6 of the Best: Train Journeys in the World
‘It’s not the destination, it’s the journey’
‘It’s not the destination, it’s the journey’ is a, perhaps overused, analogy for life that has been credited to everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Aerosmith to Wild Frontiers (we wish). But perhaps it’s not that deep. Perhaps whoever first coined the phrase was just blessed with an outstanding commute.
Train journeys have got to be one of our favourite kinds of travel. The clickety-clack of an amble across undulating lands, a scenic world preciously snatched away as soon as it is acknowledged, cocooned in a microcosm of local life that can transport us back in time and accelerate us into the future of wherever it is we end up…
So, from nostalgic luxury to whole lifelines connecting a country in the aftermath of war, here are some of the best train journeys in the world. All aboard!
Peru - Belmond Hiram Bingham
Board the opulent Belmond Hiram Bingham, previously known as the Orient Express, in Cusco and journey into the heart of the Inca empire in style, or take the opportunity to wind down after having your mind blown at Machu Picchu on your journey back through the Peruvian Highlands. Named after the American explorer who ‘re-discovered’ the now iconic Inca citadel in 1911, this enchanting voyage will take you through the incredible Sacred Valley and at any other time, you’d be hard-pressed to find something that could distract you from such scenes unfolding outside the window. But the old-world charm of the wood-panelled interiors and brass details of the classic 1920s style parlour cars, fine dining or gourmet lunch experience featuring distinctly local flavours or sipping cocktails while live traditional Peruvian music plays to the bass of the chugging of the train, might just prove enchanting enough. Just head to the open-air observatory with a cocktail in hand if you’d like to get back to soaking up those spectacular views in luxury and comfort.
There are also some very plush Belmond-style trains available to and from Machu Picchu and an option that will take you between Cusco and Lake Titicaca that won't break the bank, so be sure to enquire.
Kyoto - Segano Scenic Railway
Train travel is a pretty big deal in Japan, thanks to its famous bullet trains. They epitomise quintessential Japan - functional, punctual and comfortable - and they’re the best way to explore the country as a tourist in a surprisingly affordable style, relaxing with your bento box and anticipating a fuzzy glimpse of Mount Fuji out of the window. But so much of Japan’s charm is found in those moments that flitter paradoxically between modern and traditional, garish and serene, complex and simple. Head to the leafy suburbs of Kyoto and board the Segano Scenic Railway for a nostalgic sightseeing journey to restore equilibrium after the fast-paced shinkansen.
Departing from Arashiyama, this romantic old-fashioned train leisurely chugs along the Hozugawa River amongst the forested mountains. Try and visit in autumn when the ravine is ablaze with Tori Gate reds and Pikachu yellows, or in spring when it gently snows cherry blossom petals. As if it couldn’t get any more kawaii, the station staff line the platform to wave you off on your departure - a far cry from shoving limbs into overspilling carriages characteristic of a Tokyo rush hour. If you’d like another perspective of this picturesque route, the best way to get back to Arashiyama is via a Hozugawa River Cruise. The staff are natural showmen, and even if you don’t speak Japanese, their incredible charisma and humorous tricks transcend any language barriers.
India - Kalka-Shimla Toy Train
Hailed as one of India's most scenic train journeys, you can step aboard and step back in time on the UNESCO World Heritage Kalka-Shimla Toy Train. Built in 1903 during the British Raj to connect Kalka in the south during the unforgiving Indian heat with the summer capital of Shimla in the cooler north 60 miles away, you’ll be treated to five and a half hours of cascading waterfalls, rugged mountains and picturesque hills, twenty characterful hill stations and verdant pine forest as it ascends up the steep narrow track to its destination at an altitude of 6,808 ft. It’s a true feat of engineering excellence and when you’re not too distracted by the captivating views, you may notice that along the journey, you’ll pass through an astounding 102 tunnels and 864 bridges! You can stretch your legs at each stop and admire the views with a steaming cup of chai and some mouthwatering snacks from stalls to keep you satiated along the way. This is far from a simple route from A to B, it’s a truly magical insight into the history and topography of the ever-charming north of India.
Vietnam - The Reunification Express
The Reunification Express, also known as the North-South Railway in Vietnam, is a remarkable journey that traverses the backbone of the country, offering travellers a unique perspective on its landscapes, culture, and history from the windows of this heaving locomotive. This iconic train route stretches from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, covering approximately 1,726 miles. You’ll be witness to a myriad of breathtaking scenery, from Hanoi’s famous Old Quarter where squeezing between residences and cafes will seem like you’re flicking through a slideshow of snapshots of daily life, passing by rice paddies, lush jungle, then miles of golden beaches, expanses of ocean and vibrant towns.
The Reunification Express is not just a mode of transportation either; it symbolises the reunification of the country after the war. The railway was completed in 1936 under French colonial rule and sustained major damage in World War II and the Vietnam War that followed. During the conflict between North and South, the railway was used to transport people and goods so was a target for bombings. In just two years following the end of the war, 1,334 bridges, 27 tunnels and 158 stations were repaired and so, thanks to this impressive feat, the route came to symbolise the reunification of the country.
The Balkans - Sargan Eight Train
This narrow gauge railway is one of Europe’s most attractive heritage railways with its retro wooden interior. So-called because it follows a ten-mile figure-of-eight route owing to the hilly terrain, the scenic 40-minute journey takes in forests, lakes, rocky gorges and verdant hillsides as it travels from the village of Mokra Gora in west Serbia, next to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the village of Šargan Vitasi. You’ll get to stop there for a short time to take some photos of the quaint, fairy tale-esque train stations that look their very best with a light dusting of autumn leaves. The line was restored in 2003 and is a great way to experience Serbia’s beautiful countryside.
The Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian Railway
The Trans-Siberian railway journey is perhaps one of the best-known, and longest, train journeys in the world. Traversing the entire width of Russia from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east, or better still, through Mongolia onto Beijing, it’s probably safe to say that if you took a shot of vodka for all the contrasting panoramas this journey reveals after the thick birch forests of Russia, you won’t have any trouble succumbing to a dreamy slumber in the cosy sleeper cabins. Cutting through blindingly white, Dr Zhivago snow-blanketed tundras if you visit in winter, taking in the Ural Mountains and curving along the southern shore of Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake in the world, the train click-clacks along a whopping 5,722 miles of track to Vladivostok spanning roughly seven days and eight time zones.
The Trans-Mongolian Railway branches out from Ulan-Ude, just after Lake Baikal, then races across the ger-speckled steppes of Mongolia to Ulaanbaatar, crosses the Gobi Desert and deep gorges, slithers alongside the Great Wall and comes to a halt in the urban metropolis of Beijing, China. This is a journey of truly epic proportions.