Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Rail travel

For the author of Around the World in 80 Trains this was a standout journey, full of captivating encounters that could only happen on a train

With the air of melodrama unique to chic French women, the lady opposite me yanked open the overhead window then sat back down, grumbling to no one in particular and fanning herself with a copy of Paris Match. An aroma of pine filtered into the carriage and a breeze cooled my brow as the train clattered south to Bziers. Edging up to the window, I looked down to where a curl of sand and green water had appeared, an oasis where children bobbed about in dinghies and leapt off limestone rocks. This was the essence of why I love train travel: it allows me to see whats behind the trees in the Massif Central; to smell the coconut being fried in huts in Kerala; and to spot rainbows hovering in the spray of Niagara Falls.

Only
Only on a train the writer chats to a Tibetan nun in China

A week earlier I had set off from London St Pancras to Paris with the aim of travelling around the world in 80 trains. In 2010, I had travelled around India in 80 trains and come away in thrall to the railways so much so that I decided to embark on a global railway adventure. For a long time, the rise of high-speed trains and budget airlines appeared to threaten the notion of romantic rail travel. But I wanted to see what slow travel means to people all over the world and what long-distance trains still have to offer the modern-day traveller. Hanging a map on my wall, I pinned cities of interest and tied coloured string from one to the next, watching the next seven months of my life wind around the world with surprising simplicity. With the exception of visas for Russia, China and Vietnam, few logistical issues arose. I bought rail passes for Europe, Japan and America, and booked long-distance journeys such as the Trans-Mongolian and The Canadian, before setting off, sewing in the other trains with ease.

Over the first four weeks, Europes TGVs, AVEs and Freccia Rossas swept me from city to city, allowing me to lunch on cassoulet in Toulouse and be in Barcelona in time for a dinner of gambas al ajillo. Punctual, quiet and efficient, the air-conditioned trains fulfilled their primary purpose taking me from one destination to the next but they were devoid of soul. Passengers boarded, stashed their bags and sat in silence, staring at phones and munching paper-wrapped panini. I threaded through Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia before arriving in Moscow to board the Godfather of trains the Trans-Mongolian to Beijing. It was here that the journey truly began

A
A Russian locomotive

On the morning of departure, sirens wailed and police cordons appeared around Moscow, closing metro stations and blocking access to supermarkets owing to the arrival of Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. This meant I was unable to stockpile anything other than a four-pack of instant noodles, a couple of Kinder Bueno bars and all the biscuits and herbal teabags from my hotel room before embarking on the four-night leg to Irkutsk in Siberia.

Once on board, I surveyed my compartment complete with cracked window and condom wrapper under the berth before wandering up the corridor, glancing into my neighbours digs and wincing at the smell of dried omul (a fish found only in Lake Baikal) drifting in a warm fug. Long and thin as though ironed into strips, the yellowing fish was a staple in the makeshift pantries set up by my companions, along with loaves of bread and rounds of cheese wrapped in wet cloth. Breaking into a panic, I followed the tiring sound of Euro-trance and found the disco-dining car, relieved to see a kitchen, even though the chef was lighting a cigarette off the hob while smiling at me.

Trans-Siberian
Trans-Siberian train window

Once the train had jolted out of Moscow, I slid into a red booth and tucked into a slightly faggy-tasting pork escalope draped in dill. As we sped through the bleakness of the suburbs, I was joined by Aleksandr and Aleksandr, both in Adidas vests and sliders, and wondering what on earth I was doing on board.

This train is trash, I hate it! declared Aleksandr I, a young lawyer. A lack of roads meant that he was condemned to using the Trans-Mongolian twice a month to attend court hearings 13 hours away in Kirov: one persons bucket-list adventure is anothers nightmare commute. He said he had never seen an English person on board the train which, it transpired, was a domestic service used by Russians only rather than the fancy Rossiya service preferred by tourists. Aleksandr II was visiting his parents, a five-day journey away, and was convinced I was a spy, photographing every page of my diary under the guise of liking my handwriting.

In between attempts to read War and Peace, I spent the next four days lying in damp, tangled sheets watching leafless trees flit by the window. Most afternoons Id play cards with kids or swap tat with soldiers, offering second-class stamps in exchange for a tube of Pringles or a smoke grenade, enjoying the clamour and constant companionship. But at dusk Id stand alone in the corridor meditating on the mists as they swirled in great halos. Charged by the sight of the world moving at pace before my eyes, Id still myself, knowing I was privileged to witness how deeply this train carved through the Earth, shining a light into its darkest corners.

Restaurant
Restaurant owners grilling fresh mutton kebabs in China

Like most travellers, I broke up the journey in Irkutsk and spent a day chugging around Lake Baikal on the old Circum-Baikal steam railway before boarding the overnight Rossiya service to Ulaanbaatar. Fitted with soft-cushioned berths, automatic doors and heated toilets, the train rocked me into gentle slumber until I was screamed awake in the pre-dawn darkness by a sadistic provodnitsa (carriage attendant).

