The tradition of the Grand Tour - where affluent young gentlemen would travel through Europe in pursuit of artistic culture to enhance their education, sometimes for as long as two years - is the equivalent of today's Gap year. By 1840, the advent of mass transport, including trains and steamships, enabled the growing middle classes to experience the variety of neighbouring lifestyles. It was during this period that new associated industries emerged, some of which continue to operate today. Tour agencies and shipping lines may have declined, but civilised travelling remains a priority, and a company like Louis Vuitton has built a global business on developing that concept.
And so when they proposed a ten-day rail journey on the Trans-Siberian route, there was little hesitation in deciding. I hadn't anticipated a challenging trip through landscapes of magnificent desolation, accompanied by monotonous food and inadequate bathing facilities - the promise of an adventure would overcome any such inconveniences. And provide a wealth of stories to relate for several months afterwards.
Vuitton, of course, has enabled travellers to journey in style and comfort since 1907, when their products accompanied the Peking to Paris motor racers over a 15,000km course. In 1931 the Citroën Yellow Cruise rally retraced explorer Marco Polo's Silk Road trail along a 30,000km expedition from Beirut to Peking. Forty men in 12 vehicles conquered extreme conditions and scaled the Himalayan Pass. They carried Vuitton. And it wasn't just their clothing that was protected by LV luggage. Travel beds, chairs, portable lavatories and tool trunks were all integral to a journey that took ten arduous months.
On the company's YouTube channel, there is a "Making Of" their visual campaign for the current autumn/winter 2012 collection. Artistic director Marc Jacobs explains, "We wanted to maintain the romantic journey that the collection represents. The opulence and the glamour of travel." The film comprises a compelling series of moving images and stills shot by master lensman Steven Meisel, set to Shigeru Umebayashi's evocative soundtrack to 2046, a film that also happens to involve a train journey. In less than two minutes, the video places today's contemporary Louis Vuitton within a rich historical heritage.
A TRAILER OF THE SELBY'S JOURNEY
The ad campaign replicates the fashion show that took place in the Louvre in March this year. Eschewing the standard format of a staged catwalk, Vuitton trumped Paris Fashion Week by delivering its show via a glistening locomotive train that pulled into the Cour Carrée courtyard.
This was not a reconditioned train from the Golden Age of travel but a made-to-order steam engine and full-length carriage carrying 48 models, stylists, dressers, and hair and make-up teams.
This is the Vuitton way. Not so much to replicate a halcyon past, but to recreate and exceed expectations in defining what is luxury today. And, like most luxury French brands with a rich heritage, Louis Vuitton enjoys telling fascinating stories. In this case, it is not simply that an extravagant fashion show formed the blueprint for the seasonal campaign. This particular story involved a lengthy journey, spanning two vast continents to travel from Paris to Shanghai, and culminated with the launch of its newest Maison in China on 19th July.
Equipped with the iconic Keepall 55 travel bag, I was invited on a one-to-one class in the Art of Packing at Vuitton's New Bond Street store. This is complimentary with any luggage purchase and full of smart tips on how to maximise bag space. Essential if you are keen to minimise on travel weight and planning to survive for a week or more. At last, a viable solution on how to pack a fortnight's worth of clothes, accessories and assorted paraphernalia into a bag that easily fits the overhead compartment. And also what to pack: a tailored jacket that won't crease - once you know how to fold it - two pairs of trousers, shirts, shoes, rolled up t-shirts and knitwear, plus the washbag, and you're good to go.
SHARE THE JOURNEY WITH WRITER PAUL DAVIES
My travel schedule coincides with that of key members of Vuitton's Visual Creative department, the team responsible for everything from store displays to show concepts and store launches. From Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, we are part of an entourage of 12 who originally started out in Paris three days earlier, and who are going all the way through to Shanghai - a film crew, production team and artist-photographer Todd Selby, whose images are exclusive to this feature. The rumour that the train company has attached an additional carriage - a presidential carriage, no less - to accommodate the party is confirmed by the producer of this trip, Laura Holmes.
