September 11, 2019

The Railway to Heaven

My latest book will be published on the 10th October and I wanted to share a bit more about it. I thought a good way to do this might be to answer some of the questions that I frequently get asked about the journey.

Why did you choose Tibet as your destination?

After much studying of my vintage 1956 National Geographic map, I realised that I could fuse together two journeys that I wanted to make – the Trans Manchurian and the Qinghai-Tibet railways – broadly speaking the longest and highest in the world. Tibet is such a fabled place and my desire to visit became almost unstoppable after reading Heinrich Harrier’s book Seven Years in Tibet. Oh, and some classic Tintin too! The Lhasa train has only been running since 2006. It is a staggering piece of civil engineering – 675 bridges, 550 km of track on permafrost, the highest tunnel in the world (over 1km long) and the highest railway station in the world at Tanggula, where the pass reaches 5072 m. Having completed both the Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian routes before , this was also a new way to cross Siberia and enter China directly from the north.

How long did the journey take?

It took around 30 days to reach Hong Kong. It could have been done more quickly, or much more slowly of course.. As well as Lhasa, I spent some time in Warsaw, Berlin, Moscow and Beijing along the way.

Railway to heaven. Copyright Matthew Woodward

The Railway to Heaven, Lanna Hall, 2019

Did you encounter any major problems?

Well, I didn’t get arrested or deported from anywhere, but you will have to read the book to find out! I will confess now that much to my embarrassment, I did manage to lose my train in Poland. Altitude sickness was a problem, and I was a little weak and feeble up there in the thin air. And then there was the border where I became stuck in ‘no mans land’ as my passport was declared as a forgery. I’m saying no more here.

Was there much culture shock?

Not surprisingly, visiting the temples and monasteries on the Tibetan Plateau was like time travel, places where little seemed to have changed since the 16th century. But I also saw both sides of modern day China. The ultra modern consumerist society in the big cites and the relatively poor workers and farmers from the provinces living a very different life. The train system is similar; modern high speed trains sit next to much older slow trains. My shock was perhaps how things that were totally unacceptable on some trains were very normal on others; some things that I wish I could ‘unsee’..

What was the most memorable part of the journey?

Anyone who travels off the beaten track knows that the best part of such a journey is often more about the people you meet rather than the places you see. Nowhere is this more true than on the rails. Train travel allows people with no prior connection to co-inhabit a tiny sleeper compartment,  to share a seat in a bar or a table in a restaurant carriage. Time to talk, to understand alternative cultures in the ever changing environment. There is also something about rail travel that attracts interesting people, and also brings out the weird and wonderful characters. Perhaps its the close proximity, the unfamiliar environment and the availability of weapons grade vodka. I’m always happy in Siberia, but on this journey both Lhasa and Hong Kong were special to me, for very different reasons.

Tenzing at the Sera monastery

Did you meet some interesting people along the way?

You bet. I will never forget the staff on the Vostok, especially Sergei and Valerie. In Tibet my local guide and fixer Tenzing, and was an incredible chap. Characters emerge all the time on the rails, chance meetings in corridors or in the dining carriage. On the streets of Beijing I met The Scorpion King, and at the border with Russia and China I met a couple of Swiss men who I named Batman and Spiderman, owing to their ‘special powers’.

You must be tired of crossing Siberia by now?

Not at all. I miss the journey all the time. Whichever route you choose there is nothing better than a seriously  long train trip, especially in the middle of winter. The rhythm and routine of a long distance Russian train is amazing. As a passenger you become part of what is going on around you, and learn to treat the train as your home. Think of it as like a cruise, but without a dress code!

Why don’t your books have pictures in them?

The reasons are partly technical and partly personal. I want my pictures to look good, and I don’t much like images printed in black and white on normal paper. I also like to think that most readers will have their own sense of the people by the way I write about them. But of course my books are a real life travelogue, and for those that prefer, I can share pictures in full technicolour on this blog. I hope to find time to write a separate blog post to introduce some of them to you.

