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The best train trips for backpackers

by Victor Eekhof
Perurail to Shinkansen: 5 train rides that make a lasting impression

I was one of those kids that planted his face on every model train shop he passed and who would only leave when dragged away by his mother. In my teens, my head would turn in an owl-like fashion whenever a train would pass which I hadn’t seen before. During my college years we were given free student rail passes. To maximize the value of these passes, I would go on random train trips through The Netherlands with two of my friends. Basically, one of us would throw a dice after which we would take the train from the platform matching it’s number. We would film it all too (Dutch language alert). Aah, the memories..

I’ve always enjoyed traveling by train, and this didn’t change when I started traveling to lands far, far away. I’ve taken train trips in different parts of the world and while I loved them all, a couple stood out.

Perurail – Machu Picchu, Peru

Slightly showing the characteristics of a tourist trap, this exclusive “railway” takes passengers from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, a purely tourist-filled town at the bottom of Machu Picchu. So why did I take this train trip? Mainly because of the absence of time and preparation to do a proper Inca trail. The train ride takes about 4 hours, while the Inca trail can take 4 days. It wasn’t the best 75 euro I ever spent (that’s for a one-way ticket) but it had to be done.

Peru rail Aguas Calientes

The Perurail train depot at Aguas Calientes

I must admit that the train ride itself was nice, with fancy “European-style” food such as popcorn, a fruit salad and some buns. Along the way there were several announcements commenting on the surrounding mountains, towns or local tribes. In three languages. The roof and sides of the carriage were made from glass, providing almost a 145° view. It was the most comfortable train trip of my Pole 2 Pole 4 Charity trip, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the amount of work the locals had to put in this to build this railway. I took a local bus back which took ages and was highly uncomfortable. Still, it felt better than taking the train back.

Peru rail view

The view from my Perurail carriage.

Peru rail food

The luxurious “European-style” food on the train to Aguas Calientes

Shinkansen – Japan

This is a childhood dream come true. I had only heard of these fast trains, and as a little boy I kind of gave up on the dream of ever riding in one. But then: BOOM! I’m in Japan, waiting for the platypus of trains to glide into the platform. It lived up to every expectation I had of it. Looking out of the window cities would swoosh by uncomfortably while I sat, comfortably, in my decent-sized seat.

Shinkansen bullet train Japan

The esthetic beauty of the Shinkansen bullet train.

Japan train information

Good luck getting any information at all from these signs.

 Bonus tip! 

Get a JR pass before you arrive in Japan. It allows you to travel with almost all of the Shinkansen bullet trains all over Japan, plus you can take a lot of JR metro lines in Tokyo. Furthermore, if you would buy a return from Tokyo to Osaka without the pass, you would already pay more than the (7-day or 14-day) pass. Remember to buy it outside of Japan though, since you can’t buy it once you have entered the country.

Japan rail pass

The Japan rail pass allows you to travel on almost all Shinkansen trains and a lot of metro lines in Tokyo.

Sleeper trains – China

Although trains are the most economical way to travel China, I have developed a love-hate relationship with them. First of all, you have to be lucky to actually get a spot in the sleeper carriage. If only a tiny percentage of the more than one billion Chinese people decide to take the train, you are screwed. It starts with queuing up and buying a ticket, which can be a true adventure. Once you have pointed, mimicked or gestured your way to a sleeper ticket, you will have to make your way to the waiting area. You should hope that there is nothing wrong with your train since the public announcements, or any of the people around for that matter, are not going to help you figure things out.

China sleeper train cabin

A rare sight: a clean Chinese sleeper train cabin, before the herd of passengers arrived.

So, you’re on the train and you found the sleeper spot indicated on your ticket? Great! It surely saves you sitting on a hard plastic 3-person bench with 4 people for 32 hours. Been there, done that and my butt still hurts. Back to the train beds. The top bunk bed is pretty good, as you don’t have to deal with the people below or next to you. You will also have some space to put your bag. The downside is that you’ll be more cramped up than a tortoise, as you won’t be able to sit up straight (based on the average height of a Caucasian male). The middle bed is better, as you have a bit more room and still have the bed to yourself. You will have to climb out of your bed every time you need something from your bag, however.

Sleeper train upper bed

The (cramped) upper bed on a Chinese sleeper train

The bottom bed is fair game for anyone that passes through your carriage and fancies a chat with any of the other passengers. You might go to the toilet and come back to 3 people sitting on your bed or a piece of luggage blocking your foot-space. The good thing is that you will have easy access to the hallway boiler, which will allow you an unlimited feast of instant noodles and tea. Although I prefer travel over land instead of flying, the Chinese trains are pushing my limits.

China train boiler

I was always happy to see these little old hot water dispensing machines.

