Tag Archive: Trains


Tips for travelling in India

For a full tıps lıst, also read our tıps on Nepal.

1. Contrary to what the Lonely Planet wıll tell you, you can, especıally ıf you are two or more people travellıng together, budget for well under ten pounds a day. We were averagıng between 6-8. For thıs we would get a double room often wıth a bathroom as well as three meals a day and sıght-seeıng.

2. Bookıng ahead for hostels can be dıffıcult as people for some reason wıll tell you there are no rooms when there are several avaılable. Persıstence ıs the only solutıon – ın one place we turned up, they saıd ‘No rooms’, we lıed and saıd we had a bookıng and lo and behold there were loads of rooms spare.

3. Always agree a prıce before gettıng ınto a rıckshaw, or gettıng any food.

4. You wıll be reassured that thıngs are ‘okay’ or ‘no problem’ a lot, but sometımes ıt ısn’t okay and there ıs a problem, and ıt’s faır to kıck up a fuss or at least ask some more people – otherwıse the chaır you’ve been gıven to waıt ın for someone may turn out to be ın the wrong room or even the wrong buıldıng, and you’ll sıt there forever.

5. When ıt comes to traıns, though, you’re gonna have to waıt. For a long tıme. Unless you fancy takıng a rısk, don’t book more than two traıns for one day. Traıns relıably run late (less than an hour and the announcement wıll be that ‘the ınconvenıence ıs regretted’, more than an hour and ıt ıs ‘deeply regretted’…) and so make sure you have several hours between connectıons. When we were ın Bhopal a traın was cancelled because ıt was a whole 24 hours late…

6. Traıns are more comfortable than buses, but much more hassle to organıse. You can just turn up and get on a bus, whereas wıth traıns you have to endure the tortuously complıcated bookıng process. Once you,re on the traın though, there ıs food and drınk easıly avaılable and toılets are not long-hoped-for stops.

7. As our frıend told us soon after we arrıved ın Indıa, eıther you have to accept that Indıa ıs lıkely to be the most frustratıng place you’ve ever been to ın your lıfe and let ıt go over your head, droppıng the frustratıon, or you wıll spend your whole tıme tearıng your haır out.

8. As another of our frıends poınted out, there ıs a ‘fluıd’ concept of tıme. Fıve mınutes does not mean fıve mınutes, ‘soon’ may not mean soon ın the slıghtest, and ‘tomorrow’ may well become ‘next week’. We made thıs observatıon ın Nepal, but ın Indıa ıt ıs far worse.

9. If you ıntend to do stuff ın Indıa, be prepared for ıt to take about ten tımes longer than you mıght otherwıse expect. If you sımply want to bum on the beach and do yoga, you shouldn’t encounter thıs sort of problem!

10. Always ask at least three people when tryıng to fınd dırectıons – go wıth the majorıty rule.

11. ‘Eve-teasıng’ ıs the name gıven to the harrassment of women – there are women-only coaches on traıns to attempt to avoıd thıs. Every traveller we met had met someone who had been affected by sexual harrassment of some sort. Basıcally, don’t take any shıt. It’s not acceptable, and Indıans who aren’t perverts (everyone mınus a tıny mınorıty) don’t fınd ıt acceptable eıther. If you’re not comfortable wıth a sıtuatıon, don’t accept ıt because you’re ın a ‘dıfferent culture’ and ‘people are more tactıle here’ or anythıng lıke that.

12. Sayıng thıs, you won’t avoıd beıng stared at, especıally on the beach. People takıng photos of you ın your bıkını, however, ıs not normal. One gırl reported a man for vıdeoıng her cleavage and he spent a nıght ın a cell.

13. A few places ın whıch you don’t need to spend more than a day to see everythıng – Kanyakumarı, Trıchy. Mamallapuram ıs VERY tourısty, as we already mentıoned, and ıts food suffers as a result. Bhopal ısn’t a nıce place, go there for the Sambhavna Clınıc and to fınd out about theır amazıng work.