How much does a journey like this cost?

That is a piece of string question. Train travel can be pretty reasonable if you book in advance and are prepared to sleep in open dormitory style carriages (known as ‘Plaskart’ in Russia). But if you want private first class accommodation it is often about four times the price. To get a Tibet permit you need the services of a guide and the visas and red tape costs can mount up too. But of course it is always worth it – you are creating a unique experience that you will never forget.

‘Andy’ and ‘Rachel’ on board the Z21 to Lhasa

Would you do it again?

I would love to spend more time in Tibet, but I’m looking for some new and very different experiences at the moment, particularly in other parts of Central Asia, North Africa and the USA.

Do you speak any Chinese or Tibetan?

Almost none. I dont speak much Russian either. I got by using a book of pictures of things that I could point at and with a few apps on my phone. Translation apps have become a bit of a game changer recently, and allow simple communication. I sometimes take pictures of things like food dishes and show them to order them, or ask diners to show me which their dish is on a menu. If all else fails I will try a mime, but it can go badly wrong, like the time I asked a Russian chef for eggs for my breakfast on the train from Warsaw to Moscow.

Is it hard to get a visa for Tibet?

Yes and no. You don’t need a visa for Tibet, but you do for China. You need a permit to travel in Tibet that is only available if you have a visa. Permits are not always available on certain dates and times of the year, but these are not published so it can be a bit of a waiting game. That’s where a good travel agent becomes indispensable.

The author meets The Scorpion King in Wangfujing, Beijing

What is the food like on the train?

Mostly pretty good if you don’t mind simple cooked dishes. You need to bring some rations for times when there is no restaurant carriage. Platform food can also be fun if you are prepared to take gamble. I enjoyed amazing caviar in Siberia, fry ups for breakfast, and fiery noodles in China, all on the rails. Off the rails I discovered all sorts of strange things to try, from scorpions in Beijing to shredded cobra in Hong Kong.

Don’t you get lonely travelling solo?

Never. I think the lone traveller has the advantage of being able to talk to anyone and everyone. Whilst I have moments when I really enjoy the solitude of being alone in a new place, I love talking to strangers and have met some amazing people on my adventures – and this trip was very much in that vein.

What would you say to someone who loved the idea of a long train journey but felt it was too difficult?

Don’t be overwhelmed by it. Think of it in stages if it helps. Of course you can organise it all yourself, but specialist travel agents can make it much more achievable, as they have access to local train ticketing systems and understand the red tape. I find that whilst I set off with some apprehension, after a few days I have moved into a wonderful state of living in the moment and not worrying about anything. It’s my happy place.

Are the trains safe in Russia and China?

Trains are generally safe and well ordered places, so don’t worry – just stay alert, especially in stations and busy places. On long distance trips fellow passengers tend to look after each other too, so you always have help when you need it.

When is the book out?

The Railway to Heaven is available from 10th October in paperback (£8.95) and Kindle (£3.99), although you can pre order the Kindle edition today for immediate delivery to your device on the day of release.

Where to next?

I’m beginning to get superstitious about revealing my new plans until the trip is complete, but in the meantime I will be going on a mini adventure to the Sahara soon. My desk is piled high with books researching the journey for the next book at the moment – always an exciting phase in a new adventure.

Please let me know if you have a question about this journey and I would love to hear what you think about the book.





2 Comments on “The Railway to Heaven

September 12, 2019 at 10:48 am

Looking forward to the next great read .. and the smiles that surprise too!

Avril Meyler
November 15, 2019 at 7:53 pm

Just read Transiberian Adventure, thoroughly enjoyed it and passed it onto a friend. I ‘m 74 and attempting to save up (from state pension!) and make this one of my major life goals. I’ve done Turkey to Iran by train and travelled overland, from Wales to India (2005) in combination of Ferry, train and bus. I got locked up in Iran for not having correct visa, but it all worked out in the end.

Great book Matthew and i’m going to get The Railway to Heaven


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