Best train jour­neys in the world

Bridg­ing man-made achieve­ment and the most spec­tac­u­lar nat­u­ral glo­ries – hop aboard the most ex­cit­ing train routes on Earth

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS SARAH BAX­TER

From blast­ing through arid steppe on the Trans-mon­go­lian to hit­ting the heights on Mex­ico’s ver­tig­i­nous Cop­per Canyon route, these dozen rail routes will take your breath away…


Re­ally old rocks The Ber­gen Rail­way to Oslo might just be the tough­est bat­tle be­tween man and Mother Na­ture ever to have been fought in the name of train travel. This link be­tween Nor­way’s cap­i­tal and its sec­ond city, on the west coast, has to cross the cold, high, re­mote Har­dan­gervidda, the largest eroded plain in Europe, where the tough, en­gi­neer­ing-un­friendly meta­mor­phic rock is around 1.5 bil­lion years old. Thank­fully, a rail­way did find a way across this hos­tile plateau, giv­ing train fans a chance to ride from cos­mopoli­tan Oslo to beau­ti­ful fjord-and-moun­tain-flanked Ber­gen via some of Nor­way’s wildest scenery. To prove a point: look out for Finse (1,222m), the line’s high­est sta­tion – this is the gate­way to the Har­dan­ger­jøkulen ice cap, where Scott and crew trained be­fore their 1912 South Pole ex­pe­di­tion. Need to know: 496km; 6.5hrs; Like that? Try this... Take a de­tour off the main rail­way at Myrdal to ride the water­fall-splat­tered, hold-your-breath steep line down to the fjord-side vil­lage of Flåm.


Best for... Ter­rific to­pog­ra­phy The North Is­land Main Trunk rail­way, fi­nally com­pleted in 1908, was not an easy un­der­tak­ing – but that’s what makes it such an im­pres­sive ride to­day. New Zealand’s North Is­land is a volatile place; early en­gi­neers had to ne­go­ti­ate gully-sliced plateau and ac­tive vol­ca­noes in or­der to link Auck­land and Welling­ton. To­day, the line’s big-win­dowed panorama car­riages slice through Hob­biton-like green hills and un­du­lat­ing farm­land, pass smok­ing moun­tains and rocky shores, and tra­verse some man­made mar­vels – from the 79m-high Maka­tote Viaduct, just be­low Mount Ruapehu, to the Rau­rimu Spi­ral, which utilises two tun­nels, three horse­shoe curves and a com­plete cir­cle in or­der to tackle the pre­cip­i­tous ter­rain. Need to know: 681km; 11hrs; www.greatjour­ Like that? Try this... Tra­verse South Is­land aboard the Tranzalpine, which links Christchurch and Grey­mouth by sur­mount­ing the South­ern Alps.


Best for... A lot of trees, a lot of teas Aping the route 17th-cen­tury traders once used to cross Siberia, car­ry­ing tea from China to the cups of Rus­sia’s elite, the Trans-mon­go­lian is ar­guably the great­est train jour­ney on the planet. It’s epic, tak­ing al­most a week rid­den non-stop be­tween Moscow and Bei­jing, cross­ing six time zones and pen­e­trat­ing parts of Asia that most just don’t reach. Out the win­dow, the end­less­ness of Rus­sia rolls by – grand cities, birch trees and snowy plains. Then comes Mon­go­lia’s ger- dot­ted steppe and cap­i­tal Ulan Batar be­fore cross­ing into China and ne­go­ti­at­ing the Great Wall to reach Bei­jing. But the on­board ex­pe­ri­ence is ar­guably just as in­ter­est­ing – en­joy days of bond­ing with your eclec­tic cabin-mates over hot tea, card games and a shot of vodka or two. Need to know: 7,621km; 6 nights;­al­rus­ Like that? Try this... Hop off the Trans-mon­go­lian at Tayshet and take the even re­moter, Baikal-amur line to Rus­sia’s east coast.


Best for... Gold rush grandeur When a trio of prospec­tors found gold in a trib­u­tary of the Klondike River in 1896, they trig­gered one of the world’s largest gold rushes. To be­gin with, stam­ped­ers had to hike the treach­er­ous Chilkoot Trail to get their trea­sure. But be­tween 1898 and 1900, a nar­row-gauge rail­way was built through the seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble ter­rain to make the jour­ney a lot eas­ier. The White Pass & Yukon Rail­road ne­ces­si­tated tun­nels, tres­tles, grades of up to 3.9% and tight cliff-tee­ter­ing bends; it climbs al­most 1,000m in its first 32 kilo­me­tres. Now, it car­ries vis­i­tors along the Sk­ag­way River, squeez­ing be­tween wa­ter­falls, thick for­est and groan­ing glaciers, cross­ing the Us/canada bor­der at White Pass, and de­scend­ing to Lake Ben­nett, once the site of a bustling tent city, where pre-train prospec­tors paused af­ter sur­viv­ing the Chilkoot Trail. Need to know: 109km; 4hrs 45mins; Like that? Try this... Equally pi­o­neer­ing in feel, Canada’s Jasper-prince Ru­pert line takes two days to clam­ber over the Rock­ies and through Bri­tish Columbian wilder­ness to reach the Pa­cific at the port city of Prince Ru­pert, a great place to take a whale-spot­ting tour.


