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Train Travel Worldwide
Amtrak ‘The California Zephyr’
Chicago – Emeryville/San Francisco
No other country can truly claim to represent the romance of travel like the United States.
Much of the myth of America – that grey area where fiction and reality meet and merge – centers on travel. From epic road trips, down mile after mile of dusty roads, to steamboats chugging down the sluggish rivers of the South, to the vast goods trains that rumble across its great mass of land, America is simply there to be traveled.
Amtrak’s California Zephyr invariably features in lists of the world’s greatest train journeys. Leaving daily from Chicago, it follows the route of the first transcontinental railroad which joined the country up in 1869, taking two days and nights to get to San Francisco, and covering a distance of about 2150 miles (3470km).
At this point it’s worth pointing out, if you think that sounds like a long way, that we’re not even talking about the full width of the country: New York City to San Francisco is closer to 3000 miles (4800km), which to put it into context, is about the same width as the Atlantic Ocean at its widest point.
A great train journey is all about the subtle shifts in geography as the journey progresses. On the way to San Francisco, the Zephyr takes you through the most magnificently varied landscape like some sort of fast-moving viewpoint (handily, your Route Guide Map provides you with a camera symbol that gives you advance warning for the best photo opportunities).
Rivers and mountains rush by; you catch glimpses of dusky woods and fields as the train continues on its way. The journey is drawn out so that you get the feel of where you’re going, what you’ve left behind, and, crucially, allows you time to appreciate the differences between the two. And isn’t that the point of travel?
This is what makes traveling by train stand out: It’s, well, enjoyable. You can really count the journey as one of the pleasures of your trip (and try saying that for an easyJet flight!). If you’re looking for comfort, convenience and a proper, old-fashioned travel experience that harks back to a less frantic age, there’s nothing to beat it.
Leisurely, laid-back and downright civilized, this is traveling the way it was meant to be done. What’s more, (and leaving the romance of it all to one side for a moment, and planting our feet firmly back on the ground) train travel in the States is a practical and affordable way of getting around.
The train snakes its way out of Chicago. As it leaves Illinois for Iowa, it crosses the Mississippi – greatest of all American rivers – 2300 miles before it winds its way lazily down to the Gulf of Mexico and out to sea. Through Iowa the train trundles, on towards Omaha, the birthplace of four twentieth-century American icons in Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando and Malcolm X. From Omaha it crosses the great plains of Nebraska, and you begin to realize just how suitably named the journey is (zephyr means light wind or breeze).
As the train passes through rolling farmland and on to the prairies, grain fields whisper and mile after undulating mile of prairie grass hisses softly, swaying gently, as if the land itself is stirred by your passing.
All you’d need now to finally convince you that you were actually in a novel or movie of the American west, and its cast of land-hungry pioneers and cowboys, would be to see a tangled knot of tumbleweed go bouncing by…
Onwards the train surges into Colorado, (where you stop briefly in the old frontier town of Denver), and winds between the soaring peaks, and the cliffs and canyons of the Rocky Mountains. Then, from the Mormon austerity of Salt Lake City in Utah, you cross into loose-living Nevada; this is a journey that can genuinely claim to map out the full diversity of the nation, in a spiritual, as well as a geographical sense.
Passing through Nevada, you are treated to the glory of the sun shining on the brilliant snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, weird hoodoo rock formations, the American River Canyon, (where you get dramatic views of the American River, some 1,500 to 2,000 feet below) and the eerie, barren emptiness of the desert.
Then it’s a slow but sure descent into California. At the risk of crass, anthropomorphic sentimentality, perhaps the train is as reluctant as you are for the journey to come to an end; in recent years, sadly, many of the Amtrak routes have been threatened with closure.
As if to cement the central place the journey holds in the country’s history, the traveler is offered two more glimpses of the most emblematic of American views – the prison island of Alcatraz, and in the distance, dim and hazy, the sensational Golden Gate Bridge – before coming slowly to a halt in Emeryville.
For more information on the California Zephyr visit: www.amtrak.com
Inspired to take this remarkable journey? Book hostels in the United States
The Trans-Siberian Railway
Moscow to Beijing
It takes in eight separate time zones on its way through the vast wilderness of Siberia and the stark beauty of the Gobi’s shifting sands, and is often (incorrectly – the through trains from Donetsk and Kharkov in Ukraine to Vladivostok are longer) held to be the longest continuous stretch of railway track on the planet.
However, at six and a half days to cover approximately 6,000 miles (or about 10,000km) – over one third of the globe! - it’s still quite long enough....
Intrigued by the Trans-Siberian railway? Book hostels in Moscow
Backpacking in Asia? Book hostels in Beijing and start your journey.
There are actually several PeruRail routes that stand out!
Leaving from Cuzco, you can take your pick of the Sacred Valley, Lake Titicaca or, of course, the Machu Picchu trip. High up in the Andes, they’re all equally spectacular. Just make sure you take the cheap and cheerful ‘Backpacker’ option, as the others are a little pricey!
Book hostels in Peru for your rail travel
The Cairo to Aswan Express
A bit more rough and ready, but with a route that takes in the entire length of Egypt from the Mediterranean coast to Lake Nasser and on to the Sudanese border, it's a fantastically authentic journey.