Transsiberian Part 17 - DIY

18-04-2015

In this final post about the Transsiberian, I figured I'd list some of the resources, tips and thoughts we had, so that it might help people who wish to visit these places or take the transsiberian. I've also got some nerdy stats for these who like numbers!

In a nutshell, the trip is totally worth it. Some people have said that it's become too touristy (apparently) or they believe it's something it isn't. One thing for sure, it's all down to you, who you are and what you plan for. Sounds a bit fruity, but if you prefer fewer stops and talking to more people, you can do that. If you are more like me, and prefer quieter cabins and more stops, you can do that too. A lot of the trip is down to your personality and the kinds of things you want to get up to. Our trip involved many small city breaks and a few countryside visits. Some people prefer to stay on the train from one end to the other. This is also possible and results in a different experience.

Bed explosion

The first thing to consider is the route. There are 3 major routes: The Transsiberian, Transmongolian and Transmanchurian. I'd say the one official train is the Rossiya so being on that for part of the trip is probably part of the deal. The differences are that the first goes to Vladivostok while the other two go to Beijing. The Transmongolian goes through Mongolia whereas the Manchurian goes around and takes a slightly longer route. You can of course, add bits to the route as we did. St Petersburg is worth it but then if you are coming from London, you could go the entire way. The issue here is cost - the more stops you make the longer the trip and the longer the cost. Its also harder to organise as some trains only pass through once a day or once a week through certain places. So yes, more stops equals more of everything, except perhaps for the that train experience. The longest we stayed on one train was 48 hours and we pretty much worked on on our writing or coding. Had we been in a second or third class cabin, things would have been different. The choice of cabin affects things to a certain extent. Third class is noisy and smelly and you'd have trouble on a longer leg. Second class is a good compromise between meeting people and having some space. First class is great if you are a couple I think. In that case, I'd totally recommend it.

The time of year is important to consider. We went in the off-season, for various reasons. It was closer to Easter so getting vegetarian food was slightly easier (possibly) and the weather was on the turn. You still see snow, but the temperature is rising. More importantly, there are more hours of sunlight which is good when you are visiting places. I can imagine the trains being unbearable when it gets warm, particularly in China. That might be worth considering. We did fall afoul of a couple of bank holidays, so choose times and dates wisely. If you are making stops, make sure you have enough time to see all you want to see. Spending a few days in Baikal was a very good choice, especially half-way through the trip. Temperature affects the clothes you need to take as well. One nerdy stat is we went from minus 6 degrees Centigrade to plus 28 (or near enough). We didn't see a lot of rain but there was ice to contend with. This means extra gear which means extra space and weight.

St Petersburg

The trains themselves are not so far removed from the Caledonian Sleeper here in the UK, at least in terms of living. You have beds that have sheets, toilets that are mostly clean yet simple and windows. Very little is fancy but it's all well looked after. With hot water and the promise of noodles from the cabin attendants, you can't really go too far wrong, but having a the handpresso was an absolute godsend! Do keep space for good food, drink and a bowl or thermal cup. We took sporks and dried fruits and a whole host of things that made the trip much more bearable. It may have seemed mad to other people but having a whole stash of coffee pods in my bag was totally worth it! Even with all that prep, you'll still be wanting tons of vegetables and fruit when you get off. I didn't risk buying things from the platforms, though I saw many people doing that.


Baikal

Russia is a cash based economy more or less. Some of the hotels take card but don't expect to use Chip and Pin. The same is true for Mongolia and China, to a lesser degree. We took out money from ATMs rather than using the post-office or bureau-de-change or similar. Don't carry all your cash around with you but do keep a couple of cards in-case a machine swallows one (we almost had that happen). We almost found ourselves short in China but mostly, we'd spent our money before we crossed the border. In Mongolia, a rather dodgy looking chap will offer to change money for you. The deal he offered wasn't crazy bad and it meant we at least had some Togrogs for Mongolia.



