Taking the train in North Korea

A white beam lit up the wall above my head and I gathered the faux-fur covers around my shoulders and edged towards the window. It was cold in my compartment and the air held the sour dankness of the guards’ cheap cigarettes. Lifting a corner of the curtain, I squinted outside. Disorientated, I touched my forehead to the glass and then I saw them, smiling. Above the clocks found on the front and back of each of the country’s railway stations, hung the illuminated, framed round faces of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, a paternal picture of jollity. It was three o’clock in the morning. Then I remembered where I was: on a train in North Korea, travelling overnight from Chongjin to the port city of Wonsan.

Crawling back into bed I took out my iPhone and began to watch a video I had filmed that morning at the Steelworks Kindergarten in Chongjin. More than 25 children aged from three to seven years old had put on a performance for our tour group so precisely styled and executed it would have put the Bolshoi Ballet to shame. The train eased away from the station as I flicked through photographs of their playground which had featured a slide, a rocket, a tank, and a submarine with a torpedo on the side. Unable to sleep, I made some notes by the light of my phone, then panicked and tried to scratch them out in case anyone chose to read them. Realising I was being ridiculous, I gave up as the train began to sway in the darkness, and dozed off under the mustiness of the covers.

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When I began my train travels around the world, I wrestled with the concept of visiting North Korea. Like the majority of travellers, I was unaware that the country has been open to tourists since 1953, although until 1988 it was restricted to Soviet countries only. Currently more than 5,000 Western tourists visit North Korea each year, with sanctions and sporadic nuclear testing doing little to dissuade visitors. But my reason for visiting was simple: I was curious. I don’t believe everything I read, see or hear, preferring experience to prejudgment. So when I discovered that the British-owned, Beijing-based Koryo Tours runs an annual ten-day train excursion, extending beyond the showcase capital of Pyongyang – and that it coincided with the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party – I booked my place on board, amused that it cost the same as one night on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

The tour began in Pyongyang and would take us to Wonsan, Hamhung and Chongjin before finishing back in Pyongyang. Curious about the kind of people who would want to visit North Korea, I was pleasantly surprised by the motley crew of fourteen with whom I was travelling, which included a Canadian on his fourth visit, an American veteran, an IT consultant from Cheltenham and a couple on honeymoon. Unable to travel on public transport without close supervision, we were provided with a chartered train comprising Swiss carriages from the 1970s with comfy seats and enormous pull-down windows. It was a far cry from the rusting old Chinese trains reserved for North Koreans only.

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From the outset it was made clear that this was the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or the DPRK – definitely not North Korea. On the first morning we arrived at Pyongyang station just as the clock marked the hour and a tune crackled from loudspeakers in a haunting minor key, like the soundtrack to a sci-fi movie. The station looked like a concrete airport hangar, and was empty but for our train and our guards waiting on the platform. No ticket machines, no passengers, no trains, no whistles, no announcements. Just us. Once our bags were stacked and we’d run around and checked out the sleeper berths, fingered the blankets, peered at the toilet, and forced down the windows, we were on the move and began to glide out of the city, past the anomalous, rocket-shaped Ryugyong Hotel gleaming in the sunshine. Within minutes we were racing through the countryside, fields ablaze with corn, the odd cyclist carrying a stack. A circle of jets in formation passed overhead, practising for the upcoming anniversary celebrations, and everyone had taken up spots at the windows, cameras in hand, absorbing the shiny newness of it all.

It was refreshing not to be in the constrained confines of Pyongyang, but in a more natural environment watching people go about their daily routine unhindered. However, the narrative is never as linear as it seems. It helped that we were travelling with Geoffrey Cain, a former journalist and author, now studying a doctorate in Korean Studies. Cain explained how North Korean towns and villages operate on a tiered system – if you’re from a politically favoured family, you get the privilege of living in Pyongyang, whereas those lower down the scale must live elsewhere. The privileged also receive access to better education and infrastructure – which includes railway lines. So even though the towns we passed seemed lovely, the houses sturdy and the people even more so, these areas were significantly more prosperous than others.