The luggage alone is a visual feast as we load everything on to carriage 10, train 4, at Yaroslavsky station on an unusually humid Moscow evening in May. We have barely settled into our SV (premium class) compartments before unusual activity begins. Todd Selby is seen frantically cleaning the exterior of his window, as are the film crew. Sheets of local newspaper and window cleaner spray is no match for filthy glass panes that regularly traverse two giant continents. The solution arrives in the huge protective cloths that wrap each new Vuitton bag. Sacrilege to some to use them in this way, but excitement is high as the train pulls out on schedule at 9.35pm.
While the others have travelled on the train from Paris several days earlier, the Trans-Siberian section of this journey starts from Moscow. And our carriage, not as modern as on earlier legs of the adventure, is redolent with authenticity. This is important.
Travel. There are a million phrases and mottos to accompany the experience. Broadens the mind. Good for the soul. Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes declares, "The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot…"
Travelling on a train or cruise liner represents an investment. Not so much with time, but in the indulgent experience. It is the anti-thesis of modern day travel, with its singular focus on getting from A to B in the shortest possible time. On an aircraft, passengers share a cabin for anything up to 22 hours with minimal conversation that rarely veers away from polite small talk. They skip over continents, barely noticing the huge distances covered. This is mechanical advancement in the service of convenience. The train is very different. The sense of escapade is palpable amongst its travellers. And socialising is the currency that takes you through the journey.
By lunchtime we are approaching the Ural mountain range. A giant map has been pinned to the carriage wall and our route marked in thick black ink.
As the train picks up speed, time zones alter. That, plus being so far north means sunset doesn't begin until 10.30pm. Russia has ten time zones and our route involves adding seven hours then losing two, depending on our latitude at the time.
Gazing out of the window becomes hypnotically satisfying. Like being drawn into the dancing flames of a wood fire. There are endless forests of silver birch and pine trees. Thinking that six days on a train would be ideal to tackle Slavoj Žižek's Living in the End Times was folly. The constant rhythm of the train tracks becomes second nature now. We barely notice it.
The games have begun, though.
Todd Selby leads the way, demonstrating a series of callisthenic exercises that keep him agile throughout his busy travel schedule. Ideal for hotel rooms and train compartments. Others follow and then break off to try their own routines. One passenger manages a headstand just as the train pulls out of Balezino station.
By 9pm, near Perm, we are at the foothills of the Urals, approaching Siberia. Four hours later, we are debating whether to purchase the under-the-counter Cognac that's just been offered to us in the snack shop in Ykaterinburg station.
Moscow time plus three hours. The train has passed through the Urals and on to the Western Siberian Plains. Tyumen is the heart of the country's oil and gas industries although it's still forests everywhere we look.
After several days of dining in the restaurant carriage, the lack of variety has the entourage looking for alternatives. There are only so many variations on salmon, dill and boiled beef we can take. Thankfully, Laura Holmes has anticipated this and provided an unlimited supply of health snacks, tea bags and pot noodles that can be heated up in our samovar. The Japanese noodles even come with a crispy tempura topping. Delicious.
At Omsk, our filming activity generates interest from the locals waiting on the adjacent platform. Two girls, in particular, enjoy the flirtation. And then, just as their carriage departs, another passenger in the following car defiantly holds her middle finger up at us. Hello, international relations.
We are huddled in our winter coats against the Siberian breeze. The locals are all in T-shirts.
Time has become irrelevant now. As in, "which day is it?" With no working week to gauge any chronological progression, no weekend to look forward to, the actual day or hour no longer matters.
Last night has suddenly shifted into the early hours of pre-dawn as the increasing time difference means that, even at midnight in Moscow - 9pm in London - it is 4am in Mariinsk. A benign jet lag begins to kick in. Regular sleep is like a distant memory.
So we occupy the dining carriage and brake out the Siberian vodka. The Russian waitresses - whom we later discover sleep on planks in the restaurant carriage - give up trying to persuade us that they need their rest.