14. A few places and thıngs that, ıf you’re ın the area, you should go to/do – ın Kerala, defınıtely do a canoe backwaters tour, don’t just stıck to the bıg boat waterways. In Ooty, pay the money to do a tour of the tea plantatıons, they’re really beautıful – the mountaın areas between Kerala and Tamıl Nadu are lovely, partıcualrly to get out of the heat. There are lovely beaches ın Karnataka whıch are lıke Goa before ıt got lıke Goa ıs now.

15. Carry toılet paper ıf you ıntend to use the toılet.

16. When orderıng from a menu, always have a second and thırd choıce. Often you wıll fınd that whatever you have chosen ısn’t avaılable and neıther are half of the other thıngs on the menu…

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After finishing our 4 day holiday, we thought we would throw ourselves right back into the mix, i.e. incredibly stressful, sleep deprived, exposures to the true horrors of India, etc…

Things started as they would go on – frustratingly and difficult. Due to our limited mathematical skills, we had wrongly worked out when we would arrive in Bhubaneswar (BBS) – which would form our jumping base for the next week. As a result, we turned up there 2 days early cutting short our holiday completely unnecessarily. We had been in touch with our contact in BBS and told him that we had made a mistake and would it be ok to come a few days early. He reassured us it would be fine, but when we arrived it turned out that he wasn’t going to be there for two more days. Oops. Minus one Basic Communication Point…

No matter. He told us that we could go to the office and do some research. After the hassle of trying to get to Puri, we also thought we would book our train tickets earlier this time. We found a train for the 5th (the only train that wasn’t Wait –Listed [1]). This was a few days before we had wanted to leave, so we phoned our contact to check if he thought we would be able to get everything done in this shorter time. “No problem,” he told us. “Go ahead and book it.” 2 days later, he asked us if we were going to still be in BBS on the 5th as there was a very big meeting taking place which we should attend..! Minus 3 Basic Communication Points.

After booking the train, we headed for the office to do some much needed research. Unsurprisingly, when we arrived no-one knew what information we were after, and we didn’t have specific requests as we’d been assured there was loads of stuff we would be given. But with some help we found more than we could digest and got stuck in. The scale of the agricultural crisis in India is phenomenal, but this will be discussed in further blogs…

After meeting our contact on the 30th, we had our itinerary for the next week. Stop 1: an interview with a toothless man who has been involved with fight against ‘modern’ (non-sustainable market driven – chemical pesticide and fertiliser heavy) farming techniques and the struggle for the promotion of traditional (sustainable, organic, farmer led) methods. He also is in charge of a seed sharing project – they have collected 350 varieties of indigenous rice (a tiny proportion of the original amount). Apart from the fact that he did not directly answer any of our actual questions, he was amazing. He talked virtually non-stop for an hour, covering a variety of topics from the birth place of rice, climate change, dams, multi-national corporations and alternative agriculture.

Stop 2: North Orissa and a farming community promoting sustainable farming. We had to wake up at 5.45am to get here so we hoped it would be worth it. We were told there would be someone to meet us at the train station; they would know who we were because we would be the only white people. A ricksaw didn’t seem possible, so all 3 of us climbed onto our guide’s motor-bike (a common sight in India) and made our way to the meeting hall. “Don’t worry,” our contact had said when we asked how exactly we are supposed to interview 45 people all at once, “we wouldn’t put you in a difficult situation.” Luckily, as it turns out, it not that difficult to interview 45 people all at once (minus one Basic Communication Point)…

We got ushered into a meeting, being greeted with lovely flowers, and were told to sit at the head of a growing group of people. We sat and we sat and we sat and nothing was said – people seemed content just to stare at us – and then we were beckoned to leave and were given a bunch of food, then invited back to the meeting. We spent the next 2 hours doing a QandA with the group. We were then treated to local organic lunch on plates made of leaves. Embarrassingly, I was unable to finish mine. It seems that desperate “no” signals when offered a second enormous portion of rice, only drives them to give you more!

After lunch, we interviewed 3 farmers back-to-back. Concepts of a break don’t seem to exist. On top of this the interviews took 3 times as long as most interviews I’ve conducted as we did not share a common language. The farmers discussed how they had either always used traditional methods because it was what their forefathers had done, or how they had tried to use intensive methods but had found they didn’t work – they did not have the funds for the fertilisers, the pesticides, the seeds themselves and the irrigation, plus they didn’t really like the taste of hybrid crops.When we had bought the train tickets to this destination, our contact had told us to book returns (in India you can’t get returns so you get two singles) so we did. We were therefore confused when we headed to a town an hour and a half away to sleep… We ended up getting ‘top-up’ train tickets. Minus 2 Basic Communication Points.

