Travel writer Peter Lynch shares some highlights from his epic round the world rail trip, from London to Sydney.
Overland from London to Sydney: travelling around the world by train
Around 640,000 people travelled to Australia from the UK last year. I was possibly the only one that went by train.
The world’s ‘biggest train journey’?
According to legendary travel writer Eric Newby “the Trans-Siberian is THE big one [train ride] and all the rest are peanuts.” Maybe it’s the biggest single train journey but it was only a fraction of my trip.
Visas and Customs
London to Sydney by train may sound far-fetched but that was my plan and it turned out to be a surprisingly easy 20,000-mile trip. Organising all the visas was probably the greatest hassle although crossing umpteen borders was a breeze. In fact, on the entire journey, no customs official ever bothered to look in my bag.
The best route?
My route was chosen to be bandit and terrorist free and with the least number of breaks in rail connections – France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. Taking the route through Lithuania skipped the additional visa hassle and the cost of crossing Belarus and meant I didn’t need to get my passport out until I crossed the Russian border.
How long is a piece of string?
The trip could probably be done in three weeks at a rush but that would be hard graft and pointless as the idea of an overland trip is to see and explore countries on the way. So I spent three months stopping off wherever and whenever I felt like it.
Brussels and Cologne were good stop-off cities, sadly the timetable didn’t allow a Warsaw stopover but Bialystok in Poland was interesting but Vilnius in Lithuania was fabulous. The overnight train to St Petersburg was smart and comfortable and all the border and customs procedures were carried out without having to leave my cabin.
The trans-Siberian is not a train but a route, actually several routes that cross Siberia to different destinations. There are a number of ways to travel – cattle class, 4 berth or 2 berth cabins and if you want to make stop-offs you need to buy separate tickets for each leg. That’s why most travellers opt for organised trips with companies like the Russia Experience; I on the other hand opted for some luxury on this leg of the trip.
The Tsar’s Gold is not just a luxurious Trans-Siberian option, it’s home for 16 days. Unlike the usual scheduled trains, where you have to pack up and cart your luggage off at every stop; because it’s a private train it waits for you at every stop-off. It also runs its own schedule so eats up long distances while you sleep so minimising the dull stages and maximising time spent on excursions. Mongolia was the country that I really wish I could have spent more time in.
Passports are needed to buy onward international rail tickets and I found it easier to go to a ticket agent rather than the station. As the only European on the train to Vietnam I attracted many sideways glances but had a four-berth soft sleeper cabin to myself.
The twice weekly Beijing to Hanoi train served excellent food in the café-style restaurant car and most stations had kiosks selling food. The heat became more oppressive and the landscape more tropical the further south we went.
The Reunification Express
The Reunification Express runs the length of Vietnam from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon). The carriages are mostly battered Chinese cast-offs, with squat toilets and no air-conditioning. The ‘hard sleeper’ carriages have wooden benches, but ‘soft sleeper’ carriages come with four bunk beds, and are well worth the few extra pounds.
It’s cheap and basic but good fun and an excellent way to meet local people. I stopped off at the ancient Royal capital of Hue and the beautiful World Heritage town of Hoi An before ending in Saigon.
With no railway lines through Cambodia I was forced to take a dirt-cheap bus to Phnom Penh, and later another to Siam Reap and finally a bus across the border into Thailand and Bangkok. Two weeks was nowhere near enough in Cambodia and I definitely have to return.
The Eastern & Oriental Express
It was a month since my last bit of luxury travelling so I was looking forward to the Eastern and Oriental Express, from Bangkok to Singapore. Sunan, my personal steward, has learnt my name before I stepped into my cabin and was more butler than train official, insisting I ring the bedside bell if I needed anything.
Everything had a sumptuous hotel-feel, even the smallest cabins: elm and cherry wood marquetry, thick carpets, hand-embroidered curtains, brass lamps and cosy but practical en-suites.
Breakfast and afternoon tea were served in my cabin and Sunan kept me updated on daily activities, dealt with border formalities and reconfigured my compartment for day and night use.
Passengers dressed elegantly for dinner, and tables were laid for fine dining. Gourmet meals appeared from the small kitchen where the French chef designed menus for a broad range of tastes, subtly blending European styles with Asian spices).
Named after the Afghan cameleers who built the rail line into Australia’s bleak red centre from Adelaide to Alice Springs. It now runs all the way to the tropical northern city of Darwin and I rode south from Darwin to Adelaide in a comfortable, air-conditioned, en-suite cabin. Gold class (or Platinum if you can afford it) is the way to travel.
The Indian-Pacific runs from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and is another of Australia’s great rail journeys – Perth – Adelaide – Sydney.
This time I travelled in the cheaper Red Class, where you have to make do with a reclining seat and tucker from Matilda’s Café, except they had run out of all food by the time I turned up.
I decided to stop-off for a few days in the outback town of Broken Hill because if you haven’t spent some time in the outback you haven’t really seen Australia. After an uncomfortable night in my recliner chair I woke up to the beauty the Blue Mountains on the final leg into Sydney.
This formally ended my journey but after a week I couldn’t resist making the full 2,500-mile trip on the Indian-Pacific to Perth, but this time I thought I’d earned a trip in comfortable Gold Class.
Cost of the Trip?
Peter was sponsored for sections of the trip, but estimates that it could be done from around £3,000.
Peter Lynch’s new ebook Overland from London to Sydney: travelling around the world by train is now available from Amazon for £3.09.
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About the Author
Peter has been a professional travel writer for 12 years, writing for American & Australian newspapers, UK magazines, plus a number of websites. Peter reviews hotel and is the author of books on his main travel passions: wildlife conservation, volunteering & rail travel.