10 Tips for the Trans Siberian / Trans Mongolian Railway

The Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian railways are considered to be two of the world’s longest train journeys. An epic adventure taking a minimum of one week (without getting off the train), either one is a travel experience high on many people’s bucket list. The Trans Mongolian was also the integral part of our 20,000 km overland adventure from London to Beijing and back into India last year. Since we returned home many friends and followers on social media channels have asked us for  hints we could recommend for the journey. So in no particualr order we have some inside tips on life aboard the trains.

1. Carry a Multi Functional Plastic Cup

These plastic cups saved the day on more than one occasion

These plastic cups saved the day on more than one occasion

These were without a doubt the single greatest purchases of our entire pre trip planning. Slightly bigger than a coffee mug they could be used for just about anything. From Cups of tea to boiling pot noodles or turning into a makeshift tumbler for your vodka we would have been in serious trouble without them. The secure snap on lids ensured you didn’t spill your hot snack or most importantly your vodka on the walk from the carriage urn to your cabin.  They are also light weight which is essential on any long distance backpacking adventure.  We vowed to throw them away when we’d finished with them, but we got so attached they came all the way home and Natalie now uses them for soup at work!

2. Book a Four Berth Second Class Ticket

Plenty of room in our second class cabin

Plenty of room in our second class cabin

We found the second class cabins really were the best option. You had the best of both worlds. There was a little more security for your belongings than the third class ‘dorm style’ carriages, and you also had plenty of room to yourself. Most importantly we had the chance to interact with a wide variety of different characters throughout the journey. Our cabin was like a revolving door and with each stop we eagerly awaited to see who we would meet next. We shared tea and chocolate, an even watched a slide show presentation about one man’s home village on Lake Baikal (all in Russian of course). We met a few travellers who had booked their own private cabin but felt they really missed out on what the Trans Siberian / Trans Mongolian is all about. Our tip, if there is two of you try and book and top and bottom bed, it just meant we had a bit more space to spread out, and you didn’t get in the way of those sharing your cabin.

3. Look after your Provodnista

These ladies are the lifeblood of the Russian trains. Each carriage has one or two ladies responsible for everything, from checking people’s tickets, waking them or reminding them their stop is approaching, changing over bed sheets and cleaning (which they do every day to an amazingly high standard). They are also responsible for keeping the coal heating for the carriage running and hot water in the urn for your hot drinks or noodles. They don’t get paid that much and they normally sell snacks from their cabin, anything from crisps, tea, noodles to occasionally chocolate. They work incredibly hard so help them out and buy something from them. You don’t have to do it all the time but a few purchases will see that scowl turn into a welcoming and friendly smile.

4. Eat in the Dining Cart

Natalie and our new friends Vladimir in the Dining Cart

Natalie and our new friend Vladimir in the Dining Cart

Some of our favourite evenings and train experiences came in the Dining Cart. People from all corners of the train converge for a meal or more importantly for a few drinks. We ate, drank and got to know news crews, young soldiers returning home, other travellers, train staff and friendly locals and it really is the heart of the train. Funnily enough most people we met were called Sergei! Language barriers disappear like the miles under the train, suspicious stares are replaced with swapping of Facebook accounts and after a few vodkas you will find a great improvement in your Russian!

5. Keep two sets of time

The trains run on Moscow time to try and save confusion, and every carriage has a timetable somewhere in the corridor where you can see how long each segment will take. However, the entire journey crosses around eight different time zones and can create a feeling of permanent jet lag. Our suggestion is to run two clocks, one on Moscow time (because the Dining cart etc run on it) and set a second time to your arrival destination. This will help a little, but still expect to feel a little dazed and confused.

6. Get off in Ulan Ude and catch the morning train to Ulaanbataar

The largest statue of Lenin's head in the world!

The largest statue of Lenin’s head in the world!

Many people pass straight through Ulan-Ude and for years it was off limits as it was a military manufacturing town. However it makes for a great afternoon or couple of days exploration. The town is also home to the world’s largest statue of Lenin’s head, how could you not miss that! Regarded as one of if not the most picturesque part of the entire train ride is the couple of hours from Ulan-Ude towards Mongolia. The train tracks skirt along the southern borders of the famous Lake Baikal and many people miss witnessing this by training directly from Irkutsk to Mongolia (the train takes this route in the evening if you don’t jump off). For a little extra time you are rewarded with a stunning break to the barren emptiness that is the Siberian countryside.

