For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!
Please note this is a multi-page post. Although my trip took 6 days, one hour and four minutes to complete, it won’t take you that long to read! That said, you might need a cup of tea and a little snack to take with you.
Hope this account inspires you to explore the world by train, too!
Tuesday 15th October 2019 – NIGHT ONE – TransSiberian/Mongolian – boarding the train at Yaroslavsky Train Station, Moscow – 23:55
Two middle-aged men in uniform greeted me at carriage five with some bemusement. They frowned and flapped my ticket. ‘But, do not fold it,’ I cried out mentally, thinking Lena from Real Russia would be shocked to see their carelessness. They gave the precious paper back to me and one fellow ambled inside. Without anything else to do I followed him and he pointed at my compartment and my lower berth number 9.
I said, ‘Xiexie,’ (‘Thank you’ being the limits of my Chinese so far) and he blinked at me before he left. This was not the same train as my previous shiny new Russian train. This was an antique Chinese train. It felt a bit rickety and there was no fancy screen showing time and temperature on the wall. Could it have been a steam train? I could definitely smell coal. Everything smelt of coal in the carriage.
Obeying train-life rules I quickly jumped into comfy nightwear and then serious man gave me a couple of sheets and a pillowcase. I said, ‘Xiexie,’ some more. I got my sleeping bag out as a base layer against the cold and I had brought a pillowcase of my own. I found the pillow on the top bunk but didn’t like to investigate further.
The full moon out the window. It was a wonderful feeling as the tow kicked in and the carriage began to move, pulled in the wake of the engine. We were off. We chuntered and chattered and clunkered on and on. We were going to Beijing. From Russia to China through Belarus and Mongolia. I was in for the trip of my life. At least, it would be the longest train journey of my life! Six days, one hour and four minutes.
The air got in and, boy, was I woken by some extreme industrial pongs in the middle of the night! Petrol, gas, plastics; all sorts of foul stenches came up from the walls. I got really cold too. (Mainly because I was too dumb to work out where the blankets were.)
The toilet was European-sit-down, metal and grim. I couldn’t work out how to flush it. I kicked a green lever and opened a tap all over my foot. I kicked it off and then noticed the other foot pedal. Actually, I considered the foot-lever thing a good plan considering Goddess Hygienia. Out in the corridor I could see the antique water boiler at the other end of the carriage. I couldn’t see anywhere else to get water.
The coffee from Avocado Cafe kept me alive, alive, oh, so I stared out the window at the big shadows and lights of the station and thought I was lucky. I was safe and well. The door locked with a big chunky metal handle.
During the night we stopped for long periods at a couple of
stations where, through a tinny loudspeaker, a kind of clarion trumpet call
heralded a woman’s shouting instructions. Still no-one else got in my carriage.
I began to hope I might have the place to myself.
I got out my test sachet of arnica and dripped the oil over the clean sheet. Not so clean really and definitely made my mark in the pattern of old stains! (My Fisiocream from Spain had finished and, given this interesting twitch in my arms from constantly altering photos somehow uploading upside-down, I needed a new muscle cream. Back in Moscow I’d gone shopping. The cosmetic lady waved me through to the chemist who pondered the ingredients and bought me a couple of options. One had recognisable calendula flowers on the front, and mint, so we were a quarter of the way to the recipe. I pointed to the hypericum on the ingredient list, thinking perhaps pharmacy training might extend to Latin – the old St John’s wort – but with smiles and extensive, ‘Spasibo,’ in action, in the end, made do with her offering. Smelt like toothpaste. On the way out, cosmetic lady pulled me over into a corner. She pointed at the Weleda range. There was arnica. She gave me three sachets – if only she’d gone there first! That’s the stuff I spilled over the sheet. Smelt nice anyway.)
Awoke very cold. Went for a wee and on my return prodded around above me. Piled on the upper bunk I found a long thin blanket to cover the base of the bed and another, wider, to cover me. I was so glad to have these. Not sure who else was in the carriage. All the doors were shut but it felt quiet, empty and cold. Apart from the constant train movement and groan and hum-bumbles of the engine.
