Train trips around the world


‘THE GHAN’ – Named after the Afghan cameleers who blazed the trail across one of the most dauntingly inhospitable deserts in the world, The Ghan is the stuff of genuine Outback legend. The journey from Adelaide to Darwin provided time for me to come to terms with the incredible immensity of this island continent as the landscape changed from the dust-hazed ochres of the Red Centre to the rioting lushness of the Northern Territory’s ‘Top End’.

 ‘EASTERN & ORIENTAL’ – The exotic sister of the Orient Express connects Singapore and Bangkok along 1,262 miles of what have been called velvet rails. We left Singapore to cross the Malay highlands at night and woke to some of the most dramatic paddyfield landscapes in South East Asia. Side trips take in Penang – Pearl of the Orient – and the prisoner of war cemetery at Bridge on the River Kwai. A unique experience among luxury trains is the wonderful open-air observation carriage…thoughtfully tagged onto the cocktail lounge at the end of the 700m long train.

‘SUMATRA EXPRESS’ – Few people realize that Sumatra had its own ‘Death Railway’. More than 10,000 prisoners of war and Sumatran slave labourers died building the Japanese railway through one of the world’s most impenetrable jungles. I began my 15-day journey through Sumatra in a train that spluttered and coughed noisily as it climbed up away from the mangroves of the coast. The steaming forest stretched onward for several hours, broken only by a few small towns where people waved as we rattled through. After a ten-hour journey that first day we were only an hour late on arrival. Jam Karet (which translates literally as ‘rubber time’) is an Indonesian concept that’s worth keeping in mind if you intend to travel by train through Sumatra.

‘MARRAKECH EXPRESS’ – Made famous by an old 70s hippy ditty The Marrakech Express is still the best way to arrive in Morocco’s gilded city. You board the overnight train at the grungy portside station in Tangier and by dawn are already rolling through a desert landscape of palms, camels and marabout shrines. The track climbs imperceptibly towards the foothills of the great Atlas Mountains to ease to a halt finally in Marrakech’s French-built Ville Nouvelle. Take a horse and carriage from here to arrive in real old-time style in the Djemaa el Fna marketplace.

‘LUNATIC EXPRESS’ – Far fallen from grace as the luxury train that it once was this is still an evocative way to make the journey between Nairobi and Mombasa. The dilapidated old train is the remnant of a highly eccentric colonial ambition to create a rail network – connecting the Swahili Coast with Kampala - that would be the pride of the British Empire. The train passes through Tsavo National Park during the night. It was here that the famous man-eating Lions of Tsavo further highlighted the folly that was to go down in history as the Lunatic Express.

‘TRAIN TO THE CLOUDS’ – The appropriately named ‘Tren a las Nubes’ covers a 300mile roundtrip across Salta province, northern Argentina, in an incredible sequence of 50 bridges and tunnels that climb to a height of 4,220metres. Although it was built to serve the mines it is now a tourist train and is periodically out of service. Such was the case when I arrived in Salta province…luckily I was on assignment with a Land Rover expedition and we were able to drive much of the route (and higher still to become, for a short while, the highest – and sickest - motorists in the Americas).

‘INDIAN PACIFIC’ – Western Australia’s Indian Pacific is less famous than her intrepid Outback sister The Ghan but there are highlights to a Trans-Australian rail trip between Perth and Sydney that are not to be found elsewhere in the world. A sign at the entrance to Cook – ‘Queen City of the Nullarbor’ – boasts that the hamlet has a population of ‘4 people, 40 dingoes and 4 million flies’. Kalgoorlie with its red light district and ‘skimpy’ bars (where the barmaids are scantily clad in French negligée) still brings to mind wild Klondike gold-camps. After pretty Port Augusta the Indian Pacific graces a series of Outback towns (Broken Hill et al) with its presence before it finally descends out of the beautiful Blue Mountains to the suddenly overwhelmingly crowded eastern seaboard.

‘MAHARAJAS’ EXPRESS’ – Temporarily off the rails, the Maharajas’ Express has been described as the most luxurious train in the world. It is a rolling palace that takes 8 days to travel between Mumbai and Delhi, encompassing most of the princely wealth of Rajasthan. To atone for this most sumptuous of rail journeys I made the return journey back through Rajasthan by economy second-class sleeper service. 20 million people travel on Indian Railways each day and it’s been said that the pulse of the country hammers to the beat of steel wheels on these forty thousand miles of track.

‘REUNIFICATION EXPRESS’ – Vietnam stretches more than a thousand miles in an elongated S-shape up the shore of the South China Sea. Any trip here is likely to include long hours travelling. The country has some of the best long distance sleeper-buses in the world but there’s no substitute for an opportunity to sample the little roving community that spends its life perpetually travelling between Saigon and Hanoi. Long distance trains the world over are famously hospitable places but in friendly Vietnam the spirit of unification is naturally taken to new extremes.

‘TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY’ – It´ll take eight days for you to complete the 9289km journey from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway – and what´s likely to get to you isn´t cabin fever, it´s the time warp. The train crosses seven time zones, which means that you´ll find yourself in a confusion of having dinner for morning tea and going to bed somewhere around lunch time. I did a variation on this epic journey: the Trans-Mongolian, which meant that somewhere in Siberia my train turned “down” and headed through Mongolia to Ulan Bataar. A highlight of the journey: my train was packed with traders, and whenever the train stopped in Siberia, the whole town would be gathered on the platform and a frantic market would take place over the 10 minutes the train was at the station. [by Narina Exelby]