Mark Smith is known as The Man in Seat 61, named after his preferred seat in First Class on Eurostar. He has travelled from the UK west as far as Los Angeles and San Francisco, east as far as Nagasaki and Hong Kong, without flying. Smith started Seat61.com as a hobby in 2001 but decided to quit his job working for the Department for Transport in 2007 to run the website full-time.
What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
Only 3? Tricky! Switzerland, for its incredible Alpine scenery and trains that run like clockwork.
Egypt for its history, the Nile, desert, palm trees and trains that definitely don’t run like clockwork.
Sri Lanka is a place I could live in, warm, friendly, fabulous hill, plantation and forest scenery. It’s India without the hassle – yet I’d add India too if I was allowed a fourth country, as in spite of occasional hassle, it’s also an incredible place, so varied, from the palaces of Rajasthan to sitting overlooking the Ganges at Diwali in Varanasi to the cool hill stations of Darjeeling and Simla. And Indian Railways? Well, they are Indian, and I miss the char wallah coming down the train with his hot sweet tea, “Chai, chai, garam chai.”
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
London to Japan by train
In 1998 I reached Japan by train from London to Vladivostok and ferry to Niigata. There was no exchange bureau or ATM at the ferry port, and I’d forgotten to carry any yen for a taxi. So I walked through a concrete urban ‘liquor store and freeway’ environment in the humid heat from the terminal to the railway station. Every so often, I’d see a road sign with Japanese script indicating Tokyo, reminding me I’d reached Japan overland all the way from London Waterloo, and I’d break into a big grin.
Finding The Valley of Death in Balaclava, Crimea
In 2002 I caught a train from London to Odessa in Ukraine, then another to Simferopol and a bus to Balaclava. That old port, a submarine base closed to foreigners in Soviet times, looked exactly like it did in photos from the Crimean War of 1854 – give or take the odd submarine. But the battle of Balaclava – and the famous Charge of the Light Brigade – happened some miles inland. I set off on foot to find it in drizzling rain using nothing more than an 1854 map of the battlefield in a history book. I walk for miles uphill with no joy.
Eventually, I stumbled upon a petrol station and cafe. I tried to ask which way for the Battle of Balaclava, but my one-man impression of the Charge of the Light Brigade was too much for the girl on the checkout. She called out the Heavy Brigade in the shape of the woman from the kitchen, who pointed me at the road towards Yalta. Sure enough, just half a mile down that road, the landscape resolved itself into the exact topography shown in my history book. The Valley of Death is covered in vineyards now. I doubt any horse could charge along with it easily. But what a feeling finding it!
Canada’s Rocky Mountains
In 2019 I caught VIA Rail’s transcontinental train, the Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver. I woke up in my sleeper on the 3rd day expecting to be in the Rockies. I lifted the blind, no mountains, nothing but trees. Disappointed, I left my wife and kids asleep and went to the skyline car. I poured myself a coffee, picked up a Danish pastry and climbed the steps into the observation dome. I turned around, gaped, and almost dropped my coffee. We were heading through an avenue of fir trees directly at the massive eastern face of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, lit pink by the rising sun.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Istanbul to Aleppo journey
In 1995 I travelled from Istanbul to Aleppo in Syria. I took the The Taurus Express train that ran 3 times a week from Istanbul Haydarpasa station to Gaziantep in southern Turkey. Once a week it conveyed one solitary through seats car (kurswagen in German, voiture directe in French) from Istanbul to Aleppo. This carriage was detached from the main train in southern Turkey and taken by a Turkish locomotive down out of the Taurus mountains onto the plain to the Syrian border.
The through car had just two or three of us in it. At the Syrian border it spent an age waiting in the heat and dust for a Syrian locomotive to take us forward. I had a 6-seat compartment to myself and paced up and down in it like a caged tiger. Istanbul had been fantastic, one of the best cities I’d ever visited. Why couldn’t I just be satisfied with travelling London to Istanbul and back by train? I had to push it, didn’t I? Why do I always do that? Would we ever get to Aleppo? How strange and difficult would Syria be? Would I ever get back?
When the locomotive arrived, I went to have a look. Driver and second man Abdullah and Sammi of Aleppo depot invited me into the cab, and I spent the rest of the trip with them upfront in the locomotive on this classic section of the old Berlin-Baghdad Railway. What a ride. Sometimes the bad experiences turn out to be the best. Indeed, Syria turned out to be wonderful, with the most hospitable people I’ve ever met, and I went back with my wife in 2005. Given subsequent events, I often wonder whether Abdullah and Sammi are OK.
Egypt in 1990
In 1990, I was waiting for an Aswan-Luxor air-conditioned express when word reached me it would be an hour and a half late leaving. In rolled a 2nd & 3rd class non-air-con slow train bound for Luxor. How bad could it be? It was one of the worst trains I’ve ever been on, broken seats, old, filthy, dusty, you name it. I only had half a bottle of mineral water, and this trip would take several hours. Yet once we got going, a cool breeze blew through the open window, and windows that open offer a much better view of the Nile, the fellahin working in the fields, and the desert beyond the cultivated strip. Some schoolchildren got on at Kom Ombo, peeking over their seat at me, and diving back down whenever I looked up.
The bravest of them shyly came up and showed me his English schoolbook. I had to show him how to pronounce all the English words for him. They got off, a young man got on. His opening line was, “I like vodka. You like vodka?”. He turns out to be a barman on a Nile cruise boat, and we talked about life in his village. So once again, an experience that started off as bad turned out to be one of the most memorable. The post-script? We got pulled over into a loop just south of Luxor and waited while the stainless steel of the late-running air-conditioned express whisked past us, getting to Luxor first after all. But I didn’t care!
Cancelled trip to Tibet
The third? Hearing that problems in Tibet and changes to Tibet permit regulations meant I had to cancel my trip on the train to Lhasa on the highest railway in the world. That train ride remains unfinished business.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Buy a guidebook
I like the Lonely Planets or Rough Guides. Many people think there’s no need to pay for a printed guidebook these days, with so much information free on the internet. But a written guide can be carried with you, read at leisure, and with so much on the net geared to making you pay for something touristy, a printed guide directs you to the things really worth seeing. If a £15 guidebook helps you get even just 10% more value out of a £800 trip, that’s got to be worth it!
You may think a flight saves you time, but it strips all the interest out of travel. A long-haul flight might be the only practical option for a 2 or 3 week trip from Europe to India or Thailand or Vietnam, but once there, take the train between cities to experience the country at ground level. The journeys are as much part of the experience as the destination; you meet locals, see the scenery, and become a participant, not a spectator. It sometimes takes more effort to research and book a train rather than a flight, but like so much in life, more effort in, so much more out.
Travel like a local
You’ll get so much more out of a visit using real, local transport, not an organised tour. For example, I took the S2 train from Beijing to the Great Wall at Badaling for the equivalent of $2, a journey on the historic Kalgan railway with great views of the Wall. Using the train, you can come back when you like, not at a fixed time set by a tour company.
Tour companies often give you insufficient time seeing what you’ve come so far to see, so you can spend more time at a ‘retail opportunity that frankly, I’d rather miss. In Cuba, I took a Camelo (articulated lorry bus) from Havana out to see Hemmingway’s house and boat. The hotel staff were shocked when I returned, saying I should have used a taxi – but why pay $30 for a non-experience when you can pay $1 for a unique Cuban one? “But those camelos are so crowded!” she protested. I told her I was a London Underground Bakerloo Line commuter, and to me, it was half-empty – but I don’t think she understood the joke!