Winning tip: Etna circuit, Sicily
The 68-mile trip round Mount Etna in eastern Sicily was full of contrasts: the bleak black landscapes of the lava fields; lush valleys covered in fig, orange, pistachio and olive groves; the almost-abandoned villages and stations at the start and the busyness of Catania. Etna was constantly in sight, often belching out black smoke. On the early stretch from Riposto to Randozzo there were few people inside or out. At Randozzo we grabbed a quick coffee at the buffet before changing to a modern train to continue to Catania. The scenery gradually become more urban and we moved forward in time at least a century.
• circumetnea.it, single under €10
Life lessons, Yangon
A three-hour trip on Yangon’s Circular Railway is arguably the most culturally immersive experience you can have in Myanmar’s capital. This busy, local commuter line provides a window into the everyday lives of Myanman people as men, women and children jump on and off the rickety, wooden carriages and fresh food vendors create transient, bustling markets. Amid the chaos there is some calm: a young monk reading; the lush green scenery of rice fields and rural villages; a local man ambling barefoot along the tracks. Cost: only 11p! (purchase on platform).
Rarely spotted mountain train, Sardinia
The adventurous traveller will try to catch a train from Sassari to Tempio Pausania in northern Sardinia. They sometimes appear on the treninoverde.com website, but not in these Covid times. They may run only once a week in the height of the summer, but finding one is well worth the effort. A single vintage railcar toils up into the remote mountains through narrowing side valleys until, wonder of wonders, it climbs into a spiral tunnel, passing over itself before rushing across a plateau to the cathedral city of Tempio and its near-derelict art deco station. It costs around €20 including, if wished, a much-speedier return by bus.
America’s greatest hits
In 2012 I took the Amtrak Empire Builder route from Chicago’s Union Station to Seattle (singles from $150). It takes two days, but you will be rewarded with a greatest hits compilation of American scenery: the Minneapolis skyline, the endless plains of North Dakota and the highlight, Glacier national park. You will judder into stations like Fargo and Wolf Point and find yourself making friends with a colourful collection of fellow passengers. Sleeper cars are available, but why sleep when you’re chatting to a photographer from the Twin Cities, a trombone player headed to North Dakota or an acupuncturist from Hell (Michigan)?
Calm in Carmarthenshire
My most memorable train journey in recent years took me from Hendy-gwyn (literally Old White House, also known as Whitland) to Cardiff, through Carmarthen. The single-carriage train pulled unassumingly into the station and I boarded, along with one other person. It was the most calming journey: we trundled through a beautiful, hazy landscape, under looming hills dotted with trees and small towns. I don’t think either of us stopped looking out of the window. While this year may make us lust for landscapes on the other side of the world, it’s also shown how much we have to explore on our own little island.
• tfwrail.wales, single from £28
Snow up to the windows, Norway
Bergen to Oslo is regularly voted the best train journey in the world. Norway can be eye wateringly expensive but this eight-hour journey cost about £35 and the views were incredible as we crossed high mountain passes. The engine had a huge snow plough on the front and as we passed through the highest station in Europe the snow came up to the windows. The roofs of summer cabins poked through the drifts here and there and at one point we stopped by a hotel where a man on a skidoo came to collect essential supplies. He was the only sign of life for miles but as we descended the snow melted and birds and humans came back in to view. By the time we reached the outskirts of Oslo it was spring again.
Music, meringues and merriment, Colombia
The Sunday train from Bogota to Zipaquirá’s Salt Cathedral was full of excited passengers. The carriages, as old as the puffing steam engine, had grand leather seats. Tannoy announcements flowed thick and fast in Spanish, but a nearby youngster interpreted for us. On the two-hour, 50km journey we were entertained by lively, loud jazz and soul bands strolling through the carriages with passengers dancing in the aisles while vendors offered plantain-wrapped tamales, Colombian tinto (coffee), empanadas and huge, creamy white merengon (meringues) for a few pesos. The highlight was meant to be the cathedral.
• turistren.com.co, rail.cc/blog
Epic expanses, Mongolia
I travelled by train from Hanoi to Berlin, and the vast expanse of Mongolia is of such epic proportions that it often seems that the curve of the planet is visible over the horizon. Horses gallop alongside the train before changing direction and melting into the distance, while at other times there’s just one, loaded down with a rider and some luggage. Occasionally a yurt or cluster of yurts group together in the middle of corn farms spanning miles and miles. Everything is big, panoramic, and once you see the sunset, no words can aptly describe what it’s like to experience Mongolia.
• Tickets booked via Real Russia
Bears, elks and a baby, Canada
We chose the Skeena train to get us from Jasper, Alberta to the Pacific at Prince Rupert rather than one of the expensive tourist trains that cross the Rockies. It’s a slow local train whose two-day journey stops at isolated tiny communities, many with names indicating their First Nations past, and an overnight stop at Prince George, the only town on the route. Along the way, thanks to the conductor, we saw bears and other wildlife in the wilderness, spotted elk invading someone’s garden and learned that the population at the next stop had just increased to 13, since the birth of a baby boy. The single fare when we travelled was $99.
Jungle journey, Madagascar
Travel between Fianarantsoa in the highlands and the Madagascan coast at Manakara is slow. Jungle stations are completely inaccessible by road. As the train approaches, crowds appear: men to load and unload produce, children and women to sell snacks, drinks, or peppercorns. There is no timetable. The journey of 163km takes at least 11 hours, often much longer. A honking horn clears the ancient tracks of people and animals. The 1930s Swiss carriages screech as they slowly descend through wooded ravines. Waterfalls and rivers sparkle in bright sun until sudden nightfall. The journey ends with occasional light from villages or fireflies.