Adventure Time train trip – Taiwan

As a little boy (this is becoming a bit of a throwback article) I used to watch a lot of cartoons, especially on the American Cartoon Network channel. Although I watch less cartoons now, there are a couple that can still steal my heart. Adventure Time is one of them. The show boasts a combination of adult humor with the most random (pop-) references, all packaged in a colorful show that children could easily watch too. It’s simply awesome, in my humble opinion. When I heard that there was such a thing as an Adventure Time train, I was sold.

Adventure Time train taiwan

Adventure Time’s Jake brightens up the train’s nose.

I did my research and found out that it arrives in Taipei (Taiwan), which lucky for me was on my travel itinerary. After finding out where and when it would stop I quickly made my way to greet the lovely sight of this train. There I was, waiting for 10 minutes with a Jake (one of the characters) plush toy in my one hand and a camera in my other hand. The train slowly glided past me featuring not only the adventure characters on the exterior ánd interior, but also other popular cartoons such as the Powerpuff girls, Tom & Jerry and Courage the dog. My inner geek was deeply satisfied, and I would recommend anyone to go see the train too.

Update: Unfortunately, the cartoon train is not operational any more 🙁

Adventure Time train

The beloved Adventure Time themed train in Taiwan.

Adventure Time Jake train

My geek moment. Oh my glob!

Trans-Mongolian Express, Beijing to Moscow

Every year, thousands of first-time travelers set off to face the joys of sitting in a train for four to seven straight days. Or maybe less, if they are brave enough to spend a day or two in a tiny Russian village with little to do or see. Sensing a bit of a sarcastic undertone here? Maybe it’s because I expected a bit more from this epic but overhyped train trip. That said, I did have a couple of magical moments on my 5 and 9-day breaks in Irkutsk (Russia) and Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia).

Trans Mongolia train station

Some of the characters you might meet on the Trans Mongolian Express stations.

I guess the thing that bothered me most was the train ride itself. I know every ride is different, as every ride has different passengers. But if you expect the whole train to join in on a balalaika party with vodka being poured as water, you might be in for a disappointment. Yes, I did get merry with a drunken Russian and at one point we even exchanged shirts, but I would call the experience a little bit obnoxious rather than anything else. Don’t expect the landscape to change much either, as it’s Russian taiga for the bulk of the trip.

Trans Mongolia train security

A Trans Mongolian Express security guard

There were a couple of factors that skewed my experience. First, I did the trip at the end of my 6 month world tour. I was a bit tired of meeting new people every day (definitely my introvert side talking here) and I was more than happy to focus on watching movies, producing music and writing blog posts on my laptop. I would imagine you would have a different attitude if you would start your long-term trip with this train journey. Or, even better, if this would be the only journey on your itinerary.

Second, I was traveling solo, which meant I had no backup in social terms. There were no other backpackers in my carriage, so I was either having a broken English/Russian/Polish conversation with my cabin mates or I was typing away with headphones on.

All in all, I’m grateful for having had the experience. If you look at the hassle involved with getting the visa(s), the costs of the whole trip and the excitement levels during the journey I would advise on spending your money elsewhere. On train ride number 6, perhaps?

Trans Mongolia train interior

The hallway of a Trans Mongolian train carriage. You will have a bed in a 4 or 8 person cabin.

Train trips in Europe

Being a European myself, I have seen a couple of countries on family holidays, most of which I don’t really remember anymore. In my early twenties I decided to conquer the world outside in, starting with the countries furthest away from where I live (like New Zealand and USA) and slowly working my way back to Europe. It was only then that I realized how much I didn’t know about Europe, and how diverse and stunning most countries were. I get inspired by the pictures that my (mostly non-European) friends share after maxing out their rail passes. I mean, just look at these pics below. If you find yourself in The Netherlands and you are looking for cheap train tickets, check out my article about booking train tickets in The Netherlands with 50% discount.

West Highway Line, Scotland

West Highway Line, Scotland (with a prehistoric train on it) © Trevor plackett, creative commons license through Flickr.

Flåm Railway Norway

Flåm Railway, Norway
© Marra Man, creative commons license through Flickr.

Corniglia station Italy

Corniglia station, Italy
© Dan, creative commons license through Flickr.

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Ryan Biddulph

Very neat Victor! Gotta admit, even those pancakes look damn good lol….for most spots I visit, they are an impossibilty. We get light weight roti in spots like here in Indonesia but one looks far and wide for a real, thick, fluffy pancake, let alone on a train LOL……fab images, great share and all the best to everybody in the contest!



I’ll admit I haven’t done much train travel, just a couple of short trips within my own country (Canada), but I’ve always wanted to do a longer train journey, and a train trip in Europe would be fantastic.

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