I think there’s something a touch romantic and ever so relaxing about rail journeys. Gliding serenely through mountains, lakes, deserts and cities offers the voyeur in all of us a momentary glimpse into passing worlds. By train, you have plenty of time to quietly observe, wonder and imagine as you journey.
So how about building some great rail journeys into your trip? Here are a few ideas routes you could travel as part of a flight itinerary with surface sectors like this one:
Crossing Russia by train is a once-in-a-life-time adventure and there are 3 different routes to consider. You can take the Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Vladivostok; the Trans-Manchurian train from Moscow to Beijing via Harbin or the Trans-Mongolian train from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia – as Sara has blogged.
The Trans-Siberian train is the longest railway in the world, taking you across Russia or into China via Mongolia through the Siberian Steppe, the Ural Mountains and beside Lake Baikal. Taking the route through Mongolia involves lifting the train off the tracks and changing gauge which is quite an experience - and once you arrive, you could add on a homestay in a traditional yurt! Take the Manchurian route in January and you could visit the striking ice sculptures at the Harbin ice festival.
Journey time: min 7 days – allow 12-21 days to hop off the train and explore
Tip: Although this ticket includes flights between Beijing and Hanoi, you could actually take trains all the way from Beijing, through Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, all the way to Singapore.
Although many visitors to Vietnam fly between the north and south, the comfortable, air-conditioned trains make for a much more scenic option. Between Hanoi - Hué - Danang - Nha Trang and Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, the stretch between Hue and Danang is considered the most scenic. You’ll pass terraced slopes of rice paddies and farms ploughing with water buffalo as well as villages and cities. Life on board can be an insightful glimpse into Vietnamese life too! It’s easy to book train tickets one you’re in Vietnam, or you can join a group tours that includes the train tickets.
Journey time: 2 days (45 hours). Allow 7-10 days to hop off the train to check out Hue, Hoi An (30km from Da Nang), and Nha Trang.
As far as luxury train experiences go, Belmond’s Eastern & Oriental Express is near the top of the list. They operate 9 routes in total, the most popular of which is between Singapore and Bangkok; the route Laura took for her honeymoon. Prepare for sheer luxury including your own cabin with en suite bathroom and beds that convert into sofas during the day so you can relax in your own private space.
Leaving Bangkok, you’ll head north towards Kanchanaburi. When you wake, there’s time for a guided tour to the Bridge over the River Kwai, before re-joining the train for lunch and dinner. The next morning, you’ll find yourself in Kuala Kangsar, Malaysia and after breakfast in bed, you can head out for a tour of the Grand Mosque. After live music and your final dinner on board, go to sleep and awaken in Singapore where your journey is complete!
Tip: If the E&O sounds expensive – book a standard sleeper on the same route. And if you’re looking to add in another rail experience, consider taking the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
Journey time: 51 hours. 3 nights on the train. A stop in Thailand and in Malaysia along the way.
Everyone’s heard about Japan’s super-fast bullet trains and for weary UK commuters, this efficiency is the stuff of legends. When I visited Japan, I was impressed by the affordability of my Japan Rail (”JR”) pass and the punctuality of every service. Unrelated to this - I was oddly bemused to discover they still had a smoking carriage, which I ended up having to sit in because I didn’t reserve a seat early enough. Consider that one more life lesson learned.
A JR pass opens up the country’s rail network and allows you to cover plenty of distance in a short time, as you can buy a pass for 7, 14 or 21 days with unlimited travel. With just a week to explore, you could be discovering Tokyo’s Electronics Town, overnighting in a ryokan in the foothills of Mt Fuji or speeding over to Kyoto, Hiroshima or the Japanese Alps.
Journey times: Tokyo to Kyoto in 2 hours 20 minutes. Tokyo to Hiroshima in about 4 hours.
Australia’s continental proportions mean exploring by rail is a beautiful and efficient option, as Annette explains here. Running east-west between Perth and Sydney you can take the Indian Pacific Railway; one of just a few genuine ‘trans-continental’ train journeys. A one-way trip takes you through the deserts and plains of 3 states; Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales. You’ll make 3 stops - in Kalgoorlie, Adelaide and Broken Hill, with a few hours to jump off and explore with an excursion before the train steams on.
Journey time: 65 hours one-way, 3 nights on the train and 3 stops.
Another of Australia’s long distance train journeys is the Ghan, running north-south between Adelaide and Darwin, via Alice Springs. If you want to visit Uluru, you’ll need to break the train journey in Alice Springs and take a side-trip, or leave the train and fly out from Ayres Rock to continue your journey.
Journey time: 54 hours one-way, 3 nights on the train and 4 stops including Alice Springs
In South Island, New Zealand you’ll find the Tranz Alpine train. Covering about 139 miles between Christchurch on the southern coast and Greymouth on the north, the train passes through Alpine villages and highlands in the Southern Alps, lush forests, valleys and gorges and over rivers and once you arrive in Greymouth you’re be in a good location to go and explore the glaciers. You could make the return journey in a day or use the train to head up towards North Island.
Journey time: a brief 4.5 hours! So this one can easily be fitted into any South Island New Zealand itinerary.
Amtrak’s ‘Coast Starlight’ service runs up the west coast of America between LA and Seattle lays claim to being one of the most scenic rail trips in the USA. From California, through Oregon into Washington you’ll see forests, valleys, snow-covered peaks and spectacular sections of the Pacific Coastline from the comfort of a luxury seat or sleeper cabin.
The route runs from LA (read Aaron’s tips on what to do in LA), through Santa Barbara, on to Oakland, Sacramento, Redding, Eugene and then into Oregon. Salem and Portland are next before you reach Seattle, from where you could take a ferry up to Vancouver. You can book a seat, a room or a family room and there is a dining car to keep you well fed. Helen drove this route and explains much of the scenery you can experience from the comfort of the train.
Journey time: around 34 hours from LA to Seattle.
Western Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer is the final, majestically scenic train journey on your round the world. Running between Vancouver and either Banff or Jasper, each of the three routes takes you through scenery you simply won’t see by road. The on board guides will tell you about Canada’s gold rush history and the wildlife spotters will watch for families of bears so the train can stop for you to get a closer peek. Twin this with a leisurely experience on the train with drinks and meals and you have a luxury rail journey to remember as Graham discovered on his trip.
If you like the sound of any of these great train journeys of the world or you’d like to include several of these sectors in your trip, we can plan a trip to suit your style and budget. From a simple journey to a luxury train holiday, we’ll make a trip that works for you. Call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email to start planning.