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Meet Harry, the 4 Year-Old Doing UTC13

February 7th, 2013 by 6 Comments

Harry is four years old, nearly five. In those years, he’s never found a social group he feels comfortable in. Pretty much everything he does is one-on-one.

And here we are – Harry and I – contemplating Lisbon to Saigon.

4 year old harry is doing the train challenge


This journey has sort of been in the planning for many months. We’ve embraced train travel since one fateful evening back in May 2012, only a matter of weeks before Harry’s 4th birthday.

On that evening, I sat  with Harry in an unremarkable office and listened to an unremarkable man say the words I both longed for and dreaded in equal measure. ‘Yes, Mrs. Bower. Harry is on the spectrum’. Tears followed. Partly relief at finally knowing that this wasn’t in my head. Partly grief at finally knowing that this wasn’t in my head.

The grief surprised me, for this diagnosis was not a surprise though I now realise it’s a common phenomenon and rather necessary as a way to let go of the hopes and dreams that had been held for the child.

Two days later the letter arrived, confirming our meeting and going into more detail on the raft of assessments undertaken on Harry. Harry had a condition called High Functioning Autism.  There were pages and pages of notes, most of which were not new information for me, but one point stuck out. Harry’s IQ was somewhere in the range of 160 to 200… Now IQ tests are, as far as I can see, rather subjective, so let’s just settle on ‘damn high’. This changed everything.

Harry’s speech was still slow, it appeared he wouldn’t or couldn’t take direction or follow simple instructions, he struggled to remember names, was often destructive… It was easy to categorise him as ‘slow’. One friend actually said it to my face.

I am sure many more said it to themselves.

Now, we had something to work with.  Now, we understood why Harry struggled with certain situations and why his fascination and thirst for knowledge were not what you would expect from an average 4 year old. But, in those early days, grief still played a part, and we were not ready to share this information far and wide so we did the best thing for Harry and for us: Cancelled his birthday party and booked him on the Jacobite Express in Fort William instead. Travel to and from Fort William was by the Caledonian ScotRail sleeper train.  Harry had a ball!

 Jacobite Express in Fort William

Since that day, all holidays have been taken to accommodate Harry’s love of all things trains.

We completed LEJOG – by train (And I will be eternally grateful for the wonderful members at LEJOG association for welcoming our rather eccentric form of travel), we went to Soller in Majorca because it has a little wooden tram that runs to the coast and a little wooden train that runs to Palma. And, now, we are here.

We are heading to the USA later this summer to cross it by train, but first… we are looking at travelling from Lisbon to Saigon, by train, in under 30 days.

This trip is not without issues… It means leaving my three year old daughter in the care of my parents and it means taking Harry out of what little ‘normal’ routine he has… but these things can be organised.

Sometimes, you  just have to go with the adventure!



Karen Bower and her son Harry signed up to do the Ultimate Train Challenge today.


Train routes through Kazakhstan??!!

January 24th, 2013 by 0 Comments

When Michael, Jeannie and Nora embarked on the first Ultimate Train Challenge, they all took different routes out of Lisbon before converging in Moscow.  There, they hopped on the Trans-Mongolian Railway to ride across Russia, through Mongolia and into China. My guess is that if you are thinking about doing the UTC this time around, you probably have a similar route in mind.

trans-mongolian russian train
But why not mix things up a bit? You’re already traveling from Lisbon to Saigon (or vice versa) in 30 days or less – why not get off the beaten path and check out a country you may not otherwise ever think to visit?

Why not go through Kazakhstan?

Sure, you may only know about Kazakhstan from a certain movie, but it very well could be the highlight of your entire trip. In my experience, the people were ten times friendlier than those in Russia. Where I was met with stone cold glares and complete silence during much of my Trans-Siberian journey, it seemed like everyone was eager to chat with me as I traveled by train across Kazakhstan. From elderly men who shared their watermelon and rambled to me in Russian to why teenagers who wanted to practice their English, I found the Kazakh trains to be incredibly social.

You are also likely to eat really well while crossing Kazakhstan. At nearly every stop, I encountered scores of Kazakh babushkas hawking plastic bags of steaming  hot pelmeni and manty (dumplings), roasted potatoes, vegetables and even shashlik (grilled meat) – not to mention loaves and loaves of fresh bread and the most delicious melons I have ever had. I don’t know if there was a dining car on the train, but there certainly wasn’t a need for one.

Finally, you can make some interesting stops along the way. A quick stop that requires some advance planning is a visit to what is left of the Aral Sea – the site of one of the worst environmental disasters ever. Trains usually arrive at 2:30 a.m., so you’ll want to arrange for a homestay (or a room at the one grungy hotel in town) to take a nap and grab a shower before taking an excursion to the sea and the nearby “ship cemetery.” These are best arranged through a tour company and last just a few hours, so you can easily be back to catch an evening train out of town. If you have a couple days to spare, stop at Turkestan to explore nearby remnants of the Silk Road or stretch your legs strolling through the tree-lined streets of the former capital, Almaty or hiking in the mountains surrounding the city.

So how to do it?

For starters, you will need a visa – but for most Westerners, it should be fairly straightforward, without the need for a letter of invitation (rules can change often, so double check). I would recommend taking the train from Moscow to Samara, Russia and from there, continue into Kazakhstan via Kandyagash and onto the former capital, Almaty (possibly stopping along the way). From there, book a train to Urumqi in western China.
Note that trains in Kazakhstan can fill up a week or more in advance, so you’ll want to purchase tickets ahead of time, especially if you plan to stop. The good news is you can buy tickets online at and collect them at the train station in Kazakhstan. The bad news? The website is entirely in Kazakh or Russian. But, with the help of Google Translate, it is entirely do-able.

Good luck!


katie aune train travelerBio: Katie Aune is a former attorney who quit her job in higher ed fundraising to travel and volunteer throughout all 15 countries of the former Soviet Union.  She recently returned to her adopted hometown of Chicago after a thirteen month career break that included running a marathon in Estonia, traveling the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, teaching English in Russia and Tajikistan, volunteering with the national tourism board of Armenia, living with local families in Azerbaijan, and trying her best to speak Russian on a daily basis. You can read about her travels on or follow on her on Twitter as @katieaune.