Often, an unavoidable side effect of long-distance train travel is finding yourself at the mercy of awkward timetables. Faced with the dilemma of spending five days in Mongolia which wasnt enough time to trek across the countryside or a measly two nights in the capital Ulaanbaatar before the final leg to Beijing, I opted for the latter, spooning up mutton broth with students at a popular restaurant called Modern Nomads, where the staff wore Genghis Khan outfits and white-collar workers sat around drinking Johnnie Walker and watching bad music videos. The following morning the final train thundered towards China across the Gobi desert, a thirsty, rust-red terrain mottled with tufts of yellowing grass. In the distance sat round nomads gers, their funnels piping smoke into the sky, double-humped camels tethered to the ground.

Beijing
End of the line Beijing

It had been almost six weeks since Id glided out of St Pancras, and I was 6,000 miles away, all of which Id covered by rail. Inching through forests, curving around coasts and burrowing deep into the guts of towns and cities, these slow trains had destroyed my concepts of distance and space, and replaced them with a new truth: that we couldnt be more close or connected. From one country to the next, Id sat at the foot of my berth, my view universal: hawkers sold their wares, lovers held hands, and children played football. Id watched the skies close in, the ground level out, the seas pull apart and the land unlock. And now, as we sped towards the Chinese capital, billboards closing in, wires swinging low and buildings edging towards the tracks, I felt an undeniable sense of place. Slowing into the station, the train creaked and came to a halt. Through the roar of the crowd, rumbling of cases and muffled announcements, I stepped on to the platform and allowed Beijing to sweep me into its embrace.

How to do it

The Eurostar from London to Paris starts at 44 one-way. Consider an Interrail pass for travelling across Europe: a seven-days in one month option covering 31 countries costs 260 adult or 216 youth. There is also a weekly train direct from Paris Gare de lEst to Moscow from 267 one-way (see seat61.com for details).Booking from Moscow to Beijing takes a bit of planning as each segment needs to be reserved separately; Real Russias advisers can help with what can be a daunting exercise, booking each segment, making hotel reservations and organising Russian and Chinese visas.

The paperback edition of Monisha Rajeshs Around the World in 80 Trains is out on 23 January (Bloomsbury, 9.99)

Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips

This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2020/jan/12/trans-mongolian-railway-train-london-moscow-beijing-russia-china

A slow boat across the Atlantic plus a scenic train home to Vancouver add up to a hugely enjoyable three-week trip

Are you a crew member? the security guard asked, fixing me with a stare in the vans rear-view mirror. Passenger, I replied. The guard gave me a quizzical look then muttered something to himself in German, shaking his head. It was 7am and the port of Hamburg was a hive of activity, our port security van speeding past whirring cranes and towering stacks of shipping containers. As the ships immense hull came into view, I entered a world where everything was larger, louder and more dangerous than my life on land. The 300-metre, 100,000-tonne vessel before me was to be my home for the next 15 days.

Four months earlier I had made a reservation on a cargo ship to take me from Hamburg to Halifax, Nova Scotia. My European work visa was expiring and I hoped to make it home to the west coast of Canada in time for Christmas. Recent campaigns such as the Swedish flygskam (flight shame) had shone a harsh light on my blindness to the climate impact of air travel, and I had decided that booking a flight wasnt an option. Since 2017, Id emitted over 14 tonnes of carbon from flights alone. I realised that all my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint at home in Milan I cycle to work, limit food waste and seldom buy new clothes are wiped out by just one flight between Canada and Europe.

View
First stop Antwerp en route from Hamburg to Halifax

Sustainable travel within Europe often involves trading a plane for a train, but getting to Canada from Europe is more complex. A cargo ship became the obvious low-carbon choice. Shipping companies sell surplus cabin space through selected travel agents and I booked my passage through Berlin-based Slowtravel Experience. This is still a niche mode of travel and ships rarely have room for more than a dozen passengers, so booking well in advance, especially for peak times, is essential. Flexibility with travel dates is also crucial. I was notified just days before departure that the ship would be leaving three days ahead of schedule, and had I not already been in Germany, I would have literally missed the boat.

I anticipated a long and tiresome journey (I packed dozens of books and downloaded films) and had visions of gruelling nights spent with my face in a barf bag, but my experience on board could not have been more enjoyable. The two other passengers, Tony from the Netherlands and Janos from Germany, were hitching a ride for the same environmental reasons and their company made time fly by. Our cabins were simple and comfortable, each with private toilet and shower, two single beds, a desk and vast ocean views. The 25 crew members, a mix of Filipino and eastern European men, were warm and friendly. I was in all-male company for my transatlantic voyage but Isabel Hagen, a Swedish student I met through a friend, made the voyage earlier this year, and said shed had a positive experience as a solo female traveller: The crew was welcoming, respectful, and polite from the moment I stepped on board.

