It was important to stay awake on the overcrowded night train to Dharamshala. If I missed my stop I would end up north at the Pakistani border, where there are enough problems without a confused hack stumbling about. I was scheduled to arrive in a small town called Chakkebank at 3am, which, translated into Indian time, meant anywhere between last Wednesday and the coming of the messiah. Due to a festival, the train was steaming with people, but my sticky-vinyl top bunk afforded some distance from the disjointed beggars, the transsexuals who bring luck for a buck, and the tea guy who somehow managed to get through the throng every ten minutes screaming “Chaaiiiii!!” without inflicting third degree burns with his thermal. I dozed off and awoke to discover two guys had scaled my upper bunk and somehow positioned themselves between my open-scissor legs. When a third tried to join them, I put my foot down. Literally, on his head. I made my station, waited two hours for the bumpy dawn bus into the mountains, and finally arrived in Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. Like cigarettes, I’m convinced this journey took years off my life.
It felt like I had arrived in another country, and in a sense I had. A traveller today can experience more Tibetan culture in Dharamshala than they can in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Along with Tibetan refugees, thousands arrive monthly from all over the world to study Buddhism, get involved in various Tibetan movements, catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama when he is in town, or just enjoy the tranquility and beauty of the surrounding mountains. The cold, wet narrow streets were lined with restaurants, hotels, clothing stalls, internet cafes, offices of Tibetan institutions, and too many westerners wrapped in blankets as opposed to their usual Gore-Tex jackets.
“It’s not so much a question of ‘Free Tibet’, so much as ‘Save Tibet’,” explains Tenzin from the Central Tibetan Authority. The Dalai Lama was in town and I was trying to arrange a camera permit, in the process learning something about Tibet’s current status. Decades of Chinese investment and migration has fundamentally changed the face of Tibet, so the Tibetans are now focused on preserving their identity as opposed to regaining independence. Like other world hotspots, religious and political boundaries are blurred in the conflict, and at the centre meditates the Dalai Lama himself – the political and religious head of a nation. His non-violent “Middle Way” solution continues to make Tibet a popular Western cause. Whatever happens, I am told it is all karma.
I did manage to see the Dalai Lama, and sat in on a Buddhist class. I walked the lovely Lingkhor path around the temple, spun the colorful mani wheels, chanted mantras, ate traditional dumpling-like momos, and lost my breath at sunset, staring out at the mountains and valley from the peaceful confines of the Tsuglagkhang temple complex. In lower Dharamshala, the Indian community gathered for the annual Dusehra festival, in which giant effigies were blown up to rid the year of evil. Huge fireworks lit up the snowy peaks, as crowds of happy Indians shook my hand and wanted me in their photographs. I could have soaked up this atmosphere for weeks, but my time in India was just about up. There was just one more thing needed to complete my Indian experience, and fortunately, it did not involve dysentery.
The Taj Mahal is the world’s most breathtaking and romantic mausoleum, built in 17th century to honor a sultan’s second wife, who died at childbirth. It is located in Agra, about three-sorry-four-oops-five hours by train from Delhi, and is India’s busiest tourist destination. It took me three hours just to arrange my return ticket, but by now I had learnt the most crucial lesson for successful travelling in India. Never be in a hurry to get anywhere! Certainly I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to my roach “hotel” - a prison cell with a crusty Hello Kitty bedsheet, creating a colorful, if disturbing touch. So off I went to the Taj, where tourists are happily fleeced and touts, taxi drivers and beggars jostle for pole position. When I arrived in India for my month of travel, I dreaded this scenario. Now my skin is hardened, my wits sharpened, and it’s just paneer for the course.
Now this is how one executes a photo bomb.
After dealing with massive lines, corrupt guards, confiscated cameras and a hefty foreign tourist entry fee, I finally got into the complex. The late afternoon sun glittered across the white marble of the Taj Mahal, silently reflecting in the ponds and floating like a fairytale palace. Was the day’s journey not a symbol of travelling in India itself? The frustration, the stress, the scams, the sweat, and finally, the magic that somehow made it all worthwhile. The Taj Mahal is truly as magical as it looks in the photos.