There was, what I took to be, a sizeable air gap over the door. I wasn’t sure who had the key to the door. BUT STOP! I couldn’t be there for almost a week and worry the whole time. I had to give myself over to the power of the moon and my beautiful empty compartment for the foreseeable future. All would be well. My hip sockets existed, firmly pressed against the bunk. Slept, rocked by the irrepressible train.
For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!
I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have found Real Russia, or rather, to have the Man in Seat 61 tell me about them. After only a quick enquiry, Anastasia took charge of my visas while Christine became my ticket gurini, setting me up with a tracking page so I could see at a glance where I was up to. (If I could find the link.) Both were based in Russia, in the south, in Volgograd (former Stalingrad) so I wouldn’t be able to meet them this trip. But I am so grateful to them.
Anastasia gave me a good talking to about filling in the required visa forms (Belarus, Mongolia, Russia and China) ASAP. They’re all arranged via the Real Russia website. I spent two late nights in the school office, sweating over details like next of kin and employers, the dates of my parents’ deaths, my income and if I should be including my darling son’s passport number when he’s a grown man and nowhere near this expedition!
Also required in the forms were my accommodation. Aaaaargh! I quickly searched through Booking.com and found The Strawberry Duck Hostel (!) in Moscow and the Beijing 161 Wangfujing Courtyard Hotel – blearily looking at maps, negotiating dates and trying to understand different currencies. (As a result, both bookings contained errors which took a week or so to sort out later.) But I completed the forms, hit submit, and dragged myself out of the office and into my comfy little student room upstairs.
Phew. Made the deadline. The next step was a date with destiny (actually Bill) at Real Russia London to deliver my passport. I had to negotiate time off with my work which I was reluctant to do. I felt so grateful to Kings Education, Brighton, not only for giving me the opportunity to teach such a wide range of people, ages and cultures but also to live within the establishment. I had to work in reception once a fortnight or so but what a marvellous opportunity to save money for this epic journey!
I caught the train the afternoon before, walking up and down the main street of Brighton to find a photographer who could do the visa photos. Der. When I got to Victoria Station there was a machine. Just like the one in the Brighton Railway Station. But I sat up straight and finally achieved useful snaps.
The next morning I woke with the bells and was glad I had extra time to travel the short distance from Tower Hill tube station to Real Russia so I could worry if I had the correct paper work, passports and photos, worry if the photos, suitable for American and Indian visas, would suffice for Russia and China and worry … worry … where the heck was the office?
Real Russia is a little bit difficult to find.
The address is 122 Minories, London.
The door is not on the Minories. It’s around the corner.
I could not work out the twisty corridors, choosing (why?) to head downstairs to an abandoned stairwell that looked as if it had suffered a midnight flit or a sudden search with fallen lost things and pamphlet failure. Real Russia is just on the first floor, that’s all. If you’re clever and take the lift it’s easy.
Once inside, I met Bill Watkins, cheery Englishman with gold neck chain, who examined the electronic forms, corrected my mistakes and had to call in Irene, who knew he loved her, to explain why there was such a strange pop-up in my page.
Everything had to be done in the correct order. We had to go to Mongolia first and we had to expedite Russia, then apply to China and finally Belarus. I had left it way too long and I had let my finances get away from me. I would need to return to London once more to deliver my passport to Russia (for the biometrics). Bill looked as if he’d clipped many photos to size and attached more than a thousand forms to their passports. He admitted he could do them in his sleep. I surrendered my passport to him. (Duel citizens must carry the Chinese visa in their British passport.)
We had a nice talk about identity theft. His sister is extremely paranoid about it. Bill, who works for a Russian travel agency, thinks that if anyone wants his identity, they’re welcome to it. To put up defences against any kind of theft is enormously difficult. Better not to have too much stuff, really. I told him I’d been really nervous four years ago when I had to copy and email my passport for the Spanish government via an insecure network. The NZ passport. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve copied them since then. Both passports, that is. That’s right. I’ve got two passports.
