Epic Rail Odyssey
Epic Rail Odyssey is the ultimate rail adventure that stretches more than 10,000kms, across the face of the earth. Always designed as more than a rail journey, it passes through vast steppes, deserts, mountain ranges and rich fertile valleys. Spanning a quarter of the earth’s land surface, this glorious journey traverses six diverse countries.
We begin in Moscow where we delve into corners of the great city that are not normally visited by tourists: in particular, Stalin’s bunker – a nuclear stronghold and nerve centre during the Cold War. Leaving Moscow on the first of our wonderful train journeys, we cross the Ural Mountains to the Aral Sea, a remote and little visited place where the hulks of rusting ships lie stranded in what is now a massive salt pan. From here we cross the endless Kazakh Steppes to the beautiful city of Almaty. Lying in the shadows of the formidable Tian Shan Mountains, Almaty is our boarding point for the train that will straddle these ranges and enter remote western China, heartland of the Uighur people. From here we take the newest bullet train in the country which will complete the 1,776km journey to Lanzhou in just 11 hours! We then fly south to the wonderful city of Kunming, before entering Vietnam and its capital Hanoi. Another great train journey on the Reunification Express will then take us the complete length of Vietnam’s shoreline to Ho Chi Minh City. After an exhilarating three-night stay in the frenetic metropolis we travel by road to Phnom Penh, where after an overnight stay, we continue by road to Siem Reap and the ‘8th wonder of the world’, Angkor Wat. From here we head to Thailand, and its exciting capital Bangkok, where our momentous journey concludes. Epic Rail Odyssey is, without doubt, Travel Directors’ most thrilling rail journey so far!
Tour Fitness Level: Active
- Visit Russia’s Cold War nerve centre at Stalin’s bunker
- Travel on Moscow’s famous metro and visit some of the beautiful stations
- Stay at the town of Aralsk for two nights
- Cross the mighty Kazakh steppes by train
- See the desiccation of the Aral Sea
- Two-night stay in the ‘City of Apples’, Almaty.
- Cross the Tian Shan Mountains by train
- Full day trip to the gem of the Tian Shan Mountains, Heaven lake
- Witness the fascinating Chinese Muslim city of Urumqi
- Ride on China’s latest bullet train, a 1,722km marvel of engineering
- Visit the extraordinary Stone Forrest at Kunming
- Enjoy the beautiful expo gardens of Kunming
- Two-night stay in Hanoi
- Cross the 17th parallel on the Reunification Express
- Three-night stay in Ho Chi Minh City
- Stroll through Reunification Palace
- Experience the Cu Chi Tunnels
- Full day at the ‘8th wonder of the world’, Angkor Wat
- All flights between Australia and Moscow/Bangkok and Australia (inc domestic from your preferred capital city)
- All accommodation (twin-share)
- All ticketable air taxes (may be subject to change)
- All trains and internal transportation
- All meals as specified
- Travel Directors’ tour leader throughout
- Expert local guides
- All entrance fees in specified sightseeing
- All visas and courier fees
- All tips and gratuities
Please note that whilst every effort will be made to adhere to the above pricing, currency fluctuations beyond our control can affect final costs. A booking form is to be completed by all passengers, and a non-refundable deposit of AUD $2,000 per person paid at the time of booking. All tours are based on a minimum group size of 10 people travelling.
02/09/2020 Australia – Singapore
Depart from your chosen Australian airport on the flight to Singapore.
03/09/2020 Singapore – Moscow (LD)
Depart Singapore SQ 362, 00.20
Arrive Moscow 06.00
On arrival we transfer to our hotel and after lunch we stroll into Red Square. Dating back to 1493, the magnificent square is flanked on one side by the red walls of the Kremlin and on the other by the majestic GUM department store. At one end is the imposing history museum and at the other is one of the world’s most famous buildings, the unique St Basil’s Cathedral. The square also houses Lenin’s mausoleum.
04/09/2020 Moscow (BLD)
Today we visit the extraordinary ‘Stalin Bunker 42,’ a museum dedicated to the cold war and the historical nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers. The bunker which was built as a shelter for the headquarters of long-distance Air Forces, is located 70 metres below ground and occupies an area of 7,000 square metres. In the ‘60s, the bunker was equipped with life-support systems, supplies of water and enough food to support the officers for a year. By 1995 the bunker was declassified, though even today the complex is contained inside a façade of a 19th century house with blank windows. It is said that the bunker can withstand a direct hit from a nuclear bomb.
