You are never too old

When I was a young subaltern in the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, adventurous training had not been invented. I suppose the powers that be saw little need for it; life in a cavalry regiment being varied enough as it was. They were wrong. Adventurous training provides a platform for young officers and soldiers from which military routine can be left behind; to think out of the box and to plan and execute interesting expeditions to parts of the world hitherto unexplored in the course of duty.

It seemed to me that the same argument could be applied to those of us who had retired from the regiment and were pursuing sometimes lives in other fields. This then is the genesis of the journey made by two old men from London to Hong Kong by train. It was the fulfilment of a dream I had nearly sixty years ago when I was first in what was then a British Crown Colony and was made possible by the agreement of my oldest friend David Brooks (8th Hussars and QRIH from 1956-1966), to accompany me. He and I had shared many adventures in Malaya, Sarawak and Brunei as well as in Germany in the 1960s – many of them involving the casino at Travemunde and the Grosse Freiheit Strasse in Hamburg, and not at all suitable for family reading.

The arrangements for our trip were made by a company called Great Rail Journeys and the hugely complicated process of getting visas for Belarus, Russia and China was carried out very efficiently (but at considerable expense) by CIBT, based in London.

Wednesday 25 April 2018

I left home by train from Honiton having been delivered to the station by Charlotte, my wife. It was the beginning of the longest period we had ever been apart and I felt the moment keenly. I lost my way in Clapham Junction station – despite having been there umpteen times – but was eventually rescued by my daughter and son-in-law and carried off to their house where my grand-daughter, spent a great deal of time teaching me how to use my new mobile telephone – I’m still not sure though, despite her finest efforts, that I understand WhatsApp. Brooks (I have always called him Brooks), who lives in Cheshire, spent the night with his brother-in-law in London.

Thursday 26 April

My family delivered my to St Pancreas at about 8.30 and my daughter and I had breakfast in Fortnum’s Cafe in the station. David had breakfast with his son and joined us later. As we headed for the train we were ambushed by my sister-in-law, bearing champagne. This was the nicest of surprises and a really great start to the journey as we prepared to join Eurostar for Paris. The first leg.

The train was very comfortable and we quickly discovered that old age has at least one benefit in that people were keen to help us lug our bags around. In Paris we had to go from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de L’Est and this we did in a cab driven by the grumpiest of drivers; it is sad fact of life that French taxi-drivers and waiters are among the most disagreeable of Europeans. There had been a plan that we might be joined for lunch by my grand-son who was working in Paris but he was at the far reaches of the city and couldn’t get away. We had lunch and a couple of beers in the station restaurant to pass the four hours before boarding the Paris-Moscow Express – a Russian train.

Our cabin in the sleeping coach was small but comfortable. The beds were side-by-side and folded away to provide seats by day. The carriage was under the guardianship of our provodnik (a sort of guard cum minder), Vitali, who despite the fearsome reputation of his kind, proved to be jolly and helpful. At supper provided by the the Polish run restaurant car (pork schnitzel, beer and vodka) we met some fellow travellers, all going to Moscow: three Chilean ladies, a Spanish couple who were train enthusiasts (perhaps nuts is a more accurate word) and a very funny Frenchman who spoke good English. Loo, wash-basin and shower were in cubicles at the end of the carriage and there was hot water. We went to bed having left Strasbourg.

Friday 27 April

Awoke in Berlin. Hot shower, scrambled eggs and coffee on the train. After breakfast a twenty-minute stop at Frankfurt an der Oder near the Polish border. Poland seemed very neat and tidy – all the stations were immaculate. Had lunch with a late middle-aged British couple who were en route to St Petersburg but had been almost everywhere in the world. There was not a country we mentioned to which they had not travelled. Soon we stopped at Warsaw (walked on the platform) and then reached the Belarus border. Confined to our cabin for two hours while passports were checked and forms filled in at the command of a troop of both Belarus and Russian bossy boots. Our wheels were also changed to a narrower gauge – an operation which was lengthy but so smooth we hardly noticed.

