Booking the train
Before we left we had a massive dilemma as to how to book the train. Should we book it when we get there or through an agent? If we book it through an agent, what agency should we use? The advantage of booking at the station is that it’s cheaper – potentially a lot cheaper. The disadvantage is the language barrier and the potential that the tickets will be sold out. In the end we went through a travel agency called Svezhy Veter, who are a Russian travel agent and (as travel agents go) are quite cheap. The man at Seat61 suggests RealRussia, but they were more expensive. Retrospectively if we could have overcome the language barrier, we would definitely have booked our tickets at the station. So if you are travelling in the off-peak period we would suggest booking once you arrive in Moscow (probably with some written help from your hostel) as it will be so much cheaper.

Food
The singular most important thing to remember when planning is that there is constant free hot water. With this in mind, you should consider more than we did how hot water can be used in various different ways within a six day period (if you don’t get on and off the train but head straight through to Beijing as we did). Do not fall into the Pot Noodle Trap, as it is a harrowing and flavourless experience. When you start to enjoy the taste of unspecified-flavour instant noodles, you know you are nearing the end of your tether… Your thoughts will be as good as, or probably better than, ours on what would be good – various different tea bags (there is no drinking water that is not boiling and mugs are provided for free), couscous and accompaniments such as pesto… A lot of this stuff isn’t readily available in Russia, so you need to think ahead!

Local people often meet the train at the station (more often in the smaller towns where there are no kiosks) offering a variety of different foods including bread, Russian cabbage-filled doughnut things, sausage, dumplings (so many dumplings) and ocasionally even fresh vegetables and salads. However, the food isn’t amazing – the fabled ‘ignore vegetarianism for this fish’ Lake Baikal fish sadly made no appearance for us… Also, definitely haggle with these people as they will obvously try to charge a massively increaded rate as they know they’re the last stop for another half day.

Food on the train is really expensive for those on a budget – about 8 pounds per meal which are not big nor particularly tasty. However, when you enter China (after 4 HOURS of crossing the border and changing the wheels [the ‘bogies’] from Russian size to standard size!) you are given free breakfast and lunch tickets – most likely so that they don’t have to rush you straight to hospital due to malnutrition when you arrive in Beijing…

Entertainment
The reputation that the Trans-Siberian has as a ‘party train’ does not come to the fore in October, it seems. For the first three days there were only eight people in our whole carriage out of a possible thirty two! Half of them formed a little impenetrable clique of Scandinavians, so our vodka reached the end of the journey largely untouched. We relied mainly on chatting to a few people, playing cards, listening to a few Podcasts and ploughing our way through books. For anyone who either believes or wishes to refute the claim that the turn of the twentieth century was the ‘Golden Age’ must read Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Troused Philanthropists, anyone desiring a whistle-stop tour of the radical developments of the fifties, sixties and early seventies should try Granny Made Me an Anarchist by Stuart Christie (or Anarchists Ate My Granny, as Josh’s mum brilliantly calls it), and for those steeled to face the brutalities of the creation of Israel, check out Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

Scenery
We took the Trans-Mongolian route (route 4), for those considering the Trans-Manchurian or the others…

The first few days in terms of scenery, until you get close to the border of Russia/Mongolia, is nothing to write home about. There are lots of silver birches. However, from there until you arrive is breathtaking. The train skirts around Lake Baikal, which was formed by a rift in tectonic plates. The two plates are gradually separating and will apparently eventually become the world’s fifth ocean. Until then it’s the world’s deepest lake – 1637 meters – containing one-fifth of the world’s fresh unfrozen water. There we found stunning views both of natural beauty and of ramshackle villages – corrugated iron rooves, cows wandering the dirt roads or on long pieces of rope attatched to a post, and satellite dishes (obviously…)! Within Mongolia there is of course the Gobi Desert. While ‘Once you’e seen it for two minutes, you’ve seen it for two days’ is basically true, that doesn’t detract from the awe-inspiring vastness of it. Plus we saw a whole bunch of camels at one point, which was pretty good. The scenery changes dramatically once again as you enter China – from the flat, dry expanse of the Gobi Desert you are now surrounded by the immense lushness of the mountains. The views are sporadically interspered with periods of darkness as the train passes through those same mountains!

Hygiene
Given that you are on a train for 6 days the state of the train is quite good, though your own body might not be. There are no showers, but there is a drain in the floor of every toilet. The level of hygiene you wish to maintain given these restrictions is up to you. Lucie devised a system of washing and drying each limb individually so as not to get cold. If you bring a flannel or a sponge it’s much easier. Sandals or flip-flops are a really good idea, as going into the toilets with bare feet is not something to be desired (the same applies to most night trains in Russia).

Remember to bring quite a lot of drinking water. As mentioned ealier there is a constant stream of hot water, but no safe cold water.

Money
The obvious really applies here. In Russia they accept Russian money, in Mongolia, Mongolian money and in China, Chinese money. They also accept dollars anywhere, but remember to bring low denominations. The exchange rate offered by people who board the train at the borders is rubbish so avoid this if you can. In the six days that we were on the train we spent around 40 pounds between us.

 

Shit, we’re now in China…! We got on a train in Europe and now we’re in China!

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