“I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it,” writes Paul Theroux in his introduction to The Great Railway Bazaar, one of the preeminent travel books of all time.
Well Paul, I often heard trains and imagined chewing gum stuck to seats, obnoxious conductors and hollow apologies for persistent delays. But that was when I considered trains purely as a mode of transport. Viewed by their primary function, train journeys can be infuriating. Why is it stopping at an empty station? Why are we waiting beside this tunnel?
But the classic travel mantra of ‘it’s not about the destination but the journey’ could not be better exemplified than by a multi-day train journey. On a train there is nothing to worry about.
You can’t get off, you can’t use your computer, your phone often doesn’t work… in fact, you can’t do much but gaze out of the window.
Impending boredom can be diminished by befriending strangers and getting drunk in the restaurant car. But the real treat is that view. Watching the landscape change slowly but decisively is the train’s greatest attraction.
Crossing continents, dissecting deserts, meandering through jungle, the train slices through nature in a truly unique way. So here is our guide to the great, long-distance train journeys of the world.
The Trans-Siberian: Moscow to Beijing
The daddy of all train journeys, it takes a full week for this train to cross Siberia and reach Vladivostok.
That’s 9,258 kilometres, and seven time zones. However, most travellers opt to veer south and cross Mongolia before finishing in Beijing – a mere six-day journey.
The landscape is featureless but changes every day, from forests to grassland to desert, with occasional stops at grey communist cities. At each Siberian monstrosity, an army of Babushkas – old Russian women – gather on the platform selling local delicacies like boiled potatoes in a plastic bag, raw, inedible fish and homemade vodka that guarantees permanent blindness.
It might not be the prettiest journey but the vodka costs €1 and the restaurant bar becomes a gathering of intrepid souls discovering how it feels to go so long without a shower.
Furthermore, Siberia’s beauty does not lie in one-off photos. Rumbling through such a harsh, inhospitable landscape for the best part of a week is probably the best way to experience the power of one of the world’s largest wildernesses.
The Shosholoza Meyl: Cape Town to Johannesburg
African train journeys don’t have the best reputation. Revolting carriages and stolen luggage feature highly in most preconceptions. But this 24-hour epic across South Africa is one of the best-value, long-distance journeys in the world.
A first-class trip costs less than €50 and comes with spacious two-berth cabins and fluffy blankets. Despite the restaurant cart only cooking up grisly meat and saturated carbs, this is a comfortable journey that showcases the breathtaking diversity of the country’s geography.
After leaving the coastal city, it curves slowly through the Table Mountain Chain before cutting across the country’s arid centre and offering a sunset that burns into the horizon.
Waking up the next morning on a plateau one kilometre above sea level, you’re treated to lush farmland, before the urban metropolis of Johannesburg takes you on a two-hour journey through South Africa’s rich and poor neighbourhoods.
The Reunification Express: Hanoi to Saigon
Jungles are spectacular, but you’re constantly annoyed by rampaging mosquitoes, overpowering humidity and sneaky leeches. This 36-hour journey goes the length of Vietnam, meandering through unforgettable jungle but in air-conditioned, insect-free comfort. The section between Hue and Danang is the most spectacular, snaking along verdant cliffs beside the South China Sea.
However, the true highlights are the glimpses of rural Vietnamese life. A gentle pace allows you to appreciate the innumerable villages, screaming children and bamboo huts beside the railway. Locals wave from between the trees as the mist descends on their kingdom, while there will always be a few eager passengers looking to talk you through it and practise their English.
The Rocky Mountaineer: Vancouver to Calgary
Converting what was a rarely used passenger route in 1990, private operator Rocky Mountaineer Vacations has created an inimitable travel experience. This luxury train shows off the splendour of the Canadian Rocky Mountains by using carriages with transparent panoramic dome ceilings, ensuring passengers can view and photograph the mountains on both sides of the track.
Aimed at the affluent market, this two-day journey will set you back the best part of €1,000, but complimentary wine and three-course dinners placate the wallet.
Vietnamese locals wave from between the trees as the mist descends on their kingdom
And when you’re winding around alpine lakes and passing canyons in a luxurious carriage, it’s more than worth it.
It’s particularly special (and cheaper) in winter, with a snow-covered landscape and a mountain pass that often rises above the clouds.
The Great IndianTrain Journey
No great train journey list would be complete without an epic Indian adventure. In Indian destinations tourists often complain that locals are trying to rip them off. But a train journey offers a chance to meet locals without a vested interest in your cash.
Locals will come from different carriages to ask how many girlfriends you have, or how you like their India – it’s always their India.
From decrepit hard benches to private cabins, there are various comfort options, but also opportunities to meet Indians from different parts of the social ladder.
Indian Railways is the world’s largest employer and the remarkable route network connects pretty much every town. While watching the sights of India fly past is an experience, it’s the sounds that are most memorable; the chai wallah moving through the train with boiling tea, the chatter of excitement at a platform and the occasional snake charmer looking for victims.
To truly experience the diversity of the country, try travelling from Mumbai to New Delhi through the Rajasthan desert, and then from New Delhi to West Bengal and its high-altitude tea plantations.
For more details and how to buy tickets for all of these train journeys, visit www.seat61.com.
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