Travelling through Belarus and then western Russia was an eye-opener. Vast forests, no farmland and not much sign of spring, in contrast to Poland which had looked almost lush. Then supper with a Bulgarian student who had been at Edinburgh University and a very jolly French scientist. Restaurant now in Russian as opposed to Polish hands. Quality of food and service not nearly as good. A warning of what was to come. Vitali now beginning to rush about in preparation for Moscow tomorrow. We gave him some whisky and he gave Brooks vodka.

Saturday 28 April

Breakfast at 7.30; asked for scrambled eggs and got fried. Then we arrived at Moscow’s Belorussky station and found our driver on the platform waiting for us waving a placard with MR BROOKS written on it (easier than RHODERICK-JONES!). Our French scientist friend was met by his daughter who lives in Moscow and we asked her to ask the driver to take us to Red Square and the Kremlin before delivering us to the Moscow Yaroslavski station from where the trans-Siberian train leaves. This he agreed to do but the traffic was terrible and after about an hour he gave up and dropped us off at our destination. Traffic in Moscow is evidently worse even than that in London.

We were now faced with about a twelve-hour wait and nowhere to leave our heavy luggage. We bought our way into the VIP Waiting Room and took it in turns to go for long walks and buy some food and drink. The Russians – always a slightly gloomy race – looked a little downtrodden and were certainly very un-smiley. Performing a simple service in a shop or information desk was done with uniformly bad grace. Somehow the time passed alleviated by some very good chips. It was a great relief when we saw our train billed on the departure board although it read Moscow-Pekin – the Russians seem not to have taken on board that Peking became Beijing in 1979. At just before mid-night the train eventually appeared and we were met by our provodnitsa (a female Vitali) who we gathered was called Galina. Youngish, tall, statuesque and extremely bossy she eyed us with deep suspicion before inspecting our passports, tickets and visas and directing us to our cabin. This was the same size as that on the Paris-Moscow express but lacked a few amenities. It did not have a charging point in the cabin – there was, however, one in the corridor – and the water in the basin in the loo ran cold. We also later discovered that the shower did not work. This was to be our lot for the next seven days.

Sunday 29 April

We discovered (but had already guessed) that Galina was something of a monster. Ten minutes before we stopped anywhere she would lock the loos and the doors into next-door carriages. If we alighted at a station she would watch us closely and order us back on board again well before we left. She and her fellow provodnitsas refused to have their photographs taken. It took her at least another quarter of an hour to unlock everything once we were back on board. We saw her as a challenge.

The provision of food in the restaurant car proved to be both haphazard and expensive. We asked for scrambled eggs at breakfast and were given three each – all fried. The franchise for all this had been bought by an immensely short, round and irredeemably unhygenic Russian lady who spoke not a word of anything else. Her saving grace was that she had imported her nephew as an all-purpose waiter cum drudge and he spoke good English. Nevertheless food on that first full day was barely adequate. We got off for some time at Kirov hoping to find a stall or two on the platform from which we could buy rations. The stalls were there but they were closed. By now we had met two Swiss-Germans and a German, all young men bound for a holiday at Lake Baikal.

Monday 30 April

Early this morning we stopped at Yekaterinburg where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were massacred by the Bolsheviks on 16 July 1918. Since the end of the Soviet era the Tsar’s memory has become revered so that the house where the murders happened is now something of a shrine and much visited – but not by us as we were confined to the station and only stopped for twenty minutes.

The Siberian countryside is beginning to unfold into a never-ending panorama of pine and birch forests. Gaps in them revealed more of the same further away in the distance. Where there is habitation within sight of the railway we began to notice how dirt-poor the people seemed to be. Their houses (a grand word for what were really shacks) are reminiscent of those depicted as the dwellings of serfs before the communist revolution. No sign of animals; little cultivation, outside loos and rudimentary roads and tracks. No electric lines and one wondered where they got their water. Quite a contrast to Moscow. In contrast too to the imposing art-deco station at Omsk, painted in blue and white art-deco and in pristine condition. Here we bought some food from stalls at the station to obviate the need for supper at the hands of the fat cook.

Had a bit of a party with the Swiss and the German, all squashed into our cabin, where we drank whisky and vodka. Quite jolly as they all spoke excellent English.