One nerdy thing we got up to, was the recording of the GPS track through-out the trip. There are a few gaps here and there, as I got used to how the phone behaved. It appears that getting a GPS signal inside a train is not always so easy, and the battery life of my Samsung Galaxy Y, while better than an iPhone, is still not enough for an entire leg. That said, we managed to get most of it. In total, we covered 10,550km thereabouts (6550 miles roughly), not including the MTR from the Shenzen border. The most Western point was 30.33 degrees, with the most eastern being 116.4 degrees. The most northern, 59.93 with the most southern, 22.18. It's an amazing distance to cover via train, and truly one I've still not yet comprehended.

Printing things out is still one of the best methods for getting around and getting hotels and train tickets. Its much easier to have a printed map that shows your station and your hotel. It's good to have the hotel confirmation printed (preferably in English and the local language) and its also good to have train ticket confirmations printed. tutu.ru (Google Translate is your friend here) will give you e-tickets to print. China DIY Travel will go one further and give you a bilingual sheet to give to a ticket seller. We ended up with half a book's worth of printed sheets. However, this stack is still smaller than two or three guidebooks. Mark off on your map what you want to see. Basically, read things in advance. You can take a PDF version of the guidebooks with you as well (takes up less space) but don't expect to be able to map read using a kindle version of the Lonely Planet guides. It's more hassle than it's worth. Do take the Transsiberian Handbook by Thomas Bryn though! It's the best!

Navigation is tricky! These days, we think we have it sorted with GPS and iPhones and such. This is fine in the UK or if you have a local dataplan. We deliberately left our smart-phones at home, because of Russia and such. We bought two giffgaff sims but had no dataplan (as such things are very expensive). The best navigation aid is offmaps - We've tried all the others (and I mean all!) and none of them come close. There seems to be a small market for such things. Sadly, this means you need an iPhone. We took an old iPhone 3 that could barely keep up. Basically, someone needs to write a really good set of off-line map aids for lower powered devices. Decent map browsing on a Kindle would be amazing. That said though, Kindles really helped on this trip. a good book and a few of the smaller travel guides were top additions.

Hutongs

Speaking of technology, I think either the X220 Thinkpad or the Velbon Portable Tripod takes the crown for the best technology on the trip. The laptop was capable of everything I asked of it (including HDR photo processing and WebGL I might add). The tripod could be attached to my amazing Lowpro Sligshot bag and barely got in the way. Spending the extra money on the right gear really pays off. Some people snarked on twitter about the amount of technology I took. I think much could be reduced by limiting chargers. Too many of the things had their own batteries or chargers. It would have been much better to take just a couple of chargers and a four way power strip. Too much time was spent charging things in hotels, waiting for things to charge then swapping over, ready for the next train trip. Investing in a multiple voltage thing and some sort of USB multiplug would have been good.

Language isn't too much of an issue, given that English is my native tongue. Be prepared to point, mime or gesticulate what it is you want. Learning a little Cyrillic does help. Most people were really friendly and there are many menus with translations and pictures. Many of the places we went were somewhat modified for tourists. The only time we had a real problem was with dealing with the one drunk Russian on a train, but then drunk people are the same the world over so theres no big issue there. I, personally, am not comfortable with not knowing the major language I'm surrounded by, for various reasons. Unfortunately, I only know a smattering of Japanese and Chinese is one of the hardest to learn.

He say you Bladerunner

Some of the best places we stayed are listed. Many of the people running these places were great and went the extra mile for us, so thank-you to them!

Having returned to the UK, I feel quite proud to be British. There are things I've seen and felt on the trip that hint at the lack of freedoms in these countries as compared to ours. It puts things in perspective and in many ways, has made me question certain things the UK is up to, whilst being grateful for the things we do well. So much to think about and reflect upon. I'd highly recommend this trip to anyone! It's been a blast!