After the passing of my father, I harboured a sudden and explosive urge to find the furthermost corners of the planet. To honour his memory, his love of trains, of travel, and of seeing the world. All other purposes rapidly felt inadequate as I spiralled into the grief and pain that comes from loosing somebody you deeply care about.
He had died shortly after Christmas, and as a final Christmas present I had gifted him a large coffee-table edition book of the greatest railways on earth. He had spent days in the hospital gazing into the pages, talking to me about his favorite railway journeys. You see, my dad was a train lover.
His spare bedroom turned into an expansive model railway system, with new locomotives being shipped across the world to him with great frequency, and entire vacations planned around the trains he might catch.
I refocused all of my energy into planning the trip of a lifetime, an overland journey across Asia.
I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: for this moment I know where I am going.― Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall
I pored over the railway book, scouring for clues as to what might help me feel reconnected with him, until a particular journey caught my eye – the Trans Mongolian Express, one of the peak railway and overland Asia intrepid traveler bucket-list items. Surely, this would fulfill my desires for a long and remote life spent on the railroad tracks, writing about my experiences and experiencing somewhere very far away – even by my own high standards.
Piecing the trip together took many pages of paper, late nights, and spreadsheets as I put together the puzzle. We would go via Malaysia, a country my father adored and had planned to traverse by rail in the coming month if he hadn’t passed away – my brother would meet us there for a few days and together we would honor his memory by taking the trip he hadn’t quite made it to himself from Kuala Lumpur to Pengang. It was a love-filled and emotional kick-off to this very long trip.
After my brother left Malaysia, we would then traverse Thailand from the South up to Bangkok, another trip both my father and I had taken before and discussed in great detail. From Bangkok we were to take a quick flight up over the border and into the Sichuan region of China.
My father never traveled far for most of his adult life, having never left New Zealand and Australia. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that he saw his first opportunity to travel to China for business, after that first trip he was changed forever and would return home each time talking about this wondrous and mysterious country. Amongst the small number of things I kept from him was a collection of low denomination chinese currency and a map of Beijing. Making this exploration my first ever tiptoe into China made so much sense.
From Chengdu in the Sichuan Provence of China we would travel by train to Xi’ian in the centre of the country, and then over to Beijing to catch the Trans-Mongolian railway up to Ulanbataar in the northern-central region of Mongolia. I took with me three of my fathers books to read for this journey: Lost on Planet China, The Great Railway Bazaar, and Siddhartha. They all served me greatly and were the perfect literary companions for this trip.
Below you will find links to read my writing on each stop of my overland Asia trip. These are my stories or trains, travel, of grief, healing and love:
It all begins in Malaysia
- The Journey Begins in Kuala Lumpur There’s nothing quite like the experience of your first morning out. Back on the road, away from home once again. On this occasion, mine was spent watching a dusky pink sunrise give a mauve glow to Kuala Lumpur through the lens of a steamy window. The last time I passed through the Malaysian capital was… Continue Reading
- Tracks to Taiping (Overland Asia Diary #2 ) My brother arrived to join us in a trip across Malaysia. Introducing the people you love, to the places you love, is one of my greatest pleasures as a traveler, and getting to show him around somewhere that was also a mutual love of our father made it all the more special. Continue Reading
- Penang Revisited (Overland Asia Diary #3) Coming to Georgetown was like coming home for me. It was exactly 2 years since I had list visited, and back then I had opted to live in a cabin on the side of the hill, surrounded by pristine jungle and within the open arms of the local Buddhist sanctuary. The place is heaven on… Continue Reading
A stopover in Thailand
- Naiyang & the hidden treasures of Phuket (Overland Asia Diary #4 ) There is nothing quite akin to the pleasure of stumbling upon an incredible new destination completely by accident, and with the amount of research I indulge myself in, it’s a rare find to be completely blindsided by somewhere. But tucked away just out of view of Phuket International Airport, I was delighted by Naiyang Beach. Continue Reading
- The Khlongs of Bangkok (Overland Asia Diary #6) Propelled from an ancient city into a space-aged modern one at the blink of an eye, Bangkok has undergone many changes in recent times. What was once a city of floating markets and traders of spices and silk is now a global tourism destination. A sprawling metropolis set against a futuristic landscape of skytrains and… Continue Reading
- Ao Nang, My love. (Overland Asia Diary #5 ) As we departed the Phuket region of Southern Thailand bound for Ao Nang, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been grossly mistaken about this entire corner of the world. So far, nothing in Southern Thailand had been as expected. Even the 6 hour bus journey, which I would usually dread, was deliciously scenic &… Continue Reading
Across China by rail
- The Mysteries of Chinese Airlines (Overland Asia Diary #7) Despite many years of working in the airline industry, the unique and often baffling rules of Chinese airlines still managed to surprise me. On arrival into Bangkok airport we were told , in no uncertain terms, that we were to pay another five thousand baht in overweight baggage fees to this small Chinese airline I… Continue Reading
- In Chengdu, A Land of Pandas and Tunnels (Overland Asia Diary #8) In my travels, I have yet to experience anything quite as post-apocalyptic sci-fi as the unusual tunnel land that was to greet us in Chengdu. The tunnels of Chengdu are not like anything I was prepared for. Continue Reading
- Dragons, Myth, and Minjian (Overland Asia Diary #9) As ancient Chinese legend would have it, here in the Sichuan region of Southwest China there was a fierce dragon lurking in the Minjian River. A 735-kilometer-long tributary of the famed Yangtze River that we were visiting from nearby Chengdu. Continue Reading
- Xi’an and the tiniest Baozi House (Overland Asia Dairy #10) Disembarking from our carriage out into the heart of one of China's oldest cities, the beginning of the Silk Road, and home to the Terracotta Warriors, I realised Xi'an was already everything I'd hoped to find in China. Continue Reading
Final destination: Mongolia
- Khuushuur in Mongolia (Making Mongolian Dumplings) I first discovered golden, crispy, co Khuushuur in a typical Ulanbataar restaurant. I sat and devoured while the snow fell outside and the rest of the world felt like it was tucked off a million miles away. Continue Reading
- Mongolia in the early spring, Life in a Ger Camp Ever since I can remember I’ve found myself enamoured with far-off lands. Jungle explorations, desert treks through the Sahara, far away Nepalese mountain ranges and small Himalayan villages. So it comes as no real surprise when I locked eyes with the possibility of Mongolia, and even less unusual that I found a Ger to sleep… Continue Reading