Tuesday 1 May

Banana, orange juice and coffee for breakfast. No eggs. Stopped at Krasnoyarsk which marks the border between the swampy west and more mountainous east of Siberia. Another showpiece railway station and we bought eggs and ham rolls. Quite open country now and the grass had been cut in places but as we saw no animals we wondered to what end.

The cook had prepared for Brooks and me a special dinner based on chicken, rice and a lot of fried stuff. It was really very good and we were pleased until the bill came. She had charged us the equivalent of seventy pounds. A rip-off indeed! Met a Czech who had run an organic shop in Brighton but new supermarkets in the town had closed him down. He seemed to bear no ill-will.

Wednesday 2 May

Realised today that we were not to go through Mongolia on our way to Beijing but instead north through Manchuria, so we were to be deprived of the sight of wild horses and yurts. We reached Lake Baikal. It still had quite a lot of ice on it and is immense, being 400 miles from north to south and up to a mile deep – the deepest lake in the world. At the southern tip, which we skirted, is Irkutsk where most of our friends got off to holiday in the region. It took as a couple of hours close to the shore before we left the lake.

Our train now headed north east to begin the trek across Manchuria, home of the Manchus who ruled China for so long but who were over-run by Japanese invaders before World War II. We began now to see animals: some beef cattle and a surprising number of horses – full size and looking well Quite a lot of burning of grass was taking place – presumably to encourage new growth and there were many derelict stone and brick buildings – possibly destroyed by the Japanese. Turkey legs and fried potatoes for supper.

Thursday 3 May

This morning we reached the last Russian station, Zabaikalsk. Here we had to leave the train for five hours while it went off to have its bogeys changed to the Chinese gauge. Another imposing station with a VIP room which we occupied with a German couple who were embarking on a ten-month sabbatical touring the world. The VIP room had a modern shower but no towels – and ours were still on the train. Once back on board we were invaded by a series of customs and security men, including two sniffer dogs who inspected us closely. One of the officials searched our cabin, looking for we knew not what. Our passports and visas were examined by three different people, all of them unsmiling. Our attempts at humour were not well received.

We then travelled on to Manzhouff and were at last in China. Another five hours of inspections took place and our passports were taken away while we were herded into a cavernous hall equipped with all the modern security devices including electronic eye checks. But this time the atmosphere was less grim and most of our fellow passengers were now Chinese. Once that was completed Brooks somehow found a pop-up goodies shop where we were able to buy a resupply of whisky, good bread and excellent tinned ham We celebrated by inviting Galina for a drink and she practically finished the whisky, getting frightfully drunk and matey. Quite frightening but from then on she was on our side and couldn’t do enough for us. We also met two youngish Danes who lived quite close to my step-son and his family in Copenhagen.

Friday 4 May

Although we were now in China, the train was still manned (and womanned) by Russians except, glory be, that the restaurant car had changed hands. We now had decent Chinese food at reasonable prices and the car was properly staffed. Outside, the contrast with Siberia was notable: green fields of grain; vast padi fields and modern little houses. Near Harbin, the first major city on our way south, there were nodding-donkey oil fields and then the sky-scrapers began, block upon block of them. The Chinese have solved their burgeoning population problem by expanding their housing vertically. It must be hoped that they succeed better than similar developments in London.

We noticed too that a high-speed (bullet-train) track was being constructed on concrete pillars along-side our line. These took up so little of the adjoining fields that we wondered why we did not adopt this sensible use of land in England for the new high-speed line from London to the North. This construction of fast tracks continued all the way to Hong Kong. And so to bed on this train for the seventh and last time.

Saturday 5 May

Arrived at Beijing at 5.45am. For some reason it had not been planned that we would be met here and it was a little bewildering. Brooks had taken the precaution of asking one of the restaurant car staff to write the name of our hotel in Chinese and this proved essential. It did not, however, save us from being ripped off by a cab-driver who did not switch on his meter. Silly us.

Checked into our hotel; staff very helpful and excellent breakfast. Arranged for a visit to the Great Wall tomorrow with private car and driver. Surprisingly cheap. Spent the morning trying to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City – both within walking distance. Beijing suffers from air pollution – nothing like London in the fifties but enough for a lot of people, especially the young, to wear masks. We found it didn’t really affect us but it was Saturday and the people were out in their thousands. We had to queue and show our passports even to get near Tiananmen so we contented ourselves with peering at it from a distance. The queues for the Forbidden City were even worse and it would have taken us all day, but it was good to see the Chinese people taking such an interest in their heritage. There were few Europeans.

