I’d intended to blog my train journey as I went, but I soon realised that typing on my phone was quite time-consuming. The problem? I wanted to enjoy the journey, I didn’t want to spend the whole time looking at my phone screen instead of looking out of the window!
Luckily I found a good alternative in social media. I could upload short updates and photos on Twitter and Facebook much more easily and quickly than long blog posts. This was very helpful especially when internet access was slow or patchy.
I posted a total of 59 tweets while on the train journey from Edinburgh to Hong Kong. You can read the thread here:
I was a bit apprehensive about the Berlin to Moscow train (the Paris to Moscow Express), since the train travels through Belarus. Some websites suggest that this is an “unofficial” border crossing that may present problems.
Thankfully I didn’t experience any issues, although it was quite a disconcerting experience — 5 different people and a sniffer dog came into my compartment to check my documents!
A Belarus transit visa is required
I had my Belarus transit visa in my passport (and my Russia visa) and these had been very briefly checked by the provodnitsa (conductor) before I got on the train.
For UK citizens, the visa must be obtained from the Belarus embassy in London before travel. Currently, the Belarus embassy is one of the few that accept direct applications by post. This may be because the number of applications they receive are rather low (around 11,000 per year according to the Foreign & Commonwealth office website), so this may change in future…
Border check at Terespol, Poland
Before the train arrived at Terespol (on the Polish side of the border) there was a very, very long and complicated announcement in Russian. From the 4 or 5 minute announcement, I recognised only the words “passport” and “toilet”. Toilets on the train weren’t allowed to be used for the entire period of the border crossing, so I assume this may have been part of the announcement?!
The train arrived at Terespol – cue a loud knock on the compartment door – and a stern looking border control police person. They shouted something (it may have been in Polish) then walked away. Not knowing what to do I thought it best to kept the compartment door open…
A few moments later I had my first document checks from a female border control agent, they asked (in Polish) to see passports and scanned them, then left.
Border checks just before Brest, Belarus
After a wait of about half an hour the train continued on through the border, where we stopped in the pitch black in what seemed to be a random section of the track.
Lots of border control people boarded the train. A border agent with a large Alsatian came into the compartment, sniffing around (it avoided the waffles that were out on the table).
Next a third border agent came along, asked to see passports, and then asked us to leave — I was worried they meant us to leave the train, I was only in my pyjamas and socks! Luckily we only had to stand in the corridor— after they’d had a quick look at the compartment we were allowed back in.
A fourth border control person turned up and asked to see travel documents…I may have lost count at this point.
A fifth border agent then appeared with a stack of passports and took ours to add to their collection.
The Belarus Migration Form
One of the border agents returned with a small piece of white paper — the Belarus Migration Form. We were told (in English) to fill these out, but given no further instructions. The papers looked like they’d been kept crumpled in someone’s pocket for a week.
Unfortunately the form asked for our visa numbers, which were in our passports that had been taken away. Helpfully the border agent returned with our passports to check that we’d entered the correct visa number(s) on the form.
We were given passports back (with visa stamped), the arrival half of the migration form was taken away, and we were left with the departure half to present on leaving Russia.
After all that, we were done with the border checks! The train started moving towards Brest station with some of the border guards still on board, they disembarked when the train got to the station.
A change of gauge at the border
Next up: the train bogies (wheels) were to be changed, as the track in Belarus is wider than the standard gauge used elsewhere in Europe. What I didn’t realise is that this happens while we’re all still on the train!
After a wait in the station the train started rolling back down the track towards Poland. The train went into a big, rather dimly-lit, shed. The carriages were rolled over tracks that have pits underneath, so workers could go underneath the train.
The carriages were separated from each other and the ones around us were attached to a big screw-like contraptions. These raised the carriages up about 1 metre, so the carriage was separated from and suspended above the bogies. A contraption passed overhead, it looked like a hook was lowered from it to attach or unhook part of the train. The old bogies were rolled away, and new ones attached underneath at some point.
While this was happening the carriages are shunted around in and out of what seems like the longest shed in the world. There are lots of weird whirring noises as the carriages are raised, a few loud bangs and crashes and the carriage gets shaken as things are unattached and reattached. The process is so slow and it all happens to the bottom of the carriage while you’re in it, so I found it difficult to tell what was happening to our carriage.
Meanwhile workmen dressed in fluorescent orange overalls clamber underneath and around the train carriages in the dimly lit shed, pushing bogies/wheels out of the way, occasionally getting lamps to peer at parts of the train.
Finally, around 12.30pm (we were running late as we’d arrived in Terespol late) the train rolled out of the big shed back towards Moscow and stopped at Brest station platform. Here some more passengers got on the train. We waited on the platform for about half an hour before we headed off.
