"Not all those who wander are lost."
So says a line in a letter from the wizard Gandalf to Frodo Baggins in the first book of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" fantasy trilogy. The implication is that every journey — no matter how strange it may seem to some people — has meaning.
For me, the decision to travel by train all the way across Europe, from Istanbul to London, was not because I was setting out to destroy a magic ring; rather, I was beginning a new chapter in my life — leaving my job and nice apartment near the canopy of Dubai's glittering forest of skyscrapers for a new role with Insider in London.
In decades past, trains were the quickest way to get across Europe. But that was a long time ago — intercontinental rail journeys haven't been hugely popular since airplane travel went more mainstream.
And yet, taking the train — or in this case, several trains — was precisely what I wanted to do.
Not only did it turn into every bit the adventure I hoped it would be (and then some), but it was also, I found, less expensive than some airline tickets. Here's what the once-in-a-lifetime journey was like — and how you can do it, too.
I'd always been fascinated by trains, old things, and adventure stories. So it only made sense to travel along much of the original route of the Orient Express.
However, I used a modern tool to plan my trip: the internet.
I was able to book most trains and hotels in advance online — but not all of them.
The journey began with a flight from Dubai to Istanbul that cost more than all my train tickets combined.
Not only did I retrace much of the route of the Orient Express, I stayed at many of the same hotels throughout my journey, starting in Istanbul.
I quickly fell in love with Istanbul ...
... But adventure was calling.
After a couple days in Istanbul, I boarded my first train. It was far more luxurious than I was expecting — especially since it cost under $40.
I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria just after dawn. I was now knee-deep in adventure.
To save money on food throughout my trip, I stocked up on supplies from hotel breakfast buffets. The Sofia Hotel Balkan was great for that.
Next up was a train from Sofia to Belgrade, Serbia.
It was eye-opening to see how different Eastern and Western Europe remain.
As I was moving for a new job, I carried all my life's possessions with me ...
... But there was no need to worry about being robbed.
Some of the trains were very empty, especially the leg from Sofia to Belgrade. I was surprised, since the ticket cost only $23.
Though I enjoyed the tradition of the train, I was glad some of them had modern conveniences like plugs for phone chargers.
Arriving late at night in Belgrade, my biggest fear was that I wouldn't have time to buy my next ticket. I needn't have worried, thanks to the staff at Hotel Moskva.
I enjoyed Belgrade so much, I wanted to stay longer ...
... But I had another train to catch.
Entering Croatia from Serbia, I could already see the changes from Eastern to Central Europe.
In the Croatian capital of Zagreb, I spent the night at the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel, the fanciest one I stayed at during the entire trip.
It was after Zagreb that the scenery really began to change. Then again, we were entering the Alps.
The train from Zagreb was also mostly empty. Again I was surprised — not only because of the scenery, but because the $132 ticket seemed like good value.
As we went deeper into the Alps the scenery became magical — and again made me think how I wouldn't be able to appreciate it in the same way had I flown.
It was very cold — at least outside. The trains were nice and warm.
I also met some fascinating people on the trains.
As an oppressive fog enshrouded us, things became slightly eerie. It felt like being in a real-life gothic novel.
I spent three days in the Alps in Liechtenstein, one of the world's least-visited countries. I was tempted to stay longer.
High up in the mountains, staying in Liechtenstein felt like taking a break from the world — and my journey.
But after eight days, it was finally time to reach London. The last day would begin in Liechtenstein and end surrounded by skyscrapers near Canary Wharf.
To get to London, I first took a train from Liechtenstein to Buchs in neighboring Switzerland ...
... Then from Buchs to Sargans ...
... Then Sargans to Zurich ...
... Followed by a high-speed train from Zurich to Paris.
Arriving in Paris felt like returning to reality.
I finally took the Eurostar from Paris to London underneath the English Channel.
It was hard to imagine the journey was nearing its end.
Disembarking for the last time, the bright lights of the big city were dazzling after several days surrounded by fog and farmland.
I was glad to be in London, but sad the journey — from the warm Arabian Desert to chilly England — had come to an end.
Train tickets for the journey cost under $500 in total, and I could have saved even more money by staying in less expensive hotels.
For a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I thought the price was more than worth it.
Within days, I was already thinking of where to take a train next.