After lunch while Brooks had a rest, I went for a walk and was picked up as I crossed the street (you only cross at designated and light controlled crossings) by a woman in about her mid-twenties. I didn’t know what she was after. It could have been that she just wanted to practise her English or perhaps she had a more commercial transaction in mind. Having shaken her off, it happened again; this time the girl was very pretty, of student age and much more insistent, taking my arm and saying that we must go for a coffee or a drink. Having eventually convinced her that I was not thirsty I beat another retreat. Back at the hotel I told Brooks and sent him off by himself. He had exactly the same sort of experience with two (different) women but was also approached by a man! It seems that old gentlemen are not safe in Beijing.

Sunday 6 May

We set off for the Wall after breakfast in a comfortable car with a very friendly driver who, alas, spoke no English. About a two hour drive through green country-side and villages well-tended and moderately prosperous, he indicated that we had arrived, but we saw no sign of the Wall. He walked with us from the car-park to show us where to get tickets for the cable-car ride up the precipitous hills and then we set off. Quite a way and a lot of steps up to the station. The cable-car ride was very spectacular and it was only as we neared the top that we saw the Wall for the first time. A little more walking and climbing and then we were there at one of the small forts. The Wall stretched both ways and we could see it for a couple of miles each way. A lot of people started to walk along it but we were not tempted. It was only on the way down that we appreciated the problems of carrying all the thousands and thousands of tons of stone building materials that the builders must have faced and what an absolutely unique feat of engineering the whole thing was.

Back in the hotel there was a message waiting for us saying that we would be picked up at seven the next morning to be taken to the station to catch the train to Shanghai.

Monday 7 May

Bullet train first-class proved to be very comfortable. Boarding trains in China is a strange experience. Passengers are not allowed to wait on the platforms but are held in a waiting-room until the train arrives and then un-penned. This means that stations appear nearly empty most of the time and on this journey all those that we sped through without stopping were absolutely devoid of people. The trip was 819 miles and accomplished with two stops in just over 5 hours at an average speed of 164 miles an hour. I thought that going so quickly the scenery would be blurred but strangely this was not so.

At Shanghai we were met by a Ava, sweet girl courier, and taken to our hotel – a car trip of about an hour, nearly all of it on elevated dual-carriageways. Only for the last fifteen minutes or so did we descend to the streets and see pedestrians for the first time. The hotel proved to be not as good as Beijing and had the extremely annoying trait of having no menus. Instead we were handed tablets which could be scrolled through until we found something we fancied. So much less helpful than printed menus where dishes can be compared at a glance. We were on the 19th floor which proved to be nothing in Shanghai which has 24 million people and sky scrapers so tall it was difficult to take it all in.

Tuesday 8 May

Today we hoped to be able to book a bus tour of the city but the concierge was so useless, directing us to the nearest public service bus-stop, that we decided to walk towards the Bund where we thought such tours were bound to call. The Bund is a waterfront area on the Huangpu River which is the last significant tributary of the Yangtze before it empties into the East China Sea. Initially a trading concession for the British the Bund became home to trading posts, offices and go-downs (ware-houses) belonging to the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Italy, Russia, Japan, the Netherlands and Belgium. And this remained the case until the Japanese invasion during World War II. It also housed the then famous Shanghai and Masonic Clubs as well as luxury hotels. Most of the buildings still stand, although put to different uses, together with numerous wharves and piers, used now mainly for tourist trips up and down the river.

Our city map was either out of date or inaccurate and we were soon lost, until Brooks spotted the bus station we hoped for. We then had a two hour tour of Shanghai, with English commentary, crossing the river to Pudong, the financial and business area which has wall to wall skyscrapers including the Shanghai Tower, a soaring, twisted structure rising 128 floors to 2,073 feet, or 632 metres – currently the second tallest in the world. We didn’t think we’d get off and go up it – although that was on offer. We also noticed that Shanghai has trolley buses, a vehicle I haven’t see since I was a boy, but excellent for preventing air pollution. We saw very few masks in Shanghai.

