Riding the rails of the Orient - at the height of luxury

It's an axiom of train travel that the more exotic the destination, the more taxing the trip. This is emphatically not the case, though, when one signs up with Society Expeditions, a Seattle company that takes all the annoyances - crowded compartments, meager meals, border delays - out of faraway train trips.

If some of the spontaneity and surprise are also removed, that is part of the trade-off engineered by T.C. Swartz, the young director of Society Expeditions ( 723 Broadway East, Seattle, Wash. 98102), who figures not everyone wants to travel the Paul Theroux way. The T. C. Swartz way means lavish old-fashioned cars, private chefs, scheduled stops for sightseeing - and more than $200 a day per person.

''We're trying to bring the luxury and fantasy back to train travel,'' says Mr. Swartz. He is a boyish 36, and as he described his various rail ventures - across China, the Soviet Union, the Balkans, and India - he had the gleam of a boy playing with his Lionel train.

His newest coup is the Imperial Peking Express, which does two different 16 -day legs into the Chinese interior, using two sleeping cars and a diner Mr. Swartz took great pains to uncover. ''I went to Peking and told the Chinese the kind of luxurious cars I was looking for, and they just shrugged,'' he said. ''I looked at 20 or 30 cars in the Peking rail yards, but they were all modern, full of plastic and vinyl.

''Then I spotted these gorgeous antique cars, and the Chinese said, 'Oh, they're old.' Well, they were from the early '50s, all walnut and brass, used at one time on the Moscow-Peking run for diplomats and other VIPs.''

Society Expeditions will run the two cars on what Mr. Swartz and others call ''the hot line'' - Peking to Shanghai - and on a lesser-known southwesterly route from Peking to Kunming. The company leaflet calls the latter ''perhaps the most exciting and beautiful rail line in the world,'' citing its 427 tunnels, 653 bridges, and rock-carved Buddhas.

There is room for 26 passengers, only one or two to each commodious compartment fitted with a long couch that converts to a bed, a chair, a table, and a semi-private bath. This is, of course, a far cry from regular Chinese train service, which Mr. Swartz said is either ''soft class'' or ''hard class.''

''In soft class you get cushions that make into a rough bed,'' he said. ''In hard class you sit up at night.'' One could, he said, travel soft or hard class in the less-crowded off season, ''but it would take months for a visa to be approved.''

In recent years the storied Orient Express has been revived in several forms, and Mr. Swartz said Society Expeditions uses the most genuine of them. ''Our Orient Express is chartered from a Zurich company and goes either to Istanbul from Paris or on a shorter version just to Vienna,'' he said. On these shining antique cars one endures none of the hardships Mr. Swartz found when he researched the route on vestiges of the old Orient Express. ''On the border crossing from Romania to Hungary,'' he said, ''I was awakened six times between 3 and 6 in the morning. There was a different man for currency, passport control , customs, and so on, and then another man to see that all the others had done their jobs. On our trains, one official takes care of everything.'' There is some dawdling along the way, but only by design: private balls in Vienna, a staged hold-up and kidnapping in the Balkans, a visit to Dracula's birthplace in Transylvania.

Surely the marathon among train trips is the Trans-Siberian Railroad, 3,500 miles from Moscow to Khabarovsk near the Manchurian border. One rides in smartly done, if not plush, East German-made cars, stopping at Novosibirsk on the edge of Siberia for an opera performance and lunch, at Irkutsk for two nights, and visiting Lake Baikal, said to be the clearest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. While passing through the Siberian wastes, that universal symbol of deprivation, you eat lavish regional dishes prepared by special chefs and relax in a lounge car equipped with, said Mr. Swartz, ''50 hours of recorded dance music, from Russian folk to jazz.''

Mr. Swartz said he's planning a luxurious Paris-Peking tour for next August, with stops along the way in Berlin, Warsaw (for a concert at Chopin's home), and Moscow. Soft class all the way.

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