The Trans Siberian Express

For anyone googling ‘Trans-Siberian’ the 2 big questions are normally:

Q) How long? How much?

The long answer is – it totally depends! Use Lonely Planet and absolute guru of train travel; http://www.seat61.com for anything and everything to do with planning.

The short answer (for me) – 3 weeks & approx 600 euros for tickets. 4 stop offs; Ulaanbaatar/Irkutsk/Yekaterinburg/St Petersburg. Here’s how it was…

Train #23 Beijing to Ulaanbaatar (29 hours)

Compared with train travel elsewhere in the world (ahem, India) China trains are Orient Express standard; clean, spacious, no family of 7 piled onto your berth. They have dining carts Hercule Poirot would be pleased with. The food is cheap (3 – 5 USD) and beer $2 USD. In other words; all perfectly pleasant. And that’s kupe (2nd class.)

I caveat this by the fact that you’re still rudely awakened by the off Mongolian farmer offering to share pre-packaged salami with you at 5am, but that’s part of the joy of shared 4 berth compartments after all.

Since this first leg is all exciting and new, all us tourists are happy staring wistfully at the view for hours on end, photographing every tunnel, tree and cow for the first 1000 KM. Unlike some inner China routes (See Chengdu post) the landscape isn’t as grey & industrial as you might think. It’s quite green with striking looking wind turbines running off into the horizon at sunset. Everyone settles in, talks to their english speaking neighbours, shows a new-found delight in Beijing instant noodles from the free hot thermos in each cabin. Good times.

Lessons from train #23; No matter the time of year, the heating is up to tropical. Pack lighter than you think. Strategise your toilet breaks. The train toilets are locked 30 mins either side of every station and (as I leant the hard way) for up to 6 hours on the China / Mongolia border. Opt to alight whilst they change bogies (wheels) at Erlain/Zamyn Uud.

Train #263 Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk (34 hours)

Rumour has it; the higher the number, the older the train. Not true! The 263 was brand new since May 2014, and the best train of our trip. We lucked out with nice cabin mates too; Louise; a UK teacher from Hong Kong and Bovvy; an english/russian speaking Lithuanian. Entering Russia is so much easier with a translator! We kicked back with a long game of Scrabble washed down with Skittle vodka.

Lessons from train #263: Catch the fast train! The #263 spends most of its time stationary, including a staggering 11 hours halted at the Russian Mongolian border. It’s not unpleasant, as you’re allowed off to explore the border towns, Sukhbaatar and Naushki. However the twice weekly 2pm fast train west catches the most scenic stretch of track ; Ulan Ude to Irkutsk, during the daylight hours.

Train #79 Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg (52 hours)

Lessons learnt from train #79? Don’t miss train #79!!!

It all started with a hydrofoil in Listvyanka. Or hydro ‘fail’ as we’ll call it. Shane and I have travelled to 90 countries between us yet we make the monumental mistake of not checking it’s destination before we board. Instead of turning right to Irkutsk, it veered left to what we’ll call the ‘Shutter Island’ of lake Baikal. Bolshie Koty is a roadless coastal hamlet with 1 return ferry every evening and a 20 km hike back to the nearest civilisation. Despite flashing the USD and pleading with local (drunk) fishermen to charter a boat, or row ourselves back in time for the train, we were stranded. We softened the blow by drinking our remaining vodka in the sunshine and leaving our Visa MasterCard to take the hit buying replacement tickets when we made a mad dash back to Irkutsk 3 hours later than scheduled.

Lessons from (replacement) train #43: Thank you to Natasha, our Russian law student saviour who helped us out enormously by translating our desperate plee to buy last minute tickets at the station (entirely possible,) and for showing us that you can pay 100 rb to wait in the VIP lounge. Not only are they beautifully decorated like turn of the century grand ballrooms, with comfy sofas that feel like heaven at 3am. We got our train karma back with a 4 berth kupe to ourselves for 52 hours. Score.

Train #71 Yekaterinburg to Saint Petersburg (34 hours)

It’s quite cool that each train is unique. We were thrilled that this old cabins featured small shelves on the upper bunks; aka our minibar. After 5.5 days on board it’s all in the detail. This last leg goes to prove just how comfortable you become being rocked to sleep, even in carriage 1 next to the engine. It helps that we had lovely old Russian lady kupe mates who hardly made a peep, content with their Sudoku puzzles. A very peaceful and lovely arrival into the beautifully European Saint Petersburg.

Lessons from train#71: The dining cart is always a guaranteed hilarious outing. Plus it actually feels like you’ve had a night out. We ended up drinking beers and being taught the very confusing card game of ‘Durak’ by a group of 21 year old Russian soldiers, who adopted us with so friendliness and inquisitiveness they practically delivered us to our hotel when we arrived.