7. Buy food of the locals on the platforms

Support the local economy and buy food from the locals on the platforms

Support the local economy and buy food from the locals on the platforms

Just about everytime the train stops there will be elderly ladies selling some sort of food on the platforms. In some of the more isolated communities connected by the train service making ends meet can be difficult. Not only does it give you the chance to stretch your legs, and breath in some fresh air, it also gives you the opportunity to mix and mingle as well as restock your provisions. Not everything may be to your liking (we did struggle a little with the smoked fish and the caviar bread) but you are helping out the locals and you see just how important the train is to the livelihood of many Russians.

8. Have a bottle of vodka with you

Nothing gets the conversation going on the Russian trains like vodka. Offering a drink to your cabin buddies may lead to a long evening of conversation, a rowdy evening of drinking (with disapproving glares from your Provodnitsa) but most importantly it helps pass the time. Just be prepared though, it is bad manners not to finish a bottle of vodka once it is open, you have been warned!

9. Carry Wet Wipes

While the carriages have toilets and running water on board there are no shower facilities. A quick scrub down with a couple of wet wipes can make all the difference to you feeling clean and refreshed as the hours turn into days on the train. They can also be an ice breaker in your cabin by offering one to your ‘room mates’.

10. Don’t fly into / out of Russia.

Regardless of which direction you are taking the train (Moscow-Beijing/Vladivostock or vice versa) you have just completed one of the worlds last great train journeys so why give up and fly from Moscow or St Petersburg? Keep the adventure going and train into or through Europe. Overnight trains out of Moscow (via Belarus so make sure you have your visa) head to Poland and beyond. From St Petersburg trains head into Latvia and Lithuania. We actually caught the train from London across Europe into Russia. Surely that makes for a much better overland adventure story than saying you flew?!

Enjoy the adventure

Enjoy the adventure

Experiencing either of these train journeys is something you will never forget, and armed with these hints and tips, all you need to do now is find a nice long book to fill your time, we suggest perhaps ‘War and Peace’…

– Dean

If you have not seen our ‘starring’ role in the CBC short documentary on the Trans Siberian you can follow the link below.

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Our Favourite European Underground Systems

One of the most rewarding challenges of exploring a new city is mastering the local public transport system. In Europe we have them all, the good, the bad and the downright confusing! This week we look at some of our favourite undergrounds from around the continent.

 1. The London Underground

Ok so maybe we are a little biased as it is our hometown, but ‘The Tube’ not only is the oldest underground in the world, one of the most used undergrounds in the world but also regularly voted one of the best undergrounds in the world. All Londoners’ have a love hate relationship with the Tube but without it we would be in a whole world of trouble, just try and get anywhere when there are line closures for maintenance works! In fact it is only when it is shut or not working do we truly realise how much the city relies on it. Best bit of advice, buy an Oyster Card, fares are much cheaper than paying for a paper ticket, oh and don’t forget to ‘Mind The Gap’.

Going underground...

Going underground…

 2. Berlin U-Bahn & S-Bahn

Ever since living in Berlin I have always loved the rail network here. The rickety old carriages rattling along the tracks elevated above the roads below or perhaps trundling through the old ‘Ghost Stations’ from when the city was divided between east and west. When you are riding the Berlin metro it feels like any minute James Bond or Jason Bourne will come bursting through your carriage is some cold war spy drama. Our tip, check out the Mohrenstrasse station, the red marble walls come from Hitler’s former Reich’s Chancellery building, and don’t forget to validate your tickets before jumping on the train it is a hefty fine if you get caught!

One of Berlin's former 'Ghost Stations', closed off during the Cold War and division of the city

One of Berlin’s former ‘Ghost Stations’, closed off during the Cold War and division of the city

 3. Moscow Metro

Difficult, confusing and amazing are just some of the words to describe Moscow’s enormous metro system. Built to showcase the might of the Stalinist Soviet Union, many of the metro stations look like they belong more in a palace than an underground. Finding the right stops can be tricky but rewarding with mosaics of Lenin, space aged themes and a statue of a soldier’s dog whose nose you rub (in the Red Square Metro) but a few treasures awaiting the brave! Our tip, get a good map and learn to read Cyrillic!

