Simon Calder: Scotland's new gateway to the Orient - Thurso

The man who pays his way

The schedule sorcerers of Peterborough have been busy. "Iran has finally introduced a passenger service on the line from Bam to the city of Zahedan," says the June edition of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable, compiled at the travel firm's HQ in Cambridgeshire.

An irrelevant snippet about a train through south-east Iran to a dusty town where the frontiers of Afghanistan and Pakistan converge in a three-way collision of fraternal distrust? No, at least for people who prefer to travel the pretty way. The editor, Brendan Fox, claims that the trains in Table 4700 open up the prospect of "a journey from the north of Scotland to the south of India to be completed entirely by rail".

His fellow wizard, John Potter, reveals a heated discussion about the crossing of Lake Van in eastern Turkey, which is a train ferry: "Although this breaks the physical link, we presume one can remain on board the train during the crossing." So, two centuries after the railway was conceived, the train has reached an evolutionary terminus: a journey on steel rails from Thurso, close to mainland Scotland's northernmost point, to the station at Cape Comorin – a short walk from the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent.

On a journey through 50 degrees of latitude and 80 degrees of longitude, you could stutter along a branch line at an average of 20mph, try to doze through the swayings and shuntings of your sleeper carriage, then whizz along at 186mph. And that is just in Britain. You need the 4.29pm from Thurso to Inverness, whose poetry of motion is punctuated by no fewer than 22 stops, including Georgemas Junction, Altnabreac and Muir of Ord.

After the overnight Caledonian Sleeper from Inverness to Euston, a stroll to St Pancras is followed by a succession of fast-fast-slow trains to Paris, Munich, Budapest and Sofia. Tunnel beneath the Thames and the Channel, clank across the Rhine and flirt at length with the Danube. But beyond the Bulgarian capital, you will be stopped, literally, in your tracks by a kerfuffle that I call the Istanbul Impasse.

Turkey's largest city has always been the gateway to Asia. The traveller from Sofia bound for the Orient alights from the train, walks to the quayside, boards a boat for the 10-minute voyage to Haydarpasa station on the Asian side, and continues to Ankara and beyond.

Most of the ferries that shuttle across the Bosphorus will be surplus to transportational requirements, thanks to a new intercontinental tunnel connecting the two halves of Istanbul. That, at least, is the plan – but due to the discovery of a fourth-century port during the initial excavation of the European side, the project is much delayed and will not be ready for another three years. Meanwhile, the trans-Balkan line from Sofia – the old route of the Orient Express – has closed for preparatory engineering work, cutting off Istanbul from the rest of Europe. Whether you reach the city by air or bus, make the most of the Bosphorus boatmen before they are pensioned off . The casualties of faster transport links are beauty and intrigue.

The Sicilian (dis-) connection

Other equally tantalising straits have yet to be conquered by bridge or tunnel, most visibly the couple of miles disconnecting Sicily from mainland Italy. A massive construction project could be just what southern Europe needs to bridge the economic chasm.

Britain has some missing links, but mostly for good economic and environmental reasons: otherwise there would already be a tunnel beneath the Solent to the Isle of Wight, and another connecting John O'Groats with South Ronaldsay in Orkney. That latter link would be a financial disaster, but also an aesthetic loss, given the fine approach via the Old Man of Hoy by ferry from Scrabster – adjacent to Thurso, now transportationally twinned with Cape Comorin.

Check your bearings

To appreciate fully the scale of a trip from northern Scotland to southern India, as recommended by Thomas Cook's magicians, consider the mirror-image journey. Go 50 degrees south of Thurso, but 80 west rather than east, and you end up at Drake Bay, on the Pacific shore of Costa Rica.

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