Christopher Knowles relives his youth — and a turbulent period in political history — as he takes readers on the epic twenty-four train journeys he undertook during the early 1980s, when he was working as a tour guide.

Departing from London, Knowles reveals the far-reaching and diverse countries where he and his charges disembarked —from Warsaw and Moscow to Irkutsk, Ulan Bator, Peking (now Beijing), Xian, Shanghai and Canton (now Guangzhou). Witty, articulate and with incisive observations, his engaging anecdotes offer a rare and irresistible insight into a shadowy world, underscored by political and military upheaval.

Given that 2017 is the centenary of the Russian Revolution, it also serves as a salutary reminder of the threats posed to freedom of expression. Marketed as an adventurous holiday alternative, the tours Knowles led were a far cry from the luxury images we may typically have of train travel, typified by the Orient Express. Instead, Knowles and his holidaymakers took ordinary passenger services that connected the countries at the time; some of Knowles’ guests set out on these trips almost against their better judgement; afraid of what could happen but also confident in the superiority of their own cultures and ways of life. This clash of naivety and ignorance, together with often unrealistic expectations, provoked amusing reactions to the trips, especially during the several weeks spent in the Communist states where The Cold War was a brutal fact of life.

Knowles recounts many of the challenging, frightening and bizarre moments he experienced firsthand —from being stuck on a train for two days in tropical south China, to being mistaken for a deserter from the Soviet army in Mongolia— all of which he can now look back on with a wry smile. A born storyteller, Knowles’ The Red Line: A Railway Journey Though the Cold War may illuminate, delight and inspire readers young and old to book a ticket into the great unknown themselves.

The Red Line: A Railway Journey Though the Cold War by Christopher Knowles (published by Pen and Sword Books, April 2017 in hardback and ebook)