What does it take to be able to call yourself an explorer these days? An off-the-map destination? A journey of extreme physical arduousness? A significant geographical discovery? Matthew Woodward dispenses with such punishing definitions and by doing so allows himself to indulge his passion for railway engines and explore the planet, largely from the comfort of a seat.
Armed with a John Lewis wheelie case crammed with essentials – Marmite; jelly babies; Colman’s mustard and an espresso machine – he sets off to travel by train from Edinburgh to Hong Kong via the Manchurian and Qinghai-Tibet railways, respectively the longest and highest sets of tracks in the world. What begins as a fairly pedestrian journey listening to British announcements such as ‘The PA is not working on all the carriages in today’s service. I would like to apologise if you can’t hear it,’ ends up pressed right up against the bounds of humanity’s existence as Woodward’s train climbs up over the Tanggula Mountains and the levels of oxygen in his train drop to around half that at sea level.
Those hoping for philosophical musings and Gestalt-shifting cultural insights might be disappointed, but those thinking of replicating the journey themselves may be grateful for the author’s honest relaying of the realities of long-distance train travel – smoke-filled carriages, sleep deprivation and spit-covered toilet floors. The Railway to Heaven is a reminder that adventures come in many guises and that sometimes just a few weeks outside of our usual environments can be the most expansive and defining parts of our year, if not our lives. Woodward is a stolid travel companion and a spurring example of an everyday explorer creating an enriching life of adventure for himself.
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