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Christie’s travels on the Orient Express

3rd October 2017

“All my life I had wanted to go on the Orient Express. When I had travelled to France or Spain or Italy, the Orient Express had often been standing at Calais and I had longed to climb up into it.” Agatha Christie, An Autobiography.

Agatha Christie was no stranger to adventure, having travelled around the world on The Grand Tour with her first husband Archie Christie in 1922, visiting South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Canada. Six years later Agatha went in search of a new adventure and booked a trip to the West Indies and Jamaica in search of the sunshine, following the death of her beloved mother and her divorce from Archie.

Two days prior to her departure Christie was dining with friends in London. She was sat next to a naval officer, Commander Howe, who was telling her about his travels to the enchanting city of Baghdad. Christie’s interest in visiting Iraq grew as she heard more about Howe’s travels, and when she discovered that she could travel there on the Orient Express, her mind was made up. The next day she rushed to Cook’s travel agent to cancel her tickets to the West Indies, and instead booked tickets for a journey on the Simplon-Orient Express which would see her go to Istanbul; from Istanbul to Damascus, and from Damascus to Baghdad, with the intention of visiting an archaeological site in UR, Syria too. Carlo, Christie’s secretary, was concerned about Christie travelling to the Middle East on her own, but in response to Carlo’s concerns Christie replied, ‘One must do things by oneself sometimes…Either I cling to everything that’s safe and that I know, or else I develop more initiative, do things on my own.’

With that mentality in mind, five days later Christie started out on the Orient Express and a new chapter of her life began. Described by Christie as ‘the train of my dreams’, Christie boarded the Orient Express and settled into her wagon lit compartment. In An Autobiography, she recalls the journey being everything that she had dreamed of, describing her ‘fascination of looking out on an entirely different world.’ On this first journey aboard the Orient Express Christie travelled past the mountain gorges and picturesque wagons of Yugoslavia and The Balkans, alongside the Sea of Marmara in Turkey, and stopped at the Cilician Gates to watch the sunset. She continued her journey arriving in Baghdad, later travelling to UR, where she was to meet her second husband, Max Mallowan.

Christie became a regular visitor on the Orient Express, even taking her typewriter with her when she went on trips with Max, or when she went to visit Max on archaeology sites in Iraq and Syria. It was on one of these trips that an incident occurred, which acted as part of her inspiration for the plot of Murder on the Orient Express. It was in 1931 and Christie was travelling alone on the Orient Express when the train came to a halt in the middle of the night as the line had flooded due to a violent thunder storm. The journey was documented in a letter that she sent max which started, ‘My darling, what a journey! Started out from Istanbul in a violent thunder storm. We went very slowly during the night and about 3 AM stopped altogether.’  The storm turned to snow, and after a few attempts, the train resumed its route and Christie arrived at her destination just two days late. Not only was the situation used for inspiration, but a few of the other travellers on the train inspired some of the characters in Murder on the Orient Express – including that of Mrs Hubbard. A similar previous incident also acted as inspiration for the murder mystery, when in 1929 the Orient Express got stuck in the snow at least 80km from Istanbul.

In Max Mallowan’s memoirs, he recalls another incident concerning Agatha Christie and the Orient Express, remarking that, “It was luck that she lived to write the book.” He described Christie standing on the platform at Calais when she slipped on the ice and fell underneath the train! Fortunately, a porter was nearby to pull her up from the track before the Orient Express started moving again.

Agatha Christie took many more trips on the Orient Express, referring to is as ‘undoubtedly my favourite train.’

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Discover Murder on the Orient Express - the story inspired by her travels on the train.