The following day was always going to be grim, but it started much earlier than we had expected. “Josh, I think that’s the fire alarm!” Lucie squawked at 5.05am. “Don’t be silly, they don’t have firm alarms in India,” I replied. But she had a point. There was the constant ringing of a bell, which was accompanied by terrible and very loud music. Still believing this had to be something other than absolute stupidity, Lucie got up to see what was happening. It turned out there was a man in a yellow robe ringing a bell in the lobby of the hotel – which was opposite a temple blaring out tunes from its loudspeakers straight into the hotel. The music went on till 6.30am!

In the morning, I asked what the music was about. “For the temple,” responded the hotel manager. “Does this happen every morning?” “Oh, yes,” he said smilingly, utterly oblivious to the fact that some people who pay to stay in his hotel might not find this an endearing feature.

We had planned the day before to meet up with the secretary of the farmers’ community group and discuss stuff at 9am. At 9.30am he still hadn’t turned up. We called him and were told someone would come and pick us up “immediately”. At 10.30am someone turned up with a note saying that the secretary was sorry he couldn’t meet us, but something urgent had come up and he had had to go, but someone would come and pick us up at 11am and take us to their office, where we could do some research. Grrrr….We went to the office, but no one had a clue what we wanted. “What documents do you want?” “We don’t know, we were told there was stuff we could look at, we thought the secretary would be here, he was going to chat to us…” I think the people we met through-out those few days thought we were a bit stupid because we would turn up at a resource centre and not know what we wanted. The problem was, we were told (every time by someone who wasn’t there when we arrived) that the people at the centre would know what we wanted and we should just ask. FRUSTRATING.

After getting some documents, we caught the train back to BBS. We had a night bus to catch at 9.30pm. Our contact had told us “it might not be like UK night buses, but you get a good night’s sleep. I catch it all the time. You can wake up in the morning and get on with work”. I admire him for being able to do this. “Sleep” is not the correct word to describe what I had to go through that night. Cold, uncomfortable and stressed, we “woke” at 4.30am and stumbled of the bus. Yes, the bus arrived at 4.30am. A hotel had been booked for us, which a rickshaw driver took us to. You can check in in a few hours, we were told. “What!? Fine we’ll sleep on your sofa.” The hotel manager both took pity on us and achieved some amount of rationality and so let us move into our room a couple of hours early.

The next day (6 hours later, though Lucie had to wake up at 9am to ask the interviewees if they could come at midday instead of nine thirty…) was by far the hardest. Of course, no-one was there to meet us at midday. At 1.30pm a farmers’ trade union leader finally appeared in our hotel. It seemed he didn’t want to be seen with us (understandable as people on the front line of challenging the state and multinationals regularly end up face down in ditches or just banged up in prison under false charges) so we went to our hotel room. 5 hours later we were able to leave this room. In the meantime several people had entered it and expunged the entirety of their thoughts on the agricultural crisis in India upon us. We emerged shaken and exhausted having had to refuse a late comer: “No, I’m sorry, but no, no more interviews!”

Our work was done, but our endurance had to be stretched a little further the following day when a train which was meant to take 6 hours ending up taking (including waiting for it) 9. Pretty standard, but a long day… Luckily, there’s nothing I like more than reading in a train station and occasionally getting shat on by pigeons…

We are now officially going on holiday again (Tamil Nadu and Kerala), but will fill you in in much more detail on everything we have learnt in the past week.

One final point, while our contact’s communication skills were somewhat lacking, it should be said that this was made up for by all his hospitality, political insights, passion and commitment to this cause.