Waiting to board the Moscow Metro

Waiting to board the Moscow Metro

One of the many murals showing the strength of the former Soviet Union throughout the Moscow Metro

One of the many murals showing the strength of the former Soviet Union throughout the Moscow Metro

4. Budapest Metro

While not the best metro system in Europe it was the first on the continent, dating back to 1896. The reason we love this underground is the old communist feel when you go underground. Instead of turnstiles ore relying on German honesty, as soon as you validate your ticket at the validation box you are met by a handful of heavy set black clad metro guards demanding to see your validated ticket, (which they have just seen you validate). Then you head to the platform and you can almost guarantee to get checked again or perhaps as soon as the doors of your carriage close a badge is flashed “tickets please” yelled out and you are subjected to another check. Our record? In a three-stop journey we had our ticket checked five times! Better validate that ticket!

Entrance to the Budapest Underground, the oldest underground on the continent

Entrance to the Budapest Underground, the oldest underground on the continent

Do you have a favourite metro or underground in Europe, or better yet do you have a ‘worst’ underground or underground story? If so we would love to hear about it, leave a comment below or drop us a line on Facebook.

 

– Dean

Lights, Camera, Action!

Stop press, makeup! We are ready for our close up!

The Smart Way Round are on the TV!

It almost feels like forever ago we were riding through the wintery barren but stunningly beautiful landscape of Siberia aboard the world famous Trans Siberian Railway.

For those of you who followed our journey from the beginning you may remember we met Jean-Francois Belanger the Canadian CBC Moscow correspondent as we travelled from Moscow to Irkutsk. He was filming several short pieces for the lead in to the Sochi Olympics about life in Russia.  We spent a few days together talking about our travels.

With Jean-Francois from CBC and his cameraman Alexi

With Jean-Francois from CBC and his cameraman Alexi

As a journey progressed and we entered India the Winter Olympics began and we continually looked back at our time on the train and relived many of the stories. During this period we had some wonderful messages and emails from friends in Canada who had seen us on CBC and had started to follow our adventure, however we had yet to see our cinematic debut.

It is amazing how quickly times change and no sooner had the Olympics finished than the crisis in the Ukraine, along with Russia’s involvement, escalated. We couldn’t help but wonder just how hectic Jean-Francois’ life must have been over the last few months with everything that has been taking place.

So it was with great excitement that we received an email from him last week with a link to the short documentaries he filmed.

Jean-Francois and his Cameraman Alexi have done an incredible job of capturing what life is like aboard the Trans Siberian, not just regarding some of out experiences but also for those who work aboard. We hope you all enjoy it.

http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/russia-train/ch1/ – The CBC page about the piece

Look out Hollywood here we come!

– Dean

Adding to the Traveller Tat – when you think of Russian Souvenirs, what do you think of…?

… Russian Dolls (Matryoshka Dolls)!

I have got into a bit of a routine when I go and see Dean in Europe.  He works, I go off shopping.  Now for someone who isn’t really a shopper, it makes it all the better when abroad.  I can buy things guilt free as it’s simply written off as a ‘holiday expense’.  Granted nothing is ever that expensive, but it’s still nice to have something different.

This trip had to be different.  I confidently packed my main back pack and it weighed only 13.7kg – 1.7kg over my normal guidelines, but I decided to live with that given the cold weather stuff in there.  I intended it to stay light.  This meant no shopping.

Dean has a set of Russian dolls depicting former Soviet Leaders,  (given one of his previous blog posts you won’t be surprised!) bought whilst he worked up here and I wanted my own set (purple of course) to sit on the shelf alongside them.

Russian Dolls (Purple!)

Russian Dolls (Purple!)