I am incredibly lucky in this world. Because I was born in London, I’m British. Because my mother was a New Zealander, I travel between Australia and NZ on an NZ passport. And, because my father was Australian, I am also eligible for an Australian passport as a citizen. Whilst in Europe (hah bloody hah Brexit) I’ve been able to freely move around with my British passport. However, I was employed by the Spanish Government as a NZ citizen, so they were able to utilise both passports.
And, after hours, fix up my mistakes. As it turned out, I’d mistaken the accommodation dates because I had no idea it took nineteen hours and twenty seven minutes to train from Warsaw to Moscow.
You mean all that distance takes time?
That’s the best thing about overland travel. There’s a sense of time and distance that’s completely lost in a plane. Especially if you can’t see land from the window. You appear to be drifting in fluffy clouds – a sort of living heaven – where sun beams bless your face intermittently and flight attendants bring you assorted plastics smeared with some kind of indistinguishable food stuffs.
I was through the worst of the planning. Real Russia was handling all the visa application processes. All I had to do was deliver the passports to the Visa Centres when required and get finger printed. The next trip to London would be to visit Russia.
Costs of visas as at August 2019
£98.46 Mongolian Single Entry Mongolian Transit Visa application (Standard service consular processing)
£134.03 Russian Tourist Visa application
£101.18 for Fast Track Russian Tourist Visa application
£89.56 Single Entry Belarusian Transit Visa application
£193.80 Chinese Tourist Visa application
I negotiated time off on a Monday thinking I could get back in time for my afternoon class but as it happened I did not have such a thing so I had time to play in London. I picked up my passport from Real Russia, walked past the Barbican Centre and the London Museum, to the Russian Visa Application Centre in Gee Street. The centre has a wonderful photographic wall of Moscow, whetting my appetite for my visit to the Kremlin and St Basil’s Cathedral. I could see concerned people thumbing through papers, attending to payments, having to sit down again and wait for their number to be called, attend to another thing, then back to wait again while I, friend of Real Russia, leapt at once to my feet with my number, presented, signed, held four fingers on a yellow disco perspex place then the other fingers then two thumbs close together, dah, better. And biometrics over, back into the London sunshine again.
I went to visit Mary Quant at the V&A. I had such a delightful hour or so there, wandering past my youth frozen in glass cases, the stylised daisy logo, the tights, frocks and short hair …
Back in Brighton, back at school, searching for scissors or holepunch or some textbook or other, I opened a drawer in a classroom and came upon a DVD. There were no DVDs in Kings Education. Everything on the IWDs was online or on desktops. I’d never seen one before. But this DVD was Joanna Lumley’s TransSiberian Adventure.
You may or may not be able to view all three episodes online.
She began her trip in Hong Kong, where she used to live as a child. SO DID I, Joanna Lumley! Wow! Only I was there a bit later, from the ages of 8 to 10 years old. So on my return I was able to remember a bit and walked around our old neighbourhood with the mental map returning to mind.
It’s a bit of a stretch, but it could be said my entire journey started in April 2016, in Hong Kong, so there is another similarity. Ms Lumley, though, got on and off the train, met people and did adventurous things. I’m just going to sit on my bum and stare out the window for seven days. Also, she went the other way, ending in Moscow. I’m going to start from the UK (where I was born – another kind of beginning) and head out across the Channel to Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Russia and China.
One of the teachers said to me on a Friday afternoon, ‘Who will you talk to on the weekend?’ Well, I spoke to Abdullah and Ned and Simka and a Chinese lady who is staying in Brighton for four days with just a few words of English. I realised I’m going to China with NO Chinese. Quick! XieXie. And Russia with NO Russian. Spasibo. Learning starts at home.
I was getting excited. Had my undercut sharpened up at ‘Hello Sailor’s Barber Shop’. Suitable, I thought, for someone about to sail from China to New Zealand. The barber came from Frankston in Melbourne.
NEWS from the shipping company.
Alexandra and Oceane want me to chose ONE passport. They have to send it to the Captain who will then send it on with the list of passengers to all the ports.
By return email, I explained that, because the Chinese visa will be in the Great British passport, I have to exit China as a British citizen. But I must enter Australia and New Zealand on my NZ passport as that is how I exited Australia. Could they please help me?