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What would you do if you only had a short time to live?
Most people have some kind of travel on their bucket list, and when Susi Holliday had a near-miss in the London terror attacks, she decided to head off on a round-the-world trip. Her experience on the Trans-Siberian Express resulted in a crime novel years later, and in this interview, we talk about what she learned along the way.
We also talk about why reflection on mortality makes us want to travel, the importance of getting out of your comfort zone, why spiritual places draw us in other countries, and why we might have more in common with travelers from other countries than we think.
SJI Holliday is a scientist, writing coach, and the bestselling author of five crime novels, including the Bankstoun trilogy set in a fictional town in Scotland. Susi was born and raised in Scotland, but today we’re talking about her novel Violet, which is set on the Trans-Siberian Express Railway.
- Making travel and life choices after frightening world events
- Using different modes of travel, including railways
- Why getting out of your comfort zone when traveling is important
- Visiting holy places in different parts of the world
- Food challenges in Mongolia and Russia
- Following the river in a city to find hidden gems
- Thoughts on being safe while traveling
- Tips for what to take to be comfortable on a long train journey
You can find SJI Holliday at SJIHolliday.com.
Transcript of the interview
Joanna Penn: SJI Holliday is a scientist, writing coach, and the bestselling author of five crime novels, including the Bankstoun trilogy set in a fictional town in Scotland. Susi was born and raised in Scotland, but today we’re talking about her novel Violet, which is set on the Trans-Siberian Express Railway.
Susi Holliday: Hello. Thanks for having me.
Joanna Penn: It’s great to have you on the show. I think the Trans-Siberian Express has this romance about it. Now, you went on the railway in 2006 so take us back to that time.
Why did you decide to take that trip?
Susi Holliday: Well, it was actually part of a much bigger trip and it came from actually something that happened in 2005, which was the London bombings.
What happened was that weekend, my husband and I were supposed to go to a gig, and it was canceled because of this. And it just made us both think about what we were doing. We were both working full time and we were just living a normal life.
And we felt, you know what? We should go off and do some traveling because you never know what’s going to happen to you. So we basically spent about five months planning a trip and we then left in January 2006 and went on a six month round the world trip. There were lots of different places. We traveled on lots of different modes of transport. And one of those was the Trans-Siberian.
Joanna Penn: Wow. That is a big thing. So you weren’t actually in the London bombings?
Susi Holliday: We were just there and then my sisters were coming down to visit me that weekend and they got turned away. Their train got turned away on the way down. It was stopped and they were taken back. My brother was running around on his scooter and going to Kings Cross and things like that all day.
And it just made me think that anything could have happened. I was lucky that nothing did happen to me or anyone close to me, but it just gave me a bit of a jolt about life and made me think I want to do something. And so travel was the thing.
Joanna Penn: That’s really interesting about travel.
Why is it that when we have an experience like that, when we come up against our mortality, why do we want to travel?
Maybe it’s a personality type as I am obviously the same.
Susi Holliday: It’s a weird one, isn’t it? Because one of the first things that one of my flatmates said to me when I said I was doing this trip, she said, “Oh, well, be careful. Anything could happen.” And I said this is the whole point. Anything could happen. And it could happen anywhere.
I think you put things off and you think, Oh, I’ll take a trip one day, or I’ll go on that holiday and I’ll do this and I’ll do that. And that day never comes because you get sucked into work and life and everything else that you’re doing, and it doesn’t happen.
So I think, when you are faced with something like that, it makes you re-evaluate things and you think, would I regret it if I’d never did this? Taking the time off work to do something big and bold and go around the world.
And I think the answer was yes, we would. So what’s what we decided to do. Ever since then it’s been a thing that we do. We try and go as many trips as we can and go to many different places and have many different experiences. I have that thing in the back of my mind of, you might never get this chance. It’s weird. I know you do the same.
Joanna Penn: Some people want to stay home and bolt the doors and other people want to get out there and see the world. I think that’s fantastic. But then, okay, so for six months you traveled around the world. Six months is not actually that long when you think about the size of the world.
