Over the next month I sat on train after train, either alone or thrown in with some truly colourful company, whizzing between some of the great European cities. Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw, on to Moscow, through the wilderness of Siberia, the plains of Outer Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, the lush greenery of China’s countryside and the madness of its colossal cities, until finally my last ride ground to a standstill in Hanoi and I stepped down onto the dusty ground, a hot, sweaty, happy mess.
Sometimes the memories echo back so vividly that my nerves tingle. But it’s not just all those mesmerising moments from the trip haunting me now. I also remember with sheer clarity of how I felt just before I left. I was filled with adrenaline. My system rushed with emotions; the type that surge through the nerves and heighten the senses, soaking obscure details from the present straight into the long term memory.
Travelling can tell you a lot more about what you’re walking away from than where you’re going. It’s as if just as you head out into the unknown, you turn around one more time to take a nostalgic picture of your life as it stands. Those special eyes you’re preparing for mysteries yet to be uncovered can also look at the familiar places and people, the rituals and the routines you’re getting away from, and see them all with a strange precision.
They all seem posed, unaware, as your mind snaps shots in brilliant vivid detail. It’s a glance at where you are in your life and, even, what you would be leaving forever if you never made it back.
Odd moments from those days before I left still stick in my mind as though they were yesterday. Lifting a pint or two with my dad and my brother in our usual place; football on the screen, munching chips and pies with flaky pastry and mash and the usual nattering. Sipping one last little coffee with my mum on the rickety tables in the French cafe near her house, just as we’ve done countless times before, excitedly chinwagging about the trip ahead.
The last time I visited my grandmother before I left, she was dozing in her chair as usual, startled into conversation by our arrival, forcing chit-chat through the tiredness. Laughing and drinking through the jitters and the buzzing anticipation at a few mini-gatherings with friends and bon voyage phone calls. The surprise visit from a friend who turned up on the platform to see me off, her arrival jolting me from a deep inward stare as I waited for that first train to come and smuggle me away.
And finally, the night before I left for good, with my pregnant sister and her boyfriend, crashing on the sofa at their snug flat on a leafy London street. The three of them asleep in the room next door and me wide awake in the dark, trying to imagine what the hell awaited me over the coming months.
I was 10,000 miles down the tracks, in among the insanity of Vietnam, when my grandmother died. I was still there six days later when my big sister became a mother. When I came back, it was to hold my tiny nephew for the first time, and the next day to say goodbye to Granny, for the last time.
You have no concept when you leave, how much the picture is going to change. But for a moment it all pauses, just long enough to be taken in, before it carries on, and you are carried away.
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