05/09/2020 Moscow – Aralskoe (Aral Sea) (BLD)
Our last day in Moscow is a very special one, as we travel 35km beyond the outskirts of the city to a unique open-air military museum which contains hundreds of exhibits from the Second World War and the Cold War. We enjoy lunch at the site before returning to Moscow. In the afternoon we have the opportunity to do some last minute shopping or sightseeing around Red Square before enjoying dinner and then transferring to Kazansky station for the journey to the Aral Sea.
Depart Moscow Train 18, 21.40
06/09/2020 On board train
The train heads south and today we cross into Kazakhstan. We soon reach the border of the world’s ninth largest country and then continue across the great Kazakh steppes.
07/09/2020 Arrive Aral Sea
Four decades ago the town of Aralsk was one of the most important fishing ports on the Aral Sea with a population of nearly 100,000 people. Today the number of people living in the town has dropped to less than 35,000.
Arrive Aralsk 21.45
At Aralsk train station, we see a large mosaic that depicts how, in 1921 Aralsk’s comrades provided fish for people starving in Russia. Today the town is a stark testament to the environmental and social disaster wrought by the diversion of the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers for cotton production, and the resultant desiccation of the Aral Sea.
New Hotel Nur
08/09/2020 Aral Sea (BLD)
After breakfast we explore the northern part of the Aral Sea where the shoreline has been pushed back some 60km, yet once, waves lapped at the town walls. In fact today the Aral Sea is only 25 kilometres from Aralsk thanks to a dam, which is now saving the north Aral Sea. The fishing industry is recovering and a new fish processing plant has been built. After we return from the Aral Sea we visit the old port where we see the rusted crane and some boats lying in the former harbour.
09/09/2020 Aral Sea – Baikonur – Almaty (B)
This morning we board our bus for the two hour journey to Baikonur, the busiest space port in the world. In fact, this has been the launch site for Soviet and Russian space missions since the beginning of space exploration in 1957. Historically, it was the site where the first satellite and, indeed, the first human – Yuri Gagarin – were launched into space. Today, the site is heavily used for launching Soyuz astronauts to the International Space Station. Situated 2,100 kilometers from Moscow, Baikonur is more than just a launch site: it is a unique city that Russia leases from Kazakhstan, and is controlled by Russian and Kazakh military working side by side. Baikonur even has two airports and its own train station from where we board our train for the journey to Almaty. We now follow the route of the Arab traders and their caravans along part of the Great Silk Road. Crossing steppes we see nomads and shepherds herding their cattle much as their ancestors did a thousand years before. Now the dining car becomes the hub of the train where westerners and Russians mingle, share a meal and have a drink or two.
Depart Aral Sea, Train 34, 15.44
10/09/2020 Almaty (D)
The train rolls on towards Almaty and the landscape begins to change to lush green pastures flanked by snow-capped mountains. In the afternoon we arrive in Almaty and transfer to our hotel.
Arrive Almaty 18.37
Shera Park Inn
11/09/2020 Almaty – Charyn Canyon – Almaty (BLD)
Today we head out to the magnificent Charyn Canyon in the Charyn National Park. Formed three million years ago, the canyon is approximately 150 km long, and up to 300 meters deep in places. Because the area used to be a large inland sea, the deposits seen on the sides of the canyon are relatively soft and are a geologist’s dream, revealing hundreds of millions of years of history. The vista of dramatic erosion caused by the River Charyn and the elements, have created a dramatic and astonishing landscape of rock sculptures. Charyn is often described as Central Asia’s Grand Canyon.
12/09/2020 Almaty – Urumqi (BLD)
Situated in the shadows of the Tian Shan Mountains, Almaty is the cultural and commercial hub of Kazakhstan. Literally meaning ‘rich with apples’ the former capital is known as the ‘Garden City’ for its large areas of fragrant gardens and the majestic firs and spruce of the Tian Shan Mountains that surround it. Today we explore this beautiful city before moving high up to the outskirts to see the magnificent panorama of Almaty before us. After dinner we transfer to the train station for the next leg of our journey which takes us towards the remote eastern corner of Kazakhstan and the Drushba/Alatau border.