So why choose the Trans-Siberian Railway? That is an interesting choice.
Susi Holliday: We tried to do like a whole circular trip and so a lot of the times I was trying to avoid just the same old thing of getting a flight everywhere because I think you can see so much more by taking different modes of transport.
So we took some boats and different things, and then we said we’d do a few trains. We did trains in other countries, but I’d always heard about the Trans-Siberian and didn’t really know much about it. So we decided we’d go for that.
I think it’s about a week if you do it nonstop, but we decided to have a couple of stop-offs. I planned the whole six-month trip around being able to circle back from China that way, back to Europe, via Russia.
So it was a way to make the trip work without lots of back and forth with flights and also just something I felt, this is something you’ve got to do. And it definitely was.
Joanna Penn: Still, I think, an unusual trip. And we’re going to go through some of the stops. So the train stops in Ulaanbaatar, and of course, the book Violet, we should say, follows the protagonists on the railway.
Reading the book, I thought that some of these things might have happened to you. Obviously not all of it, because it is a crime novel, but the train stops in Ulaanbaatar, which is in Mongolia.
Mongolia was always used as one of those middle of nowhere kind of places. But I worked for a mining company for a while and I know things are happening in Mongolia these days.
What was Mongolia like? What stood out about that? Why was it really quite a different place?
Susi Holliday: Like you said, it’s one of those places that it’s almost mythical cause you just think no one’s really gone to Mongolia. It’s not a real place.
I think the difference is when you’re in places like that … we were in Beijing and Shanghai and all these big Chinese cities that are just packed full of people, packed full of modern things mixed with older things. And it’s all hustle and bustle.
And then you come across this desolate land and arrive in Ulaanbaatar, which is so desolate and quite a strange place because it does have that kind of feel of they’re trying to turn it into a real city by having some high rises and some businesses that are there. But it’s not a rich place.
They grow their own food. A lot of stuff gets imported from China. It’s in the desert and it’s just old. It felt to us like they’d started building this city and then they just kind of either gave up or run out of money or I don’t know what. It was all kinds of potholes and wild children running the streets.
It’s got a feel of quite a poor place, but then it has got some flashy or business things popping up. So it was quite a dichotomous place.
I had no idea what to expect really. And even now, I think if I went back, I can’t imagine it would be hugely different.
Joanna Penn: I know some people who work on the big mining project there, and obviously they’ve got mineral wealth and metal, I think, but it’s under the land, so it might take a while, but it’s interesting.
You mentioned that desolation, that desolate landscape, which in my mind is starkly beautiful, but definitely outside most people’s comfort zone.
What is important about getting out of your comfort zone when it comes to travel?
Susi Holliday: I think it’s just if you’re going to be away, and especially so far away, then I think you need to do things that you’re never going to do anywhere else.
I think we’d only been in the city for one night when someone said, ‘you don’t want to hang around here. You want to go on a tour and spend time with a nomadic family.’ And I was like, ‘that sounds great.’
It was again, one of those things where I didn’t really know what to expect, so we just went with it.
And we ended up, there were only four of us and a guide, and we went in this battered old van, which seemed to take forever. It had no suspension. It just seemed to be driving aimlessly across no roads. But the driver seemed to know where he’s going.
Eventually, we arrived at this nomadic camp, after a few stop-offs to see wild horses and things like that, which is all amazing. And then you arrive in the camp and there’s a couple of tents and there’s literally nothing there. You are in the middle of nowhere, yet again. And the beds are made of some sort of hard material.
And again, they don’t really have much food and everything’s just completely different and I think you get there and you just think, right, well, I’m just going to have to go with it because this is where I am. And then I think you just go into that experience and it’s something that you’ll always have that is almost hard to explain to others.
But anywhere you go, I think it’s important to do something completely different.
Joanna Penn: I love that attitude. You said, ‘this is where I am’ and that’s sort of a Buddhist mindfulness moment. This is where I am and I will take it in.
But of course, I guess you went before smartphones as well.