Scepticism was my default setting, but it became problematic when that seeped into paranoia and I struggled to shrug it off. The human instinct to interact was unavoidable, but I was mindful that there was a fine line to tread between wanting to engage with Koreans, and treating them like zoo animals, staring, waving desperately to eke out a reaction. For the most part photography was restricted and our guides constantly reminded us not to use cameras at stations or to photograph passenger trains should we come face to face, which happened on one or two occasions. We would draw parallel and the Koreans would gather at the window, non-plussed, then most would break into smiles and wave before being reprimanded by elders – one even blew a kiss – but that couple of metres of separation between our windows felt more like a million miles. The conflicting feeling was summed up best by the member of our group from Cheltenham who pulled out his earphones and said: “If we could just sit down and have a cup of tea with them, it would be lovely.”

The train tour was largely like a cruise on rails. During the day we boarded a coach and were driven around to various sights that included a fertiliser factory, a kindergarten, a department store – and to the mausoleum which houses both the late leaders in glass cases, a surreal experience. Otherwise we stayed on board, chatting, reading books on the Kims and eating fried eggs, steamed rice and soup, with heaps of kimchi and blood sausage. At night we would check into hotels, which certainly varied in livability. Chongjin has only recently opened up for foreign visitors and is tangibly more sensitive than other regions. The Chongjin Tourist Hotel, like most other North Korean buildings, is pigeon-grey with little more than coloured murals of the leaders alongside clumsily painted pictures of a purple orchid and a red begonia, known respectively as the Kimilsungia and the Kimjongilia. The hotel provides cold water for one hour in the evening and two hours in the morning, the curtains are grey, the wallpaper bubbles and the floor comprises yellow plastic rolled out in sheets. But we weren’t here for the luxury.

On the final weekend we witnessed the parade for the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party, but from the street only – tourists aren’t allowed into an event when Kim Jong Un is present. Tanks and lorries with rockets and missiles passed through the streets as soldiers waved from behind the wheel and the crowd cheered through the rain, smoke and rumble of tires. But for me the highlight of the trip was an evening on the square in Wonsan, where thousands of students were practising a group dance for the celebrations. Having watched from the sidelines, our guides indicated that we could join in if we wanted to, and the students broke their circle to take our hands, leading us and showing us how to dance. It was an intimate, overwhelming moment, feeling the warm palms of Korean students, twirling and swaying to their music. For five minutes we were all the same. An unbroken chain of human beings, moving to the same beat.

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From Wonsan to Pyongyang there was a tangible air of sadness that after ten days it was our last train ride as a “family”. And it was a particularly beautiful journey: the canyons appeared aflame with autumnal maple trees draping a shawl of gold and red up the valleys, and the river bubbled and rolled in the sunshine. Free from the pollution of factories and cars the air almost cut my lungs with its freshness, and twinned with an unusually blue sky, it was a pleasure to be hanging from the windows. Once again, I had almost forgotten where I was, then just as we rounded a corner a giant mural of Kim Il Sung on a blood-red background loomed into view, waving and smiling.

 To book the ten-day Eastern Adventure by Rail, visit www.koryogroup.com

The Venice Simplon-Orient Express

“The toilet is charming, you have to lift up a lock and it folds out. It’s utterly divine,” said Patricius, the cabin attendant, topping up my glass of Prosecco and swelling with pride. In almost 80 train journeys around the world I was yet to discover a toilet that could be described as “charming” or “divine”, but later that afternoon, as I perched on the lid of the loo for a selfie, I was certainly impressed by the brass fittings and fifteen layers of varnish on the mahogany walls.

In truth, over the previous few weeks my faith in the romance of train travel had begun to shake: my companions snored, got drunk, and threw food on the floor, they took off smelly shoes, hogged luggage racks, and looked more like Russell Grant than Cary Grant. While this had its own comic charm, the notion of romance was now as creaky as the carriages I slept in – that is, until I boarded the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and spent two days riding through a train traveller’s dream.

