Archive for the ‘Train Stories’ Category

From Lisbon To Rome By Rail

June 16th, 2014 by 0 Comments

trans-mongolian russian train

Southern Europe is famous for great food and wonderful culture, and when it comes to taking a long journey across the region, there is no better way to do this than to travel by train. Enjoying the scenery from the carriage is much more relaxing than having to focus on the road as you drive, without even mentioning the benefits of not having to deal with traffic jams. Having spent some time exploring the Portuguese coast, it was time to move on to a new setting, and the historic city of Rome was to be my new destination, but with nearly two weeks before I needed to be there, I was able to spend a little more time savoring the journey.


Choosing The Route

I had looked at doing a simple transfer by plane from Lisbon to Rome, but after looking at the option of buying an eurail pass, it was obvious that taking the scenic route could be a lot more exciting. If I was traveling purely for speed, the best route would have been to head to Madrid, then Paris, and on to Rome, but with plenty of travel time available I chose to take in a few more sights along the route. Rail Europe offered plenty of freedom, and as long as I made sure I had the seats booked, then I could take whichever route appealed to me.


Portugal And Spain

There is an overnight train linking Lisbon and Madrid that is very convenient for those who are pressed for time, but for me, I’d never visited the pilgrimage town of Fatima, and the train from Lisbon was a beautiful route. The Basilica in Fatima was a stunning place to visit, and after a good night’s sleep, I took the train on towards Caceres and Madrid. After another overnight stop, it was time to head on to one of my favorite cities, Barcelona, and the journey gave me another few days to spend there, tucking into the great food of the Mediterranean, and also enjoying a walk down the iconic Las Ramblas.


France And Italy

As a train buff, traveling on the TGV has always been a great pleasure for me, and the double-decker fast service between Barcelona and Paris is a great way to see the country, and it makes 180mph seem like a relaxing cruise between the two cities. With a bit more time to spend, I stayed for a few days in Paris doing all of the usual tourist attractions, and getting to return to the Louvre. The journey then turned south, and the train through to Dijon offered more scenic delights, while the town was also a great place to relax, enjoy the local cuisine and to see both of the beautiful churches.


The Final Destination

Spending a fortnight traveling the route to Rome had been a great experience, and the scenery across Central Europe is home to some spectacular train lines, but I was still able to get into Rome fresh and relaxed. The train from Milan heading south took me on another attractive line through the Italian countryside, and finally rolling into the grand rail terminal at the heart of the city. Buying the Eurail pass from Rail Europe had proved to be a great investment, and turned a simple move from one city to the next into an amazing travel experience.


Train routes through Kazakhstan??!!

January 24th, 2013 by 0 Comments

When Michael, Jeannie and Nora embarked on the first Ultimate Train Challenge, they all took different routes out of Lisbon before converging in Moscow.  There, they hopped on the Trans-Mongolian Railway to ride across Russia, through Mongolia and into China. My guess is that if you are thinking about doing the UTC this time around, you probably have a similar route in mind.

trans-mongolian russian train
But why not mix things up a bit? You’re already traveling from Lisbon to Saigon (or vice versa) in 30 days or less – why not get off the beaten path and check out a country you may not otherwise ever think to visit?

Why not go through Kazakhstan?

Sure, you may only know about Kazakhstan from a certain movie, but it very well could be the highlight of your entire trip. In my experience, the people were ten times friendlier than those in Russia. Where I was met with stone cold glares and complete silence during much of my Trans-Siberian journey, it seemed like everyone was eager to chat with me as I traveled by train across Kazakhstan. From elderly men who shared their watermelon and rambled to me in Russian to why teenagers who wanted to practice their English, I found the Kazakh trains to be incredibly social.

You are also likely to eat really well while crossing Kazakhstan. At nearly every stop, I encountered scores of Kazakh babushkas hawking plastic bags of steaming  hot pelmeni and manty (dumplings), roasted potatoes, vegetables and even shashlik (grilled meat) – not to mention loaves and loaves of fresh bread and the most delicious melons I have ever had. I don’t know if there was a dining car on the train, but there certainly wasn’t a need for one.

Finally, you can make some interesting stops along the way. A quick stop that requires some advance planning is a visit to what is left of the Aral Sea – the site of one of the worst environmental disasters ever. Trains usually arrive at 2:30 a.m., so you’ll want to arrange for a homestay (or a room at the one grungy hotel in town) to take a nap and grab a shower before taking an excursion to the sea and the nearby “ship cemetery.” These are best arranged through a tour company and last just a few hours, so you can easily be back to catch an evening train out of town. If you have a couple days to spare, stop at Turkestan to explore nearby remnants of the Silk Road or stretch your legs strolling through the tree-lined streets of the former capital, Almaty or hiking in the mountains surrounding the city.

So how to do it?

For starters, you will need a visa – but for most Westerners, it should be fairly straightforward, without the need for a letter of invitation (rules can change often, so double check). I would recommend taking the train from Moscow to Samara, Russia and from there, continue into Kazakhstan via Kandyagash and onto the former capital, Almaty (possibly stopping along the way). From there, book a train to Urumqi in western China.
Note that trains in Kazakhstan can fill up a week or more in advance, so you’ll want to purchase tickets ahead of time, especially if you plan to stop. The good news is you can buy tickets online at and collect them at the train station in Kazakhstan. The bad news? The website is entirely in Kazakh or Russian. But, with the help of Google Translate, it is entirely do-able.

Good luck!


katie aune train travelerBio: Katie Aune is a former attorney who quit her job in higher ed fundraising to travel and volunteer throughout all 15 countries of the former Soviet Union.  She recently returned to her adopted hometown of Chicago after a thirteen month career break that included running a marathon in Estonia, traveling the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, teaching English in Russia and Tajikistan, volunteering with the national tourism board of Armenia, living with local families in Azerbaijan, and trying her best to speak Russian on a daily basis. You can read about her travels on or follow on her on Twitter as @katieaune.