Susi Holliday: Yes. We did have phones, but they weren’t smartphones. We did use phones in certain places. I think there may have been phone reception there, but there’s no chargers or anything so it was kind of pointless.
It did feel quite isolated in that sense, because there’s nothing you could do about it. There’s also no way you could leave because we were at the mercy of the people who had brought us there and who were then staying with us.
I think we stayed there for two nights. You just do it and then they come and tell you right now we’re going to ride horses and you’re like, okay, what else are you going to do?
I did actually struggle with food and drink there because I’m quite squeamish with certain things and one of them, in particular, is anything to do with sheep. I don’t like lamb. I don’t like mutton. I don’t like anything with sheep or goats, in fact.
That’s what their main thing is. There was some tea made out of boiled mutton’s milk, which really didn’t smell nice. And then they were making up this lovely big stew, which has carrots and veg and all sorts of stuff. It looked lovely. And then just as it was about to be served, they just piled in a lot of mutton. And I was like, ‘Oh no.’
So I literally almost starved for two days when I was there, but it didn’t do me any harm. But it was one of those things where I did try my hardest, but I really was struggling, especially with the milk tea.
Joanna Penn: I’ve got to say, in my head, the idea of the Trans-Siberian Express, it’s not like a gourmet trip. The countries that you’re going through are not gourmet.
Susi Holliday: No. And I know we’re going to move on to Russia in a second, but even we were thinking, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait to get to Russia. The food will be so much better.’
Joanna Penn: Just before we move onto Russia, in Violet, there is an experience with a shaman in Mongolia, and I wondered, because spiritual experiences are often part of travel, maybe because we’re more open and we’re out of our environment, maybe we’re in nature more or something, you know?
Was there a spiritual aspect to your experience?
Susi Holliday: Not really. Unfortunately when we got there, the nearby villagers were sitting up. I say villagers but they deliberately all live in separate little tent compounds. But they were setting up for a mini Naadam festival, which is where they do archery and shooting and things like that. It is quite a big thing in Mongolia.
And as well as the big annual ones, they have little mini ones. So they were setting that up. They have all these kinds of things there. And they do have shamans that are around, and they have a little hill there, which was a shamanic site and all this kind of stuff.
So we were fascinated by it from afar, but we didn’t actually get to experience any of it directly, which is a shame because one of the things I do like also doing on my own trips is visiting things like temples. I’m not a religious person. I don’t even know if I’m a spiritual person, but I find those places very peaceful, especially in other countries because I think there are a lot more space and other places where people are a bit more open to those things.
Living in London, it’s not the thing that you see very often, a giant Buddha or something like that. So whenever I’m somewhere where these things exist, I like to get a little flavor of them.
Joanna Penn: I’m the same and I think it’s generations and sometimes even thousands of years of worship in one place that almost seems to change the atmosphere of an area.
Susi Holliday: I think that’s exactly it. I couldn’t quite get what I was trying to say, but that said, it’s like the whole place is soaked in it. So if you go to visit a place like that, you feel it and you just feel what other people feel. Whereas I just don’t think that we really get that here because there are so many different religions and so many different things, but it’s much more transient in a way.
Joanna Penn: The energy in London is its own thing!
Let’s move on to Siberia.
The next stop on the train where you got off, or in the book they got off, was Irkutsk in Siberia. The word Siberia, in my head it is cold, it’s snowy, it’s got work camps. People are dying. I know that’s history, but it doesn’t feel like somewhere that might be welcoming.
What were your impressions of Siberia?
Susi Holliday: That’s the same thing you think like Mongolia, Siberia, these are places that are far away and the people there are not going to be very happy.
Siberia wasn’t cold when we were there because it was kind of spring-ish. It wasn’t warm, but we were walking around without coats and stuff. There wasn’t any snow. But it did feel a bit gray and then occasionally brightened up by a very beautiful church with lots of colors. That’s definitely a very Russian thing.
