Looking out from the windows of a moving train is special on many levels. You get a first-rate view of the sky and landscapes as the world whizzes by. Your mind wanders and you slip into a meditative rhythm with the turning of the wheels. Or, you can stand up and move around as sights, sounds and smells float in and surround you.
For those who love nature, cities and machines (such as trains) and like people — strangers who become friends, and even those you meet for fleeting moments — nothing beats this mode of ground transport.
Tabung Haji chairman Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar gives two thumbs up to rail journeys, which he started taking to his boarding school, the Malay College Kuala Kangsar, from his then home in Petaling Jaya at the age of 12 or 13. “Practically every term during the formative years until I was 17 or 18, [I was] on the delightful Keretapi Tanah Melayu trains,” he recalls.
Those early rides stoked his wanderlust and seeded a dream to see the world on wheels that he spent the better part of almost four decades planning and mapping. In 2019, one year after retiring as managing director of Khazanah Nasional, Azman set out to take 77 trains over 77 days across four continents, two oceans and 22 countries.
He started off on July 14 from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Kangsar, where he spent the night — an honorary stopover (kunjung hormat) — before continuing up to Padang Besar, then Bangkok, reprising his 1978 trip to the Thai capital with the college rugby team. His wife Mastura Abdul Rahman, who shares his love of travel, joined him from Guilin, China.
On Sept 28, Azman pulled back into the Kajang Railway Station to a rousing homecoming welcome after covering 63,543km or 1.6 times Earth’s circumference at the Equator, principally on trains and metro systems, by cars, taxis, buses, Uber, tuk-tuk, on foot, trishaws, an ocean liner, ferries, water taxis, boats and, unavoidably, eight flights.
In August 2021, Azman privately published Kembara Kretapi 2019: Around the World in Trains of Thought, a photobook to commemorate the second anniversary of their “journey of a lifetime”. It has Instagram posts, photos, videos, scribbles and jottings on the trip taken from his website. The book covers the countries and places they visited, what travel means to him, and his reflections on its importance, among other things.
“I’d expected [the journey] to be great. It was most exhilarating. All my life, I’d been taking trains but not one continuous ride like this,” Azman says. Looking back, the classic trains he had taken — such as the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian Railway, Australia’s Indian Pacific, and the California Zephyr, said to have one of the most beautiful train routes in North America — were “preludes” to his mega journey.
The adventure was only possible because several things fell into place at the same time, he adds. “You need the idea, the motivation, the time — something I did not have [earlier] because I [had been] actively working on my career for close to 40 years.
“Sometimes, you have time but you need an absence of responsibility, the kind that allows you to travel. And some means — it’s not out of reach for many, I believe. You also need the world to be open, something we cannot take for granted now. Shortly after I came back, the world shut down because of Covid. Now, there’s the spectre of war in Europe.”
There were some bumps en route but nothing major: delays that cascaded, some train lines not being continuous, the loss of an ATM card and a credit card, a pickpocket attempt. Food, which was a bit of a challenge in some places, was manageable with the instant noodles and serunding they brought. They also travelled light.
A worry niggled: Will it happen? In the end, “after aspiring for so long, you just plan and go”, says Azman, who felt a sense of achievement after fulfilling his life-long dream.
He is grateful that many hands helped make his dream come true — travel companions who joined them for parts of the journey, friends who met them at various stops and took care of their stay,
a telecommunications team that hosted them in train-less Cambodia, family members who laid out sumptuous homecooked meals, and those who kept them company when trains were delayed.
The KK 2019 core crew, friends who volunteered when they heard about his project, took care of travel arrangements, luggage, security and logistics, statistics, travel advisory, collaterals and managed his website.
“Initially, a London travel firm was trying to put the whole thing together. Then long-standing travel agents Dave and Selva said, ‘Boss, you must allow us to do this’. They did a magnificent job researching the travel [destinations].”
Team member Ziad, who had travelled from KL to Oxford via the Trans-Siberian route, was helpful with on-the-ground information. Of course, there was Mastura, his travel partner for 49 of the 77 days, and life partner for 30-plus years and counting.
Would they do it again?
“For sure. I have some other dreams but it’s not time yet to discuss them. They will involve trains and other modes of transport. But mostly at ground level because that’s where you will see, smell and do things, meet people and walk around,” Azman says.
This article first appeared on July 3, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.