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Amid the row of grey, grubby trains at Venezia Santa Lucia station, stood a blue and gold beauty at platform four. Polished and prompting curious stares, the 1920s carriages embodied the elegance and thrill of travel in the movies. Handing over my evening dress and incongruous rucksack, I was escorted to my carpeted suite where I wound down the wooden window and stretched out on a cushioned banquette, breathing in the scent of fresh flowers on my table. As the train eased out of the station I lay back and watched the Venetian waters twinkle past in the sunshine. No strangers would be entering my cabin other than Paolo – in a black tailcoat with yellow trimming – to offer a choice of two lunch sittings. As we travelled from Italy to Austria, through Switzerland to France, I wouldn’t have to shuffle up, move my bags or stuff cotton in my ears. I was free to read, doze or listen to the silk-suited pianist play Moon River in the bar until we drew in to Calais and changed trains for the journey to London.

That night, dolled-up in a 1950s rose-pink dress, wearing matching pearls, I cupped my hands to the window of the Etoile du Nord dining car and watched the almost-blue snow of the Austrian Alps sweep down into a valley where chalets glowed like a cluster of golden orbs. In the reflection from the table lamp I observed men in black tie clink glasses with ladies wearing elbow gloves and flapper headbands, and waiters deftly catching bottles and carafes as the train curved around the mountainside.

A perfectly rehearsed performance played around me and I felt like the star of the show. This was the railfan’s fantasy brought to life: to dine on foie gras lasagne with sweet chicken oysters; to sleep in a butler-prepared bunk; to close eyes in Geneva and wake in Paris. The museum-like train, with its René Lalique décor was no more than a hologram, and a recreation of a time now gone. But we were all in on the ruse, and I had my fellow passengers to thank for playing their roles for one night only and keeping the romance of train travel alive.

http://www.belmond.com

The Mandovi Express: Bombay to Goa

Licking the salty oil from my fingers, I considered buying another plate of hot, golden vadas (fritters) when a vendor pushed through the door calling “chicken lollipop, chicken lollipop”. Whipping out a roll of 10-rupee notes, I salivated as he produced four tiny chicken legs wrapped in foil. I was barely three hours into the 11-hour journey and I’d already wolfed down idlis and coconut chutney, deep-fried baby corn, crisp pakoras and at least four cups of treacle-sweet tea.

The Mandovi Express from Mumbai CST to Madgaon in Goa is one of Indian Railways’ most beloved trains. Winding down the Konkan coast, it passes through 92 tunnels and crosses 2,000 bridges including the Panval Nadi viaduct, the highest in India. This is one of the only stretches of India’s 40,400 miles of track that the British dared not construct, leaving it to Indian engineers to bore through the Western Ghats, succumbing to flash floods and landslides in an attempt to extend the line through some of the most treacherous, but beautiful, scenery in India.

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Flanked by jungles of palm and silver sheets of water cascading down cliffs, passenger trains first ran in 1998 and it soon became a favourite among India’s rail enthusiasts – not least for its pantry car. Last year a terrifying rumour ran riot that Indian Railways was going to do away with pantry cars and begin selling fast food. It would have been a travesty for most travellers who look forward to the chaiwallahs, regional varieties of hot snacks, biryani, and ice cream. Fortunately it turned out to be false and it was a relief to stroll through the car and watch Ahuja Caterers’ chefs rolling dough for fresh chapatis, chopping chunks of fiery papaya and tossing cauliflower in karahis.

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Six years ago I had fallen in love with this train. Travelling at no more than a jogging pace, the train has doors that are always open, allowing passengers to lean out. It was here that I used to read books, enjoying the sunshine on my arms, away from the chill of the air-conditioned carriages. Now, as I perched on the top step, the warm wind tickling my cheeks, the smell of recently burnt fields sweeping through the carriage, I felt a surge of nostalgia and a sense of home. I watched as bullocks swished their tails by rivers, little white birds perched on their backs. Children played cricket with planks and tennis balls, pausing only to wave as the train rattled past, and the sun skimmed the tops of the palms. At that moment I realised there was a magic and charm in travelling on Indian trains that no other country could match.