Onwards from Brest, Belarus to Moscow by train
The Belarus tracks were quite a lot clunkier, rumbling and noisy than the Polish ones, just in time for bedtime…
The train continued through Belarus through the night, stopping at Baranovichi, Minsk, and Orsha.
The train crossed the border into Russia in the morning — there’s no border control as the border crossing into Belarus is considered part of the border of the Russian Federation.
Arriving into Moscow Belorussky station
As we approached Moscow there were announcements over the train speaker system in Russian along with some rousing music, which contrasted a bit with the view…
Although we’d departed Brest station an hour and a half later than planned, we arrived into Moscow Belorussky station more or less on time, as we’d made up time during the night — it seems when the train is running late it doesn’t stop as long as planned at the stops.
Day three of my train adventure from Edinburgh to Hong Kong, and today was another early start to catch the train to Moscow!
This train is run by Russian Railways (RZD) and the route originates in Paris as the “Paris to Moscow Express”. I joined part way along the route, from Berlin Hauptbahnhof. The train was due to leave at 7.16am but was running slightly late (around 25 mins) due to “construction works”.
A friendly conductor (provodnitsa) checked our tickets before we boarded the train and with a combination of Russian, a few words of English and sign language, made sure that we had the correct visas before boarding — travellers from the UK need a transit visa for Belarus and a visa for Russia. I hadn’t realised this initially when I booked the tickets but luckily I found out with enough time to apply for the visa and to send my passport off to the embassy in London.
First class on the Paris-Moscow Express
The train may be the nicest sleeper train I’ve ever been on! It’s full of thoughtful and useful details that make travelling easier and the trains are absolutely spotless. The provodnista even came round to our compartment around 6pm to hoover it!
The first class compartments are the same as second class, except each compartment is two-berth in first class (two beds) and four-berth in second class (more like a bunk bed arrangement).
Some of the useful details on the train:
Each compartment on the Paris-Moscow Express has a little table with a tablecloth, RZD-branded teapot, teacups and fancy teaspoons
The table flips up to reveal a sink underneath, you can change the water temperature
There’s a 230V power socket either side of the table
Four wooden coat hangers (with trouser/skirt clips), two either side of the door
Controls in the compartment adjust the temperature, announcement sound volume, and lighting options (on/off or night-time blue light)
An electronic key card for each person to unlock the compartment door (it locks automatically when you close the door)
Two small towels, two pillows and a warm blanket (in a duvet cover) are provided for each bed
Lots of space under the bed for luggage
There are two toilets at the end of each carriage, one of them even has a shower (what luxury!) — the toilets are checked and cleaned every single hour by the provodnista and are spotless
There’s an extensive brochure listing snacks/food/drinks and souvenirs that can be purchased on the train (prices in roubles)
The compartments are very clean and look in excellent condition. The door of the compartment opens outwards so if you have a lot of stuff on the floor you can still get out of your compartment, which is always useful!
Dining on the Paris-Moscow Express
Up until the Belarus border there’s a Polish dining car attached, it has a more retro feel than the rest of the train. I enjoyed an interesting lunch, if slightly lacking in vegetables!
The prices aren’t cheap but it was worth it for the experience of eating strange unidentifiable meat dumplings watching the unfamiliar Polish landscape go by through the window.
Back to the compartment after lunch to relax and watch the world go by.
I’m posting this before I lose internet at the border with Belarus (I don’t have a Belarus SIM), where I’ll experience border control —the first since I left London St Pancras — and the wheels will be changed on the train, as Belarus runs on a different gauge from Poland and the rest of Europe.
The journey continues onwards to Moscow! To be continued…
Berlin was my destination on the second day of my journey from Edinburgh to Hong Kong by train.
Starting in London, I travelled through five countries — the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany — on two trains. I stopped in Amsterdam for lunch and spent the evening in Berlin exploring the Christmas markets!
London to Amsterdam by Eurostar
My first train of the day? London St Pancras to Amsterdam! It was an early start to catch the 7.16am Eurostar from St Pancras station.
Train workers on strike in France meant some trains were cancelled, though thankfully not the one I was due to take — two cancelled trains in as many days would be unfortunate! As a result Eurostar departures was a bit quieter than usual. The train itself was also fairly quiet, with quite a few spare seats.
Lunch in Amsterdam
The Eurostar arrived at Amsterdam Centraal station in time for lunch. I had a lovely view over lunch from just outside the station across the water, with lots of cyclists whizzing by. A conveniently located supermarket at the station entrance gave me the opportunity to stock up on stroopwafels, and buy a sandwich — I wasn’t sure if food would be available on the next train!
