It seems not that long ago, but in the Summer of 1989 and I was living in West Berlin. Spending a “year out” working in Germany as part of my degree course had been a fantastic experience, but now it was time to return to the UK.
It was a time of flux. People were leaving the Eastern Bloc in droves through the newly opened border between Hungary and Austria. Rumours were flying around about the political future, yet the Berlin Wall was still up and I needed to get back home.
The easiest way to get to and from the West was via Tegel Airport. That way you could avoid the hassle of travelling along the transit stretches of motorway or taking the trains through East Germany.
Nevertheless I decided to go by train, as I had to lug a fair bit of stuff back after clearing out of my flat.
At that time there was the only station that you could get a train out of West Berlin. It was called “Bahnhof Zoo” by the locals, it only had a couple of platforms, that were raised above the street level and it was a dark and depressing place.
The train I was due to catch ran overnight to Brussels. As soon as it arrived I jumped on and quickly sat down, dumping all my stuff in the first compartment that I came to. There was no point in getting settled, as the East German border control would be coming up soon.
The only other person already in the compartment was a young bloke, who was decked out in a classic “Chairman Mao” suit. He also wore a matching hat with the red star above its peak. The hat was as far better fit than his trousers, which were about 4 inches too short for him.
Like me he also had a fair amount of luggage. Most of his gear was stuffed into two huge laundry bags. The ones made of woven nylon that are virtually indestructible, but once the zip goes you have had it and they are rendered useless.
The East German border guards came on the train and checked our passports and visas without a hitch and then we were on our way. It turned out that “Chairman Mao” was in fact a Scouser called Gavin. He was on his way home to England as well.
The train we were on was from Moscow and Gavin had been on it from the start. I had a made up some food and brought some beer for the journey which we shared and we got chatting.
Gavin had been working as a nurse out in Australia on a short term contract and when it ended he just decided to come back surface rather than fly home. He travelled through Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand mainly by train. One thing he noticed along the route was wherever he stopped, no matter how remote it was, you could just as easily find someone selling cans of Coke, as you could get your hands on a bowl of rice.
He avoided travelling through Vietnam and Cambodia, but had to endure a bumpy bus ride through Laos in order to reach the Chinese border.
“What was China like?” I asked. “Totally alien. Like being on a different planet” replied Gavin.
Wherever he went he was just gawped at. China was only opening up after being a closed country for so long. Not many people would approach him, which made sense as most had probably not seen a Westerner before. They just stood and stared.
He was out there for almost a month, but knew it was time to leave when he realised he was talking to himself on the street one day. “It just got a bit overwhelming, and I also got tired of everybody spitting everywhere.”
So he bought a train ticket from Beijing back to the UK, which must have cost him buttons compared to today’s prices.
“Avoid the Mongolian dining car,” was his advice about The Trans-Siberian railway which in itself sounded an amazing experience. Gavin described one “Genghis Kahn” look a like who raced the train for a while on horseback just for a bit of fun, before wheeling back to his camp.
A mis-calculation of the journey time meant he ran out of clean clothes. Hence the Chairman Mao suit, bought as a gift for his Dad, was pressed into service.
The next morning we were able to catch the Jetfoil from Ostend to Dover. In the days before the Eurostar it was the quickest way to get over the Channel.
The train station at Dover Docks was dank, and depressing and a bit of a let down after the speedy boat crossing. The slam door train to London Victoria was old and grubby. Welcome back to Blighty!
To cap it all Gavin failed to impress the British Rail guard with his Beijing to Birkenhead rail ticket. Folded and creased, it had certainly seen better days. It was made from the waxy carbon paper that you used to see on the old style airline tickets. It had a few holes punched in it by previous ticket inspectors.
The guard stood there giving a clearly tired “Chairman Mao” a knowing look.
“No need to start on one mate” said Gavin in his broad Scouse accent, “Think about it. If that ticket has got me this far already, it will do you!”