On the tracks of Marco Polo. This train follows the route of the old Orient Express, then steams across the ancient Silk Road leading to remote towns and peoples of the USSR and China
London — MY train-buff husband was ecstatic about chugging from London to Xian, China. I had a strong sense of trepidation, since I had braved the Red Arrow from Peking to London - via Mongolia, Siberia, and Moscow - only the year before. But as the plans unfolded, I began to realize that this trip, initially offered three years ago by Voyages Jules Verne in London, was a real first in itinerary and mode of travel. Not only would my husband and I have a compartment to ourselves on this maiden voyage, but the entire train would be private with the exception of some of the European rail lines, and even there our tour would have private cars.
When we went, the trip was called ``2100 Years of the Silk Road.'' Since then, it has been renamed ``On the Tracks of Marco Polo.'' The send-off from London, we found, was indeed fitting for an incredible 45-day adventure of 7,011 miles.
At night we were booked into hotels that were the best each stop had to offer, and in the larger cities the accommodations were excellent. Sometimes a two-night stand gave us extra time for exploration as well as the usually fine tours offered in each city. Lavish meals were prepared for us in every country, either on the train or in restaurants.
After boarding our train in London, we visited Paris, Salzburg, and Vienna. In Budapest, our hotel, the luxurious Intercontinental, overlooked the Danube, and on the train to Bucharest we followed the Danube and looked out on red-tiled roofs and green hills.
I would have thought the trip by steam train from Bucharest to Sinaia in Transylvania, up an autumn-colored valley beside a rushing river, was the most beautiful, even if we had not bused through even more magnificent countryside to see Dracula's many-tiered castle, high on a hill. Yes, Dracula lived there from 1456 to 1462. He was a hero as a fighter against Turks. ``Vlad the Impaler,'' he was called, but he was not a vampire, as English novelist Bram Stoker would have him.
The first part of our journey followed the route of the original Orient Express trains. At Varna, Bulgaria, we boarded ships, just as the Orient Express travelers used to do, and slept overnight as we crossed the Black Sea. We awakened as the ship passed through the Bosporus and into the minareted splendor of Istanbul. Some travelers left us at this point, but 100 of us began the Silk Road across Turkey by steam train. We were intrigued by views of mud huts and barren mountains.
As we moved eastward in Turkey, the hotels, had they been star-ranked, would have dropped stars rapidly as we progressed. Lodgings were in small towns, with few visitors from the West.
We felt so engulfed in a culture very different from our own that every new experience called for tolerance and brought the excitement of discovery. To have our own room with bath seemed remarkable to us. From our hotel balcony in Erzincan, Turkey, we overlooked the only paved street, saw people hauling water from the town pump, and women covered in brown burlap with only their eyes showing.
From an overnight in Kayseri, in the province of Cappadocia, we bused to the Goreme Valley, where we had the thrill of seeing churches and homes dating from the 11th century carved right into wind-shaped columns of volcanic rock. The churches came complete with carved pillars and religious frescoes painted on the cave walls.
After six days we came to the border between Turkey and the Soviet Union. It was an exciting and somewhat tense moment as we left our Turkish train, crossed a platform, and boarded brand-new sleeping cars on the Soviet train. It had come across the 100-yard barrier, closed for 35 years, for the express purpose of taking us aboard.
Our train took us through the republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Beautiful, mountainous Tbilisi, the Caspian Sea, and the markets of Bukhara highlighted our journey.
At fabled Samarkand, where my husband and I went off on our own to the Pamirs with a hired driver, we had an exhilarating hike and met two villagers who had come by donkey to fill baskets with wild apples for market. Later, we came upon a small girl and her little brother tending a large herd of sheep.
Final stops in the Soviet Union were modern Tashkent, where 40 percent of the city was rebuilt after a 1966 earthquake, and Alma-Ata, snuggled at the foot of the towering Alatau Mountains, where the Medeo Olympic Speed Skating rink was built at an altitude of 5,000 feet. Then our hosts bused us to the Chinese border 185 miles away.
Traveling through a vast desert with snowy mountains in the distance, we rounded a bend into the Charyn River Canyon and stopped. There, in the middle of nowhere, we found tables laid out for us, and waiters barbecuing shish kebab and serving tea.
The next surprise came a few hours later. When we drove into the isolated town of Panfilov, a great portion of the 30,000 residents were standing on the street corners to welcome us and gaze on their first tourists. A sumptuous banquet with all the town dignitaries was spread out in the town hall, and local musicians and dancers entertained nonstop. The facial features of the people reflected the fact that we were nearing China.
We felt an air of suspense when at nightfall we reached the barbed-wire border that had not been open to tourists since 1949. Customs accomplished, we were delivered by the Soviet bus to the border. We disembarked, waved goodbye to our Soviet guides, and walked to the Chinese buses. We drove a short distance to a great hoopla of percussion and dancers.
From the old city of Inning, where we spent the night we traveled by bus over the Tianshan Mountains. At 8,000 feet, the sapphire blue of Lake Sayram suddenly spread out before us. As we traveled beside it, a herd of wild horses galloped by in the desert.
We saw camels and yerts, and farmers driving their trucks at break-neck speed to bring their produce to market. After an overnight in a guesthouse in the small, dusty town of Shihezi, we arrived at Urumchi, the Western Province's biggest city, and checked into a large, modern hotel.
Two days later we boarded our smooth Chinese steam train and settled into our lace-curtained compartment that we had for the rest of the trip. Our train waited for us while we spent nights at comfortable hotels in Turfan, Dunhuang, Jiuquan, and Lanzhou, then chugged through the spectacular Wei River Valley with its mountains, terraced for farming on even the steepest slopes.
The last stop, Xian, provided the warmest welcome of all. Five hundred railway workers' children in costume and makeup greeted us on the platform, rhythmically waving pompons, beating drums, and saying ``warm welcome'' in Chinese. Our stay in Xian was the end of our magical voyage, where the world's wonders flashed before us as though by the touch of a wand.
If you go
The trip is scheduled each September. Travelers may arrange to take a shorter portion of the journey. For more information on this or other train trips, contact Voyages Jules Verne, 10 Glentworth St., London, N.W.1.; or call 01-486-8080. The agent in the United States is Baylis International Journeys, 2392 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, CA 94704; (415) 849-4333.