So after 1000 KM, 130 hours & lots of Baltika beer, here are my final top 10 Trans-Siberian tips:

1) The dining cart rocks! Don’t miss it. So many blogs claim it’s expensive, but it’s worth a $20 USD meal and bottle of red to feel the romance of the rails. Apparently the first 19 century rail carriages came with a piano bar & marble bath carriage. Treat yourself!

2) Learn to recognise a few letters of the cyrillic alphabet, if only to recognise the station names. There really is zero English outside of Moscow & Saint Petersburg.

3) It sounds like an adventure in theory, but 6 – 8 days non-stop from Beijing or Vladivostok is a mighty long time. Even if it’s just for half a day, plan some stop offs!

4) On some Russian trains the difference between 2nd and 3rd class seems non-existent, despite double the price. One benefit can by that Kupe tickets are swappable for free if you’re delayed, but it’s kind of pot luck.

5) Netflix

6) Dried fruit, dried noodles, chocolate. Our 52h train didn’t have a dining cart! Always have supplies.

7) Factor in at least 1 stop within 7 days of entering Russia to officially resister your visa. It’s a pain but a mighty fine if not.

8) It’s a well-known joke that no one on the train ever knows what time it is. Trains and station all follow Moscow time, so local time can often be +4 hours. It’s pretty weird, especially in summer when its broad daylight at midnight. Either set misc time zones on your phone, or like us; just forget time completely! You sleep and eat pretty constantly anyway :)

9) I hate to say it, but prepare some thick skin. Russian provodnitsas (train attendants) can be the rudest women on the planet. They’ve perfected the art of the shrug and scowl. Our experience was that anyone actually employed in customer service in Russia has the attitude of an angry hitman. Don’t take it personally.

10) The Trans Siberian is rewarding.  Asia to Europe overland feels like an awesome achievement. China, Mongolia & Russia are crazy, challenging & amazing in equal measure. However it’s also gruelling, hard-core and not for the faint hearted. Most backpackers we met were seasoned wanderlusters. It’s an absolute must for all of us that appreciate it’s not about the destination at all, but as De Botton would say; the art of travel. From Russia with love x

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Pic of the week; The Great Wall, Jinshanling, Beijing

Who would have thought, 3 years later and i’m back to Beijing. Now the land that bans Wikipedia/Googlemaps, and boasts a PMI index of 400+ is not my first love, but it has 3 stand out good points;

1) The cute S Luong Alley, Nanluoguxiang. Now home to $15Y Mojito stalls.
2) Sitting on City Walls. Beautiful courtyard Hutong hotel a stone’s through from The Forbidden City.
3) Our starting point for the Trans-Siberean Express!

Pic of the week; Qingdao China

Balancing act at Qingdao morning market, part of my trade work trip to China to spend a week in chef's kitchens!

Balancing act at Qingdao morning market. Part of my work trade trip to China to spend a week in chef’s kitchens!

China

I’ve thought about this, and it’s hard to do my normal like/dislike list. Everything you HATE about China is kind of what makes it China. I’ll have a go though.

Dislike:

1)      Traffic/crowds – I’ve been to Vietnam. I can cross roads like the best of them. Or so I thought.  This is off the scale however. Green mean go, red means go, one way means both ways, pavements mean scooters and so on and so on. Not good for the nerves. And this is all above ground. The subway is carnage. Surely it makes sense to let people off the underground before you burst through the doors. China thinks not.

2)      Bad month for vegetarianism – Andi’s theory was that you have a 30% success rate with any one meal. As in there’s just something odd/wrong about the other 70%. Namely meat is in pretty much everything here. And if you think it’s not, you’re wrong, it still is. That said, i’m loving the work of all street sellers on the sesame seed/crab fried things.

3)      Neon metropolis v’s bleak/barren wilderness  – The cities redefine what smog and over populating is, stars are a distant memory. The countryside just makes you thank you’re lucky stars that you live in the city. Some of the farm hamlets I passed through on the trains look like the most remote places on earth. Ox’s still plough the fields?! It’s not really easy on the eyes like some countries.

4)      Being gauped at/photographed 24/7. Here is an extract from a conversation that Charlotte that I met in Chengdu had with her students (she’s a teacher). Charlotte: (Out of interest) Why do you stare so much at foreigners, surely you see lots of people that are non-Chinese on TV, in film or magazines? (referring to the reception that anyone white/black/brown/remotely western receive throughout China.) Children: “Just because it’s different. If we came to England we would be laughed/stared at?” No you bloody wouldn’t coz it’s RUDE! Honestly, I can do without people waving camera phones in my face for a while. I’m really not that fascinating.

5)      The Terracotta Warriors.

