If you’re dreaming of a unique vacation this year, what better way to create a memorable trip than to journey by train. It’s an idyllic way to appreciate stunning landscapes, meet fellow travelers and enjoy moments of reflection while the locomotive rumbles down the tracks.
To celebrate this time-honored means of transportation, Uncharted101 is dedicating its annual Bucket List of Destinations to 10 railway lines from around the world, each providing travelers with wonderful experiences that will leave long-lasting impressions.
Reunification Express – Vietnam
In 1936, France completed the line to connect Hanoi and Saigon while Vietnam was still one of its colonies. However, due to growing conflict between the north and south, train service stopped in 1954 when members of the Geneva Conference agreed to a temporary division of the country at the 17th parallel. It wasn’t until December 31, 1976 that transportation by train between the two cities resumed, hence reunifying Vietnam by rail once more. Though various trains run this extensive stretch, there isn’t one in particular that bears the name Reunification Express.
The serpentine route along the cliffs above the South China Sea between Huế and Đà Nẵng affords one of the most picturesque panoramas. The train then heads inland through the Ocean Cloud Pass, or Đèo Hải Vân, in the Truong Son Mountains. This 13-mile-long pass was also once a focal point during the Vietnam War, and a former French fortification at the summit used to serve as a bunker for the Americans and South Vietnamese.
The Toy Train – India
Also known as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, this little-steam-train-that-can travels a 48-mile route dotted by 13 stations in West Bengal. Famous for its loops and Z-reverses that help it to move up steep gradients, the rail line first opened as a tramway between Darjeeling and Siliguri in 1881, in order to reduce the two-day travel time to less than 24 hours and make the price of hill-grown rice more competitive with the crops on the plains.
At 7 mph, it takes 7 hours and 15 minutes for the train to chug its way along a two-foot-wide narrow gauge from New Jaipalguri to the 6,812-foot-high elevation of Darjeeling, all the while passing through forests and hugging swathes of tea plantations. If the weather cooperates at the Batasia Loop, passengers will also have a splendid view of Mt. Kanchenjunga, the third highest in the Himalayas.
The Copper Canyon Railway – Mexico
This renowned line nicknamed “El Chepe” (El Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico) opened in 1961. It travels nearly 400 miles on a route that introduces passengers to one of Mexico’s most spectacular natural wonders: the Copper Canyon. Located in the Sierra Madre Mountains in northwestern Mexico, the national park consists of six canyons and a wealth of human and geological history.
The trains not only cross 37 bridges and pass through 86 tunnels between the cities of Los Mochis and Chihuahua, but they also climb to an elevation of 7,874 feet above sea level. The one-way journey takes 16 hours to complete, which includes a stop in the town of Divisidero for the perfect photo op. However, the rail company also offers various packages of up to nine days, so that passengers can appreciate the wonders of this region at a leisurely pace.
White Pass & Yukon Railroad – Alaska, USA
During the height of the Klondike Gold Rush (1896 – 1899), it took 450 tons of dynamite to complete the 110-mile line from the deep-water Alaskan port of Skagway to Whitehorse, Yukon, in 1898. According to historical archives, 30,000 prospectors of an estimated 100,000 arrived in Klondike, but only 4,000 found the treasured gold in this harsh and remote region of North America.
Today, the narrow gauge railway traverses only 67.5 miles of the original line, ascending nearly 3,000 feet within 26 miles. Noted as a top shore excursion for cruise passengers, three different journeys present visitors with a spectacular spectrum of terrain to cast their eyes upon. Also, those who wish to travel onward to Whitehorse can do so by coach from Carcross at the US-Canadian border.
Rocky Mountaineer – Canada
When the Rockies of British Columbia and Alberta beckon the heart, then a trip with this luxury rail company will satisfy the desire. Various tours present picture-perfect scenery and famous natural sights, such as the glacier-blue waters of Lake Louise and the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies: Mt. Robson. Of course, there are moments to spot local wildlife, such as eagles, elk, bighorn sheep and, if you’re lucky, maybe even a bear.
