Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.
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.
Thanks to the Eurotunnel, you can reach Great Britain without any problems and continue all the way to Thurso in Scotland without having to use any other means of transport.
If you want to go even further north, you cross Öresund Bridge from Denmark to Sweden, reaching Scandinavia by train. The northernmost train station is Narvik in Norway.
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.
- This article was also published on Medium.
- If you know my train trilogy from Canada, you have an idea what I would make out of such a journey. And if you find that a worthwhile project, I would be very thankful for your support for this idea.
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Wow! What a fantastic journey to “circumnavigate half the world by train”. Even just as a fantasy voyage I relished every moment! Maybe one day at least part of this dream will happen. I’d love to do it! Thanks for the article!
While writing this article, I also noticed that planning and dreaming are half the fun. Particularly about the Trans-Siberian Railway there are so many documentaries and books.
I share your lust for wandering, Andreas–thanks for the informative article. No matter whether by car, plane or train, I’m normally the guy with his face planted against the window–trying to see it all–unless good conversations can be had, which I oftentimes prefer.
Still, for a moment I dreamed–until the cost crept into the fantasy. Any idea of the cost for decent/good accommodations from Paris to Moscow to Istanbul? To kill the fantasy for good?
The last photo could have almost taken place in the altiplano of Bolivia, except of course, for the train. So much beauty,,,so little time…
I think the cost depends greatly on your style of travel.
– You may want to try Couchsurfing, where you can stay with locals for free. I have found this not only helpful, but very rewarding because you already have someone waiting for you in a new city. Often, they will give you a tour or at least they will have a lot of insider information. This is how I would do it because it adds so much more to a journey across the continent.
– If Paris and Moscow and such are too expensive, it might make sense to get off one or two stops before and spend the night in smaller towns along the way. Maybe it’s cheaper to commute into town.
– The price for the train itself depends on the comfort/privacy you want. But you can actually make the whole Trans-Siberian journey on regular trains that people use to get to work/university/grandma instead of luxurious sleeper trains. These are not expensive at all. You can check out some sample prices here.
Thank you for your reply and good ideas.
hmmmmm,,,perhaps it is much more affordable than I thought…
I think there’s an idea to build a railway bridge from Russia to Alaska across the Bering strait, and then you may be able to travel all the way to South America by train.
I think the Russia to Alaska train bridge might be possible, but getting south from the states, not so much. Rails are pretty-much gone in Mexico, do not cross the Panama canal at all, and getting into South America from there across massive swamps, both trains and roads are non-existent.
Nice thought though, as many dreams seem to be….
The rail network in Central and South America is only left in patches. You can go a few hundred miles here and a few hundred miles there, but not cross the continent. (The situation looks a little bit better for freight than for passengers.)
From Panama to Colombia there is the Darien Gap, which cannot even be crossed by car.
I would have loved to write a similar article for the Americas, but I am not sure we will ever see this. I have read about a plan for a Pacific-Atlantic railroad through Peru/Chile, Bolivia, Brazil (of course planned by China), but that too would be for freight. But then, we could all try to ride freight trains like Jack London used to do.
London? Hopping a freight? Long story short.
While sailing on Cayuga Lake pre cell phone era, our rudder broke near the east shore, forcing a short paddling to shore and ‘safety’. Knowing of a boat repair shop south at Myers point, I set off on the railroad tracks to a phone and hopefully some repairs. Part way there, an emptied coal train slowly rumbled bye, so I hopped the freight to hitch a ride. It was one of the scariest adventures of my life, knowing that a slip at any moment would likely result in a quick but grisly death. Mine. What a thrill! Made it to the repair shop, bought a fiberglass repair kit, hiked it back to the beached boat, temporarily repaired the rudder, and after the glass ‘set’, gingerly sailed the O’day Interclub back ‘home’. London was a hero of mine then, and still is. Thanks for bringing back the good memories…
Wow. Respect for your ingenuity and bravery!
I really wouldn’t know how to jump a moving train. Or how to jump off again. I have only dreamed of getting on a freight train while it’s waiting at a station, but I guess they are checked too thoroughly.
Oh even in winter, you should stop at the Baikal lake and go hiking. That’s what I did and the most beautiful experience of my life so far :D
Ok, I have made up my mind. This will be my next big trip.
If you have an article or photos about your winter hike, please feel free to add the link here.
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Upon reading Paul Theroux’ The Great Railway Bazaar, I noticed that I could have saved myself the investigation to find out the longest possible train route. For he writes: “The way is clear, by rail, from Hanoi Junction to Liverpool Street Station in London,” but then makes a detour via Japan and Vladivostok.
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I liked that: taking a ferry but still staying in the train counts as a train journey :-D
I had to make that rule, because I wouldn’t want to exclude the beautiful island of Sicily.
I’m trying to do some work here, but now you got me daydreaming.
I am dreaming about this all the time. And it wouldn’t even need to be that expensive.
Have you considered charging for trip planning?
But then, I am always happy to dispense advice and recommendations, particularly when it makes someone’s trip better than it would have been otherwise.
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Yes, that’s the route. But once you get to Asia, and you are not averse to bicycles, you can connect to other train networks.
I’ll rather walk than sit on a bike. :-)
Although I hope that someone will pick me up along the way and give me a lift to the next train station.