Luxury train travel has that old fashioned decadent feeling that books like Murder on the Orient Express evoke; Evenings on board listening to the pianist while the world goes by with a glass of champagne and an intelligent conversation.
They are also tales of a world gone by. With planes and better roads, trains have been relegated to less of a functional mode of transportation and more of a luxury affair.
But a few routes are still best covered from the railway window and travel companies are still offering a once in a lifetime experience on board luxury trains. In fact, this travel niche is expanding.
Golden Eagle Luxury Trains has been running private train journeys across much of the world for the last 25 years with its signature Moscow to Ulaan Bataar during the Nadaam Festival a must for train lovers. The trans-siberian journey can be done in simpler and more affordable versions, but nothing speaks of the grandeur of Russia’s 19th and early 20th century as the splendour of the Golden Eagle.
Familiarly known as The Trans-Mongolian, the journey covers an incredible distance reminding travelers how large Russia is. Tim, the owner of Golden Eagle, was on board during my trip.
Twenty five years of private train traveling have no doubt provided with numerous anecdotes and memorable experiences. When the Trans-Siberian launched, its organisation along the most remote parts of Russia was not easy, especially in the 90s, at a time when foreigners were a rare sight.
On one occasion, in the late 90s, the train was received at a station in Siberia by an entire school class. The teacher thought that it would be interesting for the children to interact with foreigners but the train was delayed and only made it to the station at 2.30 am to the clamour of the children who had been waiting all along.
What is more, the rumour travelled fast and evolved. At a later station, a village believed the train was carrying the Queen of England and the entire population congregated at the station to see her. Having no other option, Tim decided to dress a crew member as Prince Charles and sign autographs for the crowds. “I had no choice,” adds Tim, with a smile on his face, “I couldn’t disappoint an entire village”.
Celebrities or well known figures have been a common sight on board the Golden Eagle. A famous British comedian decided to take over the umbrella on one of the daily tours of a city and turn it into a comedy show. On the last night, he put on a drag performance for the passengers. Wealthy families have also traveled on the train, as have members of the royalty.
The Golden Eagle started out as a passenger train plying Poland and the old Soviet states. The full Trans-Siberian journey kicked off in the 90s and has since crossed the entire country several times. From Moscow to Vladivostok, on the BAM in the northern, even more remote territories of Russia and, more recently, on trips to the arctic on the border with Norway for a truly white and magical journey.
Tim admits that most passengers are pretty accommodating but that they have had few special requests. There was a time when some members of the Saudi Royal family wanted to book the entire train but would not decide on which of the routes they wanted to travel on until the very last minute requiring for several tours to be cancelled just to accommodate them.
The organization of off-train excursions requires a lot of preparation and contingency management. For the Nadaam Festival, the Mongolian Government once booked out accommodation for government dignitaries at the only hotel the city days before the festival leaving the Golden Eagle guests no option but to experience the real Mongolia sleeping in gers for one night.
On the last night of my trip, as we were crossing the border into Mongolia, Tim opened a 134 year old bottle of Port. In his previous life, Tim owned a rare and exclusive wine business which gave him the idea for the private train travel company. A group of very wealthy loyal customers asked him to organise a trip to France’s wineries, the price tag not being an issue. The trip was a success and it was the beginning of the Golden Eagle Luxury Trains.
The winery train journeys didn’t take off then but, in 2016, Tim is returning with the launch of a Champagne Express traveling across Europe’s best wine countries.