Travel memories: How a failed trip of a lifetime led to a travel writing career

In 1986, Nick Trend went off to seek his fortune – and found a route to the future.

Since – as coronavirus has reminded us – we can never control our fate, I’ve always liked the idea of consciously allowing chance to play a role in my life. So when, in my early 20s, I found myself trapped in a dull job, I used travel to shake up my life. I suppose I set off to seek my fortune.

My aim was to travel around the world without flying. I had enough money to get through Russia and China to Hong Kong by train, and from there I’d find a passage to Australia and then work to fund the next stage of the journey. I had no time limits and just wanted a new perspective on life.

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So, in early November 1986, I caught a train from London’s Liverpool Street station to Harwich and the Hook of Holland. I had a rough plan. In those days, to travel through the USSR, you had to book each train and every hotel. But it was incredibly cheap and I planned stays en route in Berlin and Warsaw, and then in Leningrad, Moscow and stops in Novosibirsk and Irkutsk in Siberia before taking the Central Kingdom Express down through Mongolia to Beijing.

So much happened during the nine months I was away. But two episodes had a long-term impact on my life. The first was my five days in Leningrad. It was intensely cold and there were no other tourists. So I immersed myself in the warmth of the Hermitage Museum. As I wandered the near-empty galleries of the world’s greatest art collection, random links slowly began to form. Dazzled by the Rembrandts, my fascination with Old Master paintings was born.

A few days later, leaving Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Express, I was in a compartment with the French travel writer Olivier Rolin. I think at first he was disappointed. He wanted an authentic Russian experience – I was an irritating English distraction.

The ice broke when we discussed the grey, insipid soup served on the first evening. He said it was chicken, pointing to a hen’s foot floating in his bowl. We talked for two days straight and Olivier’s way of life began to seem ever more alluring.

Technically speaking, my mission failed. I had to fly to get to Australia and ended up coming home via LA, Mexico and New York – also flying. But it didn’t matter. The impact of Olivier and the Hermitage had taken hold. I hadn’t made my fortune but I had found a new future. Within a month or two of my return, I had been offered a place on an art history MA and a job on a travel magazine. The MA had to wait a few more years, but I’ve made my living writing about travel ever since.

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