[1] The train system in India is, when you first arrive, excruciatingly complicated and confusing – the train stations moreso. Once you know it, it’s just irrational and frustrating (the stations remain totally confusing whatever you do, it seems). Tickets are available, wait-listed (meaning you can hope that the tickets the big travel agents have bought will be sold back to the train service), or RAC (dependent on someone’s cancellation). Available is obviously the best option. You can also opt for TATKAL, an emergency (not really an emergency) option 48 hours before departure, or FTQ (foreign tourist quota) if you’re lucky enough to be in a “metropolitan” capital (not Bhopal!) from which they can book them. This complicated system is saturated in bureaucracy, and you will probably have to fill in at least 2 forms just to get to the ticket counter! On top of all this, you can no longer book tickets online if you don’t have an Indian debit card…

We are now in Bhopal, and need to start blogging about our experiences here, so the places we went to on our way here from the border will be compressed into one blog.

From the border we made our way by bus and train to Varanasi – the holiest place in India. Varanasi is the larger and more famous equivalent to Pashupatinath in Nepal. Our discussion on the different conceptions of life and death can therefore be seen in a previous blog.

We arrived when it was dark, never a good move, and attempted to catch a tuk-tuk, which the Lonely Planet had stated could be dangerous. So when an extra person got into our tuk-tuk we started to get a little worried, which was only exacerbated when they both claimed they couldn’t take us exactly to our hostel, as the streets were to narrow. This, we thought, is the time we get mugged. But it turned out we were absolutely fine, and the extra passenger was just a hopeful guide.

In relation to Varanasi, this was also not the first time the Lonely Planet turned out to be wrong. Reading their description of the town, we expected a manic lively place which didn’t let you breathe. A place where people try every trick to help part you from your money. Going into Varanasi with these thoughts, we were rather underwhelmed. Other than “masseurs” asking to shake your hand and then attempting to give you a 10 second massage which they then try and charge you for, and the almost constant call of “Boat? Boat?”, Varanasi was no different to any other place we had been in relation to touts.

One very nice thing to do there is walk the winding streets near that Ghats, unless you are either trying to get to a certain place, or need to be somewhere on time. Then it’s incredibly frustrating!

Lucie and I both had our first experience of watching four men simultaneously shit. Toilets are a bit of a scarcity, so people resort to shitting on the river bed, which also happened to be the path we were walking on…

We also treated ourselves to a ‘Lovers Breakfast’ at the lovely Brown Bread Bakery. Here they have over 40 different kinds of cheese, as well as cheese fondue, and many things other than cheese, including a ‘lovers breakfast’. 20% of the profits of this place go to school for disadvantaged (i.e. most) children and a women’s empowerment project. The food is delicious and the staff are fairly paid. All in all, totally good.

After Varanasi, we made the terrible mistake of going to Allahabad. The Lonely Planet describes it as “remarkably calm and laid-back”. Maybe they got the texts for Varanasi and Allahabad mixed up? Allahabad is a deeply unpleasant and very stressful place, or at least it was for us anyhow.

When we arrived, we took the wrong exit out of the train station (if you ever find yourself there, take the exist which isn’t the one directing you to “The City”, as it takes you away from the city…) and were met, as usual, by a flock of rickshaw drivers. What was different about this band, was they proceeded to follow us on their rickshaws down the road for over half an hour.

Eventually, after 2 hours, when it should have taken 5 minutes, we made it to the hotel we were aiming for, only to find they had put their prices up to ridiculous levels. After searching around we found all places either to be full or more expensive, so we stayed at the Royal Hotel. Don’t stay there if at all possible. The rooms don’t have glass in the windows, so you can hear everything going on outside, and floor and bathrooms are filthy.

Having planned to stay 3 nights in Allahabad, we escaped after 1 to a lovely little place by the river called Chitrakut. Unlike Allahabad, this was a truly peaceful and calm place, where the people are genuinely friendly.

After having a lunch on the gorgeous balcony of our hotel (the one Lonely Planet recommends), we went for a walk around a pilgrimage site, which connects back to the Nepali story about Ram. This is where he is meant to have spent much of his banishment from Ayodhya and so people now think its holy. In order to do this 5km route, you have to leave your shoes at the entrance, which after repeatedly stepping in monkey shit, we realised might not have been a good idea. Also, upon returning to our shoes, one of mine was very wet…

When we returned from our walk, the manager of the hotel informed us that “another westerner has arrived. He is French. You should take a boat to the Glass Temple with him.”