Apart from that, I found Irkutsk quite a strange place. I felt like everyone was waiting for something to happen and nothing was going to happen. The most lively place, which is a place I mentioned in the book, was the indoor market. I think possibly that’s where everybody is during the day. You know what those places are like, all the smells of food and all the stuff that’s going on. They’re lively.
Apart from that, the city actually felt quite strange and desolate. We were there for two days and I don’t think I’d really want to be there much longer.
Joanna Penn: I’m not going to put Irkutsk on my list!
Susi Holliday: It’s worth seeing as a stopover, I think, because when you do this trip it is important to stop off because it’s a long time on a train otherwise.
There are other trips you can do. We were supposed to go on a trip to Lake Baikal and we couldn’t do it for whatever reason. And I think if you’re doing that, it would be worth it. You see that on the train when you pass it and it looks beautiful. So I think if you’re doing it, you just have to make sure you manage to get someone to take you there.
Joanna Penn: How long was the whole train trip with all the stops for you?
Susi Holliday: I’ve been trying to work this out when I’ve been doing the timeline for my book, because it’s been a while. It must’ve been about 10 days, I think, or maybe to two weeks, roughly. And then a bit more time at the end, and then we moved on.
I’m not sure exactly, but It’s hard to remember in a way because the train portions all kind of blur into one. You are in a cabin or else you’re in the dining car or else you’re getting off. And you’re doing weird things like they have to change the undercarriage when they change country because they’re different gauges of tracks. So that takes several hours.
So you just literally have to wait. They go along, lift each carriage up, change all the wheels, put it back down again. And they have to do that every single time because it’s quicker to do that, I guess, than to build a whole new rail system.
And there are quite a lot of little stops that people don’t get off at. But you get off and stretch your legs and there are people selling things on a platform; food and there’s the little kiosks and stuff. So you get off and have a little walk up and down and you’ve always got that slight panic when you get off a train that’s stopped that it’s going to go away, leave you there. So there is always that as well, like making sure you get back on.
It’s definitely a trip I would recommend. Apart from the weird stops, it is worth it. Definitely.
Joanna Penn: I think it’s interesting traveling by train. It’s like you said, the train portions merge into one.
I’ve been on longer trips traveling on the Amtrak in the USA, for example, and we don’t usually get to relax like that on trips. I’ve just got back from flying from Vegas and my plane flight was pretty terrible. It was almost too quick, like your soul has been left behind and jet lag is your soul catching up. That’s different on a long train.
Susi Holliday: Definitely. Because you’re meeting different people and you’ll be with certain people for the whole time and then it’ll change because someone will get off at a different stop and other people will get on. And you’ll have that crossover and it’s just one of those times when you do get to completely relax because there isn’t really anything else to do.
I did actually start writing when I was on the train for my first ever book, which I didn’t finish. But it was on that train that I started doing it because I thought, well, I’m on this train for days and might as well start doing something.
I thought I would use the trip at some point in a book.
And it wasn’t until now that it has come out as being like, this is the right time. Because I always wanted to write something about traveling. And because I love the way that you meet people that you probably wouldn’t bump into at home.
You talk differently to people and you’ve got different expectations, and you almost feel like everyone’s in the same boat, so you trust people more. So that’s why I used that element of it specifically in the book.
Joanna Penn: And, of course, when it’s got a specific start and a specific end, you have a structure for a book.
Susi Holliday: Exactly. It does make it very easy.
Joanna Penn: I want to ask about Moscow because that’s the final stop on the train. I haven’t been there, but you mentioned the colorful churches and the architecture. That’s obviously what Moscow’s famous for and it’s definitely on my list. And of course, much of it is ancient and historical, so that will still be true whenever people are going.
What were some of the highlights of Moscow?
Susi Holliday: Again, it was the sights of the place. It’s a really bustling, busy city, and there are all sorts of people there.
The Red Square and St. Basil’s cathedral, obviously the things that you see most of, and tourist guides and things like that, and of course it’s beautiful. But just walking along the river. I think I always find that when I go to a city, finding the river is a good place to start because there are always things that are attached to rivers.
