That summer: Beijing, 1995

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The Independent Travel

I allowed myself a small moment of panic. It was late evening and I had entered Beijing's cavernous main railway station to be confronted by a near medieval scene – through the darkness and hazy smoke I could make out the forms of thousands of people, congregating in no apparent order, standing in groups, sitting in any spare space, sleeping on the floor, undisturbed by the intermittent roar of huge engines pulling in and out – the smell of diesel, sweat and fried chicken heavy in the air. I had to find my way to the Trans-Mongolian Express – there were no signs I could decipher and no obvious information point, I had a ticket valid for that train alone, no credit card, only $40 to see me to Moscow and it was just minutes till departure.

I had arrived in Beijing after several carefree months in Taiwan trying to find my feet as an adult and experience the wider world before heading off to university in Dublin. I was teaching English amongst a lively international community in Taichung. That emerald isle was far from my Irish roots, but I loved the life.

I was 19 years old, full of confidence and a youthful sense of invincibility. So when I finished my teaching duties, completing the journey on my own from Taiwan to Beijing to catch the Trans-Siberian railway to Moscow didn't faze me at all.

I landed in Beijing with no contacts, no accommodation and little money. China in 1995 wasn't the impenetrable monolith it had been just a decade earlier – McDonalds and Pizza Hut were an established presence by the time I was there. The economic giant we recognise now was slowly waking up and there were signs of affluence among some of Beijing's workers.

But it was the most "foreign" place I had ever been to – particularly because I was having to skirt off the main tourist routes as funds were dwindling. Very few people spoke English and my Mandarin was very limited. Moreover, the sight of a lanky pale red-head wandering the streets on her own was quite unusual.

People stared. Children would scuttle alongside for a closer look. One little girl urged me to bend down and pointed curiously at the marks on my face. "Freckles" I told her – at which point she screamed and ran off.

The day of my departure from Beijing, I discovered money was missing from my wallet. I had about $40 left – $100 had just disappeared and I had no idea where it had gone – possibly lost, possibly snaffled somewhere.

The panic was compounded by the realisation I wouldn't be able to get a taxi to the train station and would have to navigate the incomprehensible bus service. From one side of the city to the other, no English signs, no colour-coded map and no English-speaking drivers.

But I made it, and so I found myself completely disoriented in this enormous terminal desperately trying to locate the Moscow train. Racing round and scanning the crowds I found a queue for international ticket holders and was pointed in the direction of an enormous iron hulk of a locomotive that would be carrying me back across the continent.

I located the tiny compartment that was to house me, a Chinese student, two Russian women and half a dozen huge sacks of who knows what for the next seven days.

The train journey itself was probably the strangest and most surreal seven days of my life. Apart from a spartan restaurant car, the only other places to spend time and socialise were the corridor, other people's cabins or the claustrophobic smoking holes at the end of the carriage, which were always filled with the horribly pungent smell of strong, sweet Russian tobacco. I spent the days watching the landscape rumble by.

The two Russian guards in our carriage took a certain interest in me – one propositioned me, the other gave me a melon and warned me not to trust the two women sharing my compartment. The women were thick set, with wiry curly hair and gruff, throaty laughing voices, but in fact they looked after me just at the point in my travels when I needed it. They bought me food from the platforms of the stations we passed through, gave me sweets and extra blankets and insisted I wore my shoes at all times to ward off a persistent cold.

I began to loathe the Chinese student on the bunk above me, largely on account of his habit of eating noodles at 4am. I say eating, but the noise he made during this thrice-daily ritual suggested he was eating a bowl of pork scratchings smothered in jelly rather than a soft noodle snack. It would always be finished off with a loud belch.

If I'm honest, the journey was incredibly boring at times. But there were hilarious moments, like the last night party where around 15 of us crammed ourselves into carriage 13 and drank cheap Russian beer, champagne and vodka, and hosted an ad-hoc international song contest.

From China, through Manchuria, Siberia and the Urals and eventually to Moscow, I'd never seen so much of the world. But it was my experience in Beijing that had the greatest impact on me – I felt if I could manage there, if I could feed myself, house myself, get from A to B and make friends and contacts, then I would have nothing to fear from four years at university in Ireland.

I eventually arrived back in the UK feeling like I'd conquered the world.

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