somebody who could speak English, they actually managed to locate my boss from back in the day, and she gave us free reign to wander.
I was able to show Mr P the places that did exist; the canteens, the classrooms, the tower block with my accommodation.
As day turned to night, I was able to show him the places that never really existed; the places where the Ballymena bullies no longer mattered, the places where I realised I was actually quite a good teacher, the places where I tasted spicy mixed with sweet, and salty mixed with sour, the places where I felt almost delirious with happiness, way back then.
Finally, we jumped on a high speed train to Shanghai. Once again, we scored an upgrade, and we were in a pretty amazing location.
Once I had checked out the youth hostel that I had once stayed in, which is now a luxury hotel, I was keen to let Mr P experience a China I had never seen, so we walked and walked and walked, we drank cocktails, and we met up with some of his work buddies.
We LOLed at the Bund tunnel.
We ate soup dumplings, and did some shopping, and jumped on a ferry.
We realised that over all those miles, all those journeys, all those beers, we had found the time and space we needed to just be us.
And for that reason, beyond any other, it truly was the trip of a lifetime.
I really hope we get a few more.