Train travel is always the fastest method of getting from point to point, but compared to flying it’s much more romantic and memorable. Rather than cramming into flying tin can you can actually get up and more around on a train – sometimes you can even get off to stretch your legs while the train stops. Depending on the class of travel you elect, you may even get a comfortable bed, decent food, and a little bit of luxury. Trains often service areas farther away from airports and in many cases, particularly in Asia, offer a much cheaper transit option than flying. And best of all, you get to see the landscape passing by at ground level.
Here are a few of the best rail journeys in Asia.
The Palace on Wheels – India
If you enjoy being pampered while riding smoothly over clanking rails as the world’s most intriguing country passes by the window, look no further than the Palace on Wheels, perhaps the most comfortable ways to explore northwestern India.
The train chuffs out of Delhi behind bellowing steam engine and rolls all the way to the royal state of Rajasthan, where a welcoming committee of elephants awaits your arrival in Jaipur. The journey lasts eight days and includes stops in Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Sawai Madhopur, Chittaurgarh, Udaipur, Bharatpur and Agra, as well as a number of excursions.
The Palace on Wheels was launched in 1982 and its success has spawned a number of luxury train tours throughout India. It has 14 coaches, each named for former Rajput states, whose aesthetic interior attempts to invoke a royal past. The air-conditioned cabins include a mini-bar, television, DVD player, satellite television and a personal attendant. The train’s two restaurants, The Maharaja and The Maharani, serve continental, Chinese, Indian and Rajasthani cuisine.
The Deccan Odyssey – India
Launched in imitation of the Palace on Wheels to boost tourism along Indian Railways’ Konkan route, the Deccan Odyssey is a luxury train that travels from Mumbai to Sindhudurg, Goa, Kolhapur, Daulatabad, Ajanta Caves, Nasik and then back to Mumbai, with a number of optional excursions and daily activities along the way.
The train is more or less a five-star hotel on wheels, with superb staff, service, food and amenities, including two restaurants, a bar, a business center and even a sauna.
The tours last seven nights and leave every Wednesday from Mumbai.
The Eastern & Oriental Express – Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand
Running from Singapore to Bangkok and passing by lush rain-forests, snow-capped mountains, ancient temples and remote villages, the modern, stylish Eastern and Oriental Express has a well-earned reputation as one of the world’s most luxurious trains. The three-day journey between Singapore and Bangkok aims to attract passengers seeking to recapture the more glamorous days of rail travel.
For its exceptional beauty, service, dining and off-train excursions (including a visit to the colonial city of Georgetown and a cruise on the River Kwai), the Eastern & Oriental Express was judged to be one of the World’s Top 25 Trains by The Society of International Railway Travelers in 2011.
The all-inclusive tour programs last six nights. There are a few to choose from, including the “Epic Thailand” package, which starts and ends in Bangkok and visits a number of villages and temples.
The train has two dining cars, two bar cars (one with large open-air observation deck), a library car and a saloon car. It is is fully air-conditioned, has two Presidential sleeping cabins, state compartments (four to a carriage) as well as Pullman compartments.
Trans-Siberian Railway – Russia
The grand-daddy of all train journeys, the 6000-mile trip across seven time zones and one-third of the planet has long been the archetype for the ultimate rail adventure. The Trans-Siberian is longest railway in the world, with branch lines to China through Mongolia and Manchuria and services continuing all the way to North Korea.
From Vladivostok across Siberia to Moscow and then to St. Petersburg, the 19-day journey takes you across some of the world’s most startling landscapes, and provides an on-train environment rarely recreated elsewhere. Locked on the tiny moving planet filled with crazy characters and people who walk around all day in their pajamas drunk on vodka, the Trans-Siberian itself often becomes the destination.
The carriages, which were once used by the Politburo, are fitted with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a sitting room complete with private chef.
The Qingzang Railway – China
The idea of building a rail link from Tibet to mainland China was first proposed 1917 and was thought by many to be impossible. The route would need to cut across hundreds of miles of permafrosted terrain 5000 meters above sea level and bridge valleys up to eight miles wide.
In 2006, however, China accomplished this feat with a force of more than 20,000 workers and some 6000 pieces of industrial equipment. Now the Qingzang railway is one of the country’s major achievements in the 21st century.
The railway connects Xining, Qinghai Province to Lhasa in Tibet and is the highest railway line in the world, traversing vast plains, snow-capped peaks and grand valleys. Tanggula, the highest station, is at 5072 meters above sea level.
Although the railway is the first to connect the Tibet Autonomous Region to any other province, it has been criticized by Tibetan Independence groups, who allege the railway will marginalize Tibetans in the region by encouraging further Han immigration.
The Maharajas’ Express – India
In operation since 2010 and the most expensive and luxurious train in India, Maharaja Express itineraries either begin or end in Delhi and last 3-8 nights. Each morning the train arrives to a new destination for off-rail excursions, including visiting the Taj Mahal and other heritage sites, as well as tiger safaris.
The train was featured on the 2011 list of the World’s Top 25 Trains by The Society of International Railway Travelers, and has been lauded for its onboard accommodation, dining facilities and off-train excursion program, including the opportunity to dine in palaces and meet royal families on exclusively-arranged visits.
The train has 23 coaches, including 14 guest carriages with amenities such as large LCD TVs, internet, en suite bathrooms and a personal butler for who wakes guests each morning with tea or coffee. The train also has two dining cars, each with a seating capacity of 42 guests at a time, allowing all guests to dine together, a bar car and a lounge called the Rajah Club.
The Shinkansen – Japan
Burned out on beautiful landscapes and being treated like a sultan? Then take a tour via the Shinkansen bullet train for an unashamedly modern adrenaline rush. The “bullet train”, as it is better known, is one of the fastest trains in the world, with the new Nozomi model running the 325 miles between Tokyo and Kyoto in just two hours and 10 minutes. It’s more like riding a rocket than a train.
The Shinkansen operates on several lines around the country, with the Tokaido line between Tokyo and Osaka being the most popular, carrying more than 15 million passengers a year. But you can also continue as far north as Hiroshima and as far south as the island of Kyushu. Carrying some 151 million passengers a year, the Shinkansen is the world’s busiest high-speed rail line.
The Shinkansen is also remarkable for its safety and punctuality. In 2003, JR Central reported that the Shinkansen’s average arrival time was within six seconds of the scheduled time, calculated over roughly 160,000 trips. And during the Shinkansen’s 45-year and 7 billion-passenger history there have been no passenger fatalities due to derailments or collisions, despite frequent earthquakes and typhoons.
Railway development came relatively late to the remote steppes of Mongolia. Began in 1947, the Trans-Mongolian railway reached Ulan Bator only in 1950, five years later extending to the Chinese border. Before that the only railways in the country had been a 43 km line connecting coal mines to Ulan Bator, and a Soviet freight-only line from Borzya to Bayantümenon on the Trans-Siberian.
The Trans-Mongolian runs for some 1400 miles past sublime landscapes and remote villages of the Mongolian interior, connecting Ulan Ude on the Trans- Siberian in Russia with the Chinese city of Jining, by way of Ulan Bator, Sükhbaatar, Darkhan, Choir, and Zamyn-Üüd.
- David Joshua Jennings