A feature of both Beijing and Shanghai is the cleanliness of the streets and the smiling people. It seemed that every time a fag-end was dropped a person carrying a brush and pan would sweep it up. And all the people we met were friendly and helpful.

Wednesday 9 May

We had lunch to day in a quiet little restaurant round the corner from the hotel. Excellent meal and not at all expensive. In the afternoon Ava came to collect us and gave us our tickets for Hong Kong – but not before Brooks had interviewed the hotel manager and explained that the menu tablet system was not a good idea! We were delivered to a station right in the heart of the city and ushered into the usual waiting room before being let loose (after a series of checks of passport and tickets) on to a sleeper carriage. We were the only Europeans out of 200 plus in the waiting room.

This time our sleeping cabin had bunk-beds, its own loo and basin and a television for each bed. Brooks decided he would have the top bunk and this suited me, although lying on my bed I did wonder how squashed I would be if Brooks’s collapsed. We were now embarking on a twenty-hour journey through southern China. The restaurant car was next door and although we were running short of yuan we were able to eat enough and drink the odd glass of beer. Night fell early, a Bond was on the television and we were in bed quite soon. For the first time I found it difficult to sleep.

Thursday 10 May

Breakfast of fried eggs, bread and jam (all for about £3) and then, after Guangzou (I knew it first as Canton) on the Pearl River, came journey’s end. Once having crossed into the territory of Hong Kong, it was sad for me to see that the little villages I used to know on the old railway line: Fan Ling, Taipo and Shatin, have all disappeared and instead are sprouting tower blocks thirty stories high and in Shatin’s case a famous racecourse. Journey’s end was Kowloon on Victoria Harbour. By train we had come 10,147 miles or 16,235 kilometres. We had spent 10 nights on three trains (2 on the Moscow-Paris; 7 on the Trans-Siberian and one on the Shanghai-Hong Kong), the first nine being consecutive. I had achieved an ambition I conceived in about 1960 and dear old Brooks had made it possible.


In Hong Kong we stayed at the Intercontinental in Mody Road, Kowloon – a road (but now much changed) which once sported the Seven Sisters Bar in which, during an altercation with some tiresome American sailors, I first met another life-long friend nearly sixty years ago. The management of our hotel was so amazed at our journey that they issued us with some vouchers for free drinks. We were also given a satellite device called a Handy Phone with which we could make unlimited telephone calls to anywhere in the world at no cost.

In Hong Kong we were looked after by Robert Hutton, a former Irish Hussar and Queen’s Royal Hussar whose generosity was boundless. Robert, now a vice-president (director) of the American company building the 34 mile bridge and tunnel road across the estuary of the Pearl River to Macau, took time out to drive us around, show us sights in rural Kowloon that few tourists penetrate and bought us a superb lunch in Sai Kung, still a fishing village and far from the nearest high-rise. Finally he gave us a spectacular dinner in the China Club. He could not have been kinder and we had a lot of laughs.

Robert Hutton, Brooks and Brig R-J

Brooks and I also did a, for me, nostalgic tour: Star Ferry, Peak Tram and Sam’s Tailor. I first bought shirts and suits from the present Sam’s grand-father in 1959 but that Sam is now dead. I had also been back more than once over the years to see his son (Middle Sam) and now his grand-son, Young Sam. Still in the same little premises, off Nathan Road, I saw them both this time and posed for the obligatory photograph before buying a shirt for old times sake; it was ready the next morning. In the shop still hangs a photograph of one of Sam’s most illustrious clients – General Sir Brian Kenny. We also spent time (and more than a few dollars) in the Captain’s Bar in the Mandarin Hotel – a haunt, nearly thirty years ago of my daughter Sophie.

Brig R-J with photo of General Sir Brian Kenny in the background

We were at the Intercontinental for three nights before moving to the Airport Regal Hotel, an intrinsic part of the airport on Lan Tau, from which on Monday 14 May we caught an Emirates flight to Dubai and thence on to Heathrow. I had been away from home for nearly three weeks. An adventurous training exercise for the ancient.

Robin Rhoderick-Jones (Irish Hussars 1962-1988)

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