One of my readers wrote that he had been wondering how far he could get if he took his local commuter train and continued traveling with no other means of transport than the railway. As a train enthusiast, I couldn’t stop thinking about this. Because that reader lives in Lauf in Bavaria and thus only a few stops from my hometown of Amberg, the idea might also prove useful for my relatives who are afraid of flying and who had so far thought that they could never escape the confines of German provincialism.
This research is based on someone setting off from Germany, but as train networks on the European continent are well-connected, it is useful for anyone else living or traveling in Europe too.
My farthest train journey from Germany was to Ljubljana in Slovenia. A scenic ride crossing the Alps. In the restaurant car of the Austrian Railway you enjoy majestic views and Sachertorte while vehicle traffic piles up for hours and for many kilometers at the border crossings that nationalist politicians want to re-establish all over Europe.
But you could go on in that direction: Zagreb, Belgrade and from there either to Montenegro or to Timisoara in Romania. Once you are in the Balkans, you can’t help but think of the Orient Express. Is it still possible to go from Central Europe to Istanbul by train? Of course it is.
Seat61 illustrates some of the connections, but there are many more options, for example from Belgrade to Timisoara and from there to Bucharest. If you have time, I recommend the detour via Targu Mures, Gheorgeni, Baile Tusnad and Brasov, where the romantic scenery with clear rivers and wild horses running parallel to the tracks and the somewhat antiquated Romanian Railway will give you a Western-movie feeling.
While strolling around Istanbul, you may suddenly remember that great infrastructure project from one century ago, the Baghdad Railway. When it was completed in 1940, it had taken a bit longer than the 10 years originally budgeted, but sadly enough the route into the Syrian desert was already completed by 1915, just in time for the genocide against the Armenians.
This connection to Iraq is currently experiencing some interruptions of service due to the war in Syria and the occupation of Mosul by ISIS. Towards the south-east, for the time being Turkey is thus the last stop.
But if this is not enough, you can explore any of Europe’s other extremities by train.
In the south you go to Villa San Giovanni in Calabria, from where you take the ferry to cross the 3 km to Messina in Sicily. I would argue that it still counts as a train journey because you can stay on the train during the brief crossing and then continue either to Palermo or Syracuse. Both lines run just a few meters from the Mediterranean and offer wonderful views.
In the south-west you can get as far as Lagos in Portugal via France and Spain.
But, as everyone from Napoleon to the Nazis knew, if you really want to travel, you have to go east. In Russia, the longest stretch you can cover by train without having to change trains or even leave the train, the Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and Vladivostok, is 9,288 km. That is twice the distance from Syracuse to Narvik and a distance that most Europeans cannot really grasp. The journey takes a week, which puts a heavy toll on long-distance relationships. “I am sorry, Nadezhda, but when I was already in Krasnoyarsk, I remembered that I have to be back at work next week and I had to turn around.”
Central Europe is connected to this masterpiece of railway engineering via Warsaw and Minsk or via Kiev. If you are lucky, you get to Moscow just in time to get on the sleeper train to Pyongyang in North Korea, at 10,267 km the longest train connection in the world for which you don’t need to change trains. But who would really want that, to stay on the train all the time? Ok, maybe during the Siberian winter and if you have a crate of good Russian literature with you. But when I see Lake Baikal and birch forests passing by, I want to get off and go hiking. When else do you have a chance to visit Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg or Irkutsk?
Knowing myself, I would get stuck at the most unlikely of places and the railway line would be less a means of transport than a story line, along which I trod eastward with ever-increasing curiosity. The far east of Russia doesn’t even need to be the final destination. You can continue to Beijing via Mongolia or Manchuria.
There you catch the train to Lhasa and you can float to Tibet at altitudes of more than 5,000 meters. But that’s the end of that line for now. There are plans to extend the train connection to Nepal and India, but even in China this will take a few more years. Yet those who got on the train in Lauf or in Leiden and made it to Lhasa have at least circumvented half the world by train.
If you want to make a few more kilometers, simply transverse China and take the train to Vietnam. The last 1,600 km from Hanoi to Ho-Chi-Minh-City will seem like a short commute after such an adventure. And you will realize how small your own country is.
So, if you ever have a few weeks of free time, go to your train station and see how far you will get with the most comfortable way of traveling. I definitely know what I will do next.
- More articles on train travel.
- The best site for planning international rail travel is Seat 61.
- Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.
- This article was also published on Medium.