Best for... Dra­matic drops The Span­ish con­quis­ta­dores, who found sil­ver in north­ern Mex­ico’s Cop­per Canyon in the 17th cen­tury, had to em­ploy mules and the lo­cal Rará­muri peo­ple to haul out their spoils. They would have loved ‘El Chepe’, aka the Cop­per Canyon Rail­way, which links the coastal town of Topolobampo to the dusty in­land city of Chi­huahua via this net­work of plung­ing ravines. Tak­ing al­most 90 years to com­plete, the line fi­nally opened in 1961. On its dra­matic jour­ney, El Chepe has to ne­go­ti­ate 87 tun­nels, 36 bridges and sweep­ing hair­pin bends as it climbs from sea level to the rim-top views it of­fers at 2,400m. Need to know: 655km; 15hrs; mex­i­co­scop­per­ Like that? Try this... Cut through an­other gor­geous gorge on Ari­zona’s Verde Canyon Rail­road. Look out for cot­ton­wood trees, bob­cats, bald ea­gles and Na­tive Amer­i­can ru­ins.


Best for... Inca in­trigue If you’ve no time or per­mit to hike the clas­sic Inca Trail to Machu Pic­chu, then this is a fine sec­ond choice. The train (which leaves from Poroy, just out­side Cusco) slices through the moun­tains, pass­ing An­dean vil­lages, the rag­ing Urubamba River and the Inca fortress of Ol­lan­tay­tambo. It ter­mi­nates at the hot-springs town of Aguas Calientes, from where the mist-swirled ru­ins of Machu Pic­chu teeter just above. Do the ride in op­u­lent style aboard the Bel­mond Hi­ram Bing­ham, named af­ter the ex­plorer who re­dis­cov­ered the ‘lost’ city in 1911. Or per­haps just opt for cheaper Vis­ta­dome or Ex­pe­di­tion class in­stead – the views are just as good. Need to know: 86km; 3hrs;­ru­ Like that? Try this... Board the Bel­mond An­dean Ex­plorer, South Amer­ica’s first lux­ury sleeper, to cross the plains from Cusco to Puno, on the shores of Lake Tit­i­caca.


Best for... A sweet ride St Kitts' nar­row-gauge tourist train – the ‘Last Rail­way in the West Indies' – is a re­minder of a time when the fer­tile Caribbean is­land's prime in­dus­try was not tourism but sugar. In 1775, when the Bri­tish owned the isle, St Kitts had 200 es­tates grow­ing ‘white gold'; in the early 20th cen­tury, a round-is­land rail­way was built, to trans­port the cane to a cen­tral fac­tory. When the in­dus­try de­clined, the line re­opened as a won­der­ful way for vis­i­tors to see the wave­crashed shores, sway­ing palms, emer­ald high­lands – ris­ing to 1,156m Mount Li­a­muiga – and crum­bling re­mains of old cane plan­ta­tions. Cur­rently, the train only runs along St Kitts' At­lantic coast with a bus tour com­plet­ing the cir­cuit. There's a stop at Brim­stone Hill Fortress, which was built by the Bri­tish to pro­tect their pre­cious sugar isle. Need to know: 48km; 3hrs; www.stkittss­cen­i­crail­ Like that? Try this... Com­plete the cir­cuit, sort of. The St Kitts Rail to Trails project is grad­u­ally con­vert­ing the aban­doned Caribbean coast seg­ment of the rail­way into a hik­ing and bik­ing trail (www.face­­stkitts).


Best for... Win­ning the West The Cal­i­for­nia Ze­phyr isn't a train. It's a dream re­alised, a na­tion united. When the rail­way line across the US was com­pleted in 1869, slash­ing the time it took to travel from coast to coast, the way was paved for all man­ner of pi­o­neers to try their luck in the wild west. And what a jour­ney the Ze­phyr still is, blow­ing from the windy city of Chicago, cross­ing the plains, mas­ter­ing the Rock­ies and the Sierra Ne­vada to come to rest at Emeryville (for San Fran­cisco), on the edge of the Pa­cific Ocean. Bag a seat in the Sight­seer Lounge Car and watch the coun­try un­furl. Need to know: 3,900km; 51hrs 20mins;­ Like that? Try this... Take the more southerly South­west Chief, which links Chicago and Los An­ge­les via the Great Plains, Rocky Moun­tains, Las Ve­gas, Grand Canyon coun­try and the Mo­jave Desert.