Depart Almaty Train 13, 00.22
13/09/2020 On board train
After finishing with Kazakh immigration the train moves into China. Arriving at Alatau, on the China side, giant hydraulic lifts raise the train and the wheel bogies are changed to fit the narrower gauge tracks in China. With Chinese border formalities completed, the train makes its way to Urumqi, flanked by the mighty snowy peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains.
14/09/2020 Urumqi (LD)
This morning we reach the capital of Xinjiang province.
Arrive Urumqi 10.10
Historically known as Dihua or Tihwa, the name ‘Urumqi’ is a Mongolian word that means ‘beautiful pasture’. These beautiful pastures have now been replaced by a sprawling metropolis and a hub city on the ancient Silk Road. It is home to numerous cultural relics and historic treasures as well as 13 ethnic minorities: this is the fascinating Muslim heartland of China. On arrival in Urumqi we transfer to our hotel. .
15/09/2020 Urumqi (BLD)
After breakfast we leave Urumqi and head into the great Tian Shan Mountains. We start to climb until we reach Heavenly Lake, situated 2,000 metres above sea level and with a depth of 60 metres. Surrounding the Heavenly Lake are snowy peaks, glacier forests and alpine lakes, making this whole area a stunning pocket of nature. After our visit we head back to explore Urumqi’s fascinating bazaar and the Xinjiang museum which houses 4,000-year-old mummies.
16/09/2020 Urumqi – Lanzhou (BD)
Depart Urumqi Train DZ 704 09.24
The Urumqi-Lanzhou High-Speed Railway is a 1,776-kilometer line that opened in 2015 and connects remote Xinjiang with Beijing, a remarkable rail construction that rivals the Himalayan Express. Skirting the Gobi Desert, we pass through 19 stations on our way to Gansu province. This is the Silk Road by bullet train!
Arrive Lanzhou 20.57
On our arrival in Lanzhou we transfer to our hotel
17/09/2020 Lanzhou – Kunming (BD)
After breakfast we depart for Lanzhou airport for our flight to Kunming.
Depart Lanzhou Sichuan Airline 3U 8514. 13.00
Arrive Kunming 17.20
On arrival in Kunming we transfer to our hotel. Known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’, Kunming is located in Yunnan province and lies some 1,890m above sea level. It is a fascinating city inhabited by a large number of minority groups.
Green Lake Hotel
18/09/2020 Kunming (BLD)
Kunming is regarded as one of China’s most liveable cities, but is perhaps most famous for its magical Stone Forest. A geological phenomenon, the ‘forest’ was a vast sea millions of years ago. Later the movement of tectonic plates altered the earth’s crust, causing the sea to recede and the limestone floor to appear. Due to the constant seeping of rain through the cracks in the limestone, some of the stone formations dissolved and the fissures broadened, producing a mass of strange rock formations. Today we head out of the city to explore this amazing site.
19/09/2020 Kunming – Hanoi (BLD)
This morning we commence our five-hour journey to the Chinese border town of Hekou. After lunch on the Red River, which separates the two countries, we cross into the Vietnam border town of Lao Cai. Here we board our bus for the four-hour drive to Hanoi.
Hotel de L’Opera
20/09/2020 Hanoi (BLD)
In 2010, Hanoi celebrated its 1,000th anniversary as capital of Vietnam – this in spite of several invasions and occupations. It is a fascinating mix of old and new Vietnam, with Chinese and French influences, ancient culture, colonial architecture, broad tree-lined boulevards, and beautiful lakes. Today we explore the city starting with a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and then on to the Old Quarter and the French Quarter.
21/09/2020 Hanoi – Duong Lam – Hanoi (BLD)
Today we head out of Hanoi to explore the Vietnam of the past. Duong Lam village has a history of about 1,200 years with many houses dating back up to 400 years. Nearly all the buildings here are made of laterite and mud, two materials that are abundant in the area. Laterite is used on house walls, gates, wells and even temples, while the mud is extracted from ponds. The whole area is surrounded by rice paddies and people working here are using agricultural techniques that are hundreds of years old. This evening we enjoy a performance of the famous water puppet show at the Bong Sen Water Puppet Theatre. The Vietnamese traditional art of water puppetry has roots that date back to the 10th century where farmers in the Red River Delta area used it to celebrate festivals and harvests.
