Imagine huge brown boulders hanging over your head on one side and a ravine that dropped all the way down 200 feet or so, on the other. Imagine all you have at your disposal is a mere one foot of space to maneuver your vehicle in-between oncoming traffic. Slow, decorated lorries laden with goods, as high as the sky, bound for the Pakistan-China borders and impatient tour buses, honking endlessly behind you could send your heart missing a beat or two.
Driving along the Karakorum to get to Hunza Valley, landslides normally happened at least twice a day during that 350 kilometers drive. Chances are you will find yourself stopped in your tracks by a landslide or two. But local machinery are on-site to clear the landslide which required you to wait for an hour or so. Tiny fragments of rocks raining down on you is a sure indication of an on-coming landside. KKH runs across the Karakorum Range and through the Khunjerab Pass at the Pakistan-China border. In Pakistan it runs from Abbotabad to the border through the provinces of Kyber- Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Balchistan. The KKH is formerly known as China-Pakistan Friendship Highway. It required the work of 24,000 workers to complete it.
But the views along the KKH are to die for. Towering mountains all around, rushing waters in rivers below, hanging bridges connecting the small towns below the highway, locals walking along the highway since walking was the only means of getting to places while some locals used to hitch for free rides from passing vehicles. Then there is the tunnel after tunnel along the way called Pakistan-China Friendship Tunnel……….
(extracted from an upcoming book “From Middle-East to the Far-East to the South”)
(extract from my book“People & Places: Walk My Journey” )
Almost everyone I know dream of going on the Trans Siberian journey. This iconic trip has captured the imagination of travelers, poets, artists and writers. Steeped in history, writers still discuss the Trans Siberian railway at length, while travelers still include it in their bucket list. The railway track that was built in 1916 by the Russians, said to be “the fairest jewel in the crown of the Tsars” has travelers romanticizing the journey.
The Trans Siberian Railway network covers over 9,288 kilometers with international trains (K3/K4 & K19/K20) running between Beijing and Moscow and K23 / K24 running between Beijing and Ulan Bator. The network spans 2 continents and crosses 7 time zones. This makes it the longest journey one can make on a single train.
“While travelling on the Trans Mongolian Express in 2015, I remember standing by the window of the K3 coach for many hours, trying to catch glimpses of village life as the train snaked its way across the Gobi Desert and the Steppes. The Steppes, populated mainly by horses and camels, were huge rolling grasslands, some time dotted by one or two white felt yurts or gers, a symbol of nomadic lifestyle still predominant in Mongolia today.
Some travelers (like Paul Thereaux), love being on a perpetually moving train, watching the changing sceneries, or spying on some back-yard on-goings, interspersed with getting up for a cup of coffee or chatting with strangers in the corridors, or simply being lulled to sleep by the gentle rumbling of the moving train. It is the immense freedom of movement on a moving train and being left alone to immerse in your own thoughts while staring out that large window of the ever-changing scenery of mountains, trees and farms that I love about long-distance train travel.
I recall the mad rush that early morning of 2nd September, trying to get everyone onto the tour van heading towards Central Train Station in Dongcheng District to board the Trans Mongolian Express. The Beijing Central Train Station was a sea of people. I have never seen so many lines lining up to buy tickets before. There were at least 30 lines that morning. Getting into the main building was no mean feat, given the pushing and jostling crowd. It was absolute madness. I remember Sam, the van driver, telling us “In Beijing, there is no time to be polite”.
As the Trans Mongolian Express K3 train started rumbling and pulling out of the station, I felt a tingle of excitement. Our cabin was the 2nd class, hard sleeper that was slightly less comfortable since the berth was narrower. Furthermore there was no bathroom, only a toilet at the end of the carriage. Going 6 days without a bath was simply unthinkable for me. With a little ingenuity and a lot of patience, I managed to take a bath, leaving a wet toilet and an angry train guard.
The next morning, we all headed for the buffet coach. I managed to find a quiet corner, sipping some green tea. I began scribbling some half-forgotten details about Beijing into my note book. After some 30 minutes on my mobile phone, my text neck left me stiff and uncomfortable so I decided to refocus. In front of me were two white ladies, in their early 50s, maybe. I decided to say hello and they reciprocated. They were from UK , accompanied by one young male, a Russian model I was told. I had noticed him back on the platform in the train station. I could tell he was a model by his gait and his polished air of self-importance.
While walking down the K3 corridor towards the buffet coach, I met a Chinese couple on their honeymoon. In their early 30s, the couple had just been married in Beijing and were planning to take a photo on the platform of the Malinsk station.
Without doubt, there is something undeniably romantic about train travel.
Why are people more willing to chat to strangers on trains? Is it because train journeys tend to be more relaxed? Unhurried? Un-cluttered; and pleasurable with the changing scenery thus allowing freedom and time to interact? The next time you feel like indulging in some romantic ambience, try spending 6 days on the Trans Mongolian Express….you will never know who you meet !
Figure 1: Travellers taking a breather on the platform of the Malinsk station.
Figure 2: The Chinese couple (who got married in Beijing,) was taking the Trans Mongolian Express to St Petersburg for their honeymoon..
Many dream of breaking routines and pushing boundaries for that once-in-a-lifetime experience: taking buses, travelling around Turkey in the thick of winter, or crossing Siberia on the Trans Mongolian Express, or enjoying a campfire under the desert stars on the edge of the Sahara, or watching a bullfight in Madrid.
“People & Places: Walk My Journey” is part travelogue and part personal memoir. Some of these journeys were geographical ones while some were inner journeys, They were written in a vivid emotive narration and storytelling style that would transport the reader back to the journey, as if he was there himself, travelling with the writer. These journeys are told in 22 essays, some of which are Romance on the Trans Mongolian Express; Backpacking Langkawi; Unforgettable Istanbul, and many others.
The book was launched by the ex-Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, on 11 June 2022 at the Putra World Trade Centre, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
“I found the book enlightening and while I enjoyed Kassim’s journey as I read, it was how she presented her experiences that I found most interesting. I rate the book 4 out of 4 stars because it was a fantastic read with details about her travel adventures and an eye-opener to many other cultures and people worldwide. I recommend it to individuals hoping to start a travel journal and travel the world someday.”
“I found the book enlightening and whike I enjoyed Kassim’s journey…….the world someday”.Travelling the world is a feat many dream of, but for Husna, it was a dream come true. This book “People & Places: Walk My Journey” is a compendium of her travels over the years and her experiences while travelling through parts of Siberia, Spain, Turkey, Tunisia, Japan and of course her home-country, Malaysia. It all started with her travel itch in 2014 when traveling to Morocco was made impossible due to technicalities and her attention then turned towards Tunisia instead, a Tunisia recovering from the uprisings of the Arab Spring. The book is an enlightening read especially with how Husna presented her experiences that were most interesting. Writing in first-person narrative boosted the personal nature of this book. As she went through each destination, she made observations that reflected cultural nuances giving insights into the different people and cultures around the world, some many readers may find excitingly unfamiliar. Her descriptions of how each place made her feel and her takeaways from these places made the entire book a learning opportunity. Her chapter titles evoke a sense of adventure in keeping with the purpose of her writing. Such titles “Unforgettable Istanbul”, “Romance On The Trans Mongolian Express” and “On the Edge of the Sahara” made the reader curious and eager to read the chapters. Her geographical journeys were also intertwined with her inner journeys. The book is highly recommended for those individuals who intend to start a travel journal and travel the world someday.
About the picture
The lady next to me is the exDeputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, DS Dr Wan Azizah. A long-time friend. Book Launch 11th June 2022