Best for... The green, green grass of home Bu­colic and beau­ti­ful now, per­haps, but in me­dieval times the land­scapes tra­versed by this rail­way were once the fraught fron­tier­lands of Eng­land and Wales. In­deed, at Knighton it crosses Offa's Dyke, the eighth-cen­tury earth­work built by Mer­cian King Offa to keep the Welsh at bay. The Heart of Wales Line, com­pleted in 1868, cel­e­brates its 150th birth­day this year, a good ex­cuse to hop aboard in Swansea and ride it all the way to Shrews­bury, en­joy­ing the Loughor Es­tu­ary, the rolling hills of Car­marthen­shire, pointy Sugar Loaf and the brood­ing Black Moun­tains en route. Need to know: 195km; 4hrs; Like that? Try this... A peren­nial favourite of Wan­der­lust read­ers and Harry Pot­ter fans, Scot­land's West High­land Line runs from Glas­gow via Fort William to Mal­laig, scur­ry­ing be­low Ben Nevis and sweep­ing across the mag­nif­i­cent Glen­finnan Viaduct.


Best for... Cov­er­ing a coun­try The North-south rail­way, known as the Transin­dochi­nois or some­times the Re­uni­fi­ca­tion Ex­press, was opened in 1936 to link the ex­tremes of Viet­nam, run­ning from Hanoi in the north to Saigon in the south. The line was dam­aged and dis­con­nected by the Viet­nam War but, mirac­u­lously, less than two years af­ter the sur­ren­der of South Viet­nam and the uni­fi­ca­tion of the coun­try, a full Saigon-hanoi rail jour­ney was pos­si­ble once more. The route, seen as a pow­er­ful sym­bol of sol­i­dar­ity, earned it­self a nick­name: the ‘Re­uni­fi­ca­tion Ex­press’; it’s proved a boon to this long, skinny coun­try, pro­vid­ing a sim­ple, scenic way to travel be­tween high­lights, with plenty of in­ter­est­ing stops along the route. From the poignant war re­minders of Saigon, head for the laid­back beach re­sort of Nha Trang, the charm­ing old port of Hoi An (via the rail­head of Danang) and the for­mer im­pe­rial cap­i­tal of Hué, end­ing amid the fre­netic and pho-fra­grant streets of Hanoi. Need to know: 1,726km; 36hrs; Like that? Try this... Take a sober­ing ride along a re­main­ing stretch of Thai­land’s ‘Death Rail­way’, from Kan­chanaburi to Nam Tok via the River Kwai Bridge.


Best for... Hippy hol­i­days By the late 1960s, Morocco was be­com­ing an essen­tial stop-off for long-haired counter-cul­tural types seek­ing ex­otic un­con­ven­tion­al­ity. This in­cluded rock band Crosby, Stills & Nash, whose 1969 ditty ‘Mar­rakech Ex­press’ in­spired a heap of peo­ple to take the train to the mil­len­nia-old im­pe­rial city. The best way to tackle this jour­ney now is to start with the ferry ride from south­ern Spain to North­ern Africa, to get the full ef­fect of ar­riv­ing on this vast new con­ti­nent. Then you can hop aboard the train in labyrinthine Tang­ier and plunge south, via cap­i­tal Rabat and art deco Casablanca, to reach Mar­rakech’s mag­i­cal old me­d­ina. Need to know: 570km; 8hrs; (French) Like that? Try this... Ride along­side the River Nile by tak­ing the train from Cairo to Aswan, via palm trees, farm­land, Luxor’s tem­ples and mil­len­nia of An­cient Egyp­tian his­tory.


Best for... En­gi­neer­ing ex­cel­lence Opened in 1998, the Konkan Rail­way con­nects the mega­lopo­lis of Mum­bai and the port of Man­ga­lore (Kar­nataka). It’s an en­gi­neer­ing mas­ter­stroke: over 2,000 bridges and some 90 tun­nels were re­quired to forge a route be­tween the Ara­bian Sea and the Sahyadri Hills. Along the way are rivers, val­leys, moun­tains, mango trees, co­conut palms and tiny vil­lages. It also en­ters the heart­land of Por­tuguese In­dia, which ruled parts of the sub­con­ti­nent from 1505 up to 1961. Dis­em­bark at Kar­mali Sta­tion to wan­der Old Goa, once the cap­i­tal of the Por­tuguese viceroy­alty and now an at­mo­spheric ruin. Need to know: 741km; 13hrs;

Like that? Try this... If size mat­ters, opt for In­dia’s Vivek Ex­press, a 4,273km ride from Assam to the Tamil Nadu town of Kanyaku­mari – the coun­try’s long­est train trip.

Sarah Bax­ter is the au­thor of A His­tory of the World in 500 Rail­way Jour­neys, out now (Au­rum, £20)

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