Dennis Bergkamp is irrelevant to this story, except that he was a footballer who didn’t like flying. He was a good enough footballer to have it written into his contract that he didn’t have to fly. He played for a team that had more than their fair share of European football, so it was a big deal that he didn’t play in any games that involved more than a quick ferry trip across the Channel.
I’ve never had that written into my contact, nor would I. I’ve spent several periods of my career airborne. I was part of a Travel and Tourism teaching team that took students each year on residentials to out-of-season Mediterranean holiday resorts. I led the development of commercial overseas projects in the Baltic States, the Gulf, and in Africa. I also launched overseas recruitment of students to my institution. Airborne again, with Airmiles. And now I’ve had the space and time to go to interesting places again, and this time to go to some of them in an interesting way. Which is why I decided to go to Japan by train, at least until I hit the last stretch of water.
When I first raised the idea of going on this journey, I assumed that I was going on my own, going in Spring, going overland, and going as far as Japan, to see my daughter there. Then I thought I might as well add on another leg to the journey, to see another daughter in Australia. That’s when it got complicated. My wife, V, is obsessed with Australia and there was no way that she wouldn’t want to go. And if she was going, we’d have to take our youngest, S, with us. Three tickets, not one.
And that’s where the complications set in. It was S’s GCSE year so we couldn’t go until he had done his last exam, and it might be some time before we could confirm what the date of that last exam would be…
I’d like to take you through the fascinating minutiae of planning this trip, but you probably value your waking hours. So instead, here are a few hints and tips. For anything else, I’m always on the end of a comment, tweet, or email.
The best plan is to pack a (small) bag and to set off, see where you end up. If, however, you’re aiming at some point to catch a ferry that only sails one day per week; or meet up with people who still have jobs and have to book annual leave to spend time with you; or fly home from the far side of the world on a respectable airline and not pay through the nose, arm and leg: then you need a plan, and a backwards one at that. Start with the things that you cannot move, like the ferry, and work back from there for all your connections. And if you end up planning to leave before your son’s GCSEs have finished, then start again, working back from the next week’s ferry.
Do your planning on a spreadsheet. It’s why you were born in an age that knows that Microsoft doesn’t mean “a tiny piece of fluff”. It’s a brilliant way of making sure you’re not planning to leave somewhere before you’ve arrived there, or stay in two hotels at one stop and none at the next. And at least you can have a reasonable idea of how much money you’ll not have by the end of the trip.
Know, as far as you can, what you’re getting yourself into, and what the different options for routes and fares might be. I started off with The Man in Seat 61 and I recommend you to do the same. If The Man doesn’t know about it, you probably can’t do it.
Make sure that your travelling companion(s) know what they’re getting into. My wife watched an interesting range of YouTube videos on the Trans-Siberian Express that allowed her mentally to downgrade (or upgrade?) the trip from ‘holiday’ to ‘adventure’.
Ticket prices depend on the class of travel you want to experience. On the Trans-Siberian Express, second class is a compartment of four bunks. Always book the bottom bunks first. First class is the same without the top two bunks. Third class is fixed bunks in a carriage with no compartments, only a corridor. Other Trans-Siberian non-express trains operate and generally looked less well-kempt than ours.
When you buy tickets is less straightforward. Tickets are sometimes cheaper, and always more available, when they first go in sale. Unfortunately, the Virgin train, Eurostar, Jan Kiepura sleeper and Trans-Siberian tickets for our journey all went on sale at different times, the Russian ones last of all. That makes buying the tickets a nerve-wracking game of Ticket Roulette. I reduced the risks by using an agency for some of the European tickets and another, Real Russia, for the Siberian one. You have to pay commission, but there’s more chance of getting the tickets that fit into your plan.
For our route we needed Transit Visas for Belarus, and Tourist Visas for Russia. Again, I organised this through Real Russia and can’t speak highly enough of the service they offered. Even showed patience in answering some of my more bizarre last minute queries. Due to the changing relationship between our two countries we also had to travel to London a couple of weeks before leaving to have our fingerprints taken at the Russia Visa Centre.
Organised these through booking.com which allowed me to keep all my reservations in the one place. Only booked places with free cancellation, just in case, and as you will see in later blogs, sometimes sacrificed comfort for location. Generally though, the hotels we stayed at were fine, and as I had read all the reviews, at least I knew what I was letting us in for.
Food and entertainment
For Siberia, take a generous supply of teabags, coffee sachets, and sugar for the trip. You can borrow cups from the train attendant, or even buy them as souvenirs. Endless hot water is available in each carriage. Instant soup and pasta meals are also useful, but you will soon get sick of them. You can buy food at some stops and from the restaurant car if you want. See later blogs! Seven days is a long time in a train. Bring things to occupy your mind. If you have an iPhone, expect to run out of memory by Novosibirsk.
That’s it then, one more prequel to read, and then you can start working through the actual travel blogs (again?). They were fun to write, I hope interesting to read, but there’s nothing to beat doing the actual journey, or something similar.
So do it!