Amsterdam to Berlin by train
My second train of the day was the Deutsche Bahn ICE train, from Amsterdam Centraal to Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
A super-spacious comfortable train with lots of legroom in standard/second class and huge windows to watch the world go by — at least, until it got dark around 4pm.
Food and drink was available on the train — there was a buffet car, and staff also walked through the train with freshly made coffees for purchase at one point (although there wasn’t an at-seat trolley service). Deutsche Bahn provides a free magazine (in German) so I had a go at the kids’ Christmas activity 🙂
The train continued through the Netherlands with a longer stop (around 20 minutes) just across the border into Germany where the locomotive engine was swapped.
The train was due into Berlin Hauptbahnhof at 7.22pm, it arrived only a couple of minutes late, plenty of time for an evening exploring the Christmas markets!
I’m off on my epic train adventure! Unfortunately train journey number 1 from Edinburgh to London was cancelled due to “damage to overhead wires” at Drem.
Not the best start to the journey!
Luckily I was able to set off slightly earlier to take an alternative train route. This means I get two trains instead of one (two trains for the price of one?)…
First up: the TransPennine Express train to Carlisle. I almost managed to miss this train by waiting on the wrong platform at Edinburgh Waverley (platform numbering at Waverley is very confusing…). My e-ticket for the train was accepted and scanned without any problems. Luckily I got a seat on the train, it was very busy, some people had to stand for the 1 hour 22 minute journey to Carlisle.
At Carlisle I had a few minutes to admire the pretty Victorian gothic railway station architecture…
Second train of the day was the ‘new’ Avanti West Coast train from Carlisle to London. Avanti took over the UK west coast line earlier this week, so the trains have yet to be branded. This train was pretty quiet, with lots of empty seats to choose from, and free wi-fi.
I’m used to travelling without too much luggage, and I’ve tried to pack light – I’m taking two bags on my journey – one larger (44 litre) rucksack, and one smaller daypack (20 litre). I’m aiming to do some laundry when I can so I don’t have to pack too many clothes.
Keeping warm on the trains shouldn’t be an issue – they’re reported to be heated very well, flip flops and short sleeves should be ok for the train. But outside the train it’s a different matter: the average low temperature in December in Yekaterinburg is -14°C, and a chilly -19°C in Irkutsk.
In Hong Kong, my final destination, the average high/low temperature in December is 20°C/15°C, that’s a huge 39°C warmer than Irkutsk. How to pack for that kind of temperature difference?!
The answer? Layers…
In addition to a fews dresses, t-shirts and jeans, I’m taking the following to wear for the winter weather in Siberia:
The most important thing: long warm padded coat (not pictured)
Padded gilet – North Face ‘thermoball’ claims it’s as warm as down but packs smaller
Polar thermal neckwarmer (Buff)
Warm baselayer leggings and top(s)
Thermal socks (Smartwool)
A pair of touchscreen gloves, to wear under sub-zero mittens
A thick fleece-lined knitted hat
Snow boots (rated to -32°C)
Ski trousers (not pictured)
I get very cold hands and feet as I suffer from Reynaud’s so hopefully two pairs of gloves will be enough!
Practical items to take for the Trans-Siberian train journey
Some practical items to help make life a bit easier on the train:
Mug for tea/soup/noodles/porridge
Metal water bottle – for cooling down hot water from the samovar
Battery pack, chargers and adapters
My bamboo cutlery set
Mini microfibre travel towel – towels aren’t provided on the trains
Flip flops to wear on the train (not pictured)
Handkerchiefs (not pictured)
Sewing kit for essential repairs (not pictured)
Some more useful items to pass the time on the journey:
Russian phrase book (also, Google Translate app installed on my phone)
Camera and chargers
E-book reader and chargers
Notebook and pen (after taking this picture and packing my bag I decided to pack a much smaller notebook!)
Toiletries for train travel
It’s a common misconception that the Trans-Siberian is a luxury train – it’s not. I’ll be travelling first class but toilets are shared, and on most of the trains sinks are shared too. Of all the trains I’m taking only one has shower facilities (and that can’t be relied on – “the supply of water can be very limited and in winter plumbing problems often cause minor floods”).
In ‘normal’ life I try to avoid creating unnecessary waste – toiletries and wet wipes are some of the biggest sources of plastic waste, so before travelling I spent a ridiculously long time searching for ‘biodegradable’ (not plastic) wet wipes. Minimising the number of toiletries I’m taking in the first place hopefully helps reduce overall waste too.
