COVID-19 pandemic and travel: The thing I miss most about travel

The Trans-Mongolian is a world within a world. Out there on the other side of the window is Mother Russia, its vast plains and enchanting forests, its cities that just appear out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere, with train-station platforms that burble with commuters and travellers, locals selling home-made food and trinkets, people who look like they've just wandered down to have a look.

And on this side of the dirt-streaked glass, another world. My world. A world that runs on rattling wheels, a universe that chugs through the night and the day, onwards through infinite lands.

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Trans-Siberian railway: This is the classic, bucket-list train trip​. Photo: Getty

The world inside the train on the Trans-Mongolian is all tight corridors and squeezy cabins, where you get used to negotiating your way past strangers, flattening yourself against a wall as the carriages shake and you stumble around.

Each carriage has its own conductor, Chinese staff on this Chinese train bound for Beijing, guys who sit in their tiny cabins down by the samovar flicking through newspapers and selling large bottles of Yanjing beer for one US dollar a pop.

The world inside the train is the dining car, the one carriage on here that's staffed by Russians – the entire carriage will be jettisoned when we reach the border and exchanged for a Mongolian dining car, this one with ornate wood panelling and unidentifiable food. A Chinese car will be linked up at the next border, serving the best food we've had in days.

Selling goods on the Trans-Siberian Express, Russia.

Selling goods on the Trans-Siberian Express, Russia. Photo: Alamy

Life here moves from cabin to corridor to restaurant and back again as the sun rises and sets and the days tick by. The small spaces between the carriages are usually clogged up with smokers indulging their habits. The corridors are populated by a mishmash of nationalities and ages, everyone from middle-aged commuting Russians to boomer English couples to American backpackers to a group of Finnish guys who don't seem quite sure what they're doing here except to have an adventure.

You can't help but mix with these people in our moving, rattling world. They occupy every space. They're there in my cabin, reading books and playing cards and shooting vodka. They're there in the corridors, staring out of windows and stretching legs. They're there in the restaurant car, eating the dish called "beef stroganoff" that somehow looks and tastes completely different every night, drinking more vodka, chatting, laughing, arguing, toasting.

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Photo: iStock

At each station some people get off and some more people get on. It's a revolving cast of fascinating characters, a never-ending supply of people I've never met. In these carriages I've talked to Russians, Mongolians, Americans, Kiwis, Chinese, Dutch, Finns, English people, Canadians, Germans, French. I've bonded with some, been confused by others, weirded out by a few.

I've shared this rattling world with them, this travelling circus, this incredible microcosm of the Earth that traverses the Siberian plains.

And now, as I sit here in Australia writing this column about an experience I had long ago, I miss it. I miss it more than I could ever have imagined I would while I was sitting in an American girl's cabin playing a game of "guess what edible thing I bought from one of the women on the last platform" with a bunch of other backpackers.

I miss the basic travel experience, of course: the scenery, the food, the act of going somewhere new. But more than anything I miss the people, the citizens of the world, the opportunity to learn so much from so many people in such a small space and a short amount of time.

That's what I miss about overseas travel in general, and what I will always miss while I stay here in Australia. I love travel in this country, I love so much of what we have to offer here. This is an exciting and diverse place to explore, and one I plan to see as much of as I can.

But still, with the world the way it is, the people you're going to meet on your Australian travels are other Australians. And I know Australians. I understand Australians. There's little I find baffling or surprising or fascinating about Australians.

And that's such a huge part of the travel experience, the brilliance of travel, the otherworldliness of travel, that has had to be put on hold for now: all of those random, exciting and strange interactions with people from around the world. The tall tales from the rickshaw driver in Delhi. The gruff charm of the bartender in Madrid. The kids playing football in Bogota. The drunken conversations in Tokyo. The shock of attraction to strangers in Paris.

And the train full of odd characters chugging through the Siberian night. There's nothing else that can replace it.

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Photo: Getty

Though the good news, I guess, is that those fascinating, funny, interesting and bizarre people will still be there once we're allowed out again. Until then we have vodka, and memories. And a lot of weird social media friends.

​See also: I spent $1500 on lunch, and it was the weirdest meal of my life

See also: Some Australians don't want to come home and I don't blame them

What do you miss most about overseas travel? Where have you met the most interesting people on your travels? Where is the first place you plan to go to meet more?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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