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Around the World by Train with Tony Robinson: USA

8 April 2019

He's relaxed in chic Parisian cafes, hurtled through the frenzied streets of India by tuk-tuk, marvelled at secluded beaches in Thailand, travelled on the world's steepest railway in Australia and uncovered a colourful sub-culture in Tokyo. And now Tony Robinson's whirlwind trip around the world comes to an end. He's rounding off his adventures in the grand old USA, a country of diverse contrasts where the bright lights and vibrancy of its cities hustle for attention with the endless beauty of some of its breathtaking natural landscapes.

Tony's journey begins in San Francisco, California, a city that Tony's teenage self was particularly drawn to. "In 1967, I was a 21-year old hippy living in Birmingham." he reminisces, "But the epicentre of my world was right here in San Francisco." Reflecting upon this era, one of long hair, tie-dye and "flower-power", Tony is interested in the shift in the city in recent years. Today, San Francisco is the tech capital of the world, with enormous, market-leading corporations based here, including Tesla, Google, Facebook and Apple. It's also home to innovative start-ups, which Tony discovers first-hand as he grabs a burger in a local cafe. Hailed as 'the freshest burger you can get', it's created by a bizarre burger-making robot, and Tony stands back in awe as his food makes its way along the robotic production line before he tucks in.

Tony continues with a journey along one of the United States' longest train routes, on board the California Zephyr. Since its inception in 1949, this train has been iconic. Travelling between San Francisco and Chicago, it was the first transcontinental train to sacrifice speed for scenery, and the trademark carriages, with glass-domed windows that allow for 360-degree views, mean its passengers can take in the landscapes in style.

"I love it when you get off a train and you're immediately confronted with the unexpected" Tony tells us. He's stopped off in Sacramento and is marvelling at the sense of history here. Parts of the old city appear almost unchanged since the middle of the 19th century, "when it was a rich, powerful and confident city." Like many places in the area, Sacramento was a product of the 19th century California Gold Rush and was incredibly prosperous. But, in the early 1860s, a terrible flood hit, resulting in a gargantuan lake that threatened to completely decimate the city - and it would have, had the city fathers not decided to raise the whole thing up, over ten feet, to protect it in the future. Sacramento's importance grew and grew, and it is now the state capital of California.

Tony doesn't stick around long "Denver is still 1000 miles down the line, and I want to relax and watch the beautiful scenery", he says. Indeed, the scenery is simply stunning; verdant forests, rushing rivers, and the dramatic Rocky Mountains - America's longest mountain range, which runs from Canada to New Mexico. Deciding that his journey across America wouldn't be complete without meeting some cowboys, Tony visits a dude ranch, where he dons traditional chaps and heads into the great American wilderness on a horse named Betsy. Soaking up the scenic mountain vistas, he reminisces over the Hollywood westerns he grew up with, which glamorised this way of life. We learn that the railways played a huge part in the growth of ranches like this - back in the day, it was the easiest way for people to access these remote places, and today the eastbound California Zephyr stops close to here once a day.

Three and a half hours later, the California Zephyr arrives in the state capital, Denver. Tony visits the Colorado State Fair, where people go to "live and breathe all things wild west." He watches a rodeo, where some of the county's finest professionals showcase their cowboy skills and heritage, before heading to another, slightly more unusual event - a junior hog show. Tony meets Roger, a prize pig, who is about to be paraded in a ring and judged on his looks and temperament before being sold to the highest bidder. It's serious business, and Tony learns that the pigs can sell for up to £25,000, a feat unfortunately not achieved by Roger who is deemed to be too uncoordinated and too fat - unsurprising, as Tony was told earlier that his favourites foods include marshmallows and cookies!

Tony's next stop is New Orleans, and he's instantly surprised by how different it feels from any other US city he's visited so far. He walks straight into a 'Second Line Parade' - a jovial, colourful march which celebrates New Orleans' African culture and heritage. "This isn't for anything," says Tony, perplexed, "this is just what people do on a Sunday!" His fun is cut short by a bout of the torrential rain that is typical of this part of the country. Flash storms are common, as evidenced by the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina. The destruction caused by the hurricane and the subsequent floods, as well as the political impact, was devastating, and Tony speaks to locals who praise the incredible strength and spirit of the community in the aftermath. Later, he visits a local cafe to sample a po'boy sandwich - a local speciality which contains roast beef and fried shrimp. By chance, he realises that the lady sitting next to him is LaToya Cantrell, who in 2017 became the first female Mayor of New Orleans. It's a welcome coincidence, and she and Tony enjoy a brief chat about representation in the local community - something the Mayor feels strongly about it.

After a quick cruise through the Louisiana wetlands, where he has a fascinating and somewhat terrifying interaction with local alligators, who are hand-fed by his unfaltering guide, Tony continues to his final destination - New York City. He arrives at Grand Central Station, and grand it most certainly is. Opened in 1913, this is the biggest railway station in the world, with three-quarters of a million people passing through its doors each day. The interior epitomises New York in the early 1900s, and Tony is blown away by its grandeur. But, he wants to find out more about the real New York, the areas that tourists don't often visit, so he hops on the 7 train which links Manhattan with New York's largest borough - Queens. Tony is interested in the representation of Queens, an area he says people often overlook. Queens is a cultural melting pot and, according to a local, the most diverse borough in the world - there are 170 languages spoken here and around 50% of its residents were born in another country, creating a diverse and fascinating culture. "You know," says Tony, "it's extraordinary. I've spent months going around the world in trains, seeing all these different kinds of faces. I might as well have saved myself the trouble. If I'd stayed in Queens, I'd have seen exactly the same variety of people!"

There's another thing that Queens is famous for - it's the birthplace of the current president, though, as Tony tells us, "these days he's got a place in the middle of Manhattan." Dryly reminding us that this isn't a political programme, Tony allows himself a brief rant about the architecture of Trump Tower, an enormous skyscraper which he deems "the foulest building in the whole of Manhattan" before moving on.

Later, in Times Square, the bustling epicentre of the city, Tony speaks to a local about the mind-blowing changes the area has gone through over the years. Times Square used to be run down but is now a world-famous tourist hotspot, renowned for its neon-lit billboards, incredible theatres and superb shopping and dining. "That's the thing about New York", says Tony. "It's a city of aspiration." After heading to the bottom of the island to view lady liberty herself, Tony's time in America, and indeed his trip around the world, comes to an end, and he pauses to reflect upon his experiences. "What an adventure it's been. I've travelled tens of thousands of miles; from inhospitable landscapes to total flipping luxury. I've been on some of the world's greatest railways, from bullet trains in Japan to the scenic routes in India. I've seen incredible landscapes and met some wonderful people. And everywhere, I've been greeted with warmth, kindness and hospitality. One thing I know for sure - if I was asked to do it all again, I'd jump at the chance."