Nine of the Most Beautiful and Affordable Train Journeys Around the World

Nine of the Most Beautiful and Affordable Train Journeys Around the World

Slow travel doesn’t have to cost a lot, and you don’t need to book a trip on the Orient Express to get your fix of old-school glamour – a little low-key luxe amid gorgeous scenery will just as often hit the spot.

artist Edward Monkton once paraphrased on a greetings card,
“it’s not the destination, but the glory of the ride”. He
illustrated these words with a picture of “Zen Dog” sitting in an
inflatable dinghy, but, actually, the adage is never truer than
when travelling by train. It’s slow
at its finest: environmentally friendly, local and
generally quite comfortable. Unlike with airports and motorways,
there’s nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the scenery as you
chug past. From crossing
by sleeper train to exploring the much-photographed
hill stations, these are nine of the most picturesque
rail journeys that won’t break the bank.

Kandy to Ella

Sri Lanka

Travelling on one of the most photographed train routes in the
world is far from expensive, and also far from comfortable.
Departing from the mountainous city of Kandy, the train trundles
through rainforest and lush palm jungle for ten hours, before
pulling into the hill station of Ella, a backpackers’ haven where
you can stock up on essentials. About an hour outside Kandy, you
enter tea country, which is what the region is known for. Book a
second-class reserved seat a couple of days in advance at the local
train station if you can – it’s still very cheap and will at least
guarantee you a seat. That said, the experience of peering out of
the open door is equally unforgettable. In Ella, you can hike from
the village and along the tracks to Nine Arches Bridge to get a
stunning view of the old train going past. The train line was built
in the 19th century, and hasn’t changed much since.

Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu


Although trekking to Machu Picchu is the real way to see this
Inca wonder, it may be that time, weather or fitness levels don’t
allow the luxury of travelling by foot. If that’s the case, the
stunning two-hour train journey from Ollantaytambo station is the
next best thing. The Voyager is the least expensive of Inca Rail’s
options, coming in at around £100 for the round trip, and is also
perhaps the most atmospheric. Comfy cream-colored seats and wide
windows allow for a relaxing view of the sacred valley. The train
also has an open-air observatory car with a bar.

Xining, China to Lhasa, Tibet

Completed in the Eighties, this 1,972km rail route is one of the
easiest ways into the Tibet Autonomous Region, and also a good way
to acclimatise to the altitude. Gradually climbing into the Tibetan
Plateau, the world’s highest train line – dubbed the “sky road” –
is the only train to have an oxygen-supply system in the carriages.
You’ll depart from the Qinghai Province city of Xining, carving
through snowy mountains and past dazzling lakes, before arriving in
Lhasa roughly 21 hours later.

Beijing to Harbin


Drift off to sleep once you’ve pulled out of Beijing’s sprawling
suburbs, and wake up well on your way to freezing Harbin in China’s
northernmost province, with ice crystals forming on the inside of
the windows and -35C temperatures outside. The journey takes from
seven to ten hours, depending on the time of day, so wrap up warm
and pack a flask. Trains running on the Beijing to Harbin
high-speed railway operate at over 200mph, hurtling past Shenyang
and other northern cities. A highlight of Harbin during the bitter
winter months is the dazzling Snow and Ice Festival, but the
destination also makes for a refreshing, cooler break from Beijing
in the heat of summer. Tickets for the sleeper train cost around

Budapest, Hungary to Istanbul, Turkey

If you don’t fancy splashing a cool £10k to experience the
uber-luxurious Golden Eagle Danube Express, which takes a week to
glide through Eastern Europe, then the regular sleeper from
to Istanbul
is for you. What you lack in five-star comfort, you gain in a sense
of adventure, as you traverse Romania and Bulgaria and on into the
beautiful scenery of the Carpathian Mountains, before arriving in
Turkey – a journey of around 21 hours. From the carriage, you can
spot the 14th-century Bran Castle, inspiration for Count Dracula’s
creepy dwelling. A sleeper train departs from Budapest every night,
with tickets costing roughly £41 for a berth in a four-person

Mumbai to Goa


Being such a major route from India’s largest city down to the
glorious palm-lined beaches of Goa does nothing to detract from the
chaotic magic of this journey. The adventure starts at Chhatrapati
Shivaji Terminus (commonly known as Victoria Terminus, or VT),
Mumbai’s main train station, a particularly ornate example of
18th-century Italian Gothic architecture. A Unesco-listed site in
its own right, it’s a wonder to behold. From here, the sleeper
train heads south, passing waterfalls and verdant jungle on
sometimes precarious-seeming cliff edges. The train to Margao,
where Goa’s main station is located, takes at least 13 hours.
Travelling overnight is your best bet and still leaves plenty of
time for gazing out the window. Tickets cost under £10.

Mandalay to Lashio


Two daily trains travel between Mandalay and Lashio, a long,
slow journey of around 280km through Myanmar’s northern Shan State.
The highlight is crossing the Goteik Viaduct, which was once the
world’s largest railway trestle and remains Myanmar‘s
highest bridge. Completed in 1901, the epic structure offers
magnificent views over the gorge and valley below. A remarkable
feat of engineering, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Glasgow to Mallaig


Used as the filming location for JK Rowling’s Hogwarts Express,
the West Highland Line, on Scotland’s spectacular west coast, cuts
through some of the wildest and most diverse scenery in the British
Isles. The journey takes just over five hours, with tickets costing
£38. The train leaves busy Glasgow before heading north, passing
Loch Lomond, Ben Nevis, Fort William and the Glenfinnan Viaduct
(recognisable from the famous steam-train scenes in the Harry
Potter franchise), and through great swathes of open countryside,
before pulling into the fishing-port town of Mallaig.

Zermatt to St Moritz


Winding between the snow-sports havens of Zermatt and St Moritz,
this eight-hour, Unesco-protected alpine route is a destination in
itself. For more than 90 years, the glorious Glacier
has invited guests to glide through Valais, Uri and
Graubünden, skimming over 291 bridges and needling through 91
tunnels as they go. Bookended by the Matterhorn and Piz Bernina, it
passes through world-class scenery: think the Rhône Glacier, the
vertiginous Oberalp Pass, the curvaceous Landwasser Viaduct and the
Rhine Gorge – the “Grand Canyon of Switzerland”.

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