Nooraini Mydin’s 50th birthday passed without much of a marker, so she was determined to do something memorable for her 60th. She had always been curious about the Trans-Siberian railway but thought “how about I make it really exciting and get the train from London all the way to Kuala Lumpur?” she says. “I am such a chicken, or I was at that time. I used to get very lonely when I travelled alone.” But in August 2016 she set off with two suitcases – containing her laptop, to write about the journey, and several packets of instant ramen noodles, for comfort and economy reasons – for the seven-week journey.
She had had a varied life up to that point. She had been a journalist in Malaysia, but moved to the UK in the 80s, where she had a difficult, short-lived marriage. She worked as a council press officer, in the bakery at Harrods and in admin at a hospital. “Then I started collecting degrees,” she says. She studied law, but didn’t become a lawyer, instead working in the law department of University College London.
It was after the death of her sister, to whom she was close, that she realised it was time to get back to her original dream of writing and journalism. So she started freelancing and planned to write about her trip.
“Everything had to be organised with military precision,” she says. “If you miss one train, that’s it. The cost would be an issue – I had hardly any money.” She left London and spent three nights in cities across Europe – in Brussels, Berlin and Warsaw – before arriving in Moscow. “It was three in the afternoon and the train station was deserted,” she says. “The loneliness you feel in the pit of your stomach … I thought, what am I doing here?”
But then she made the four-day journey from Moscow to Irkutsk on the Trans-Siberian train, where she made many friends. “On the first leg, there was a doll-maker and a paediatrician. And a Russian dancer, who was planning to settle in Thailand or Vietnam. Then, slowly, they all went off and I was left with a grumpy Russian woman who hated foreigners – I think skin colour might have been a factor.”
She spent a few days at Lake Baikal, one of the world’s largest lakes, in southern Siberia. “It was cold when I first arrived, and raining, and the lake was a murky muddy colour. The next morning the sun came out and everything was blue and it was like, wow, paradise. That was the best bit for me.” She also loved staying at a camp near Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, where the retired doctor who ran it would pile blankets on top of her as she lay in bed in her yurt.
Her lowest point came in Beijing, when she was invited to tea by a young man who claimed to be a business student wanting to improve his English, only to be presented with a bill for £120. She ended up giving him what she had, which was about £10.
She is, she says with a smile, “kind of naive. I trust people, and I was giving people my business card with my address on it. It’s like everyone I met was a potential friend.”
But only once did she consider abandoning her journey. She was in Shanghai during Eid celebrations, and “I could picture my cousin preparing lovely food in Malaysia. I was desperate to end the trip, but then I said no, my mission will be finished.”
Mydin travelled on through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, arriving finally at the end of September in Malaysia, where interest in her trip had built up. She appeared on television there to talk about her journey (and would later write a book about it).
The whole experience had given her a big confidence boost. “Having completed it, I felt I could do anything,” she says. She got over her fear of loneliness. “Now, I hate travelling with anybody, I have to travel alone. I know I’ll be happy in my own company.”
But, unlike a rail journey from A to B, human progress isn’t as straightforward – as soon afterwards, Mydin found self-doubt creeping back in. She knows what she needs to do. She is now planning to travel by rail to Turkey.