So we did. His name was Vincent, and he currently works in a school in Egypt teaching French, but the poor bastard wants to move to Aberdeen as he spent a year there during his degree.

Before boarding the boat, we as usual, had to haggle over the cost. What was so brilliant about this negotiation was that the moment one boatman put his price down, the rest, after claiming they couldn’t put their price down, all suddenly started shouting the same price as the man who had put it down. It was like an inverse auction.

Half way through our boat trip, the boatman suddenly claimed he could not take us any further, for reasons we could not decipher from his hand signals. We insisted that, given our agreed price was to the Glass Temple, that was where we wanted to go. He was probably just tired and didn’t want to have to come back down the river in the dark. After several attempts to convince us that it was impossible to reach the temple, we shored up a little way away. The walk there was a but precarious, involving wet feet and lots of mud.

When we arrived, the temple was full of people. At the front there was a man speaking and occasionally singing over a live musical background. People would join in with clapping and singing occasionally, and he would raise and lower his voice. It was either some sort of sermon set to music, or an Indian version of post-rock… The building itself was like a pimped-up Indian or Nepali bus but on a vast scale – mirrored bits and shiny coloured plastic everywhere. We stood intrigued for a while, but eventually our boatman’s desire to leave overwhelmed our desire to stay, and we headed back. More muddied feet and a relaxing night-time boat ride later, we ignored the boatman’s cry for more money than we had agreed, and went to bed. The day was exactly what we needed.

What we definitely did not need was the next day, which was almost entirely grim. One thing we learned was that you should never plan to take more than one train in any given day in India. The day started potentially well – the owner of our hotel pointed us to a great breakfast spot, and then explained that his brother lived in Jhansi, and we could stay with him free of charge! All we needed to do was call him when we arrived in Jhansi and he would sort us out.

The train was not on time: it seems that it is only naive foreigners who would have the foolishness to believe that any train would run on time here. In the end, a journey that should have taken four hours took, including the time we spent waiting from when it should have departed, eight. The only plus side to this experience was that the mother of the family with which we shared our carriage insisted on feeding us when she fed everyone else – we were treated to home made potato and peas with bread. We also had some sort of weird bitter fruit that is served with chili salt.

So we arrived in Jhansi late and exhausted, but hopeful that we might actually meet some more nice people. Waiting at the train station for an extra forty five minutes turned out to be a complete waste of time, however, as the brother of our previous hotel-owner turned up to guide us to an (overpriced) hotel. Which was not what we were expecting. It’s funny, many people we have met in India will gather round to genuinely try to help you, but often it’s with something that you could do much more quickly and easily by yourself! This was definitely one of those times. Another weird phenomenon is that ripping off foreigners is not restricted to people trying to sell you things, but also to people who seem to have no financial incentive to do so – people offering help through translating for us, or just trying to (apparently) help out, often suggest we should pay about ten times what we know things should cost.

The next day, which was New Year’s Eve, we set off for and arrived in Bhopal. So now we’re here. We’ll get on with blogging about this new place soon.

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!

Last blog made from England!

We’ve done our last minute packing, our sandwiches are ready for tomorrow, our iPods are bulging with music hurriedly added: I think we’re about ready to go!
Train at 6.25 tomorrow morning, we’ll be in Utrecht by eventide.
See y’all in about a year’s time!

xx

So we figured that we’ve already accumulated some wisdom from the amount of preparation we have already done, so here are a few hints and tips if you’re planning a similar trip.

*Visas*
Obviously you need lots of these to go through as many countries as we intend to.

Getting a Russian visa was the most nightmare-ish of any of our experiences (well, for Josh it was, I got off pretty lightly as I’m still a student, or was when I filled in my visa… Not that I’m encouraging visa fraud in ANY sense, obviously *STANDARD DISCLAIMER* but they didn’t check my status as a student, although my life with Oxford University officially ended a few weeks later). They don’t tell you this until you try to give them your application, but if you are unemployed or self-employed, you officially have to bring in stamped bank statements for the past three months which demonstrate that you have £100 for every day you are in Russia. I suggest that you tap some rich friend just for the occasion – get them to lend it to you for the period of visa processing. In some Kafka-esque ‘horror of bureaucracy’ scenario, it turns out that you don’t need that money when you actually get there, just for when you apply for your visa!

