Narrow-gauge and offbeat railways

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Addressing ITN subscribers, we previously printed the following information request from Jack and Elizabeth Kaufman of Lake Quivira, Kansas: “We would be interested in travelers’ suggestions for scenic or unusual railroad trips.

“Traveling by rail on narrow-gauge tracks or offbeat routes can provide fascinating insights into rural communities, not to mention incredible vistas. Some tourist spots can only be reached in this way. Whether it’s a route used primarily by locals for daily transportation or something that all visitors do, we would like to hear about any offbeat train trip that offers a special experience of some type.”

We specified that you write about any recent offbeat rail experience outside of the US, describing the train and telling us where your trip took place and what was memorable about it. We also asked you to tell us approximately when (month/year) the trip took place and to provide any contact information or instructions on finding the location.

We printed a few responses in last month’s issue, a few more appear below, and we’ll wrap it up next month.


Though not a railroad veteran, I have managed to glide the rails on five continents. (My favorites are probably the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway “toy train” in INDIA and the ALASKA Railroad GoldStar Dome Train from Fairbanks to Denali Park). Sadly, I never seem to appreciate the romance of rail travel as much as many of the ITN subscribers whose accounts I have read. I say this to validate more strongly the delight and adventure my wife, Janna, and I experienced, Sept. 27-Oct. 2, 2010, on the 2,250-mile rail odyssey from Beijing to Lhasa in Tibet, CHINA.

The route has more “world record” superlatives than I can remember, but a few are highest rail pass (over 16,000 feet), highest average route height, highest railroad tunnel, etc.

The route, itself, is an incredible engineering marvel, as much of it is elevated on pilings inserted into a vast expanse of solid permafrost, while other sections, where thaws may occur, are stabilized by solar-powered soil-freezing devices beneath the track.

For this trip, Janna and I booked a package tour for about $1,250 per person, which covered transport from the airport to the hotel in Beijing, an escort from the hotel to the train, our train fare, two hotel nights in Lhasa, touring in Lhasa, and the return flight from Lhasa to Beijing via Chengdu.

We booked through Top China Travel (based in Guilin, China; phone, in the US, 800/918-2657, www.topchinatravel.com), which I found after doing an online search for “Tibet train.” Booking through them by email was an excellent experience. (Getting advice about obtaining a visa prior to booking is a good idea, as restrictions are sometimes imposed.)

We flew into Beijing on Sept. 24, a few days before our train departure, in order to de-jetlag, sightsee by bus and taxi, visit flea markets and explore dining options. (I’m still boggled over the “hairy crabs” at one restaurant.) 

Separately from the package price, we paid for our three hotel nights in Beijing before the rail trip and for one night at a Beijing airport hotel afterward, flying back to the US on Oct. 3. Ever the budget travelers, we used frequent-flyer miles for our international airfare.

The rail adventure began in Beijing at the huge West Railway Station, an imposing destination of ancient Chinese architecture, itself, and rated to accommodate as many as 400,000 passengers per day! 

Arriving early for the evening departure, we found the seats full, so we flopped down with our luggage, pulled out a deck of cards and started playing blackjack on our suitcase, teaching the game to our guide. She then showed us a simple Chinese card game, and, before long, we had a circle of folks watching rather excitedly and sometimes making suggestions as to our play.

The place is cavernous, and, though there was a huge display of schedules plus blurry loudspeaker announcements, we were very glad that our arrangements included having an escort to help us board.

We filled out mandatory health cards (asking things like “any flu symptoms?”) and were glad to note the smoking ban on all parts of the train. 

I guess it would be important to note that the train was clean, functional and comfortable but did not have the luxury that might be expected by an “Orient Express” kind of traveler. 

Since train tickets to Tibet are generally bought up in advance by local travel agencies (especially during summer), one needs to purchase tickets from an agency. Also, upon request, they can assure a “soft berth” instead of a “hard” one. The former has four bunks (two upper and two lower), whereas the latter has six bunks, which makes the compartment rather crowded, with the upper berth a struggle for those of a certain age.

Hygiene-wise, on board we scouted two community bathrooms with stainless-steel toilets (no showers) and were happy to find that one was a “sitter,” as we are not fond of the squat variety.

Settling into our compartment, we met the cheerful couple occupying the other set of beds, local travelers who spoke limited English and were making only half of the Tibet run.

The train moved smoothly, and soon we were asleep. Although the train made seven stops during the night, my wife and I each woke up only once when people made a little noise boarding the train. 

