The second part of our epic journeys series sees us buckled up on a bullet train and motorcycling through Vietnam...
Riding the Shinkansen, Japan
A sleek, space-age train glides into the station precisely on time. When it pulls to a stop the doors align exactly in front of each orderly queue of passengers. The guard, wearing immaculate white gloves and a very natty peaked cap, bows as you climb aboard. Where but Japan could a train journey start in such style? Japan’s high-speed Shinkansen, popularly known as the “bullet train”, is the envy of the world, and while it’s not cheap, it’s something you just have to experience once. The Tokaido–Sanyo line runs from Tokyo west to Kyoto and Hiroshima – 900km – and the fastest Nozomi trains cover this in just four hours. In places, they reach 300km per hour, yet the ride is as smooth as silk.
It’s only by looking out of the window that you get a sense of speed; neat rows of houses flicker by, gradually giving way to rice fields, woods and the occasional temple, as you leave Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis behind. Before you know it, you’re pulling in to Kyoto’s monumental new station – eyesore or emblem, depending on whom you ask. No time for the city’s myriad temples now, though. The doors swoosh shut and you’re off again. Osaka brings yet more urban sprawl, but after Kobe the tracks run along the coast, offering tantalizing glimpses of the island-speckled Inland Sea as you near Hiroshima, journey’s end.
The Japan Rail Pass (www.japanrailpass.net) must be purchased before arriving in Japan as it’s only available to foreign visitors.
Taking a snowmobile through Siberia, Russia
Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Anadyr city © Andrei Stepanov/Shutterstock
Still and white at the far northeastern tip of Siberia, Chukotka is nine time zones and nine hours by plane from Moscow. It’s so remote that locals call the rest of Russia “the mainland”. The territory is almost the size of Britain and France combined, but has only around 50,000 inhabitants. No highways connect their few communities. To travel out from Anadyr, Chukotka’s capital, you must charter a boat, helicopter or plane – or in winter, you can wrap up in boots and parka, and travel across the tundra by snowmobile.
The only sounds you’ll hear as you cross this bitter yet beautiful land are the thrum of the snowmobile’s engine and the occasional flapping of pure-white ptarmigan, alighting in small flocks from tundra shrubs. While humans are few here, wildlife is plentiful. The thermometer reads -20°C. For hour after hour, you fly over frozen hummocks and hurtle across solid turquoise lakes. The journey is been long and hard – yet you feel a wrench as you leave the tranquillity of the tundra, one of the few true wildernesses left on earth.
For organized tours, try Go Russia (www.justgorussia.co.uk). Note that you need a special permit to visit Chukotka on top of a Russian visa.
Riding the Rocket across the Ganges Delta, Bangladesh
The arterial Ganges and Jamuna, merging 60km west-southwest of Dhaka, feed hundreds of subsidiary rivers that radiate across the vast Ganges Delta, dissecting the land into a series of contiguous islands. This is the final stage in the odyssey of divine water, infused with an essence of the Subcontinental millions who have used and venerated it along its courses.
A Conrad-esque journey aboard one of the Rocket service’s paddle-wheeled boats lets you join the flow of life on this awesome network of waterways. Your odyssey begins in the evening at Sadarghat, Dhaka’s teeming main hub for river traffic, approached through the labyrinthine Old Quarter. From the ghat you can take in the panorama of bustling activity playing itself out on land and water against the backdrop of the striking cityscape on the far bank.
Night descends fast, and your first proper sight of rural Bangladesh is likely to come on the following morning. The verdant fields unfurl along the river bank, brightly-dressed women, children cavorting in the shallows, fishermen, dolphins and a thousand other ingredients forming a truly mesmerizing canvas. Rocket boats are not pleasure cruisers that cocoon their passengers, but working parts of the transport infrastructure bringing you up close to the surrounding world.
Operated by the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation, the Rocket service, covering the 354km route between Dhaka and Khulna, runs all year.
Toy trains and tight curves: the Darjeeling unlimited, India
The most romantic – and affordable – way to explore India is by train, venturing into a bygone world of steam locomotives and dilapidated rail cars, and chugging past rural villages that have hardly changed for hundreds of years.