Also, a tourist visa is up to 30 days. If you actually WANT 30 days, you need an invitation for that entire time. Our invitations were for the 10 days we planned to visit St. Petersburg and Moscow for, so we had to change our plans and leave a week earlier as the Trans-Siberian takes an extra five days in Russian territory after it sets off from Moscow. So don’t get an invitation from your hostel, get one from http://www.realrussia.co.uk, particularly because it’ll probably cost you less!

None of the others were really that much hassle – Nepal is by far the easiest, and you can top-up that visa whenever you like. The Chinese system isn’t nearly as complicated as you might expect! We are yet to try to get visas for Iran, we’re going to try this from India, we’ll keep you updated on that.

*Vaccines*
Some GPs are nicer than others and offer lots for free – we bummed Hep A, typhoid, diphtheria and tetanus. Basically, go to the nurse at your GP and ask for a travel clinic to discuss where and when you’re going – they’ll talk you through it all. Make sure you leave about three months before you have to leave when you do this – some treatments take at least 28 days to administer.

As we were paying for some of our vaccines at NOMADs in Russel Square, a woman informed us that Superdrug are doing an offer with 25% off all vaccines after your first one. However, allegedly Superdrug are involved in funding oppression in Burma, and they’re implicated in Tar Sands (http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/FreeBuyersGuides/traveltransport/Petrol.aspx) so you’d need to decide what’s more important there…

*Money*
Check which European countries haven’t joined the Euro. Just in case you weren’t aware, Poland and Lithuania still have their own currencies, although both are intending to switch to the Euro soon.

Dollars are useful in a lot of countries, not just the USA.

*Trains*
http://www.seat61.com rocks my socks. The website is jam-packed with information, and the man – Mark Smith – has been really helpful, replying to various questions we’ve had. He does often point out that the information we’re looking for is hidden somewhere on his website though, so have a good look before you ask him!

If you want to book the Trans-Siberian before you leave the UK, do some price comparisons, but according to our research your best bet is with Svezhy Veter (www.sv-agency.udm.ru), though RealRussia are a more reputable company who are UK-based rather than SV who are Russia-based.

Thomas Cook European and Overseas timetables are amazing – they include every train, most buses and most ferries for the countries involved. With both these books you can work out how to get from London to Indonesia if you want! It shows when your trains are, how long they’ll take and where you need to change. Prices fluctuate, so they’re not included, but other than that it’s basically an all-inclusive guide!

*Hitch-hiking*
If trains aren’t your thing and you fancy hitching some or all of the way (we’re hitching to Lithuania most probably), if someone tells you that ‘no-one hitches any more, you won’t get picked up’, ask them when they last tried to hitch! Our experience has been that every time you get picked up people tell you that, but they’ve just picked you up, proving themselves wrong!

http://www.hitchwiki.org is a brilliant resource, mapping good and bad hitch spots out of all the big cities in Europe and probably worldwide (I haven’t checked that).

Once we got really stuck for hours and hours in the arse-end of nowhere (in the Midlands), and the veteran hitcher who eventually picked us up said to always go by service stations. This has been a revelation – people can check you out, decide you don’t look like a mad axe murderer and then offer you a lift if you wait by the petrol pumps. That’s much more thinking time than is offered to someone who zooms past at however many miles per hour.

Take road maps of the countries you are going through. AA ones are good as they have service stations marked on them. Michelin ones (at least for Germany and Poland) are a bit crap as they don’t have these little ‘S’ diamonds.

*Boats*
We’re currently investigating how to get by sea away from India, to various potential destinations, with Turkey as our nearest European destination. We’ve just found this website which seems pretty useful – http://www.freightertrips.com/bookings/index.html
You fill in a form and they send your details to booking agents to see if anyone can deal with your requests. We’ll keep y’all updated on how this works out.

*CouchSurfing*
This is obviously a much cheaper way to travel than from hostel to hostel, although you do not get to meet as many people this way as you might in a hostel bar. Join the community! http://www.couchsurfing.org/

Right, I’m wisdom-ed out for the moment…