Why the Dolls though?  Where do they come from and why do people have them? The Matryoshka dolls, or nesting dolls,  were first created in 1890, and were based on the design of wooden dolls from Japan. In 1900 they were awarded the Bronze Medal at the World Exhibition in Paris.  Shortly after this, production of the dolls appeared all across Russia and became a popular gift for any occasion. Now days they come in all shapes and sizes, anything from three dolls to twenty dolls fitting neatly one inside the the other. Soviet politicians, American Presidents, football teams, TV shows and of course the traditional scarfed girls can all be found adorning these dolls around Moscow and St Petersburg today.

We had kept our eyes open as we walked round, but nothing cheap enough, small enough and purple enough had stood out (guess the most important criteria there?!).  Well that was until we took a trip out to the ‘All Russia Expedition Centre’ –  a 2km long and 1 km wide former Communist playground, with masses of buildings and fountains (of course turned off) and wide pedestrian avenues, rich with buildings from yesteryear.  A fascinating place.  Contained within one of these buildings (next to a massive Lenin statue) were the usual array and tourist tat and there we spotted the newest addition to the Smart family!  From looking at the building outside you would never have guess what it housed.  Our purple and black doll!  Best still they don’t weigh much so all we need to do is guard her all the way home, and then place her on our ‘tourist tat’ table at home along with the miniature Pousse Pousee from Madagascar, miniature hat from Lesotho,  miniature beer stein from the Hofbrauhaus – I wont go on!

Outside with my purchase (s)!

Outside with my purchase(s)!

That’s it… no more shopping again now….. for a while…

– Natalie & Dean

P.S Oh and we might have bought my Russian Dolls some friends… Some Russian Christmas Dolls…. Watch out for them in a future blog!

Covering new ground – the adventure really begins!

When we were planning our trip, one of the really exciting parts was the journey across Siberia and the mass of nothingness…. So it feels slightly surreal that we are staring this stage of the trip square between the eyes, and we both really have mixed emotions about it.  How can it have come round already?  Are we really about to do this?  After months of planning it is actually happening!

During a stop on our Vilnius to St Petersburg journey

During a stop on our Vilnius to St Petersburg journey

I have been lucky so far.  I’ve had my own personal (Trafalgar accredited) Travel Director / travel buddy to show me around all the places we have been.  We hit the ground running in Warsaw, sought out the back streets in Vilnius, strolled around like a local in St Petersburg and rode the Metro with ease in Moscow (without Dean I think I would still be doing loops on the brown line!).  So for us, the real adventure was always going to begin when we left the comfort of where at least one of us had been before and where be both started to experience something new.  That in itself is exciting.

We (the Royal ‘we’ of course) have spent months planning this trip, pouring over train timetables and deciphering schedules, only to come up with our perfect route.  The choice of which train(s) to take was made for various reasons.  We could have split our next 72 hour journey up into smaller sections, stopping more often or evening staying on longer.  However we thought 3 ½ days on the train was long enough to get a real sense of the scales and size of the country and for us, it worked perfectly.  Besides we are travelling in winter, and some things are closed, fountains turned off and plants covered for the winter, so we had to be realistic about what we see and do. Seeing Red Square and St Basil’s with a dust of snow was magical, so for me it is a very special time of year to be here and I wouldn’t trade it for peak season for anything.

We are hoping for Animal Print covers on this train again...!

We are hoping for Animal Print covers on this train again…!

I remembering sitting on a bus from Alice Springs to Cairns, and it was one of the best things I did in Oz.  Watching cattle station after cattle station and kangaroo after kangaroo pass by reaffirmed what I already knew – Australia is a big place!  I’m sure this journey will do the same.  We have got some great stop overs on this epic journey, but first we must tackle the long first stage.

We are likely to drop at least 10 degrees along the way – and coming from a temperature of -4 today that won’t be pretty, but we are prepared.  We have our cold weather gear (not forgetting my awesome funky boots!) and our cameras at the ready.  We have our Vodka to keep us warm (!) and games to keep us entertained.  Above all we have our provisions – porridge, tea, noodles, soups etc. all to live like kings on this magical journey.  For us this is the really start of our trip, the exciting venture into the unknown and we can’t wait to get going… but we don’t want it to go too quickly!  Dean remembers talking to me in Africa and apparently I said to him that the next and last big trip I wanted to do was the Trans-Mongolian Train across to Beijing.  I don’t remember that conversation and neither of us knew at that point we would be doing it together!