One of the least known – and most adventurous – routes is the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a tiny, steam-fuelled locomotive that more than deserves its nickname “The Toy Train”. The string of narrow-gauge railway cars ply the hilly Himalayas of West Bengal, from New Jalpaiguri north of Calcutta up to Darjeeling, an early nineteenth-century station near the Nepali border, established for workers and servants of the East India Company.
Built in 1881 and ascending some 1800m of gauge track, the 82km route takes around seven hours, rarely exceeding 16km/h. Past Siliguri Junction, the train climbs slowly (and noisily) at a steady gradient. The rail cars switchback, zigzag, and, on several occasions, cross the very track they have just veered off after making 180-degree hairpin turns. Through the carriage windows stretch tea plantations, rainforests and endless plateaus of green and umber fields: Sukna, where the landscape morphs from flat plains to wooded lower slopes; Rangtong, where a deciduous forest sprawls off into the distance; Kurseong, with its colourful, bustling bazaar stalls; and Ghum (2258m), the summit of the line and the highest railway station in the Indian Subcontinent.
A ticket for The Toy Train (www.dhrs.org) costs Rs247 (about £3) each way in first class.
Motorbiking the northwest loop, Vietnam
Vietnam’s most spectacular mountain scenery is in the extreme north, shadowing the border with China. It’s an astonishing landscape of evergreen mountains, plunging river valleys, high passes and hill-tribe villages. The bad news is that public transport is woefully inadequate and car hire costly, so two wheels are your best option. Main roads are virtually all paved, though there are rough sections.
The classic route begins in the featureless lowland town of Lao Cai, which is connected to Hanoi by highway and train. From here it’s a three-hour run to Bac Ha, a lonely mountain village that hosts one of the best hill-tribe markets in Vietnam each Sunday. The next leg of the trip entails a return journey to Lao Cai followed by a steep climb up to Sapa via some towering rice-paddy terraces. Sapa is a graceful old French hill station, replete with colonial architecture and good restaurants. Moving west from Sapa involves a precipitous climb up to the Tram Ton Pass (1900m), the highpoint on this journey.
The next stretch to Dien Bien Phu is magnificent, as the road clings to the banks of a river valley. Dien Bien Phu, where the Viet Minh inflicted an epochal defeat on the French in 1954, has some fascinating museums and battle monuments and is a great place to recharge and get your bike checked over, before heading back to Hanoi.
Rent a bike in Hanoi: Off Road Vietnam (www.offroadvietnam.com) are highly recommended and have good Hondas. Use a freight-train carriage (around US$15) to get your bike to Lai Cai.
Riding the Ghan to Darwin, Australia
In 2004 the Adelaide–Darwin Ghan train finally reached its destination about a hundred years behind schedule. Constructing a reliable rail link between these two towns took up most of the last century but around the start of the new millennium the government decided to plug the final 1500km gap from Alice to Darwin, completing a legendary transcontinental rail journey.
For most of the three-day, two-night northbound ride the train passes through uninhabited Outback that most people will only see out of a plane window. Just a couple of hours out of Adelaide and you’re already lost on the vast Nullarbor Plain. Night falls and bleached saltpans glow eerily in the moonlight as you tuck yourself in to your comfy four-berth cabin. Next morning the view from the dining car reveals classic Outback colours: clear blue skies, grey-green scrub and rich orange sand. Soon the driver’s whistle heralds your arrival at the likeable desert town of Alice Springs where you’re allowed a couple of hours’ break.
Past Alice, the Ghan works its way through the ranges before spilling out onto the featureless 1000km Tanami Desert. The sun sets as you near Wycliffe Well roadhouse, famous for its UFO sightings. Dawn delivers you to the tropical Top End. Trees have reappeared for the first time since Adelaide, here interspersed with countless 2m-high termite mounds. The town of Katherine marks another first on this epic journey – the only flowing river for over 2000km – and then it’s just an hour or two to journey’s end in Darwin.
The Ghan (www.gsr.com.au) leaves Adelaide for Darwin every Friday and Sunday at 5.15pm and takes 48 hours.
Top image © Prin Adulyatham/Shutterstock