The Orient Express

As I write these lines, I am sitting on the train from Munich (Germany) to Zagreb (Croatia). The train ride is eight hours and passes through the following regions: Bavaria, Austria, Slovenia, and finally Croatia. At the border between Austria and Croatia, I will need to show my passport, a photo of which I am including below.

The view from the large picture window to my left reveals thousands of hectares of pine trees, rolling hills, remote mountain villages, and the occasional farm tractor and person travelling on bike. In the far distance, stretches the eternally snow-capped Austrian Alps with frequent glacial lakes scattered between. To my right are the other passengers I am travelling with. While waiting on the platform to board this train in Munich, I noted how the passengers looked and dressed distinctly different from the smartly dressed businesspeople and travellers I was accustomed to seeing in France and Germany. The sound of the language, too, is changing as I travel. The coarse auditory texture of German replaces the suave sounding pronunciation of French, and now the sounds of Slavic and Eastern Europe replace German. Everyone on this train is Croatian, Austrian, or German. In addition to myself, there are only two other tourists on this train: a young couple with child from Australia. They are speaking loudly in the nasally Australian accent, and complaining about the motion of the train and sounds of other passengers. As the scenic alps unfold around them, the male of the two with several dozen tattoos and piercings just announced that he will be re-watching Star Wars to pass the time during this “boring” train ride.

Above is a video of my train ride through the mountains toward Zagreb via Salzburg.

This train journey is part of my spring break between the end of my second term at Oxford and the beginning of my third (and final) term. The train journey will last four weeks total, starting in Oxford and ending in Istanbul. The distance is around 3,200 kilometres, which I am covering entirely by train. I am taking the following trains: Oxford to London, London to Paris, Paris to Stuttgart, Stuttgart to Munich, Munich to Zagreb, Zagreb to Belgrade, Belgrade to Sofia, and then finally Sofia to Istanbul. At each major city along the train journey, I will be spending three to four nights in local accommodations (AirBnB or family friends). What I find surprising about this journey is that such an ambitious plan can be accomplished entirely by train travel, as described here.

I am attaching here the detailed day-by-day itinerary for this trip at this link: click here to view.

The trip may seem to have required a lot of planning. Although for one person, such a journey requires only three to four days of planning during term time. First, securing the right train tickets via the Interrail train service, in addition to purchasing my connecting return flight from Istanbul to London. Then, purchasing a temporary mobile number for use abroad. Then, searching AirBnB and my list of contacts for accommodations in each city. Then, messaging each host with the details of my arrival and departure from the location. Then, updating my schedule to create an itinerary of all the places I will see and visit. Then, notifying my bank of any travel plans – so that my debit card is not blocked for “suspicious behaviour.” Then checking for Visas and any entry requirements for the countries I plan to visit. Then, the day before departure, I must pack all my belongings into two small bags of 20 kilos total – which must contain all the supplies and clothes I need for a month-long journey. And, after all this planning, I set out and put my plan into action.

The initial assumption for this trip to be possible, and for me to even have enough time to plan out the rail-trip details weeks in advance is as follows: My Oxford term is not too busy or too stressful that I no longer have the time or energy to travel. I’ve been lucky this term.

Language is one of the biggest barriers when travelling. I speak French fluently, so visiting Paris and navigating the culture there is easy. Germany is a little more difficult than France for me, but most Germans in urban areas have at least some limited proficiency of English. However, the farther east of Europe one goes, the fewer people one finds who are fluent in English. As a result, I must communicate with hands gestures, motions, and the unwritten (but international code of) body language. Train reservations also get more difficult as one travels in Eastern Europe, with the train reservations of Belgrade to Sofia and Sofia to Istanbul needing to be purchased in the local train station the day of departure. Conversely, as language and travel become more challenging, cost becomes cheaper. Two nights in a shared bedroom in Paris will cost the same as seven nights in a fully furnished penthouse apartment in Belgrade. Were I to travel in India or Iran (which I one day hope to visit), the price gap would be even greater. Here’s the link to the budget for this trip.

 

Photos of the train from Villach (Austria) to Dobova (Slovenia).

As the trip continues – I have three weeks of travel left before I arrive in Istanbul – I look forward to seeing the southern mountains of Transylvania, the bombed ruins of Belgrade, the churches of Sofia, and finally the Golden Horn and ancient walls of Istanbul. In Serbia, I know the train will pass by Syrian refugee camps, populated by individuals headed in the opposite direction. In particular, I look forward to the gradual shift of cultures one witnesses in accelerated speed while riding the train. Slowly, ever so slowly, one can watch the culture and architecture shift from the Christian lands of Europe, to the multi-cultural and multi-religious melting pot of the Balkans, to the more solidly Muslim world of Istanbul. The climate, too, can easily change in the space of a single hour, with variations between palm trees, flat plains, snowy mountains, and remote forests. This degree of diversity is simply invisible from an airplane flying at 750 km per hour at 10 km above ground in the midst of puffy clouds.

When I arrive in Istanbul, I will be tired, exhausted, and have a bag full of dirty laundry. But, I will be happy in the knowledge that I completed a trip that few Europeans and even fewer Americans will have completed. On a final note, I will now leave you with a few videos from my day trip to visit the family and farmstead in rural Bavaria of a dear friend I made in Oxford. He is a visiting student just like me in the same academic program of the same year long duration. I hope you enjoy! I will post more videos soon.

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The Train from Paris to Munich

The train from Paris to Munich crossed the poppy fields of northern France. The countryside in the vicinity of the World War I trench lines is dotted with cemeteries, a British flag flying over one and a French flag over the next. During the First World War, the dead were not brought back to their hometowns and or homelands to be buried; they were buried a few miles from where they fell. As the train rounded the next hill, one could see the lines of the trenches etched into the ground: a zigzagging band of different-coloured grass stretching into the far distance.