‘Biodegradable’ wet wipes
Solid shampoo (can also be used as soap) in a tin
Medicines including imodium, indigestion tablets, paracetamol, ibuprofen
Toothbrush and toothpaste
Plasters and antiseptic cream
Snacks and food for the journey
All the trains have restaurant cars and I’m looking forward to eating in them! (And also negotiating the kiosk shops in the stations – described as like “an outside version of Argos, but without the catalogue“). As I’m travelling on a budget and on such a long journey, I’m taking snacks and some back-up meal options just in case.
Cup-a-soups, pasta, and porridge can all be made by adding hot water from the samovars provided on the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian trains.
Dried fruit, cereal bars, tea, and coffee filters should allow me to eat some vaguely familiar foods when Russian/Chinese snacks get too overwhelming and/or in the times when the restaurant car is unavailable. I found this report quite amusing, where a traveller was served “a third of a Chunky KitKat for dessert” in the restaurant car!
Any thoughts or tips on packing? Anything I’ve missed? Let me know!
I’ve found a couple of books really useful for preparing for the Trans-Siberian railway journey.
Trans-Siberian Adventures: Life on and off the rails from the UK to Asia, by Matthew Woodward
I originally found this book after searching Google for “Edinburgh to Hong Kong by train” and discovering Matthew Woodward’s blog describing his train journey between the two cities (travelling on a longer route to the one I’ll be taking).
This book is an account of Matthew Woodward’s first journey on the Trans-Siberian railway, travelling from Edinburgh to Shanghai in December 2012. It’s written in a really engaging way and I found it a really entertaining read as well as full of useful information about what the journey is like.
Matthew travelled in first class on the Chinese Trans Mongolian route in Train 004. I’ll be taking the same train from Irkutsk to Beijing, and travelling at the same time of year, so I found lots of the details of day-to-day life on the train really useful to help me prepare for the journey: such as how to walk between carriages on the train to get to the restaurant car, and what it’s like travelling on the Trans-Siberian in the winter.
I hadn’t considered bringing Christmas decorations to decorate my compartment on the Trans-Siberian before I read this book, but it sounds like a great idea!
I put up some sliver tinsel around the window (quite tasteful) and hang up some illuminated ice crystal stars (less tasteful), and on my table I place a flashing mini Christmas tree (not tasteful at all). Mr Chen pretends not to stare in surprise as he walks part my compartment. Mr Lee is clearly impressed by my efforts, and he wishes me a Happy New Year. I leave my door open and enjoy watching even the hardest Russian men smile when they glance in.
Trans-Siberian Handbook (10th edition) by Bryn Thomas and Daniel McCrohan
This book is described as the ‘bible’ for all Trans-Siberian travellers. “The guide to the world’s longest railway journey”, it includes 91 maps and guides.
It’s set out in a very similar way to a Rough Guide book. It has a couple of introductory chapters on planning your trip, on Russia and the history of the Trans-Siberian.
Each stop on the Trans-Siberian has its own section, with pages on the history of each place, what to see and do, practical information, local transport, where to stay, where to eat and drink, onward travel from each destination, and day trips.
Towards the end of the book is a detailed description of what you can see each kilometre out of the window of the train: the Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian, and Trans-Manchurian routes are all included.
It will take up valuable space in my bag but I’m definitely taking this book with me on the journey!
Berlin – Moscow (part of the “Paris to Moscow Express”)
Moscow – Yekaterinburg (part of the “Trans Siberian”)
Yekaterinburg – Irkutsk (part of the “Trans Siberian”)
Irkutsk – Beijing (“Trans Mongolian” railway)
Beijing – Hong Kong
Countries I’m travelling through: UK, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Mongolia, and China.
Edinburgh to Moscow
Train 1: Edinburgh to London
Distance: 332 miles (534 km) Time: 4 hours 20 mins Countries travelled through: UK
The first journey is on the LNER train from Edinburgh Waverley to London St Pancras.
Train 2: London to Amsterdam
Distance: 222 miles (357 km) Time: 3 hours 55 mins Countries travelled through: UK, France, Belgium, The Netherlands
The second train journey I’m taking is London to Amsterdam. Since April 2018 Eurostar runs direct trains from London to Amsterdam, taking 3 hours 55 minutes.
Train 3: Amsterdam to Berlin
Distance: 357 miles (575 km) Time: 6 hours 22 mins Countries travelled through: The Netherlands, Germany
There are a number of different ways to get from London to Berlin by train. London-Brussels-Cologne-Berlin is a slightly faster route, but I decided to travel via Amsterdam because it involves fewer changes of trains, which is easier with luggage. The timing of the train connections gives a convenient 55 minutes in Amsterdam for lunch!