All set and ready to go!

All set and ready to go!

So all that’s left now is to hope we end up with good cabin buddies on the train… who don’t make us drink TOO much Vodka. See you on the other side of / in Siberia!!!

–          Natalie

From Russia With Love

I first came to Russia eleven years ago. Since then I have been lucky enough to return on several occasions with work. When the initial planning of this adventure began the inevitable question and discussion arose between us and several friends who had visited Russia as well. Which city do you prefer, St Petersburg or Moscow?

Since I first visited Russia this had always been a pretty simple question for me, the answer was Moscow, without a shadow of a doubt. However, on this visit, the answer is not so clear cut. A lot of water has passed under the Neva and Volga rivers since I was last here, and a lot has changed.

It would be fair to say that St Petersburg wowed Natalie. The architecture is stunning, from the St Peter and Paul’s Fortress, St Isaacs Cathedral and the Church of Spilt Blood and all culminating at the Palace square with the Winter Palace, it is obvious the city was built with a plan in mind rather than built generation upon generation like so many cities around Europe.

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

The Winter Palace, St Petersburg

Every building was once a palace built for another noble family wanting to be as close the Czars as possible. Every street, every corner, there is another amazing building waiting to wow you. There are so many similarities with other Central and Eastern European cities yet also so many differences.

According to the current edition of the Lonely Planet Trans Siberian guide book, the city is looking the best it ever has, and to be honest I have to agree. The first thing I noticed was how clean the city was. You struggled to find even a cigarette butt on the ground which is incredible in itself considering how many people still smoke over here. The metro is spotless so are all the streets, also quite incredible considering the lack of rubbish bins everywhere.

The next thing I noticed that had changed so much was the amount of ‘Latin’ signs everywhere. Cyrillic can be tricky at the best of times, (I clearly remember taking one of my tour groups in completely the opposite direction to the one I wanted to go in on the Moscow Metro one day because I had misread the direction I wanted!), but now the Metro stops are all labelled in Latin, and even some announcements are made in English. The difficulties that once existed for non-Russian speakers seem to have dissolved away, in fact in some sense St Petersburg felt very European.  Perhaps that is why for so many people who visit Russia, St Petersburg is their favourite city.  It is not only beautiful, but it feels familiar and you are no longer too far out of your comfort zone.

Maybe that is why I always preferred Moscow.

Today we caught the fast train or Sapan train from St Petersburg to Moscow, and there were almost more English announcements than Russian, and all the messages on the carriage electronic info boards were in Latin and not Cyrillic, another sign of the times.

Moscow couldn’t be more different than St Petersburg. As the train rolls in you see row after row of former communist apartment blocks, many desperately in need of some love and attention. Arriving into Leningradsky Station those differences become more apparent. That dull grey architecture hits you as you exit from the station, the vibe feels different as well. Moscow definitely has that big city feel and its citizens that big city mentality, but what else would you expect from a city with a population of eleven and a half million?

However, while St Petersburg has all the palaces and the Hermitage (one of the world’s largest museums), Moscow has the Kremlin and Red Square and for me this is why Moscow wins. The Kremlin/Red Square area is quite simply, breathtaking.

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow

I think my fascination with Red Square comes from growing up in the days when the Cold War was petering out. My main memories and all I ever remembered of Russia, were the military parades on May Day that were beamed on TV all over the world. The troops marching, the tanks, missiles, here was the Soviet Union in all its military glory. All the history in that square – the powerful figures who have graced the steps and are buried in the walls of the Kremlin, not to mention the preserved figure of Lenin (if it’s still really him).

Moscow appeals to the history nerd in me, and as depressing as it looks, I also love the former communist architecture and Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’.

I’m really looking forward to revisiting some of the sights around Moscow over the next few days before we board the Trans-Siberian, and as much as I loved St Petersburg, I think Moscow will always be my favourite, but the gap is getting smaller! This of course will lead to many discussions between the two of us and with our friends on our return, but I guess that’s the beauty of travelling, different things appeal to different people, maybe I’m just a communist at heart…..

Do you prefer one city over the other? If so leave a comment below and let us know your preference.

–          Dean