As the train rolled across the Tibetan countryside, I stared out into a harsh, bleak landscape. Tibetan nomads rode horses across seemingly endless grasslands dotted with small alpine lakes and ravines cut across snow-capped peaks. Tibetan traders hauling wheelbarrows piled with meat and barley walked a solitary road alongside the train route.
Inside the new Tibet train, which opened last summer and climbs to 4,877m while linking Lhasa to other parts of western China, passengers luxuriated in creature comforts. Groups of Chinese travelers played cards in their plush reclining chairs and four-bunk cabins. Even the waitresses, normally surly on Chinese trains, seemed to have attended remedial charm school - they laughed and even bowed slightly as they handed out plates of noodles and spicy Sichuan sauteed tofu. And next year, the trip will become even more luxurious; the company Rail Partners plans to open a high-end route to Lhasa that will include 24-hour butler service and flat-screen TVs.
Even in remote Tibet, it seems, the era of luxury train travel has returned, albeit to areas where it never before existed. Many nations are reinvesting in their train systems since flying has become more uncomfortable and far less luxurious in the age of terrorism and low-cost airlines; this summer has produced more stories of flight delays. And with growing interest in airplanes' carbon footprint, some travelers also are realizing trains may be more environmentally friendly.
In a world of cramped and unpleasant planes, trains actually may be the last respite of luxury. Sensing this demand, luxury travel companies like Orient-Express have invested in restoring the world's most famous train routes. And travelers are responding by packing new trains. In China, tickets for the Tibet route are so coveted that a black market has sprung up at some stations, and I had to pay a scalper four times face value to get one of the coveted berths when I traveled last August.
Much of the new boom in luxury trains has come in Asia, which has a generation of newly wealthy tourists eager to see their own countries. Vietnam has upgraded the train system running the length of the country. India's rail system long has knitted the nation together, but in recent years it has moved beyond its utilitarian purpose. The upscale Taj hotel group, for one, has helped roll out the Deccan Odyssey, which rumbles from Mumbai to Goa and Pune. The Deccan's interiors resemble maharajas' palaces, with overstuffed sofas and rich wood walls, and stewards onboard monitor their guests' every need. A similar luxury train, the Palace on Wheels, runs from Delhi through the tourist triangle of Jaipur and Agra, and the Indian government is considering another luxury route across the entire country.
Orient-Express pioneered the new age of upscale Asian trains, by creating the Eastern & Oriental Express between Singapore and Bangkok in the early 1990s. That train simulates the grand, formal Asian trains of the early 20th century, with cherry paneling, silk curtains and cabins complete with Bulgari toiletries.
The Eastern & Oriental benefits from innate Thai hospitality, which can make even a train breakdown endurable. On one recent trip heading south from Bangkok, on a normal Thai train, the carriage shuddered to a halt just before the next station, leaving my fellow passengers and me staring out the window at rice fields and an occasional water buffalo. The air-conditioning started to falter - not a welcome development on a 37°C day. Still, while the engineers tried to fix the power, members of the cabin staff distributed bottles of water and boxes of icy fresh papaya and pineapple.