At Iilanskya station, we pile out and inspect the variety of foods sold on the platform by the babushkas. Smoked Omul fish, preserved cucumbers, sausages and bread. Meat-filled perogi are an instant success for those nursing hangovers. The temperature is warmer and Asiatic facial features are more evident amongst the locals.
Irkutsk was once dubbed the "Paris of Siberia" and is adjacent to Lake Baikal, the world's oldest, dating back some 25 million years.
As dawn breaks, we are mesmerised by the clusters of modest Siberian homes flanking each side of the rail track. The forest landscape continues, although it is reassuring to see water as the track follows the contours of the lake before breaking off towards Slyudyanka.
By lunchtime we are in Ulan-Ude, "the Sunshine state" as a station representative proudly explains during the 30-minute stopover.
The track changes gauge as we swing south from the original Trans-Siberian route towards Vladivostok and on to the Trans-Mongolian line, and new wheels are fitted. The now-familiar scenery of silver birch and pine has disappeared as we approach the Gobi desert. In another four hours, we will reach Naushki, the final stop before the Mongolian border.
Once there, it is goodbye to Tania, Irina and Rosa, the dining room ladies. The Russian restaurant carriage is replaced by a Mongolian one, and it is a veritable treat.
A three-hour stop opens up more conversations with newly boarded passengers. At 7.30pm, Todd Selby coordinates an impromptu group portrait. Cue a selection of Vuitton luggage artfully styled on the platform, just as the sun is beginning to set. Getting carried away, Selby directs a re-enactment of the Paris show, with men as the station porters and women as models walking the length of the train. It is a highlight of the trip, one watched with bemusement by local passengers.
The train departs soon after and stops for another two hours once past the Mongolian border at Sukhe-Bator. The uniformed female officer salutes each passenger as she requests their passport, and military personnel diligently search the compartments.
By the early dawn of my final day on the train, it is clear we are no longer in Siberia. The thick forestry has been replaced by vast open plains of arid land. The absence of any wildlife as we sped through those endless trees is now amply compensated for with the sight of wild horses roaming the Mongolian steppe. We marvel at birds in the clear blue sky and cameras zoom in to get close-ups of the gers (or yurts in Russian) that pepper the new landscape.
The sun no longer appears to rise, but instead tracks us horizontally - first following and then overtaking our train as it speeds towards the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
This is where myself and the Vuitton team get off. It is another day and a half to the end of the Trans-Mongolian route to Beijing, and we bid farewell to the rest of the entourage, who will pick up another train delivering them to Shanghai. For now, the promise of a hot shower and decent hotel room is uppermost in our minds.
6.30am, blazing sunshine and the city is steaming hot. With just one day to see the sights, we cram in as much as possible. The magnificent Sukhbaatar Square, near which Vuitton opened a store in 2009, is hosting a military recruitment and awards day. The State Department Store is a communist-era version of Harrods. And the vast Naran Tuul, or Black Market, is where you can purchase the Mongolian lifestyle, from custom-made boots to vintage curios. Emerging three hours later, we barely scratched the surface.
An experience such as travelling on the world's longest rail route resonates in many ways long after the train has pulled into its final destination. Two vast continents, three very different countries, four visas, ten days and a grand total of 11,575km from Paris to Beijing.
It took a few days to figure out what was missing once back in London. The steady clatter of the train that had provided a somnambulistic click-clack-track to my days of uninterrupted travel was absent. I had come to rely on the metronomic regularity as a temporary comfort zone.
The Selby isn't exaggerating when he insists, "That trip has changed me. It completely altered my perception of what it means to travel. Often, it's a downer - always packing, airport, hotel, the stress of constantly being on time. On the train, we really got to stretch out and enjoy the process a lot more."
Bypassing the convenience of modern travel to participate in a fascinating voyage of discovery. What could be more indulgent and rewarding? Louis Vuitton likes to promote the idea that, while they may be the host (and keep themselves discreetly out of the picture), ultimately, the experience should be one of self-discovery. It is an apt justification, then, that they refer to such moments as the Art of Travel.
SEE THE ROMANCE OF TRAVEL THROUGHOUT LOUIS VUITTON'S HISTORY