Asia brims with natural and man-made riches, from the sprawling Gobi Desert to Uzbekistan’s mosaicked minarets. Wondering what's the best way to explore? Rail lines slice through some of the most beautiful parts of the continent. Here are six journeys that should be on your bucket list:
Starting in colonial-style Kandy, the little train to Ella chugs through tea plantations and up hillsides to reach a remote station in the middle of Hill Country. It takes nearly seven hours to reach the final destination.
Rules around riding the train are lax in Sri Lanka, so you’ll find passengers sitting in open doorways swinging their legs in the sunshine as the train gasps its way into the hills. The last leg of the ride can be misty as the train breaks through the cloud line.
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On the edge of the Gobi Desert, the city of Jiayuguan, in China’s far northwest, couldn’t feel more different to the metropolises of Beijing or Shanghai. In the Gansu province, the city is home to the Jiayu Pass, the furthest western end of the Great Wall of China.
The 18-hour train ride to Xi’an, also known as the end of the Silk Road, offers up more of the same. Scenery is bleak and awe-inspiringly vast. This journey – longer than any other in China – will give you a sense of the country’s sheer size.
The train belts along the Gobi Desert, before hitting the Hexi Corridor, the ancient northern Silk Road trading route. It then rattles onwards to the Qilian Mountain range, where snow-capped mountains glowing orange and pink are visible in the dusk. The train itself is comfortable, with a mixture of private compartments, second-class sleepers and hard third-class benches. The dining car offers freshly made stews and stir-fries, and cheap beer can be bought on board.
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3. Malaysia: Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia is blessed with a cheap and efficient rail service that runs down the west coast of the Peninsular. It’s also an incredibly scenic option.
Run by a series of electric trains that service families and commuters, this route feels just like a normal local’s journey. At least, it does until the train picks up speed and zips past forested hills and verdant tropical landscapes. In heavily populated Peninsular Malaysia, it’s a pleasure to sit back and soak up the tropical vibe from an air-conditioned carriage.
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4. Japan: the Gonō Line in Tōhoku
If you ever find yourself in Tōhoku – the most northerly region on Japan's main island, Honshū – book yourself onto a trip on the Gonō Railway. The line mostly runs through Aomori prefecture, which is surrounded by Japan’s iciest seas on three sides, with snow-capped mountains to the south. Considering how far north Aomori is, snow is pretty much guaranteed for most of the year, but the ride offers some fantastic coastal scenery.
Visitors will need to book onto a special “sightseeing train” called the Resort Shirakami. This line takes you to one of the most remote areas of the country, and it’s so far removed from Tokyo’s manic Shibuya Pedestrian Crossing that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a different country. Its enormous glass windows and comfy booth seats are the perfect place from which to spot snow-topped Mount Iwaki and the craggy coastline.
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5. Vietnam: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
More than 1000 miles of railway lines run the length of Vietnam. The lines carry comfortable air-conditioned sleeper trains, making a long distance train journey a pleasure.
You can do the whole route north to south on the Reunification Express train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in three days, but the most scenic part by far is between Hué and Danang. Watch fishermen cast their nets as you pass the South China Sea, just metres away from the tracks, before curving around the coast past deserted white beaches and lush rainforest.
Breakfast in the dining car is pot noodles in broth, served with fresh lime and chilli. Enjoy it with cup of instant black coffee, drunk as the train chugs its way past buffalos grazing in rice paddies.
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6. Uzbekistan: Urgench to Bukhara
High-speed trains link most of Uzbekistan’s cities: Tashkent, Andijan and Samarkand are all joined up by super-fast express Afrosiyob trains.
Bukhara to Urgench (the jump-off point for the ancient Silk Road mud city of Khiva) on the other hand, is serviced by a slow, 12-hour service – but that’s the beauty of it. The train runs through the Kyzylkum Desert, and you can spot camels lumbering alongside the tracks. Women in brightly printed dresses sell hard-boiled eggs and pickles from the platform before the train picks up speed, screeching past desert tomb stones and abandoned mosques eroded by sand.
Top image: Rice terrace Mountains in Mu Can Chai, Vietnam © Chachamp/Shutterstock