Monisha Rajesh's 5 Favourite Train Journeys
Hugely entertaining and endlessly enlightening, Monisha Rajesh's Around the World in 80 Trains is one of the stand-out works of travel writing of recent years. In this exclusive piece, Monisha shares the train journeys from around the globe that she has enjoyed the most.
Hanoi to Da Nang (Vietnam)
Beginning its journey in the roar of Hanoi, the Reunification Express runs the length of the country, curling all the way down to Saigon. However, the finest segment of this two-night adventure sits between Hanoi and Da Nang. Throughout the Vietnam War the railway was bruised and battered by American bombs, but resurrected itself and resumed a regular service after the country’s reunification in 1976. Threading around the capital city, the train offers voyeuristic views into the backs of houses as families unwind for the night, before emerging the following morning in glorious sunshine. Climbing for miles through rising jungle, banana leaves flapping against the windows, the train comes within inches of villagers’ walls and gardens, so close you can make eye contact and wave. At the final stretch, the train curls around the clifftops overlooking the South China Sea where a finger of golden sand runs along the edge of the water at Lang Co Bay, before finally pulling into Da Nang station.
Cannes to Ventimiglia (France/Italy)
All commuter trains run along this route from France into Italy, which begins in the prim Riviera city and ends ninety minutes later in the lovely shambling Italian market town of Ventimiglia. Hugging the curves of a sparkling Ligurian Sea, the double-decker train runs through lesser-known coastal hideaways like Cagnes-sur-mer, Juan les Pins and Antibes, taking passengers through sun-kissed towns and villages where bougainvillea pour down the walls of pink and yellow apartment blocks, and men with orange chests play pétanque. Stopping at Nice and Monaco, the train brings travellers within gawping distance of yachts bobbing in the bays, teens playing beach volleyball, and Lamborghinis growling along the streets, before approaching roughly stacked hillsides and slowing into the old Italian station.
Xining to Lhasa (China)
Few train journeys can literally take your breath away, but as the Qinghai-Tibet railway peaks at more than 5,000m above sea level, most passengers will experience some altitude sickness on this extraordinary ride. Connecting Xining in mainland China to Lhasa in Tibet, the highest railway in the world runs through territory so treacherous that it was deemed an engineering impossibility. Waking in the morning to the hiss of purified oxygen being pumped into the compartment, passengers pull up the blackout blind to find views resembling a Rothko painting: a slab of electric blue sky above a block of yellow plateau. Lakes shimmer like molten metal and dreadlocked yaks graze up the hillsides. As the train ascends, the air grows thinner and the dust turns to ice, a blue glow from the Kunlun Mountains closing in around the carriages. On the descent to Lhasa, the terrain smooths out into slopes as soft as suede, with the odd nomad tent strung with prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
Jasper to Prince Rupert (Canada)
The Skeena train (also known as The Rupert Rocket) travels from Jasper National Park in Alberta deep into the nooks and crannies of British Columbia, where few Canadians have ever been. Departing three days a week the train winds northwest, passing a snow-covered Mount Robson – the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies – the Cariboo Mountains and armies of douglas fir marching down the hillsides. Running along the edge of perfectly still, teal-green lakes, below blazing blue skies, the train allows passengers to look for black bears, white-tailed deer, elk, moose and bald eagles from inside the warmth and comfort of a panoramic dome car. With an overnight stop in Prince George, the train runs through tiny stations named Kwinitsa, Vanderhoof and Penny – home to nine people and four dogs – passing First Nations reservations, sawmill settlements and freshwater lakes filled with salmon, before eventually arriving in Prince Rupert.
Bangkok to Nam Tok (Thailand)
During the Second World War the Japanese subjected allied prisoners of war to forced labour building a stretch of railway connecting Thailand to Burma with the hope of invading India. Stricken by cholera, beriberi, dysentery and dengue, the men built 257 miles of railway track in fourteen months – 372 including branch lines and sidings – with one death for every sleeper laid. Known now as the “Death Railway”, this is a beautiful but sombre journey that passengers can still experience along a remaining segment from Bangkok Thonburi station to Nam Tok station in Kanchanaburi. Departing twice a day, the train rattles west through jungled territory, brushing against monsoon-heavy branches that sweep through the windows and snap off, scattering twigs around the aisles. Crossing the infamous bridge on the river Kwai, the train rumbles along old wooden trestles, passing tiny, brightly coloured stations, and hooting its arrival while onboard hawkers sell hot noodles, fishcakes and bottles of iced Nescafé.
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