The
The writers cabin

Left mostly to our own devices, Janos, Tony and I filled our days with darts tournaments, jigsaw puzzles and raucous games of Risk. One morning we played chess on a deck bathed in sunshine; the next afternoon Tony lost his knitted cap to hurricane-force winds off Newfoundland. During port calls in Antwerp and Liverpool, we were allowed to disembark and explore both for a day. Back on board, a daily routine quickly emerged: morning coffee on the bridge with the gregarious chief officer, sociable mealtimes with the crew, and hourly strolls around the outer decks, the frigid ocean wind buffeting my face and dark waters churning below.

A highlight was a mornings tour of the ship, led by crew members. Passenger access to working spaces was restricted, so the chance to walk through the bowels of the ship from bow to stern was eye-opening. In addition to nearly 4,000 containers stacked on the exterior decks, there were six roll-on, roll-off decks carrying vehicles, ranging from a fleet of Range Rovers and transport trucks for the US army to an aeroplane fuselage. As the captain explained, the complexities of the enormous operation, I marvelled at the sheer scale of everything around us, an industry responsible for transporting 90% of goods worldwide.

Arriving
Arriving in Halifax after 15 days on board

Life on board was so immersive that after a few days I didnt even mind the food. Passengers dine with the crew, and meals are meat- and starch-heavy, with few vegetables (think beef stew and mash or bacon-wrapped chicken portions). As I soon came to understand, the luxury of being at sea is not about fine food or a plush mattress; rather, life at sea itself the tranquil pace and intoxicating sense of adventure is the true luxury. When I finally set foot on dry land in Halifax, it was hard to say goodbye to the hulking ship that had come to feel like home.

Arriving in Halifax, I still had more than 6,000km to go to get home (further than London to New York), this time by train. With limited passenger rail infrastructure, a cross-country trip in Canada means a halting, week-long adventure rather than high-speed rail jaunt. Theres no single coast-to-coast train, so after an overnight train from Halifax I spent a night each in Montreal and Toronto before boarding The Canadian, VIA Rails flagship sleeper train to Vancouver. Designed for tourists, it has a charming dining car, glass-domed observation decks, live music and even wine tastings during the four-night trip.

Approaching
Approaching the Rocky Mountains on the VIA train, the Canadian

As on the ship I was immediately struck by the hospitality of the crew servers and attendants who seemed genuinely happy to be there despite being thousands of kilometres from home. The food was impressive as well, like the brunches of fluffy buttermilk pancakes drowning in the maple syrup that Id missed so much in Europe. Dinners of hemp-crusted trout, roast veal chops and fresh vegetables were equally delicious. The atmosphere among passengers was jovial, with communal mealtimes and a rowdy bar where we swapped travel stories.

As on the ship, the vast expanses passing by my window made the journey special: the endless boreal forests of northern Ontario, the icy, placid prairies and the magnificent Rockies in the west, every landscape shimmering under mid-December snow. Sitting in the dome car watching a blazing sun set over white Quebec forests and waking to whiteout blizzards in Manitoba deepened my connection to the land I call home, and reaffirmed my commitment to protecting this natural beauty.

Dome
Dome car on board the Canadian train

Stepping off the train in Vancouver, having travelled more than 13,000km and crossed nine timezones, that van ride at dawn through the dreary port of Hamburg felt like a lifetime ago. World travel with a low carbon footprint may not be convenient or easy, but I had proved to myself that it is achievable. Now its time to plan my next adventure.

Way to go

The 15-day cargo ship passage from Hamburg to Halifax, booked through Berlin-based Slowtravel Experience, costs just under 100 a day (including full-board and carbon offset) in a two-person cabin. The best-known shipping companies offering passenger berths include Hamburg Sd and Grimaldi Lines. Other agencies to look at are New Zealand Freighter Travel, London-based Cruise People, and Maris Freighter Cruises. Train travel was provided by VIA Rail Canada. The Ocean travels from Halifax to Montreal three times a week from 68 (C$117) one way, daily trains from Montreal to Toronto from 22 one-way and The Canadian, from Toronto to Vancouver twice weekly from 271 one-way.

Carbon emissions (according to weight of passenger)

Flight Frankfurt-Vancouver: 1.3 tonnes*
Cargo ship Hamburg-Halifax (via Antwerp & Liverpool): 5.3kg**
Trains Halifax-Vancouver: 204.2kg***
Total CO2 Hamburg to Vancouver: 209.5kg
* myclimate Foundation
**International Council on Clean Transportation
***Via Rail

Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2020/jan/07/cargo-ship-train-rail-to-vancouver-canada-low-carbon-travel-europe