6)      Scale! An inch on a map is a 30 min walk, the subways run only North to South, never across. To walk even a fraction of Shanghai/Beijing is on par with an Iron Man race. But I guess that’s the deal with a population of over a billion.

7)      You know you are living in a communist state gone mad when you cannot even control your own central heating. Get this. The whole country gets their heating turned on, on 15th November, and it’s turned off, on mass, on some day in spring. Too hot. Tough. To cold? Tough!

8)      Sales tactics – Even when I bought the converse trainers the girl actually threw them at me and snatched her $100 yuan bill. The customer is not only wrong, but risks getting their head kicked in here too. Shopping is not fun. We all play the game, but trying to sell me knock of Diesel Jeans for a starting price of £80, is laughable. I got them for £7.50.

Like:

1)      It’s cheap  – Can of coke (30p) metro ride (20p) hostels (£3 and nice) and so on and so on. Dad/Kris: yes your xmas present probably cost 20p from the 2 yen shop. It’s the thought that counts!

2)      Facebook –   It is possible, although it doesn’t work 100% properly – Slow/no photos/vids, (www.f3.proxymice.com) Pass it on. However try Wikipedia-ing ‘Tianinman Square protests’ and it’s another story. Dislike; supreme censorship.

3)      It’s surprisingly safe (taxi’s are so well-behaved, schooled in the art of honesty & not tuk tuk)

4)      The giant panda. They have the whole world and they only live here. That must mean something.

5)      Crab/sesame seed fried street food things. At least I think it was crab meat. I know I mentioned them already but I’m obsessed.

6)      It’s a funny night out/always a bit mad. If it’s not grown men walking down the road in PJ’s, it’s the annoying pop music and the silly panda hats. Not a lot makes sense.

None of this matters. I’m forgetting of course the ULTIMATE dislike: The banning of wordpress for nearly three weeks. Hence the mass posting!

Where I stayed: Blue Mountain Bund Hostel Shanghai, Hangzhou Hafang Backpackers, Lazybone Backpackers Chengdu, Hangtang Inn Xian, Happy Dragon Hostel Beijing, Sanlitin Hostel Beijing.

Beijing, China

Another BFG of a Chinese city. Actually no, it’s more of a Big Un-friendly Giant, traffic and manors wise.

The exception to this a nice little ‘Hutong’ street (medieval narrow alleyway). With posh cafes, funky boutiques, the old remains of 1950’s communist posters on the walls. Also home to the culinary highlight of China so far, my rah rah ingredient salad. Mozzeralla, rocket, balsamic vinager, avocados, artichockes. I paid about a million yuan for it but it made me happy. Believe me, it’s probably the only meal for a month that certain didn’t contain secret meat. China is not really veggie heaven. Here is what else I got up to in my 6 days here:

  • Yonganli Silk Market – Tourist trap hell. Screaming banshi girls flogging knock off Gucci and Vic Beckham jeans. These chicks are spoiling for a scrap, when you bargain to low they actually hiss, spit and launch themselves at you. I’ll buy my clothes in Thailand thanks.  Although I did hack it long enough to by some ace high top Converse All Stars for £10. I’m in love with them.
  • The Forbidden City (I wish it was). The city centre palace of many an 1400 century Emperor. It’s an symmetrical, dull, million acres of extravagance. I felt like I was in a dream where you open one identical door after another. Yes it’s scale is impressive, but it’s the same problem as Tianamen Square; it’s kind of hard to feel anything. China sites are vast, dispassionate, and as a result quite hard to photograph. You can’t get across the idea of scale, only ugliness/blandness. This is perversely kind of their appeal. You have to be there. Although in summer ideally, not in the Siberian winter temperatures I am enduring. Where are my beloved Llama jumpers when I need them? Oh yeah, reaching the final few weeks of their three month sea voyage from Melbourne to Doncaster. Hopefully.
  • The Summer Palace – yes in bleakest winter. Yet the frozen lake and stone statue of a ship with blue stained glass windows made it worthwhile. This is the Chinese version of New York’s Hamptons for the Ming dynasty, and I must say i’d live here too rather than the Forbidden City.
  • Scorpion Alley (Not it’s official name) but a street in Wangfujing which serves up scorpions, crickets, donkey penis, grubs, tarantulas, seahorses and a whole insect world of delights on deep fried sticks. Will (Gets constantly mistaken for being Chinese but is in fact English and talks in wide boy London accent) is the man of the match, and sets the bar high by gobbling a seahorse. Brian, Graham, Andi and I all nibble on the tiny legs of a scorpion, whilst talking it up for the cameras. We then all shortly come to our senses and head off to the all you can eat/drink buffet for $50 yuan (£5.00).

Previous Older Entries

An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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