22/09/2020 Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh City (B)
Depart Hanoi train SE 3, 10.00
An early start today as we board the much celebrated ‘Reunification Railway’, a steel artery running the length of Vietnam. It was completed in 1936 in what was then French Indo-China. However the railway operated for only 18 years, before the French pulled out and the country split into North and South. Only in 1976 did the north-south trains resume, and now this 1,726km railway line provides the vital link between the two cities. Hanoi station is very visibly a French colonial building, although its stark concrete central section is the result of an American bomb in December 1972.
23/09/2020 Ho Chi Minh City (D)
Crossing the 17th parallel and hugging the coast, we continue south with stops at Nha Trang and Danang, before arriving into Ho Chi Minh City.
Arrive Ho Chi Minh 17.00
Ho Chi Minh City
24/09/2020 Ho Chi Minh City (BLD)
Ho Chi Minh is a frenetic city of 8.2 million people whose most notable landmark is Saigon Central Post Office, the starting point for our city tour. Designed and built by French architect Gustave Eiffel, this Gothic-style building was completed in 1886 and remains one of the country’s most celebrated edifices. We then move to the Reunification Palace, home of the president of South Vietnam during the war. This is where the first North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates on the morning of 30 April 1975, resulting in Saigon’s official surrender. It is preserved almost exactly as it was that morning. Later we visit the busy Ben Thanh Market which has more than 3,000 stalls.
25/09/2020 Ho Chi Minh City (BLD)
The Cu Chi Tunnels, a short drive from the city, were created by the Viet Cong during the war with the Americans. After breakfast we head out of the city to explore the series of hidden underground tunnels from where the Viet Cong could launch sudden, surprise attacks. Here, in the narrow, extremely claustrophobic tunnels, air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with rats, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and rats. For much of the time, the Viet Cong would be in the tunnels by day resting only to emerge after darkness to engage the enemy. This is an astounding insight into the deprivation of guerrilla warfare during the Vietnam War.
26/09/2020 Ho Chi Minh – Phnom Penh (BLD)
This morning we take the first of our road trips of the tour as we head for Moc Bai, the Vietnam/Cambodia border. After completing border formalities we continue to Phnom Penh arriving in the early afternoon.
27/09/2020 Phnom Penh – Siem Reap (BLD)
Leaving Pnomh Penh this morning we board our coach for the five-hour drive to Siem Reap. The road between these two cities offers a glimpse of Cambodian country life, as you travel past rice paddies, traditional wooden houses, and water buffalo lazily grazing on the side of the road. After lunch we continue on to Siem Reap and check in to our hotel.
Victoria Angkor Wat Resort & Spa
28/09/2020 Siem Reap: Angkor Wat (BLD)
After breakfast we explore the incredible complex of Angkor Wat. A 700-year old city, the temples are the architectural zenith of the Khmer Empire. Angkor Watt was the capital of the kingdom that stretched across Southeast Asia, including Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. Consisting of 1,000 temples with canals, shrines and tombs, it is considered the unofficial 8th wonder of the world.
29/09/2020 Siem Reap – Aranyaprathet – Bangkok (BD)
Today we drive a short distance to the Cambodian border town of Poiphet and after completing formalities, we arrive at the Thai town of Aranyaprathet, where we board our coach to continue on to Bangkok. On arrival at Bangkok we transfer to our hotel.
30/09/2020 Bangkok (BLD)
One of the world’s most vibrant and visited cities, Thailand’s capital has long been established as a heritage site and exotic playground. This morning we explore old Bangkok by way of its canals, which reveal scenes at odds with the bustling, modern inner city. Here, we get an insight into the serene and simple lifestyle of riverbank dwellers. After lunch we visit Jim Thompson House, one of the best examples of traditional Thai residential architecture which also boasts a breathtaking collection of Southeast Asian art. This evening we enjoy a stroll through the Silom night market.
01/10/2020 Bangkok – Singapore – Australia (B)
After a leisurely morning we transfer to the airport for our homeward flight.
Depart Bangkok Singapore Airlines SQ 977, 15.40
Arrive Singapore 19.15
In Singapore connect with your homeward flight.
02/10/2020 Singapore – Australia
Arrive home in Australia today.
If I travel alone, do I have to pay the single supplement?