The next morning we had breakfast in the dining car and got to use some of the 50 pidgin-Mandarin-Chinese words we had learned for the trip. Meals were not included in the fare, but prices were reasonable and a menu with pictures of the selections was available. 

The car was available for beer, tea or coffee during off dining hours. A TV screen in the car displayed what appeared to be our next destination and speed (often above 200 kilometers per hour). 

The first part of the route often followed river courses and provided views of both rural and urban settings across the rich panoply of greater China. Stops were fairly brief.

The second day, heading toward the Himalayas, I found the vistas across the endless tundra fascinating, with yaks grazing in small groups as far as the horizon, which was punctuated by huge snowy peaks. As we approached the second night and entered a more mountainous region, one could feel the twists and hilly character of the landscape.

At the high altitudes, there were oxygen masks available for anyone needing them, but the train cars were pressurized like airplanes and we found the pressurization sufficient.

Our afternoon arrival in Lhasa was a shock to my preconception, as we found a very modern, newly minted city with all the attendant tall buildings, traffic and bustle of a half million inhabitants. The stunning and venerable Potala Palace was surrounded by a huge park area set in the midst of the metropolitan area.

Our tour included a drive in the city and the surrounding area, visits to the venerable Barkhor Street district and a monastery plus trekking in the surrounding mountains. We found the Tibetans to be very hospitable, but some of the Chinese inhabitants were a little wary about our ideas of Tibet as a region. Nevertheless, we felt Lhasa was a marvelous destination.

From this traveler’s perspective, it seems to me anyone with a true lust for rail travel should not miss this, one of the most unique, scenic, exotic and intriguing rail adventures on the planet. Although the train is far from plush and elegant, the comfort level is reasonable, and the cultural immersion offers a unique delight for any lover of the rails.

Norm Loeffler, New Braunfels, TX

 

I took my children and their families to CHINA in 2012. Since I had been there numerous times, I wanted to have a new experience for myself after the family trip. The rail journey from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, MONGOLIA, came to mind.

I can’t remember the agency I arranged our transfer through, but my husband and I were really glad we booked their service. We were picked up from our hotel, driven to the rail station and led to our cabin on the train. Even though I speak some Mandarin Chinese, the station was huge and confusing, with nothing in English.

We had a private cabin for two, with our own bathroom. We had seats opposite each other, across a small table, and the beds were quite comfortable. Outside, the landscape was mostly desert and not especially scenic, but we love train trips, so that didn’t detract from our enjoyment. 

We hadn’t taken along a lot of snacks because we understood that we would find vendors at stops along the way. That was a mistake! There were a few vendors, but nothing they had looked appetizing, not even a bag of peanuts. (Were we to do this again, I would take lots of snacks, especially those packages of dried ramen noodles that you can add hot water to.)

We had lunch in the dining car, but when we returned for dinner we were informed that they were out of food. (Had we had those noodle packages, we could have just gone back to our cabin and asked our attendant for hot water.) This was when my foreign-language skills came in handy.

I appealed to the cook, and eventually everyone was served sautéed cabbage and pork with rice. It was quite tasty.

 Around midnight, the train stopped at the border. There was a large building where there might have been shops, but we were asked to stay on the train. The train was lifted so the wheels could be changed to a different gauge, since the track gauge changed at the border. There was a bit of clanging and activity. We were already in our pajamas and too sleepy to go out and watch. 

We had given our passports to the attendant for the border crossing, but the Immigration officer still came into the cabin to take a look at us. After an hour or so, we were again on our way.

The next morning, we looked out our window and saw homesteads and yurts. We made our way to breakfast with trepidation, wondering what was going to happen in regard to food. 

Lo and behold, we had an entirely different dining car, decorated in a Mongolian theme, and a different crew. Things were pretty rustic and rudimentary. There were tablecloths, but they weren’t changed between seatings, and the quality of our Western breakfast left a bit to be desired, but we did get a meal.

All in all, we enjoyed our rail adventure and our time in Ulaanbaatar.

Nancy Tan, Fresno, CA

 

While a travel buddy, Bob Geiman, and I were traveling across Asia in April 2011, we stayed near the train station in Johor Bahru, MALAYSIA, and commuted for several days to Singapore before taking a train to Thailand. 

At the time, the Malaysian ringgit (MYR) was worth a fifth the value of the Singaporean dollar, and we found that some train tickets bought in Malaysia cost much less than those (for the same routes) bought in Singapore.

For example, a ticket from Johor Bahru to Singapore which cost seven ringgits was priced from Singapore to Johor Bahru at seven Singaporean dollars, thus, for an upcoming train trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we bought our ticket at the station in Johor Bahru, saving a lot of money.

For seniors, the 330-kilometer train trip from Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur cost MYR21 (about $7 in April 2011). The train was an express; we averaged about 50 miles per hour, mostly on a single track. The toilets were Western-style at one end and the squat type at the other. 

The next day, for the same price, Bob and I took the Ekspres Rakyat train the 350 kilometers to Butterworth, Malaysia (then went to Penang by ferry). We could have gone “premier class” for less than double that.

No one in Malaysia seemed to know about the train from Butterworth to Chumphon City, THAILAND, because it was a Thai train, but we were prepared with advance research. To take that train (departing, at the time, at about 2 p.m.), for about $11 we bought tickets for a sleeper, which was a little tight but adequate. Western toilets were in each car, and at 7 p.m. we enjoyed food sold on board by the crew.

The train arrived in Chumphon City 3½ hours late, which allowed us needed sleep. The conductor gave us a 10-minute warning before reaching our destination. Upon our arrival, the train to Bangkok was sold out, so we took the bus (first making a side trip to Myanmar).

Later, in May, we took trains from Ho Chi Minh City, VIETNAM, to Moscow, RUSSIA. We had arranged visas for Vietnam, China and Russia in advance. The trains in Vietnam were narrow-gauge.

In Vietnam, we stayed at Madam Cuc 127 (127 Cô´ng Quy`nh, Nguyê˜n Cu Trinh, Quâ·n 1, Hô` Chí Minh, Vietnam; phone +84 8 3836 8761, www.madamcuchotels.com), where for $20 we got two beds, A/C, TV (nine channels in Vietnamese), breakfast and dinner. More importantly, we had the help of the delightful, English-speaking staff, who arranged our train tickets to Hanoi ($75 each).

This train was old and worn, and the upper berths were not too easily accessed by 74-year-olds. Sometimes, the train rocked pretty hard. Hardly anyone used the dining car, where I spent $5.13 on two meals and drinks. The trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi took two nights and a day.

A few days later we took a train to Guilin, China, for 3,249,000 dong ($168) each. Getting away from narrow-gauge trains was expensive.

I would be glad to provide a PDF of my 61-page journal by email. Just ask at cboyer3154@yahoo.com.

Carl Boyer, Newhall, CA

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

Addressing ITN subscribers, we previously printed the following information request from Jack and Elizabeth Kaufman of Lake Quivira, Kansas: “We would be interested in travelers’ suggestions for scenic or unusual railroad trips.

“Traveling by rail on narrow-gauge tracks or offbeat routes can provide fascinating insights into rural communities, not to mention incredible vistas. Some tourist spots can only be reached in this way. Whether it’s a route used primarily by locals for daily transportation or something that all visitors do, we would like to hear about any offbeat train trip that offers a special experience of some type.”

We specified that you write about any recent offbeat rail experience outside of the US, describing the train and telling us where your trip took place and what was memorable about it. We also asked you to tell us approximately when (month/year) the trip took place and to provide any contact information or instructions on finding the location.

We printed a few responses in last month’s issue, a few more appear below, and we’ll wrap it up next month.


Though not a railroad veteran, I have managed to glide the rails on five continents. (My favorites are probably the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway “toy train” in INDIA and the ALASKA Railroad GoldStar Dome Train from Fairbanks to Denali Park). Sadly, I never seem to appreciate the romance of rail travel as much as many of the ITN subscribers whose accounts I have read. I say this to validate more strongly the delight and adventure my wife, Janna, and I experienced, Sept. 27-Oct. 2, 2010, on the 2,250-mile rail odyssey from Beijing to Lhasa in Tibet, CHINA.

The route has more “world record” superlatives than I can remember, but a few are highest rail pass (over 16,000 feet), highest average route height, highest railroad tunnel, etc.

The route, itself, is an incredible engineering marvel, as much of it is elevated on pilings inserted into a vast expanse of solid permafrost, while other sections, where thaws may occur, are stabilized by solar-powered soil-freezing devices beneath the track.

For this trip, Janna and I booked a package tour for about $1,250 per person, which covered transport from the airport to the hotel in Beijing, an escort from the hotel to the train, our train fare, two hotel nights in Lhasa, touring in Lhasa, and the return flight from Lhasa to Beijing via Chengdu.

We booked through Top China Travel (based in Guilin, China; phone, in the US, 800/918-2657, www.topchinatravel.com), which I found after doing an online search for “Tibet train.” Booking through them by email was an excellent experience. (Getting advice about obtaining a visa prior to booking is a good idea, as restrictions are sometimes imposed.)

We flew into Beijing on Sept. 24, a few days before our train departure, in order to de-jetlag, sightsee by bus and taxi, visit flea markets and explore dining options. (I’m still boggled over the “hairy crabs” at one restaurant.) 

Separately from the package price, we paid for our three hotel nights in Beijing before the rail trip and for one night at a Beijing airport hotel afterward, flying back to the US on Oct. 3. Ever the budget travelers, we used frequent-flyer miles for our international airfare.

The rail adventure began in Beijing at the huge West Railway Station, an imposing destination of ancient Chinese architecture, itself, and rated to accommodate as many as 400,000 passengers per day! 

Arriving early for the evening departure, we found the seats full, so we flopped down with our luggage, pulled out a deck of cards and started playing blackjack on our suitcase, teaching the game to our guide. She then showed us a simple Chinese card game, and, before long, we had a circle of folks watching rather excitedly and sometimes making suggestions as to our play.

The place is cavernous, and, though there was a huge display of schedules plus blurry loudspeaker announcements, we were very glad that our arrangements included having an escort to help us board.

We filled out mandatory health cards (asking things like “any flu symptoms?”) and were glad to note the smoking ban on all parts of the train. 

I guess it would be important to note that the train was clean, functional and comfortable but did not have the luxury that might be expected by an “Orient Express” kind of traveler. 

Since train tickets to Tibet are generally bought up in advance by local travel agencies (especially during summer), one needs to purchase tickets from an agency. Also, upon request, they can assure a “soft berth” instead of a “hard” one. The former has four bunks (two upper and two lower), whereas the latter has six bunks, which makes the compartment rather crowded, with the upper berth a struggle for those of a certain age.

Hygiene-wise, on board we scouted two community bathrooms with stainless-steel toilets (no showers) and were happy to find that one was a “sitter,” as we are not fond of the squat variety.

Settling into our compartment, we met the cheerful couple occupying the other set of beds, local travelers who spoke limited English and were making only half of the Tibet run.

The train moved smoothly, and soon we were asleep. Although the train made seven stops during the night, my wife and I each woke up only once when people made a little noise boarding the train. 

The next morning we had breakfast in the dining car and got to use some of the 50 pidgin-Mandarin-Chinese words we had learned for the trip. Meals were not included in the fare, but prices were reasonable and a menu with pictures of the selections was available. 

The car was available for beer, tea or coffee during off dining hours. A TV screen in the car displayed what appeared to be our next destination and speed (often above 200 kilometers per hour). 

The first part of the route often followed river courses and provided views of both rural and urban settings across the rich panoply of greater China. Stops were fairly brief.

The second day, heading toward the Himalayas, I found the vistas across the endless tundra fascinating, with yaks grazing in small groups as far as the horizon, which was punctuated by huge snowy peaks. As we approached the second night and entered a more mountainous region, one could feel the twists and hilly character of the landscape.

At the high altitudes, there were oxygen masks available for anyone needing them, but the train cars were pressurized like airplanes and we found the pressurization sufficient.

Our afternoon arrival in Lhasa was a shock to my preconception, as we found a very modern, newly minted city with all the attendant tall buildings, traffic and bustle of a half million inhabitants. The stunning and venerable Potala Palace was surrounded by a huge park area set in the midst of the metropolitan area.

Our tour included a drive in the city and the surrounding area, visits to the venerable Barkhor Street district and a monastery plus trekking in the surrounding mountains. We found the Tibetans to be very hospitable, but some of the Chinese inhabitants were a little wary about our ideas of Tibet as a region. Nevertheless, we felt Lhasa was a marvelous destination.

From this traveler’s perspective, it seems to me anyone with a true lust for rail travel should not miss this, one of the most unique, scenic, exotic and intriguing rail adventures on the planet. Although the train is far from plush and elegant, the comfort level is reasonable, and the cultural immersion offers a unique delight for any lover of the rails.

Norm Loeffler, New Braunfels, TX

 

I took my children and their families to CHINA in 2012. Since I had been there numerous times, I wanted to have a new experience for myself after the family trip. The rail journey from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, MONGOLIA, came to mind.

I can’t remember the agency I arranged our transfer through, but my husband and I were really glad we booked their service. We were picked up from our hotel, driven to the rail station and led to our cabin on the train. Even though I speak some Mandarin Chinese, the station was huge and confusing, with nothing in English.