I love that in London. I love it in Paris. New York. And so Moscow is one of those where you find hidden gems. We walked along and we found Gorky Park, which I’d only ever heard of in the Scorpions song. And then we realized it’s actually a real place. It’s a fun park by the side of the river.
And at the time we went, it was still the seventies version. So it had very scary looking rides. We went on one, which I just thought it was going to spin off and we would die. And I thought of all the ways to die on a trip, it’s going to be on a roller coaster in Gorky Park! That’s all being done up now so anyone who goes now will miss out on that slightly terrifying seventies roller coaster.
But, things like that, just walking along and then we came across a market where they sell rows and rows and rows and rows of those babushka dolls. And I loved them. I was obsessed with them as a kid. And I remember my brother throwing the little baby one night of my set under a truck.
Joanna Penn: Oh no, that’s my favorite one!
Susi Holliday: I know. The tiny little people-shaped one. I just was obsessed. I think I bought 10 different sets and brought them all back. So it’s just things like that that are things that you think of being in Russia, and even though you can buy them here, actually going there and seeing them and seeing the people selling them and they’re so proud of them. They’re all hand-painted and they’re all different kinds of faces and you get novelty ones and all sorts.
But what also stood out again was the fact that the food was just rubbish. Again, I thought, you know, hearty stuff, goulash. I know that’s probably Czech but it’s all kind of similar food from those regions.
But we just didn’t seem to really come any that was particularly outstanding. There are probably some very good fine dining restaurants in Moscow, which we didn’t go to because it’s so expensive anyway. Everything was so expensive.
We were on a backpacker’s budget, but we did have to pay a lot more for hotels there because it was out of this world, and I imagine it’s even worse now. So that’s one downfall. But it’s definitely somewhere I’d like to go back to and possibly even get a trip from there to St. Petersburg.
Joanna Penn: Me too. And talking about Russia in general, circling back to what you said at the beginning, maybe people are more afraid now of somewhere like Russia. And yet we saw during the football World Cup, people were saying, ‘it’s brilliant, come to Russia.’ It was so good.
What do you think about this modern fear of countries like Russia?
Susi Holliday: I think that’s really interesting because my own particular fears of South Africa, because I’m always worried about things I hear about there. I wouldn’t feel safe there.
And then you go into Russia where there’s police walking around doing all sorts and I didn’t feel unsafe at all. Not once. I even walked around late at night on my own, at one point. I just didn’t really feel unsafe there.
A lot of this stuff comes from certain perceptions of a place that become ingrained and then people go there and actually find its nothing like that.
So I’m quite sure if I go South Africa, nothing will happen to me. I won’t get carjacked and I’ll have a great holiday. But I think it’s just what you think of the places and there’s a lot of places that are deemed to be places you should not go on holiday or on a trip, but actually, when you get there, you’d probably be fine.
Joanna Penn: People are people, aren’t they? If you’re worried about crime, I mean, you live in London. I lived in London for five years. There’s just as much crime in London, just of a different kind. In fact, people often will say were you safe when you lived in London? I felt completely fine.
Susi Holliday: That’s the thing, when you’re there, when you’re in a place, you do genuinely feel safe because you have your own feel for it, and you would get a feeling and know to move away from a certain area or not be there.
And the same in London every day. If I’m walking around somewhere and I don’t feel comfortable, I’ll get on a bus or get a taxi and go away from there. And I think that’s the same anywhere you are. So I think a lot of it is different people’s perceptions and just having to experience places for yourself and just to have your wits about you. And I think that’s just true of anywhere.
I think that that there’s one danger of people who go traveling and think that everywhere is unsafe or everywhere to safe. You’re kind of putting a whole blanket decision on that. And then you go somewhere where you think is safe and something terrible happens and you’re not prepared for it.
I think you just have to be a bit savvy, whatever you are.
Joanna Penn: I agree. And, potentially, traveling can help you become that type of person. I think traveling helps us not be cynical. It’s like, Oh wow, look how other people live and feel grateful.
