Well, it’s almost time. In less than a week, at 7am on Friday 1st September, I’ll close my hall door for the last time until mid December and head off by bus for the Dublin Ferryport with my backpack, under 10kg, on my back. I’ll be taking the first step of my 50,000km road journey crossing 25 different countries and 9 different time zones.
I have booked train and ferry tickets from Dublin to Astana in Kazakhstan. The rest I’ll buy when I’m there as my journey will be in the off season and, according to internet forums, there will be lots of spaces.
I started imagining this about a year ago but seriously started planning it just after christmas. Originally, this meant reading lots of Lonely Planet guidebooks as well as researching some seriously good internet forums. My good buddy, Mr Google, was very handy here.
As I intended to travel by train, I needed to ensure that trains would be running when I wanted and that I wouldn’t get stranded. It took a lot of work figuring out how the rail systems work in Russia, China, Central Asia and the Caucasus. I didn’t fancy arriving at a station in Siberia at midnight to find that the next train was 2 days later and the nearest hotel was 5km away. Especially if the temperature was minus 40 C. I’d soon become an icicle and my ghost would forever roam the frozen Russian steppes.
To date, I have bought 29 train tickets and 1 ferry ticket; Dublin to Holyhead. I had to check out every single one for journey time, departure and arrival time, seat or sleeper type, cost etc. I hope I am not becoming an anorak but I really enjoy this part of the planning process. I get a sense of the places I am about to visit and the sense of the journey to these places. Somehow my brain can translate the natural anxiety at such a huge undertaking into excitement.
Initially, I considered using agencies to buy my train tickets but they have a very high mark up. One of the most popular has a markup of almost 200% compared to buying the tickets at the train station or through Russian Railways, RzD, website. I took a risk and bought one short hop ticket on the RzD website and found the process very easy once I got used to the fact that the translation wasn’t very good. A huge advantage is that nearly all the train journeys in Russia now have e-tickets so there is no need to go to the train station and pick up an actual physical ticket. I have all my Russian tickets now printed off and I just need to show them, along with my passport, when I board the train itself. From experience, trying to buy rail tickets outside of the major population centres anywhere west of the Urals can be a bit of a problem. I have this amazing app on my phone, from Google of course, that translates live anything I say into dozens of different languages and then speaks the translation out through the phone speaker. It’s possible to have a 2 way conversation with a minimum of hassle when neither of us speaks the other’s language. It works offline too so no need to use up data or be reliant on a sketchy wifi or gms signal.
China is a bit more problematic. It’s not possible to buy train tickets directly from the railway company. Instead it’s necessary to use an agent. And of course agents have a markup. The advantage of buying tickets in China is that the apps are very good. As train tickets can only be purchased 45 days in advance of travel time, it’s necessary to prepay the agent and as soon as the ticket is available they will buy it for you and send an email confirmation. Then I take the confirmation to a train station and get the tickets. I have done this before while travelling in southern China and the process was fairly painless, so long as you don’t mind queues.
The rest of my trip from Astana onwards will be ad hoc and I’ll buy tickets on the fly.
Russian and Chinese trains are amazing. It’s not like catching the 9.35am from Dublin to Cork or London to Bristol or Amsterdam to Rotterdam where there isn’t much difference between the types of trains. In China, there are 2 main types of trains: high speed and ordinary. There are 3 classes of HS trains: G,D and C that run 350, 350 and 200 km/h respectively. The ordinary trains are classed Z, T & K and run 160, 140 and 120 km/h respectively. I’ll be using T and K trains for long journeys and G and D trains for short hops of less than 6-700 km or so.
The Russian trains are less complicated but there’s a wide variation of seat types. There are several train types in Russia – high-speed, express and regular. Express and regular trains are designed to travel for long distance. There are three types of carriages in the trains: 1st (SV), 2nd (Kupe) and 3rd class (Platzkart). The 1st class has two beds in one enclosed room, the 2nd class includes 2 lower beds and 2 bunk beds in one enclosed room and the 3rd class has 4 beds in a non-enclosed area.