The Rocky Mountaineer operates from mid-April to mid-October and provides the opportunity to combine featured routes of its network; compliment an excursion with an Alaskan cruise and connect Vancouver and Seattle via its Coastal Passage line. To take in the views of the scenery passing by, passengers can book the GoldLeaf Service for its glass-domed roof and full-length windows.
The Jacobite – Scotland, UK
It takes two hours for this steam train of the West Highlands to travel 21 miles between Fort Williams and the fishing port of Mallaig. The journey also crosses the 1,000-foot-long Glenfinnan Viaduct—it’s the longest concrete railway bridge in Scotland and boasts 21 arches. While traveling on it, passengers have a view of Loch Shiel and the Glenfinnan Monument on its shore. The memorial commemorates the last Jacobite rising of the clansmen who fought and died along side Prince Charles Edward Stuart in the 18th century.
Though the Glenfinnan Viaduct may not sound familiar, anyone who has seen Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets will recognize it in the scene when Harry and Ron are flying over it in a Ford Anglia, at which point the Hogwarts Express makes its sudden appearance.
The Harz Narrow Gauge Railways – Germany
Steam train enthusiasts should head for the hills in central Germany to feast their eyes on the 25 locomotives that crisscross the 86-mile rail network in the Harz Mountains. The railway company operates three lines that traverse the region throughout the year, and it further offers different rail packages that include accommodations in the medieval towns of Wernigerode, Quedlinburg and Neuhausen.
The Brocken, a result of two plates colliding 320 million years go, is the highest peak of the Hartz. The Brockenbahn line takes 50 minutes to travel from the small community of Drei-Annen-Hohne to the station at the summit—4,074 feet above sea level.
The TranzAlpine – New Zealand
While exploring New Zealand’s South Island, the TranzAlpine by KiwiRail Scenic Journeys introduces passengers to the gradual transition of the terrain between Christchurch on the east coast and Greymouth on the west coast. During the one-way, 4.5-hour trip, passengers can listen to a historical commentary via complimentary headsets and take unobstructed photographs of the landscape from open carriages.
The train also makes a half-hour stop along the way at Arthur’s Pass National Park—an off-the-beaten destination that boasts skiing, hiking and mountain climbing in the Southern Alps. Those who love to fish can also tack on an excursion at Lake Brunner, also known as Moana in the Maori language. In addition, KiwiRail offers various packages to discover other fantastic features of the South Island.
The Ghan – Australia
Red and remote, with a vastness that extends as far as the eye can see, the Australian Outback has long filled myths and legends in song and word. If it has been a dream to travel across the “red center,” then a seat on The Ghan Expedition is just the ticket to buy. It takes three nights and four days to cover the 2,000-mile distance from Darwin in the north to Adelaide in the south (or vice versa). Passengers can also opt for a shorter journey between Darwin and Alice Springs or Adelaide and Alice Springs, each taking two days to complete with a couple of stops along the way.
The Ghan’s symbol of a camel reflects the Outback’s 19th-century camel drivers who originally came from Afghanistan. The rail line also once bore the nickname The Afghan Express. According to historical records, the first departure of the Ghan left Adelaide Railway Station in August 1929, complete with passengers and supplies heading to the town of Stuart—today Alice Springs.
The Silk Road – Europe to Asia
Although it demands much more planning and organizing, the rail journey from Moscow to Beijing via “The Silk Road” in Central Asia will be one of those unforgettable adventures of a lifetime.
One way to set off on the first leg of such a trip is to take the Kazakhstan. It departs from the Russian capital in the night and arrives in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in the morning of the fifth day. From here, either continue onward to China or explore the lands of Central Asia. There’s also direct train service from Moscow to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
From its inception in 130 BC to its final days in 1453 AD, an extensive network of Silk Routes by land and sea created and connected civilizations between China and the Mediterranean. In June 2014, UNESCO designated a 3,106-mile section from central China to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as a world heritage site. Called ”Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor,” it includes 33 new sites, such as palace complexes, Buddhist cave temples and sections of China’s Great Wall.
Do you feel inspired? Then it’s time to hit the tracks and go explore!