But also, as you say, be more aware and read behavior because you might not understand the language.
Susi Holliday: Definitely. And the language is really interesting because you think in all these places we went to, we couldn’t speak a word of any of these languages. And a lot of the places, you can’t even read the signs.
They might have more now in Moscow because of the World Cup and stuff, but at the time, the signs were in Cyrillic and on the Metro we’d just get on going, “Don’t know which way we’re going.” And hopefully, it will be the right way and people would help you.
That’s the same anywhere. We would be in China and be given a menu with just symbols and look at it blankly and laugh. And then someone would say, can I help you? So there’s always someone who’s going to help you. And I think maybe we’ve been lucky, but also, I think it’s what you give across to other people as well.
If you’re open to talking to people and you want their help, then generally they’ll help you.
Joanna Penn: I totally agree.
Coming back to the train, obviously, you were backpacking, and it was a while ago, so it might have changed, but I do think there are some things for long train trips that might make things more comfortable. For example, earplugs are something that I think are important. You laugh there, so obviously that rings a bell!
Anything else that you should take on a long train journey?
Susi Holliday: Well, not specifically on this train journey, but the earplugs thing. My husband’s almost killed someone in China for snoring because we didn’t have any earplugs. We tried to make them out of toilet paper and it didn’t work. So definitely earplugs are a massive one.
Another one is those things that you can use to wrap all the way around your backpack and tie onto something in several places so that you’re covering all the pockets and all the possible ways to move the bag. Because these were things that I felt in the beginning.
I read a book on backpacking and another one on the Trans-Siberian and there are all these tips and you think, whatever. I don’t need that thing. But I bought them all anyway, and I had them all stuffed into little side pockets. And it wasn’t until we got onto certain trains that it was actually useful to be able to do that kind of thing with your bag and make sure that you felt secure. Because you might have the bag secured, but not all the pockets and people can just unzip them. So, little things like that.
I think another thing sounds stupid, but if you’re going to go a long-distance train, make sure you take your favorite snacks and drinks with you because even though you will be stopping off, you don’t always know what you’re going to get when and it’s useful just to have stuff like that. I get caught out going on the train to Edinburgh doing that.
Joanna Penn: Well, you have to pay five pounds for a bag of nuts!
Susi Holliday: Exactly. So, it’s just silly little things like that.
And also just small things, like if you do like a travel pillow or things like that, it is useful. In the cabins, you get quite a nice little duvet that they have in most of the sleeper cabins and you get a little pillow, but it’s not a very big pillow. So my tip for that was always to unpack a pile of clothes and make it into a pillow under my pillow, which is what I’d always do. If you can get an inflatable pillow, then that would totally save that trouble.
Joanna Penn: It’s funny, isn’t it? Because at the end of the day, traveling’s awesome, but if you’re not sleeping and you’re not eating, you’ll be pretty miserable. So you do need these practicalities. Getting to the toilet, of course, that’s the other one.
You do have to think about these practicalities wherever you are, to be honest.
Susi Holliday: You do. I think going on a train journey for more than one night where there might not necessarily be showers is the same as going to a festival. So it’s all the things that you would take to that. If you take wet wipes and things like that, just so that you can clean yourself if you can or whatever. Those small things might help you.
To be fair, by the end of three or four days on a train you’re probably going to smell. It doesn’t matter. Everyone’s going to smell. So it’s fine. But you might feel better if you’ve got a few little home comforts.
Joanna Penn: Brilliant. So I’m interested, because of course, you’re Scottish. Hopefully, people can hear that in your accent, and you live in London. And one of the characters in the book talks about being homesick.
What is home for you? Because I think of you as Scottish but I know you live in London, but I always think of you as a Scottish author.
What is home for you, especially in this political era of potential Scottish independence?
Susi Holliday: Well, it’s kind of both. I am definitely still Scottish, and I am there an awful lot. I spend probably at least a third of the year there, spread out over time. So that’s probably why you think I’m there. Because I’m there a long time.