If travelling on more than one train in India, it makes sense to buy an IndRail pass from Shankar Dandapani, the UK Indian Railways agent (info@indiarail.co.uk).

From Shanghai to the Roof of the World

Enriched oxygen was supposed to smell and taste sweet. But the stream of air hissing out of the gold nozzle by my head had dank undertones of cigarettes that induced a wave of nausea. Reaching up to 5,200 metres above sea level, train compartments on the Qinghai railway are fitted with oxygen jets to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness, along with several warning signs that do little to deter stubborn Chinese passengers who hide in the loos and smoke.

Pulling on my thermals, I readjusted the surgeon’s mask around my mouth and nose and sulked quietly, my asthmatic lungs withering in despair. After a month on Chinese trains I’d become accustomed to the spitting, hacking and crunch of empty sunflower seeds beneath my feet, but the constant flouting of no-smoking rules had turned me into Miss Marple, and had me and my nostrils twitching our way up the train, sniffing at compartment doors to admonish the culprits.

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Now resigned to the situation, I pulled down a seat in the corridor and leant against the window watching the soft, sugar-dusted brown mountains slope in the foreground. Tumbles of white cloud rolled around a sky so blue it made my eyes shrink from the glare, and rough-looking yaks nibbled at the yellow dryness of the plateau. Silver lakes like spills of liquid mercury were darkened by shadows of cloud and every hour or so the odd nomadic yurt appeared fringed with multi-coloured prayer flags. As the train climbed towards Lhasa we swept closer to the shimmering blue ice and snow of the Kunlun mountains and I soon forgot about the headaches and shortness of breath. I had seen nothing like this in my life and knew I never would again.

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Opened in 2006, the Qinghai railway from Xining to Lhasa is a feat of engineering excellence, holding the record for the world’s highest track and the highest station at Tanggula. Passing through an earthquake zone, the train travels on more than 300 miles of track built on permafrost that can melt at the slightest increase in temperature – a problem which engineers combatted by circulating liquid nitrogen below the rail bed in an attempt to keep it frozen year-round.

But complications surrounding the railway are not just limited to practicalities. The birth of the railway was considered an ecological threat to the region and also a cultural one as it opened up another route for the already huge influx of ethnic Han Chinese flooding Lhasa and displacing the Tibetan people. Even today, it’s unusual to see Tibetans on board, almost all of whom are forbidden by the Chinese government from travelling in and out of Tibet.

However, I had made my peace with my choice to travel to Tibet. I had travelled to North Korea a month earlier and had had no regrets, witnessing the country first-hand instead of reading reports and forming opinions, and I wanted to do the same in Tibet. As the train approached Lhasa, red Chinese flags poked up from every house and I took a deep breath before setting foot onto the roof of the world.

 

On the Rupert Rocket in Canada

“Ladies and gentlemen we’ve been informed there are moose coming up on the south side…”

Popping up like a gang of meerkats in fleeces, passengers craned necks towards the window with cameras in hand and false hope in their hearts. For the third time that day the alleged wildlife had scarpered so I slumped back in my seat. I’d long since given up on spotting bears and was content to gaze at the army of Douglas fir descending the mountainside – and maybe spy a skunk or two. For a brief moment I was filled with a sudden and sociopathic urge to slap the glass and scream “BEAR!” just for the fun of riling up my companions. Alas Gill and Tracy, a double-act in navy and neckerchiefs, began serving coffee and tea and I was forced to abandon the plan, sit back, and behave myself.

Two days earlier in Vancouver I had boarded The Canadian, a train so beloved it’s even on the Canadian $10 note. Resembling a Dualit toaster from the 1950s, the silver juggernaut of a train rolled off at dusk, on a cross-country mission to Toronto, but pulled into Jasper after breakfast the next morning where I had hopped off to take a round-trip detour on the Skeena.