Back in Delhi after another completely eventful train journey (there’s no other kind in India), I packed my bags and headed for the airport. India, this world within a world within a world, had won me over. I remember what a traveller told me when I first arrived. “No matter what you've read, seen or heard about India, wherever you go, it is nothing at all like what you expect."
Modern travellers have developed an insatiable thirst for jet fuel, much to the detriment of previous modes of travel: ships and trains. While ships have evolved into cruising palaces, trains have far more limitations when it comes to the size of their carriages. Yet as a means to discover a new destination in a comfortable, relaxing pace, I'm a sucker for an epic train journey. Sit back and watch the world pass you by as we track down the world’s best train journeys.
The Blue Train
It’s amazing how much comfort you can cram into a carriage rolling along a gauge just 3ft and 6 inches wide. South Africa’s Blue Train is rightly regarded as perhaps the world’s most luxurious rail journey. Butler service, en-suite soundproofed compartments (with gold tinted windows), double beds with down duvets, marble-tiled bathrooms (many with full bath tubs), panoramic observation lounges, gourmet meals – no wonder its known as a moving five star hotel. There are two trains in operation - one catering to 74 guests in 37 suites, the other for 58 guests in 29 suites – operating on the main scheduled route from the administrative capital of Pretoria to Cape Town. Travelling at 90 km/hr, enjoy 27 pampered hours and spectacular scenery until you reach your final station. The Blue Train also operates two other routes: to Durban, and to the malaria-free Pilansberg National Park.
Not to be outdone, India’s Maharajas Express treats its 88 passengers like royalty, literally in the case of the presidential suite, which spans a whole carriage. Recalling an era where India’s grand Maharajas built their own lines to shepherd them in lavish carriages, the Express combines old world luxury with modern conveniences like a business centre, spa and gym. It offers five itineraries, ranging from the seven night Heritage of India, Indian Splendor and Indian Panorama to the three night Treasures and Gems of India. All visit destinations like Jaipur, Ranthambore and Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. My own rail journeys in India (in packed, sticky 2nd Class Sleepers) were memorable, but not for the right reasons. If you’re willing to pay, oh, several thousand times more for a ticket, why not treat yourself like a king?
We live in a large country, but when I took the 4-night, 3-day VIA Rail Canadian from Vancouver to Toronto, I could finally see just how large we’re talking about. Travelling 4466km through the Rockies and Prairies, expect to roll through four time zones, not seeing any signs of civilization for hours. The train’s weekly configuration changes depending on demand, but always has panoramic and double-story panoramic dome cars, excellent meals, clean bathrooms, fun activities and friendly staff. Recalling the 1950’s glory years, the stainless steel carriages have the pastels and feel of another era, especially the rear Park Car, with its distinctive dome and view of the tracks you leave behind. Currently undergoing refurbishments as part of VIA Rail’s almost $1 billion investment, The Canadian is rightly a national treasure, popular with both locals and international visitors.
The Venice Simplon Orient Express / Eastern and Oriental Express
Although these are two separate train journeys exploring two different continents, I’ve put them together because the same company owns them, and once you hear the word “Orient”, it’s easy to get confused. More so since there was an actual train known as the Orient Express, running between Strasbourg and Vienna, but that ceased operation in 2009. The Venice-Simplon is a luxury train operating from London to Venice, in vintage carriages dating back to the 1920’s and 1930’s. Restored to their former glory, cabin suites are heavy on the polished wood, with washbasins, banquette sofas and ever-attentive stewards. Swap out Europe for lush jungles and exotic temples, and hop aboard the more modern The Eastern and Oriental Express, which journeys between Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Laos. With its in-suite bathrooms and airy teak observation cars, itineraries range from 2 to 6 nights, offering various opportunities for temple visits and other excursions.