We had a private cabin for two, with our own bathroom. We had seats opposite each other, across a small table, and the beds were quite comfortable. Outside, the landscape was mostly desert and not especially scenic, but we love train trips, so that didn’t detract from our enjoyment. 

We hadn’t taken along a lot of snacks because we understood that we would find vendors at stops along the way. That was a mistake! There were a few vendors, but nothing they had looked appetizing, not even a bag of peanuts. (Were we to do this again, I would take lots of snacks, especially those packages of dried ramen noodles that you can add hot water to.)

We had lunch in the dining car, but when we returned for dinner we were informed that they were out of food. (Had we had those noodle packages, we could have just gone back to our cabin and asked our attendant for hot water.) This was when my foreign-language skills came in handy.

I appealed to the cook, and eventually everyone was served sautéed cabbage and pork with rice. It was quite tasty.

 Around midnight, the train stopped at the border. There was a large building where there might have been shops, but we were asked to stay on the train. The train was lifted so the wheels could be changed to a different gauge, since the track gauge changed at the border. There was a bit of clanging and activity. We were already in our pajamas and too sleepy to go out and watch. 

We had given our passports to the attendant for the border crossing, but the Immigration officer still came into the cabin to take a look at us. After an hour or so, we were again on our way.

The next morning, we looked out our window and saw homesteads and yurts. We made our way to breakfast with trepidation, wondering what was going to happen in regard to food. 

Lo and behold, we had an entirely different dining car, decorated in a Mongolian theme, and a different crew. Things were pretty rustic and rudimentary. There were tablecloths, but they weren’t changed between seatings, and the quality of our Western breakfast left a bit to be desired, but we did get a meal.

All in all, we enjoyed our rail adventure and our time in Ulaanbaatar.

Nancy Tan, Fresno, CA

 

While a travel buddy, Bob Geiman, and I were traveling across Asia in April 2011, we stayed near the train station in Johor Bahru, MALAYSIA, and commuted for several days to Singapore before taking a train to Thailand. 

At the time, the Malaysian ringgit (MYR) was worth a fifth the value of the Singaporean dollar, and we found that some train tickets bought in Malaysia cost much less than those (for the same routes) bought in Singapore.

For example, a ticket from Johor Bahru to Singapore which cost seven ringgits was priced from Singapore to Johor Bahru at seven Singaporean dollars, thus, for an upcoming train trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we bought our ticket at the station in Johor Bahru, saving a lot of money.

For seniors, the 330-kilometer train trip from Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur cost MYR21 (about $7 in April 2011). The train was an express; we averaged about 50 miles per hour, mostly on a single track. The toilets were Western-style at one end and the squat type at the other. 

The next day, for the same price, Bob and I took the Ekspres Rakyat train the 350 kilometers to Butterworth, Malaysia (then went to Penang by ferry). We could have gone “premier class” for less than double that.

No one in Malaysia seemed to know about the train from Butterworth to Chumphon City, THAILAND, because it was a Thai train, but we were prepared with advance research. To take that train (departing, at the time, at about 2 p.m.), for about $11 we bought tickets for a sleeper, which was a little tight but adequate. Western toilets were in each car, and at 7 p.m. we enjoyed food sold on board by the crew.

The train arrived in Chumphon City 3½ hours late, which allowed us needed sleep. The conductor gave us a 10-minute warning before reaching our destination. Upon our arrival, the train to Bangkok was sold out, so we took the bus (first making a side trip to Myanmar).

Later, in May, we took trains from Ho Chi Minh City, VIETNAM, to Moscow, RUSSIA. We had arranged visas for Vietnam, China and Russia in advance. The trains in Vietnam were narrow-gauge.

In Vietnam, we stayed at Madam Cuc 127 (127 Cô´ng Quy`nh, Nguyê˜n Cu Trinh, Quâ·n 1, Hô` Chí Minh, Vietnam; phone +84 8 3836 8761, www.madamcuchotels.com), where for $20 we got two beds, A/C, TV (nine channels in Vietnamese), breakfast and dinner. More importantly, we had the help of the delightful, English-speaking staff, who arranged our train tickets to Hanoi ($75 each).

This train was old and worn, and the upper berths were not too easily accessed by 74-year-olds. Sometimes, the train rocked pretty hard. Hardly anyone used the dining car, where I spent $5.13 on two meals and drinks. The trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi took two nights and a day.

A few days later we took a train to Guilin, China, for 3,249,000 dong ($168) each. Getting away from narrow-gauge trains was expensive.

I would be glad to provide a PDF of my 61-page journal by email. Just ask at cboyer3154@yahoo.com.

Carl Boyer, Newhall, CA