The Skeena train from Jasper to Prince Rupert, also known fondly as “The Rupert Rocket”, or the rather dull official name “Train 5”, goes where no one else really goes. Way up north and wiggling west a little bit, the train cuts through British Columbia, terminating at the port town of Prince Rupert just 40 miles south of the Alaskan border where there is nothing to do but fish, hike and eat crab on Cow Bay Road. Canadians don’t take trains. They fly or drive their monster trucks from one province to the next, so taking the Skeena is the perfect way to go off-piste and travel with local residents and First Nations people, who, if not hitchhiking or waiting four days for a bus, have no other way to travel in this remote part of the country.

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It’s also home to some of Canada’s most beautiful scenery. Dusted with snow, the Rockies soared into an electric-blue sky, a perfect mirror image broadcast onto the still waters below. Tall trembling aspen lined the tracks, their round leaves shaking like tiny silver bells ringing in the slightest breeze. Staring mindlessly out of the window I began to tally up all the different trains of the previous four months when a large black bear standing in the middle of a field looked up as we flashed past. “BEAR!” I yelled, thrilled, and a bit smug that no one else had seen it. The sighting was a blessing as I saw little more than a herd of tatty-looking farmed bison once I’d got back on The Canadian – while munching through a bison burger. But where The Canadian faltered on wildlife it excelled in lamb steaks, pancakes, and beautiful lakes. Over four days and three nights we curled around mountains, cruised through prairies and arrived amid Toronto’s skyscrapers having undergone one of the greatest journey’s in the world.

www.viarail.ca

Japan: Shooting around on Shinkansen

A mistake I made before travelling to Japan was to watch Lost in Translation and fall prey to Sofia Coppola’s soft-focus illusion. After two weeks of shooting around the country by Shinkansen – the fleet of high-speed, bottle-nosed beauties – it became clear that the film was little more than a stereotypical, insular portrait of a magnetic, complex and multi-layered nation.

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Kanazawa railway station

Almost everything in Japan is designed for efficiency: packets of chopsticks come with a toothpick; a sachet of mustard with ketchup squeezes out two separate lines on a hotdog; the backs of toilet doors have harnesses for mothers to set down their babies. And trains are designed to take passengers from one destination to another as fast and as safely as possible. Nothing more. The average delay is 36 seconds and a series of earthquake counter measures triggers automatic braking that can stop a train at 187mph within 300 metres – while our own trains are cancelled as a result of leaves on the track.

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Nagasaki station

But where the spirit and soul of other Asian countries heaves out of train doorways – from clanging tea vats and steaming dumplings, to raucous card games and rocking babies – Japan’s trains are devoid. They slide up the platform with stealth, their bodies gleaming. On a blue square outside the doors, marked by a pair of painted white feet, a line of passengers makes a queue at a right angle. They slip in, take their seats, put in earphones, swipe their phones or shut their eyes. No one speaks. Sometimes they bring out ekiben – bento boxes containing regional specialities sold at stations. These beautiful wooden boxes are fitted with rice, breaded pork fillets or chicken teriyaki, black shreds of nori, or ginger, pickled pink. Ekiben look more like antique lacquered pieces for a mantelpiece, but they’re fast being replaced by the warm waft of KFC on board.

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An orderly queue forms before boarding

During my first ride on the Sakura Shinkansen from Osaka to Hiroshima I stood a ten-pence piece on its side, and (just to check), stood on one leg in the aisle – neither of us fell over. Nothing but a low whistle of wind filled the cabin and when a fellow bullet train shot the other way we tilted for no more than a few seconds. All heads were bowed, some dozing, some reading, when the conductor entered the carriage, removed his hat and bowed deeply before working his way up the aisle checking tickets. After he reached the top of the carriage he turned around and bowed again before leaving. No one looked up and I felt bad. But it didn’t matter, nothing was lost in translation. In that small motion it became clear that Japanese trains didn’t need music and mess and colour to be alive and filled with soul.

