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The long-distance train journey is an excellent environment for a story. Whenever you travel long enough to require sleeping berths, the train transforms from merely a public conveyance into a miniature hotel on wheels, offering beds, cooked food and even entertainments. Such a confined world is a godsend for mystery writers – Murder on the Orient Express and The Napoli Express are the first to spring to mind – and the claustrophobia is only heightened by the openness of the countryside you’re passing through.

Not that you know what’s outside all that well. It’s been said that a bicycle is the perfect way to explore a country, because it gives you greater speed than walking without zipping along in the sealed environment of a car, too fast to take it all in properly. What, then, of the country-crossing train moving at such speed that the wilderness blurs together? Abandoned settlements, dead trees, a lone figure on horseback; whatever you see will be gone from sight a minute later. And there’s a nice feeling of menace lurking outside the train in this story. Although the story ostensibly takes place on a journey from Beijing to Paris, the wilderness they pass through is more akin to an alien world:

Outside the window the trees wept red tears. We passed a wooden church, alone on a low hill. The roof was caved in, the whole structure leaning, tilted by the wind. There were no windows.

Never stopping, on and on across the continent. Never stopping, the only way to be safe.

“Safe-ish,” the mutters went, the jokes. “Safer.”

Nor is the inside much more comfortable. Wu Galou has left his orphanage for the first time, bound for an art scholarship in Paris, and he finds himself quite isolated with the more earthy travelers sharing the carriage with him. Disconnected from them, he passes the time sketching the passengers, and it’s when he’s drawing a woman wearing blue stones that she notices him, and tries to pry him out of his shell. But given the atmosphere established so far, someone taking an interest in you can’t be good…

Trans-Siberia: An Account of a Journey by Sarah Brooks

Available: print

Word count: 3,000

First published: Interzone #249, Nov-Dec 2013

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