Train 4: Berlin to Moscow by train
Distance: 2,164 miles (3,483 km) Time: 14 hours 19 mins Countries travelled through: Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia
I’m joining the Paris to Moscow Express part-way along its route, departing Berlin Hauptbahnhof at 7.26am and arriving in Moscow at 11.45am the next morning.
On the way we’ll go through Belarus. As Russian railways have wider rails than in Western Europe, there’s a change of gauge at the border, where the train wheels are changed from European standard track gauge to Russian gauge.
Moscow to Beijing
Train 5: Moscow to Yekaterinburg
Distance: 880 miles (1,416 km) Time: 25 hours 18 mins Countries travelled through: Russia
From Moscow I follow the Trans-Siberian route, to Yekaterinburg, the fourth biggest city in Russia. The city has the largest concentration of constructivist architecture in the world.
Train 6: Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk
Distance: 1,749 miles (2,815 km) Time: 53 hours 21 mins Countries travelled through: Russia
Continuing on the Trans-Siberian route to Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Siberia. Described as the ‘capital of Eastern Siberia’, Irkutsk is 2,000 miles west of the Pacific, and 2,600 miles east of Moscow.
Train 7: Irkutsk to Beijing
Distance: 1,026 miles (1,653 km) Time: 54 hours 27 mins Countries travelled through: Russia, Mongolia, China
I’m going directly from Irkutsk to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian route, I’m not stopping off in Mongolia because unfortunately the train times didn’t work out — maybe next time…
Beijing to Hong Kong
Train 8: Beijing to Hong Kong
Distance: 1,516 miles (2,439 km) Time: 8 hours 56 mins Countries travelled through: China
The high-speed rail link from Beijing to Hong Kong opened on 23 September 2018, which means that although this train journey is much further than Irkutsk to Beijing, it’s much quicker, taking less than 9 hours to travel over 1,500 miles.
The aim is to arrive in Hong Kong on Christmas Eve!
There are a myriad of different train routes to take between Edinburgh and Hong Kong. How to decide which way to go?!
My choice of which route to take was informed by:
how much does it cost
how long does it take
how many connections are there (fewer connections are easier with luggage and mean fewer connections to miss!)
how many nights on the train (I didn’t want too many consecutive nights)
what places I’d like to see/stop over in
when do trains arrive/leave – on the Trans Mongolian and Trans Siberian sections some of the trains run at awkward times, or only run on certain days of the week
Edinburgh to Moscow by train
Starting out in Edinburgh the only way to connect with mainland Europe by train (if you don’t want to catch a ferry) is to go to London and catch the Eurostar from London St Pancras. Edinburghto London is a fairly straightforward and fast route along the UK East Coast main line.
The quickest route to Moscow by train from Western Europe is on the Paris to Moscow Express, so the first part of my journey is planned around that train. As the name of the train suggests, it departs from Paris, but I’m joining it in Berlin instead, because Deutsche Bahn’s special discounted fares makes travelling via Berlin slightly cheaper than going via Paris.
Deutsche Bahn offers special “Sparpreis Europa” cheap fares from London to Germany (which include Eurostar tickets) from EUR 59.90.
Planning tip: I knew I wanted to arrive in Beijing by Christmas Eve at the very latest so I worked backwards from that date, to see what stops I could make on the way and for how long.
The route from Moscow to Beijing follows the “Trans Siberian” Railway and “Trans Mongolian” Railway route. Both routes start out the same – Moscow to Irkutsk – but the Trans-Siberian route continues on eastwards to Vladivostok, whereas the Trans-Mongolian route turns south, through Mongolia, to Beijing.
Trans-Siberian railway route
For the first part of the journey I’ll be travelling on Train #2, the Rossiya, which runs the Trans Siberian route every other day, starting in Moscow and terminating in Vladivostok in the Far East of Russia (although I’m only going as far as Irkutsk on this train).
I’ll be stopping off on the way in Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk, to get the opportunity to explore a couple of cities on the Trans Siberian route. The stops also break up the journey a bit, so that I don’t spend more than two nights on the train in a row.
Trans-Mongolian railway route
From Irkutsk to Beijing I’ll go through Mongolia, on the Trans-Mongolian route, in the Chinese-run train number 004. I’m not stopping anywhere on the way in Mongolia.
Beijing to Hong Kong by high speed train
I’m taking the daytime high speed train from Beijing to Hong Kong, which takes just under 9 hours. There’s also an overnight train between the two cities, but it takes 24 hours, so the high speed train is much quicker. All the details are on The Man in Seat 61 – Hong Kong to Beijing by train.