From Bangkok to Siberia via the Marrakech Express – Book review

So what does a Welsh railwayman do when he reaches retirement age? Settle down on the sofa and take a well earned rest watching rugby on the television? Well not if you are William Bleasdale. His idea of perfect retirement is travelling the world’s railway networks and then writing up his exploits in books illustrated with his own photographs.

Author as Groom at mock Morroccan Wedding
Author as Groom at mock Morroccan Wedding
Author as a groom at mock wedding ceremony[/caption]‘From Bangkok to Siberia via the Marrakech Express’ describes three of his recent railway journeys, in: (1) Thailand and Malaysia, (2) Morocco and (3) Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The first journey commences in Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, and continues via Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Along the way he visits the River Kwai and the nearby war cemetery and manages to manoeuvre his way around the congested roads of Bangkok. Although the author states that he is not a city person, he enjoyed visiting Kuala Lumpur, with its interesting mix of colonial and new buildings.

The second journey starts in Casablanca, on the north-west coast of Morocco, and moves inland to Fez and Meknes. After a brief stay in the capital Rabat, he travels south to Marrakech and finally through the Atlas Mountains to Erfoud. Throughout his journey he immerses himself in the local culture to the point of acting as the groom in a mock, traditional wedding ceremony.

His photographs and descriptions give a real feel of the Roman ruins at Volubilis, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the Tordra Gorge in the High Atlas Mountains. I’ve noted down both as places that I should see on my next visit to Morocco.

The third journey follows a 3,300 mile section of the Trans-Siberian Railway starting from Lake Baikal. He flew from Moscow into Irkutsk and spent a few days travelling around Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest lake, before boarding a chartered train travelling from Bejing to Moscow. Although rail travel is the author’s passion, he does admit that: “… a combination of just Irkutsk and Lake Baikal would be a very nice holiday indeed.”

The description of the rail journey through the centre of Russia is as much about the people he met, including the two helpful girl attendants on the train, as about the scenery and cities that the train passed through. 

Don’t imagine that this book is just for railway anoraks – far from it! William gives a fascinating account of all that interests him along the way, backed up by background research. He is very interested in meeting and interacting with the local people, and clearly he has a discerning eye. At the end of his Thailand/Malaysia journey he notes that: “If I had to pick out three very special memories, they would have to be riding elephants, eating durian fruit and, best of all, meeting Efe.” Efe is the cheerful girl selling dresses and scarves whom he met in the Central Market in Kuala Lumpur!

Don’t expect to find a flowery, literary style in this book. William reports on his journeys in a refreshingly down-to-earth manner, with phrases such as “… but who can say” and “… but I forgot to ask” thrown in along the way.

The text is illuminated by about 400 photographs. Most of the photographs are fairly small,  in order no doubt to keep the book to a reasonable size. However, sometimes details of people and places cannot be clearly seen. Maybe the author, or the publisher, could make some of the photographs available on an image-sharing website such as Flickr.

Obviously this book is a must-buy for railway enthusiasts and provides excellent background material for anyone intending to visit Thailand, Malaysia, Morocco or Russia. However this book has much wider appeal. Travellers in general will find this book an interesting read, and will be inspired to see what can be achieved by a Senior who doesn’t see age as any barrier to travelling in distant parts of the world and interacting with local people along the way.

Published by Book Guild Publishing, Sussex, England, 2011 (ISBN 978 1 84624 624 1) and can be obtained from Waterstones with free UK delivery or from the Book Depository with free world-wide delivery.

William Bleasdale has written two other travel books: Rails Over the Andes: A Journey Through Peru, Colombia and Ecuador and Footsteps of the Celts by Rail.