Japan specialists, InsideJapan Tours, offer tailored travel by rail across the country. A rail pass for two weeks costs £242. www.InsideJapanTours.com 0117 244 3263

Thailand: The International Express from Bangkok to Butterworth

Joe hugged his bag to his chest and looked from the floor to the ceiling fan and then out of the window. At the age of 65 this was his first ever train journey: after retiring he had decided to treat himself to a week in Bangkok followed by an overnight journey home to Malaysia. Fishing a tiny Pentax from his breast pocket, he slid over to the window and put one hand to the glass, his eyes following each rusted rooftop and billboard as it sailed past. His tangible delight reaffirmed my own love for train travel. No matter how many trains I boarded, windows I peered through, or doorways I sat in, each new journey was like a present waiting to be unwrapped.

Within an hour the dust and concrete of the city had given way to waterlogged paddy fields lined with palms so bent they grew in diagonals, criss-crossing at the waist. Passengers slipped into comfy pyjamas and spread woollen rugs across their knees. They peered into the baskets of vendors hawking chicken and steamed-up bags of sticky rice, and slurped on carrier bags full of rambutan – splitting open the hairy red cases to reveal white, lychee-like fruit.

As the afternoon blurred into evening, un-read books lay face down on snoozing chests and outside the sun twinkled off the paddy, turning it to sheets of gold. At each station a gold-framed, mural-sized painting of the Thai king loomed through the window, flags and flowers adorning his figure. Shivering in the air-conditioning, I wandered into the vestibule and stood on the hinge of two carriages as they slid around, crashing against each other. Muggy air seeped in through the cracks and once I’d thawed out I swayed down the corridor following the deep aroma of fried fish and lemongrass to the dining car.

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Here was the hub of activity: French tourists in baggy T-shirts smoked through the open windows of the wood-panelled car; a Malaysian student sat sideways in a booth, his iPhone playing Selena Gomez; and waiters in waistcoats arranged red trays on white table cloths. For 170 baht (£3) four set menus offered a main of fried pork in oyster sauce or stir-fried seabass with celery, with a side dish of duck red curry or chicken green curry with jasmine rice and three firm pieces of pineapple for pudding.

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Stuffed, with my lips tingling from the dregs of chilli pork broth, I lingered until the sun had gone and the sky had darkened before winding my way back to my berth. Bedtime soon approached, and the guard arrived to push down the seats into one large berth, wide enough for two. This should have lent itself to a wonderful sleep had an attendant not called through the curtain at 6am to hand me a tray of steaming chicken congee sprinkled with diced spring onion and crisp shallots. But it was so delicious that all was forgiven and it was hard not to be drawn in and shaken awake by the scene outside the window of farms and lakes and villages setting up for the day.

At the Malaysian border of Padang Besar the train was stripped down to two carriages and passengers disembarked for immigration checks and luggage scanning – where I found Joe. Bleary-eyed and disheveled he wandered over with a coffee in hand and I asked him how he’d found his first train. “Oh, it’s special, it’s really something,” he replied. “I don’t know why I waited so long to do it. But I’m going to keep on doing it now.”

You can buy tickets for train 35, the International Express, from Bangkok to Butterworth, at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station. You can also reserve tickets from https://12go.asia/en which charges a £3.50 processing fee, and then collect them at the 12Go.asia counter at Bangkok station. A second-class air-conditioned sleeper costs around £25 one way.

Vietnam: The Reunification Express

A groan came from the bunk above, followed by the sound of a pillow being punched, then furious muttering. I don’t speak Danish but I recognise foul language when I hear it. Mandolin music had begun to whine from a speaker outside our compartment accompanied by a woman’s voice so shrill that only dogs should have heard it. As it swelled and flooded the carriage it was now my turn to let loose a few expletives. At 6am this was not conducive to a relaxing journey.