I moved to London for work, and I’ve stayed in London or thereabouts for years, but I’ve moved around a lot. I’m a bit of a nomad. I think maybe that’s why I quite liked the Mongolian nomads, even though I didn’t like their weird tea, but I liked their idea that they could be somewhere for little while and just move on somewhere else. I quite like that.
The Scottish independence thing; I do hope that it won’t actually affect how I live, and the way I choose to live. That is, where I want to live and what I want to do because I don’t actually really want Scottish independence in the same way as I don’t want Brexit.
I just think we’re all part of a big country and, and why keep making things smaller? I just don’t think it is a helpful thing to do. I like the fact that people can move around and do what they want. And I hope that that remains to be something that people like me can and people who actually live elsewhere.
Joanna Penn: I’m of a similar mind and I wonder if traveling a lot makes us like this in that we might have more in common with people in other countries who travel a lot as well than we might with people in our own country who don’t travel.
Susi Holliday: I definitely think that. I’ve moved a lot within the UK and worked abroad and various places and I always felt that people were not judging me, but there were like, why don’t you just settle down now? I’ve always thought, but why?
Who says that I have to do that? I’m not trying to deliberately be a nonconformist in any way. I’m not that kind of person, but I just think, who says you have to just settle down? My ideal would be to be able to live in lots of places. And because of the work that I do now, I work from home, so I’m not tied to anything. I like that.
I think that people who’ve never done it won’t understand it. And that’s also fine, because I think if I’d never done it then I would also not understand it. If that makes sense.
Joanna Penn: I think people listening to this show understand it. Or at least some people who are at home and are dreaming of traveling in their minds. Even if they can’t physically travel, maybe money or health or kids or whatever. We’re doing it for them in a way.
Obviously, we’ve got your fantastic book, Violet.
What are a couple of other books that you would recommend about the Trans-Siberian Express or about Russia or anywhere else that you went?
Susi Holliday: The thing is nothing really specific. We had to pack books very carefully on that trip because, if you take a backpack, there’s not a lot you can take with you books-wise. So the main books were things like, there is a Lonely Planet guide, a Trans-Siberian railway, which I’m sure has been updated since the one that I had.
It’s really good because it covers all the countries and other practicalities and how to buy tickets and everything you need to know really. So I mean that was important.
And then we also used Lonely Planets for China, Russia, and Germany. So Lonely Planet is the go-to. I sound like I’m sponsoring them.
They’re just really useful. Or Rough Guides. So those two I think are both interchangeably good. They have slightly different attitudes towards things.
I didn’t read any fiction set in any of these places where I went, which I kind of wish I had. I did read some Indian stuff before we went to India, and then when I was in Russia, I thought, I wish I’d read something now that was set here and I hadn’t. Actually you asking me that question has made me think I need to go and read some.
Joanna Penn: It’s so funny because of course there’s lots of fiction set in Russia, but it’s more like which period? Because there’s historical fiction, there’s the modern crime fiction about Russia, oligarchs and stuff like that. But it almost feels like you were there at a period when it wasn’t so extreme.
The wealth wasn’t so extreme back in 2006, whereas now it feels like there’s some extreme wealth and then there’s obviously still some poverty.
Susi Holliday: I think that that was how it was then and it might not have been quite so obvious to people outside the country, but it certainly seemed like that. And there were a lot of problems still with fighting and things.
One of the weirdest things was places like McDonald’s have body security scanners. It was stuff to do with the Chechnya crisis and things. There had been various bombs and stuff like that, that they target in places like that.
So these are things that you probably didn’t really hear about, or one of those things on the world news is covered very briefly, but actually, when you’re there, it was still quite a thing that could happen. So a bit like terrorist threats anywhere, that’s what was going on back then.
Little things like that I thought were unexpected. I think that the kind of people you see around the streets were definitely not rich. It might be different now, but there was a very big culture of people just kind of sitting around drinking.
