The Last Stop

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So there I was: Berlin. The sixth and final country of my trip. Part of me just wanted to get home. Like Mole in The Wind and the Willows, I was close enough now to be able to smell my home, and Berlin seemed like a not-quite-London in comparison to all the other cities I’d been in, making me long for the real thing. It was the first place I’d visited that had a completely familiar alphabet on its street signs, for example. I could tell I was nearly there.

But I had two final days of exploring to do before I got back. I arrived too early to be able to check into my room at the Circus – a hostel I would highly recommend to anyone visiting the city. Instead I dropped The Beast in their luggage lockers and headed back out. One of the best things about the Circus is it’s just over the road from Mein Haus am See, a marvellous cafe/bar/club that never closes. I went there for breakfast, and ended up popping back several times for coffee. In fact when I was in Berlin again in 2014 I spent an afternoon at Mein Haus am See with Chris’s sister Maddy, who was living in the city at the time. The Edis family seem to pop up in cities all over the world.

Despite having had a disturbed night’s sleep due to the raid on the train I was feeling very energetic, so I belted around a load of sights. The Brandenburg Gate, Alexanderplatz, the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie and various bits of the Wall all whizzed past. I wandered around Museuminsel, though I didn’t actually visit any of the museums. I saw the Holocaust memorial, too. Years later I’m still not quite sure what I think about it. Great grey concrete blocks rise up around you like gravestones. I like the fact that the memorial is placed right in the middle of the city, where you can’t miss it, and I like the sobering, isolating feeling you get walking through it, when the blocks rise above you, hemming you in. But the whole effect is strange, especially with crowds of happy tourists milling about, their kids playing around on the shorter blocks. I found the little brass plaques scattered about the city streets had more impact on me: little tales of individual lives lost.

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The next day was my Berlin Wall day. I only visited the one spot, so the rest of the day was left for a gentle wander around. In the afternoon I found myself back in the Tiergarten, and sat on a bench for a minute to rest. The overnight train to Paris didn’t leave until around ten at night, so I had plenty of time.

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A man was sitting on the same bench, reading a book. After a while he turned and asked if I was Russian, by any chance.

“No, but I’ve just come from there,” I said, astounded. We got talking. The man’s name was Franck. He was from somewhere near Paris, and he loved Russian literature. He was reading some Chekhov in Russian and came across a letter he’d never seen before; hence the question. I don’t know what made him think I might be Russian. We studied the Chekhov together, but I was no help there, of course. It soon emerged that he had also been on the Trans-Siberian and had stayed in Nikita’s Homestead on Olkhon Island. We compared notes on our routes. I could barely concentrate on the conversation as I was overwhelmed by the staggering unlikeliness of it all: finding a fellow Russophile there on a bench in the Tiergarten in Berlin, just as my trip was drawing to a close. After a while Franck’s family came to collect him so we exchanged emails and said goodbye, still shaking our heads at the coincidence of the meeting. It was a lovely bookending moment for the trip.

The rest of the day soon slipped by, and then it was time for my final sleeper train. Sadly, the City Nightline sleeper train from Berlin to Paris has now been cancelled. Quite a lot of sleeper trains have been phased out all over Europe in the last few years, as they struggle to compete with budget airlines. For me, there’s no competition. The train wins every time. It’s far more environmentally friendly, and it’s a far more civilised way to travel than by air. Airlines and airports seem to have made a concerted effort to eradicate any trace of glamour or excitement from air travel, and to make it as irritating, punishing and demeaning as possible. Airports are designed for shopping rather than to ease mass transportation, and the planes themselves seem designed for people with extra joints in their legs and neck. I hate them.

In contrast, I boarded the train in the centre of Berlin and was ushered into a private en-suite compartment where a small bottle of cold sparkling wine lay waiting for me. The train ticket was expensive, but if you factor in the cost of transport to and from airports, the air fare itself, and the baggage fines budget airlines charge if you want to bring more than a pocket handkerchief with you – let alone the cost of a night’s accommodation in central Europe – even a first class sleeper fare starts to look extremely competitive. I lay back on my bunk, sipped my wine and watched the night time world speed by, reluctant to go to sleep on this final night of travel.

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I fell asleep sometime after Hannover. Early the next morning the carriage attendant woke me up in time for breakfast, served in the compartment, with a view out over the French countryside.

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All of a sudden we were in Paris. I shouldered The Beast and made my way through the metro to Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar. Everything felt like it was happening really fast, but it was strange to think I’d soon be back in London. In the Eurostar part of the station I found myself surrounded by English people for the first time in two months; it was weird to see them. They seemed almost foreign. I boarded the Eurostar without difficulty and dozed for the rest of France, only waking up when we were in the tunnel, when my heart began to thunder in anticipation. Then we popped back up on the other side and I saw the small familiar fields of England zip past outside the window.

I found myself grinning broadly and idiotically out of the window, almost overwhelmed with relief and triumph. I’d done it! I couldn’t believe I’d made it all the way home from Beijing overland – and all the way from Kathmandu in one piece. A trip of over 13,500 kilometres (8500 miles) in total, of which 10,500 km was made overland, by train, bus, horse, ferry and taxi, in the company of old friends, family, bossy Siberian grandmothers, knife-wielding taxi drivers, and French Russophiles. I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the journey. There’s a certain background tension whenever you’re travelling that just comes from being in unfamiliar territory and having to concentrate harder on finding your way round, working out the currency and communicating with people. Now this tension was gone.

We pulled into St Pancras station and I found my boyfriend David waiting for me. It was brilliant to see him again. We both had so much to talk about we barely knew where to begin. We stopped for a quick coffee at the British Library and then I embarked on the very last stage of my journey: the 91 bus back home.

 

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