With its vast distances and sparse population, Australia is tailor made for an epic train journey. The Ghan, named after the late 19th century Afghan cameleers that created the route, traverses almost 3000 kilometres north to south and vice-versa from Adelaide through Alice Springs to Darwin. The 3 day/2 night crossing caters to a range of budgets, from the twin Red Service Sleeper Cabins with their compact lounge chairs (folding into sleeping berths), to the 25 en-suite Platinum Cabins, with in-cabin dining, attentive stewards and twin or double beds. Beginning with the ridges and plains of South Australia, the landscape transforms into the red earth and sweeping skies of the Central Australian outback. Day or multi-day excursions are on offer from Alice Springs, before continuing into the more tropical regions of Northern Australia. The train runs twice a week in each direction June to August, and once a week during the remainder of the year.
China boasts the world’s fastest passenger train, the CRH380A running from Shanghai to Nanjing and Hangzhou at an astonishing 480 km/hr. Think more rollercoaster and less leisurely train journey. For less of a blur but all the thrills, consider the Qinghai-Tibet, an engineering marvel that connects the city of Xining to Lhasa, Tibet. It’s the first railway to navigate the mountains and treacherous terrain that encompasses Tibet. Once you cross the Tanggula Pass at 5072 metres above sea level, you’re officially on the world’s highest railway, rolling through the world’s highest tunnel, and stopping at the world’s highest railway station. With stunning views across the mountains and permafrost, the journey is literally breathtaking. At this altitude, breathing can become an issue, but the cold-resistant carriages were built for such challenging environments, and carry oxygen supplies on board for each passenger, along with an onboard doctor.
The Rocky Mountaineer
Repeatedly named as one of the world’s great train journeys by everyone from National Geographic to Conde Nast Traveler, The Rocky Mountaineer belongs to North America’s largest private rail service, running 1000 km through some of the world’s best scenery. Unlike VIA’s Canadian, which continues onto Toronto, the Rocky Mountaineer is designed to showcase the glorious Rockies in all their glory, with guests seated in two-level glass-domed panoramic dome cars, while interpreters point out wildlife and sites of interest. Guests spend the night in the company’s hotel in Kamloops before continuing their journey from Banff/Jasper to Vancouver, or vice versa. Along with the outstanding meals, let the cocktails flow!
The Trans-Siberia / Trans Mongolian Railway
When creating this list, I erred on this side of luxury, only because I’ve spent many days travelling on some of the world’s more challenging train rides, and while the memories are precious, I wouldn’t necessarily wish them on my readers. Trains are great, but not when they’re scary, like the time I peed at gunpoint on the Russian-Mongolian border. It took me three weeks to journey from Beijing to St Petersburg on two of the world’s most legendary rail networks. Along the way I raced horses in Mongolia, swam in the world’s deepest lake, and was almost tasered by some corrupt cops. Rudimentary carriages were OK, even if the attendants were smuggling starched clothing in our pillows. Meals consisted of instant noodles, instant mash, and anything else we could whip up with graciously provided hot water. I grew to appreciate the sneer of the attendants, and the taste of vodka, which was cheap and plentiful. An incredible adventure, definitely. But not for everyone.
The Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad, more affectionately known as El ChePe, carries locals and tourists over 400 miles through the Sierra Madre mountains and the magnificent Copper Canyon. Departing Los Mochis in the morning and arriving in Chihuahua late in the evening, the train crosses 36 bridges (one at over 1000 feet) and 87 tunnels. It stops at 13 stations along the way, allowing travellers to hop on and off to explore the region. There are two classes to choose from, with the Primero Express offering a dining car as opposed to the Economico’s snack bar, but it’s the scenery that provides the tastiest fodder. Mexico’s most scenic train chugs alongside stunning jungle, mountains, canyons waterfalls, and even high desert.
The Royal Scotsman
The Scottish Highlands are yours for the taking. By yours, I refer to the 36 guests pampered in absolute luxury aboard the Royal Scotsman. The train offers 2 to 7 night itineraries that take in the majestic Highlands, along with themed trips like the 4-night Classic Whisky Journey in conjunction with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Enjoy gourmet bliss in the mahogany-panelled dining car, and make sure to pack a kilt for alternating formal nights (if you forget, you can still hire one). Twin, Double and Single cabins are equipped with in-suite bathrooms, with the plush sofas in the observation car perfect to watch quaint villages and medieval castles pass you by.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.