And there were lots and lots of kiosks just selling alcohol. And it seemed to be very commonplace for people just to sit on benches. And I’m talking about anyone from young girls and young boys to old ladies and old men. And I don’t mean tramps. I mean genuine people who just be sitting there with vodka.
You just think, how does anyone actually get anything done in this place? Maybe it’s different now. I don’t know. It’s weird. Our culture seems to be about health and alcohol awareness and all these kinds of things. But, what do you do in the country that makes the drink where you are?
Joanna Penn: Talking about generations, we are both Gen X, I think.
Susi Holliday: Yes.
Joanna Penn: Our generation hasn’t learned yet, but we’re heading towards the age when we have to learn! Did you sample any of the vodka? That does seem something one should drink.
You mentioned the horrible tea, but were there any good or drink experiences?
Susi Holliday: To be honest nothing really stands out. Vodka’s vodka, I don’t care what anyone says about what kind it is. It all tastes the same. And if you put something in it, then it doesn’t taste of anything. That’s just a fact.
We actually had some quite good beers in different countries. One of the things we do always have whenever we go somewhere different is look for their local kind of lager or beer and have those, because I think that’s always a good way to see what people are like, how strong their lager is.
Unfortunately, the Trans-Siberian is definitely not a culinary trip. Even when we were at one point in the first-class carriage being served food, it was still very 1970s. I’d actually like someone to go on it now and tell me if this is still the same or if they’ve actually upgraded their food options.
Joanna Penn: I feel like trips like that almost keep things the same because it’s a historical trip and people want to experience it as it once would have been. So let’s just call it an adventure rather than a gourmet trip!
Susi Holliday: Definitely. There are plenty of other places to get gourmet foods so you can’t have that on every trip.
Joanna Penn: I think is part of what makes it an adventure. Again, as you said, get outside your comfort zone.
Final question, and we’ve touched on this a bit, but what does travel mean to you? In an era where they’re telling us we have to fly less and maybe we have to shrink our worlds a bit.
What does travel mean to you and how does it help your writing?
Susi Holliday: I just think it’s that thing I said about the freedom and just being able to do something different and be outside your comfort zone.
I’m still working on another day job as well as writing, so I’m busy at my desk most of the day. And so I live for traveling and being in different places and experiencing different places. And it doesn’t matter where they are, they could be places within my own country or far away or not far away too. It’s just something that’s out of the ordinary. I think that’s the thing.
I always get sparked for ideas by different settings or people that I see or things that happen. It’s just broadening your mind. I do find that if I’m very busy and I haven’t left the house much, because I’ve been working a lot, then I shrink into myself a little bit, and I think my mind shrinks a little bit as well.
The more that I can move around and see different things, the more I’ll keep expanding my brain. That sounds very hippie-ish, but you know what I mean.
Joanna Penn: I totally agree. Expanding your mind and expanding your life because you are expanding your horizons.
Susi Holliday: Yes.
Joanna Penn: Fantastic. Where can people find you and your books online?
Susi Holliday: You can go my website, which is SJIHolliday.com. Or you can go on Amazon where all my books are on Amazon, various publishers, but they’re all on Amazon.
Violet is the one that we’ve been talking about, which is a big travel one, but all my previous ones are all very different, kind of reflecting my different phases of life, I suppose.
Joanna Penn: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Susi. That was great.
Susi Holliday: Thanks very much. Really enjoyed it.
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I’ve travelled a lot in Russia and the ex-Soviet republics at various times for work & the alcohol culture is quite scary (even for a Brit). A good friend of mine is a Russian lady living in Austria and of course when we meet we also talk about our parents (mine are close to 80, hers just turned 70). Both fathers (1 in U.K. , the other in rural Russia) are struggling with the loss of friends but Oleg is literally (at 70😱) the only one still alive of his school class or military intake. Obviously not all vodka related but a good number…
Dear Joanna, thank you so much for a great interview Susi. It was a useful and helpful content for each person who studies English, like myself too. I moved on to this podcast from your other podcast series. You likely know what I’m talking about. I’m going to follow your every movement on both of them. Have a good one, all the best.