If you do not want to share a hotel room with another person in the group, you will have to pay the single supplement. However, if you are willing to share we will team you up with another passenger of the same sex in the hotels. If a match-up is not possible, we will upgrade you at our expense. Please note, the single supplement covers only the hotel accommodation. It does not cover the train journeys. We use twin-berth compartments on the trains (or buy out a 4-berth for twin share use if 2-berth is unavailable). Should you wish to upgrade to single occupancy a further charge will apply – POA.
Why are meals on the trains not included and how much do they cost?
We don’t include the meals on the train because the days are not so structured and people like to eat at different times. Also, as you are not exercising, you don’t need so much food. Meals on the train are cheap (around USD $10). Cheap snacks can also be purchased at some stops. In addition some people like to take packet soups and pot noodles on the train, which are easily prepared with boiling water from the samovars located in each carriage.
What sort of luggage is best for this trip?
A lightweight suitcase on four wheels is ideal. Unlike most TD tours, we cannot rely on porters (or co-opted ‘baggage handlers’) to move our luggage on this trip. All guests will be responsible for moving their own luggage. Gangway space is limited in most of the trains and it is very difficult to manoeuvre larger bags when changing trains. Therefore, on this tour, it is best to limit luggage to a medium-sized suitcase weighing around 15kgs.
Do I need vaccinations for this journey?
No vaccinations are mandatory on this route but we would recommend you seek advice from your doctor. Tetanus should certainly be up to date and a flu jab is useful to help prevent colds.
What is the climate like at this time of the year?
Temperatures are moderate throughout the tour ranging from the late teens to early thirties. Our pre-departure information booklets will provide specific temperature and weather guides for your trip.
I heard that visas are difficult to obtain. Is this the case?
A Russian visa involves a lot of paperwork but because we arrange all of this there is no need to worry. We also organise the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian visas and the fees are included in the tour cost. However, we require your passport three months before departure in order to process the visas.
A lot of companies have many expensive optional extras on their tours. Do you?
We don’t believe in a lot of expensive ‘optional tours’. Our itineraries are designed to make the best possible use of time and to include all the must-see sights, plus additional surprises. Therefore, practically everything is included in the tour cost.
Is the water safe to drink en route and what is the general standard of hygiene?
We err on the side of caution on all of our tours and advise travellers to drink only bottled water. This is easy to obtain everywhere. The standard of hygiene is surprisingly high along the entire route.
Is it possible to have a shower on the trains?
The trains we use do not have showers. However, the washrooms are spacious and there are two per carriage. Hot water is always available so keeping clean is not a problem.
I’ve heard that some trains in Russia and China are of a poor standard. Is this true?
Yes, some trains in Russia and China are not up to the same standard as trains in Australia and can be very poor. However, we schedule our tours to coincide with the timetables of the very best trains in these countries.
What is the security like on the train?
Security is very good on the trains. However, we still urge basic precautions such as locking your compartment when visiting the dining car.
What is the standard of the hotels?
We choose our hotels for their central locations, which we believe is very important. They are generally 3-4 star quality (or better), comfortable, clean and all with en-suites.
What currency do I need to take?
US dollars are easily changed into the local currency in every country en route. They should be clean and undamaged and not older than 2008.
How much spending money do I need for the entire trip?
Because almost everything is included, we would suggest an amount of USD $1,000 per person as being ample for the whole month-long journey.
Are credit cards acceptable?
Credit cards are widely accepted throughout the journey and ATMs are available along the entire route. However, we don’t recommend relying on these as your main source of funds. It is advisable to take some cash.
Are there internet facilities en route?
All the hotels we use have internet facilities.
Do mobile telephones work?
Telstra and Optus mobiles work throughout the entire journey except at our Dugana camp in Mongolia and some parts of the train journey. You will need to ensure you have global roaming. Contact your service provider for further details.
How much should we tip the guides and porters?
There is no need to tip guides or porters as all tips and gratuities are included in the tour cost.
Listed below is a selection of books which you may wish to read prior to, or during, your journey.
The Great Railway Bazaar
Road to the Stars
The Aral Sea: The Devastation and Partial Rehabilitation
Philip Micklin and N.V. Aladin
Pictures from Baikonur
William B. Trescot
Drinking Camel’s Milk in the Yurt
Ji-yun Jang & Tan Jun
The Reunification Express
Ho Chi Minh: A Life
William J. Duiker
Tap on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton