5 great Asian train journeys
FOR those that love the roll and rumble of journeying by train here’s a list of some fantastic rides around Asia.
Beijing-Mongolia: The route from Beijing through the Gobi desert was my introduction to Mongolia – where I worked in 2007. And what an introduction: we were showered with sand throughout the night, the moon echoing dully across vast empty plains, and then finally endless steppe as we neared the capital Ulaan Baatar. It’s a good 35 odd hours but you can travel onto Moscow for another five days if you’re keen! Views of nomads living in gers (tents) with their livestock are unbeatable. Changing the bogeys on the border at midnight was also an interesting experience.
Personal advice: To save a lot of money you can book the train yourself in Beijing but it does take a bit of organisation. In Mongolia you can go down to the railway offices in person to book the train back – go well ahead of time to secure your seat.
Adelaide-Darwin, Australia: This historic route taking 48 hours (2979km) is an epic journey right through the heart of Australia; dissecting the country from south to north through the red centre. It does make several stops along the way in places like Katherine and Alice that allow time for additional tours.
The original Ghan line started in 1878 and reached Alice Springs in 1929. The final leg to Darwin was only completed in 2004.
Personal advice: If you haven’t got time to undertake the entire journey then go as far as Alice Springs. And if you haven’t time to do any of the trip make sure you visit The Old Ghan Train Railway Museum in Alice – it’s well worth a stop. Ten kilometres of the original line that was completed in 1929 is open for tourists to ride.
Qinghai Tibet Railway
Beijing-Lhasa, China: The “railway on the roof of the world” seemed an impossible feat when it was first proposed. It had to span hundreds of miles of permafrosted terrain and also climb higher than another other railway had before to 5,072m above sea level.
But that hasn’t stopped the Chinese and today the route from the Chinese capital to Tibet is a dramatic journey with snowy peaks, yak herds and vast plains to enjoy over the two-day journey.
Personal advice: You can get food onboard but I took plenty of snacks, particularly those noodle cups as you can get hot water on board to make it into a meal. I booked through an agent when I arrived in Beijing – plan well in advance as this train is popular. You do need a permit to enter Tibet – the situation seems to change continually so get up to date advice about it before going.
India: India is the place to do a train journey and it’s hard to pick out just one to sample here. You don’t even have to pick a special train to have an amazing journey – any trip you take will introduce you to the plethora of amazing sights, people and experiences on the sub continent.
To travel in real style though, the Maharajas’ Express is the ultimate in luxury and elegance – although you’ll need a bank balance to match as prices start at $800 per day. Anyway there are three itineraries to choose from: Royal India (Deli to Mumbai via Agra and Rajasthan), Classical India (Delhi to Agra, Varanasi and Lucknow) and Princely India (Mumbai via Rajasthan and Agra to Delhi).
Personal advice: Always, always, always book your train ticket as much in advance as possible in India. A lot of the train booking system is now automated online.
Colombo-Kandy-Nuwara Eliya-Badulla, Sri Lanka: Given that the hill country where tea is produced in Sri Lanka is one of the most scenic parts of the country, it goes without saying a train ride through it is a must.
It’s possible to travel the 121km from Colombo to Kandy by rail and continue on or simply board in Kandy for a ride onto the hill station at Nuwara Eliya.
Personal advice: Get a 1st class carriage if you possibly can. The trains are dinky and atmospheric but you’ll be glad of the additional comfort. In any case make sure you have a window seat. The train drops you 6km from central Nuwara Eliya but there is local transport available to town.