The adventure began in June 1995 when I embarked on a year’s leave of absence from work, family and friends, and life as I had known it. One might ask what led me to undertake a year of travel. Now single with both sons well on their way with their own lives, I had taken advantage of a work plan that allowed me to take 80% salary for 4 years, with a fifth year’s leave of absence from work. I was free to plan and organize a year of travel. A response to feeling a restlessness, a need for a break from the daily work routines and a desire to learn about a larger outer world. Moving outside my comfort zone and into other “boxes” was part of the appeal.
Serendipitously, I was having dinner with a friend early in 1995 at The Green Door on Main Street, Ottawa, when she introduced me to a young woman who told me about a Peace Train heading to the 5th International Women’s Conference in Beijing. I found out that an organizing contact person was based at the UN headquarters in New York City. I was immediately inspired by the possibility of joining this ambitious venture, thereby structuring the first part of my year long journey abroad.
This was the year of the Fifth United Nations International Women’s Conference to be held in Beijing and I had managed to secure a seat on a Peace Train that would be travelling from Finland to China taking 22 days and stopping in 9 countries. The train was specially commissioned for our party alone and did not take the Siberian Express route. Instead the route was from Helsinki, to St. Petersburg, on to Kiev, then Bucharest, followed by Sophia, a return side trip by bus to Istanbul, on to Odessa, through Kazakhstan and finally via western China to Beijing.
Like many other Women’s Conference participants, I had great difficulty obtaining a Chinese visa. With many trips to the Chinese embassy in London and impossible requests more documentation, I went in desperation to a Chinese travel agent asking for a simple tourist visa. Even before arrival in China, any mention of attending the conference at the Embassy aroused suspicion and anxiety. A foreshadowing of what was in store. Eventually after days of delay in London, I found myself on a railway station platform in Helsinki at 6.00 in the morning ready to board. I was surrounded by 232 women, from 42 countries, and not for the first time I felt overwhelmed and apprehensive. I was assigned wagon number 12, berth number 30.
The Peace Train journey was incredibly arduous at times but overall exciting and a great success. It was the vision of Barbara Lockleber of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom based in Switzerland, to be on a mission of peace, meeting with local women and hearing about the struggles and aspirations regarding self determination, disarmament, their experiences of nationalism and suffering caused by war. It was an ambitious plan and little if any time was allotted for delays or plans backfiring which they sometimes did. At first it was overwhelming to suddenly be part of such a large group and difficult for many to adjust. Many of the women had never been out of their native country let alone tackling nine countries in twenty-two days. Instructions to travel light had been disregarded by some who regretted hauling their large Samsonite luggage around. Moving off trains and registering into hotels was an organizational nightmare as we tried to cope with foreign languages, new currencies and the various protocols of different cultures.
The official postcard of the Peace Train journey given to all participants.