Not sure what it is about train journeys that make them so amazing, I even don’t mind commuting by train. The key to a successful train journey is a good seat, who you are with and what you are looking at out the window. There is something amazing about being able to get on something that can take you 100’s of miles without having to queue and go through security or drive it yourself. I guess if i could my preference would be to walk but it would take me forever, so this is the next best thing. So with this in mind i have travelled where i can by train and these are my favourite train journeys to date.
China, Travelling a country
I travelled round China by train, in total it was thousands of miles largely done on overnight trains of mixed class. Always sleeper trains. The key journey’s were Shanghai to Beijing; Beijing to Xian and then Xian to Chengdu. This is pretty much the backpackers train route through China and takes in the major towns. Along the way we met the same people over and over, even though there was so few of us, which was great and made for some fun evenings, drinking and discussing our adventures on the trains.
If flying to Shanghai then you can have a quick train adventure via the fastest train in the world which travels at 430km/h between the airport and the city. A distance of 40km travelled in just over 8 minutes. The journey itself is incredibly smooth as is you are riding above the line powered by magnets. The only thing you notice is going round bends where the train banks at steep angles. Stay seated.
China is rapidly changing and many of the lines are becoming high speed links. The first was Shanghai to Beijing linking one of the main commercial hubs to the capital. This journey we did overnight which was a 10 hrs journey on one of the new high speed sleep trains. The journey was just under 900miles in distance which is about double the distance from London to Edinburgh. The trains when we travelled back in 2008 were pretty incredible. The trains were modern with digital displays and tv’s on each of the bunks playing random chinese movies which were pretty funny to watch.
The other journey’s in China were on slower lines with similar distances travelled between Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu but were probably more fun and allowed you to get chance to see the amazing countryside that the train line went through. The trains were a bit more basic with open carriages and bunks. It was a very social atmosphere with many of the chinese on the train interested in where we were going. It was also chance to catch up on where we were going next or writing of journals. It’s weird looking back as iPads were not around in 2008. I am sure it is very different now.
Main things to consider when travelling on the railways of China was buying tickets wasn’t easy and in big cities you have to queue. We were travelling in the Chinese holidays which meant pretty much the whole country were also travelling by train, air travel wasn’t really affordable then. This is almost the only way to buy tickets though, you can buy them online through agencies such as ChinaHighlights. We found there were some special desks for westerners where they spoke English so keep an eye out for these.
Train travel is cheap compared to the UK with the 900 mile Shanghai trip being around $60 and then lower class travels being much less. Key thing is to book ahead, especially if travelling in the holidays. If you want more information then the best and only way to research train travel is via Seat61. Bring some food (they did serve food onboard but bring snacks and drinks), drink and something to read or do and then sit back and enjoy the railways.
I’ve done a few journeys now in India by train, one last year between Bangalore and Alleppey and then one a few years before travelling from Thiruvananthapuram in the South of India to Goa. Both time I travelled in 2nd class A/C which gives you a berth in a 6 seater compartment. Travelling in India costs nothing with an overnight trip costing less than £30 each. Booking is much easier here with reservations allowed online via the Indian government railway site.
I love the trains here as they are very slow, so slow that you can actually hang out of the moving train in relative safety. This allows you to see some amazing countryside on route. Travelling through the backwaters which was the case in both train journeys is truly God’s own country as the Indians describe the countryside here.
Trains are pretty old, India has just announced a deal with Japan to provide high speed trains to India, for now though you can board a train, relax and expect to be on there for many hours. There is constant food and chai on offer, you may get sick of the constant chai calls as the attendants rattle through the train.
We kept ourselves entertained with Cards Against Humanity and some gin we brought onboard. With there being 6 of us we had a area to ourselves so could relax a bit without annoying the fellow passengers around. We managed some sleep as well with the linen provided being reasonably clean. If you have you own sleeping bags or sheets with you then worth having them with you.
Peru, Andean Explorer, Cusco to Puno.
This wasn’t your average train journey in Peru and very different to India. We actually did a few trips here but the main one was a trip from Cusco to Puno via the Andean Explorer. This is pretty much the equivalent of the Orient express in South America and was far more interesting than the alternative of a bus or plane flight. However it isn’t cheap. The journey is just over 10 hours and travels up to a height of 4300m about sea level at La Raya.
The train is luxury and you get what can only be described as an arm chair each and a full dining service offering two full course meals during your journey. At the back of the train is a bar and viewing car which has it’s own balcony outside the train where you can stand with a drink and watch the world going by. At intervals you are offered complimentary Pisco Sours and introduced to elements of Peruvian culture.
The countryside and the remoteness of the train travel is incredible. Travelling high in to the mountains with stunning scenery and some incredible moments as the train on a single track traverses some very small wooden bridges. There are two trains that run the single track and there is a stop midway where the trains pass each other but it also gives you a chance to stretch your legs.
You have to be prepared though. As stunning as the views are there is something about travelling in decadence through some incredibly poor towns. At times you travel through the middle of markets with the train meandering between the people in the markets going about their daily business. The people are poor and didn’t appreciate rich westerners in private train cars taking photos of the people like taking photos of animals in the wild. I actually put my camera away at this point and went back inside. Made me think alot about the trip I was on. The photo below I found on google but pretty much tells you everything.
Despite this scene which was near the end of the journey, it was worth it for the scenery you pass through on the journey. Just be prepared for the decadence.
Japan, 7 day travel pass
I have always wanted to travel the shinkansen railways of Japan. The shining example of incredible technology in Japan. The railway links much of the main cities and i travelled on a 7 day tourist pass which we used to journey from Tokyo to Fukuoka in the south via Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima.
For a country of small people the legroom on the train is incredible, with reversible seats so you are always travelling in the direction the train is moving. We bought most of our food from stalls before boarding which had great little sushi sets which were almost as exciting as boarding the trains with beautifully packaged food.
The stations are busy are not difficult to navigate. We were told before that we’d get lost or not find our trains but most stations have English signs even if the station staff did not speak much English. If you have basic travel skills you will be fine. The difficulty was more with the Tokyo subway but that was another adventure.
You can watch some great ceremonies at the station which combines all i love about old world culture and modern technology. As in each train pulls in and out the guards at the station perform some elaborate gestures
So along the route we took we saw some incredible sites. From the old world mystical elegance of Kyoto, the history of Hiroshima, the countryside of Japan, watching a Sumo competition, to the high tech of Osaka. There is something different to meet all tastes.
Train is pretty much the best way to see Japan and it is somewhere i want to go back to. Japan is not all bullet train, when off the main lines then the trains are actually pretty ancient. It is like riding an electric version of Thomas the Tank Engine. However it all adds to the charm of Japan. I can only describe it playing banging techno music one minute and vivaldi the next.