I had departed Hanoi at around 9pm the previous night on board what is commonly known as The Reunification Express – though no single train in Vietnam bears the name. Completed by French colonists in 1936, the line running from Hanoi to Saigon was severed in 1954 when Vietnam was divided into north and south. The railway then suffered from American bombing throughout the Vietnam War, but resumed its regular service in 1976. Now it’s a run-down, shabby service that has lost custom to budget airlines, but it is still the only way to witness the country in all its glory.

During peak season an extra service numbered SE17, the Limited Express, is put on to cope with the demand and, to my delight, was limited in more ways than one. Paint peeled off the walls like dead skin and the air conditioner’s grill was secured by four pieces of sellotape – two of which were flapping off. The berths creaked, squeaked and clanked and the gold polyester curtain contained more dust than the inside of a Dyson. But the magic of this journey lay outside the carriages.

For the first hour the train ran parallel to the highway with little more than a single wooden fence separating us from couples on scooters and trucks flitting past in the opposite direction. Racing neck and neck with lorry drivers chewing cigarettes and casting sideways glances into our compartment, the train then broke away from the road, swerving into the guts of the city and disappearing into the darkness of run-down houses lit by hurricane lamps and strung with children’s laundry. But the city soon fell away and the train thundered on through the night.

By morning tiny tufts of cloud hovered around the sun as it rolled its way alongside the train. Thick waxy leaves flapped at the sides of the carriage parting to show stacks of green bananas like fists of fat fingers. Palm trees stood to attention and buffalo wallowed in lotus-filled water, tiny white birds perched on their backs. Children clattered from one end of the carriage to the other, peering into compartments then running away while parents in vests gazed out of the windows or played cards. Patriotic classical hits were cranked up high and a metal cart of deep-fried chicken legs, cabbage and rice was wheeled up and down around noon.

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Between Hué and Danang the jungle crept up the hill and wrapped itself around the train, rising up like a green fortress. This section is renowned for its scenery and as the train slipped in and out of tunnels, and curled around cliffs, the ocean appeared below. Strips of creamy yellow sand trimmed the edges of the water at Lang Co Bay and continued all the way to Danang where I had decided to break up my journey for a few days and grudgingly disembarked. From Danang to Saigon I could only book a ticket sitting upright overnight surrounded by Vietnamese families eating tinned luncheon meat in baguettes, but that’s another story…

vietnam-railway.com is a sales agency which will book your tickets and have them promptly delivered to your hotel in Vietnam.

The Godfather of Trains: The Trans-Siberian

Oxana set down my green tea and a fork and patted me on the head. The dining car’s waitress had taken to mothering me since I boarded four days previously and seeing as she was the one who held court – and the keys to the fridge – I was more than happy to let her. At the next table a man in a singlet and slippers, scowled at my pot of instant mash and waved his hands, before tearing in half his buckwheat pancake filled with cottage cheese and tossing it across with a nod and a smile. Having watched him put away three cans of Stella since 9.30am, I obliged, and they were sweet and delicious.

The Trans-Siberian is the godfather of trains. Strictly speaking not a train but a route, it features on the bucket list of most rail enthusiasts, stretching more than 5,500 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok. But to mix things up I had chosen the more varied Trans‑Mongolian route (which veers away from Russia, dipping down through Mongolia into China), and broken up the journey by hopping off to ride the Circum-Baikal railway above Lake Baikal, and watch Swan Lake at the opera in Ulan Bator, before arriving in Beijing 11 days after setting off from Moscow.

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For the first two days I took up residence by the window watching leafless trees flash past until the scenery induced a meditative lull. Every few hours farmhouses and scarecrows in potato patches would breathe life into the greyness. But the real entertainment took place in the train’s corridors where passengers gathered to brew tea at the samovar or exchange stories – and during long-awaited stops where elderly women sold punnets of strawberries and young women in neon shorts hawked dried omul fish speared through the eye. At one such stop I rifled through the trolley of a lady who was picking her teeth while chatting to a friend, and offered her 90 roubles (85p) for a pack of playing cards. Even her son smirked and shook his head in disbelief that anyone would offer more than a cursory glance for what turned out to be a pack of 36 cards.

