8,000+ miles: a summary in 59 tweets

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:

(if the above link doesn’t work the thread is on Twitter here)

I didn’t have internet access in Belarus or Mongolia, and I discovered that most social media was blocked in China. This meant that I had to post updates from those countries slightly later.

Somewhat surprisingly I could find a 3G signal even in the middle of Siberia (near the cities anyway), and railway stations in the Gobi desert in Mongolia advertised wi-fi networks!

What happens to the train at the Poland-Belarus border?

An ‘unofficial’ border crossing

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.

Inside the big dimly-lit shed

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.

Minsk station, seen at 4am through a grimy train window!

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.

The Paris-Moscow express at Moscow Belorussky station

Berlin to Moscow by train (on the ‘Paris – Moscow Express’)

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”.

The RZD Paris-Moscow Express train, at Berlin Hauptbahnhof

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).

Signage indicating the destination, time, temperature inside and outside the train

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!

Meat and cheese dumplings in the Polish restaurant car

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…

London to Berlin by train

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.

Eurostar departures, London St Pancras, 6.40am
Eurostar departures at London St Pancras, 6.40am — no long queues today

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!

View from Amsterdam Centraal station
Lunchtime view of Amsterdam

Amsterdam to Berlin by train

My second train of the day was the Deutsche Bahn ICE train, from Amsterdam Centraal to Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

Deutsche Bahn train from Amsterdam to Berlin
The Amsterdam to Berlin Deutsche Bahn train

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!

Edinburgh to Hong Kong…with an unexpected detour to Carlisle

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!

Service disruption East Coast mainline

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?)…

The lady in the ticket office gave me this handy print out of my alternative train route…

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…

Carlisle railway station

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.

Avanti West Coast train at Carlisle

Next stop, London!

Entertainment on the Trans-Siberian

Packing for the Trans-Siberian Railway

How to pack for a (very) long train journey?

I’ve packed my bags and I’m ready to go! My my main concerns in packing for my journey from Edinburgh to Hong Kong by train are that I can carry my bags myself easily, and that I have enough layers to keep warm in the Russian winter.

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.

Matthew Woodward has a really useful guide on his blog on what to bring and what to leave behind on your Trans-Siberian adventure. I’ve used this as a starting point, with some additional bits and pieces that I thought would come in useful. I’ll update this blogpost if there’s things I think I missed or things that I find I don’t need after all…

Packing for winter on the Trans-Siberian

Sub-zero gloves and boots for the Siberian Winter

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)
  • Hand warmers
  • 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
  • Washing-up liquid
  • Battery pack, chargers and adapters
  • My bamboo cutlery set
  • Toilet roll
  • Hand sanitiser
  • 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:

  • Trans-Siberian Handbook
  • Russian phrase book (also, Google Translate app installed on my phone)
  • Playing cards
  • 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!)
  • Sunglasses

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
  • Solid deodorant
  • Hand/face cream
  • 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.

Tip: choose foods in sachets instead of big plastic Pot-Noodle style pots – they take up less space and mean less overall plastic waste

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!

Tip: take all food out of the cardboard packaging to save space, it’s about 30% air…

Any thoughts or tips on packing? Anything I’ve missed? Let me know!