Interview with Mark Smith (the Man in Seat 61)
If you’ve ever tried to travel between countries by train, then chances are you will have come across the incredible Seat 61 website. For someone like me who tries to avoid flying as much as possible, this site has assisted with many trips over the years, both long and short and should be a go-to resource for any serious traveller.
Below I pose some questions to the site’s founder, Mark Smith.
Steve Rohan (SR): Let’s start off with the most obvious. Can you tell me about the name of your site? On which specific train were you “the man in seat 61” and what was the route?
Mark Smith (MS): I like a seat at a table for two which aligns nicely with the window – no pillars in the middle of my view please! So a quick look at Eurostar’s seat plan gave me seat 61 in cars 7, 8 11 or 12 (on the original Eurostar trains). It then became a tradition to treat myself to first class and choose seat 61 when I left London for anywhere special – to Morocco via Paris and Madrid, or Kiev via Berlin and Warsaw, or even Tokyo via Moscow and Vladivostok.
SR: What inspired you to create Seat 61 and a website detailing how to travel anywhere in the world by train?
MS: I had nothing to read on the commuter train home from work, so went into WH Smiths at Marylebone station and found a teach yourself book about html, the language basic webpages are written in. I successfully got a webpage online, and for me the subject was obvious: I wanted to fill the gap between how easy it is to take the train from the UK to Italy, Spain, Greece, Hungary, wherever, and how difficult it had become to find anyone in the travel industry or even rail industry who would tell you how to do it.
SR: What is the longest you have ever spent on a train (Moscow to Irkutsk is my longest, 86 hours).
MS: 7 days, Moscow to Vladivostok. Even I was going a little stir crazy at the end. 7 days of Siberian birch trees – a very different experience to 6 days on the Moscow-Beijing express, which has varied Siberian, Mongolian and Chinese scenery, and a party atmosphere on board amongst the many westerners, Chinese and Russians. On the Moscow-Vladivostok Rossiya I was the only westerner on board until two professors from Alabama got on at Irkutsk.
SR: What was the most memorable journey you have taken?
MS: London to Verona on the Venice Simplon Orient Express. I only took it to research the train for the website, as they had a 25% discount at the end of the season. Took my then girlfriend, she’d never been to Italy, and I thought it would save me having to pay the single supplement. I got more than I bargained for. We’d only been going out for 6 months, but that train weaved its very special magic and we got engaged somewhere in the snow-swept Brenner Pass. Here I am 15 years later with a wife, two small kids, two cats, one small dog and one large mortgage. Powerful magic indeed.
SR: What was the most difficult journey you have undertaken?
MS: None have been particularly difficult. But the afternoon Moulmein to Rangoon train ended up leaving hours late, got progressively later, then got sidelined at Bago for faster trains to pass, and eventually it became an overnight train rather than daytime train, reaching Rangoon at 7am! But the incomparable Strand Hotel (Rangoon’s Raffles) gave us a suite from 8am and let us keep it till our departure at 4pm next day, so all was not lost!
SR: What was the nicest/most comfortable train you have ever been on?
MS: That Venice Simplon Orient Express. Those 1920s sleeping-cars are superb. But being 1920s, there are no en suites. Back then, Sunday night was bath night, whether you needed it or not…
SR: What was the worst train you have ever been on?
MS: A filthy dusty Egyptian 2nd & 3rd class slow train from Aswan to Luxor. Windows broken, doors hanging off. But all local life was on board, such as school children who asked me to read passages from their English textbooks, and the Nile scenery was fabulous. Worst train, but one of my best most memorable trips.
SR: Do you fly much, or always take an overland/sea route when travelling?
MS: I never fly within the UK or even within Europe. I take a plane where there’s little alternative, such as for a week in Vietnam or three weeks in Indonesia.
SR: Can you tell me why train travel is preferable to flying for you?
MS: Because I love travel – and travel means the journey as well as the destination, like mountaineering means the climb, not just standing on summits. By train you see where you’re going, and can move around, sleep in a bed, eat in a restaurant. It’s all about the experience.
SR: You’ve recently visited China (not for the first time if I recall). How was your trip here?
MS: I’ve been to China several times, the first by Trans Siberian Railway from London in 1991. The technological advances since then have been vast, not least the amazing scale of the growing high-speed rail network.
SR: Finally, what plans do you have for the future?
MS: There are very few countries with relevant rail systems left to add, so it’s really about continual improvement – more photos, more info, adding station guides, covering trains such as the Blue Train or Canadian in more detail. The site tends to force me to revisit popular places I’ve already been to (before I started seat61) to get decent photos and info, when I’d rather go to more obscure places which from a website point of view generate little demand. Oh well!
Want to know more about travelling without flying? See below for some interesting articles about rail travel:
Xining to Lhasa – The highest Railway in the world!
Beijing to Xian Train – How to travel from the Chinese capital to the site of the Terracotta Army
How to Travel the Silk Road – How to travel overland from England to China
All you need to know about train travel in China – A comprehensive guide on taking the train in China