More than anything the train provided a geographical perspective that no aeroplane or car could ever match. Having picked up our location on Google maps in Moscow, I followed the blue sphere for five days as it moved across the globe, floating across territory that contained no cities, no lakes. But outside the window that territory was very much alive. At dusk on the eve of arrival at Ulan Bator rust-coloured sand dunes rose in the distance and rivers began to bend by the tracks. The sun threw stripes of red and orange across the sky, wholly unlike the mists that had hung across Siberia only days before.

Sunset over Mongolia

Sunset over Mongolia

Waking on the fifth morning, I pulled back the curtains to find Smurf‑blue sky and cliffs rising all around the train as it snaked into tunnels and burst out onto bridges over green water, at the edges of which squatted fishermen in wide trousers and bamboo hats. Stepping onto the platform at Beijing, I couldn’t quite believe how far I had come, but also how far there was to go…

Rail bookers (www.railbookers.com 020 3780 2256) offers holidays on the Trans-Siberian railway from £919 per person. As tailor-made rail-holiday experts they will create a unique trip for you, including stops along the way, hand-picked hotels and a range of excursions.

The World’s First Robot Hotel, Huis Ten Bosch, Japan

Yesterday I stayed at the Henn Na Hotel in Huis Ten Bosch in Japan, otherwise widely known now as the world’s first robot hotel and here’s what happened…

At 2.55pm everyone’s asleep. Behind reception a motionless girl is wearing a cream jacket and a smirk, her hair folded into a chignon. To her left is a velociraptor sporting a bow tie and a bellhop’s hat at a jaunty angle. With the exception of a foot-high robot that orders taxis, there is no one else around. The girl has a sign saying “only Japanese”, so I approach the velociraptor and say hello. Nothing. I wave and he stares past, his limp wrists poised.

“I’d like to check in please,” I shout, wondering if the robots are voice-activated. A door opens to the right and a man in a black T-shirt appears. “Check-in is 3pm” he says and goes back into the room. And with that the magic has gone.

Since Japan’s now infamous robot hotel opened on 16th July, reports of dinosaurs, chattering bedside buddies and robotic porters have flooded the internet, most based on little more than press releases and PR-driven tours pushing a disingenuous line. This is not the hotel’s fault but a result of overzealous misreporting. Henn Na, which is part of the Huis Ten Bosch amusement park in Nagasaki prefecture – a Dutch Disneyland built to resemble the Netherlands – is used largely by Japanese families visiting the park with very young children and is no more than an extension of the magical kingdom, a 1hr 45-minute train journey from both Hakata and Nagasaki.

At 3pm the velociraptor jerks to life, and in an American accent says “Welcome to the Henn Na hotel. If you want to check in, press one.” Excited that everything is now up and running I start tapping my name on a screen when the man in black appears again and asks for my passport, while the dinosaur falls into a state of inertia. It feels like Keith Harris has just taken his hand out of Orville and slapped me with it.

Dejected by the human involvement and that there’s no robot to transport my luggage – this service is only available for residents staying in the A wing and is provided by two chargeable trolleys that stay plugged in for most of the day – I went to my room.

But I wasn’t alone.

On the bedside table sat Chu-ri-chan a cute little creature with a tulip-shaped head. Much like an in-room concierge or a Teddy Ruxspin in a pink dress, Chu-ri-chan switches on the lights, offers weather forecasts and provides a wake-up call. She’ll also perk up after being silent for an hour and scare the crap out of you. However, she doesn’t speak English yet. And there’s no reason why she should – this is a Japanese hotel after all.

The hotel itself is a beautifully designed modernist property with thoughtful additions such as an air-conditioning system that adjusts after detecting body temperatures, facial-recognition to avoid misplaced room keycards, and vending machines with games for children. It also offers breakfast at Aura, an organic restaurant that grows its own produce and serves the best scrambled eggs in Japan. But curious tourists who come to Henn Na expecting to be served green tea by Johnny Five and his crew will, I fear, leave underwhelmed.