I mentioned a lot of this in a previous blog so won’t repeat myself.
Getting visas for the various countries was a right pain in the fundamentals but, on reflection, easier that it might have been a few years ago. To date I have my Belarus, Russian, Mongolian, Chinese, Iranian and Azerbaijani visas. As several embassies were not in Ireland, I used an agency to get them. There was a hefty markup for this service but I believe it was worth it as I hadn’t the time to traipse around embassies and wait for hours to have the paperwork processed.
I nearly made a cockup with an Uzbekistan visa. I made a spreadsheet of all the data I would need such as train times, hotel bookings, dates of arrival and departure etc. I also had a workspace for visas. Somehow, I made a mistake on Uzbek visa and thought I didn’t need one. So I didn’t bother about one, naturally. I was reading a Silk road forum and someone mentioned that getting visas for Uzbekistan was a right hassle. I researched this and found, to my alarm, that not only did I need a visa but they were awkward to get. I needed “Letter of Invitation” from a Uzbek registered agency as well as addresses and a full itinerary. I also needed a triple entry visa and these were not easy to get. I checked this out on my favourite source of information, Caravanistan, and used an agent they recommended. I did this, paid 75€ and got an LoI within a week. As there is no Uzbek embassy in Dublin and my passport was being processed for other visas, I have to present the LoI at the Uzbek embassy in Warsaw to collect the visa. Whew.
The Russian embassy got the dates wrong on my visa application. I asked for 14 Sept to 13 Oct and planned and bought train tickets around these dates. When I got the visa back a few days ago I noticed that the dates were from 10 Sept to 9 Oct. Feck. No way of changing these dates at such short notice so I had to accept that my time in Russia will be a bit shorter than planned. I only have to cancel 1 train ticket, though and for a short hop too. I will miss though spending 4 days in Irkutsk and around Lake Baikal, which was going to be the highlight of my trip to Russia. Ah well. Next time. Luckily, my train from Vladivostok to Ulan-Ude, a 68hr journey, will allow me to catch a connecting train to Ulan Bataar in Mongolia without running foul of the immigration authotities.
The last few times I was travelling around Asia, I was making my way home from working in Thailand and Hong Kong. Work dress style was smart casual so I brought lots of shirts and lightweight trousers. Accumulatively, they weighed a lot and it was a hassle hauling them around. This was especially so when I had a long hike from train or bus station to my hotel. It was worse when the weather was very hot. Once, in a town in Malaysia, I had to walk for almost 2 hours to find the hotel in the baking heat only to find it was closed. Luckily, they let me store the bag there while I went to a local cafe to have a chilled mango smoothie. Bliss.
This time, I’m being very frugal with my belongings and will bring only the minimum. The rule is one to wear and one spare. If I find myself thinking “just in case”, it’s gone. Yesterday I was wondering if I should pack a second pair of fleece lined trousers “just in case I spill something on them in the train and cannot wash”. I decided, tough, I wear the dirty ones or rub the stain off as best I can. They weigh 800 grams; it all mounts up. To date the weight is just under 10kg but will be about 12kg when I include zip-off daypack which contains my tech gear. That’s well manageable and I can bounce around the whole day with that on my back. Luckily, arctic days are quite short in winter.
My down parka, -38C certified, is compressed in a stuff bag and down at the bottom of my backpack as is an amazing 4 season down sleeping bag that compresses down to a small space. The sleeping bag weighs just under 3kg but I decided it would be worth the extra weight as I feel the cold at night and read some horror stories of homestays and hotels with no heating.
Everything else is packed into 7 little packing cubes. These are made of tough plastic with a strong zip and a viewing mesh so I can see what’s inside. They also come in a range of colours so I don’t get confused. I used them in my travels around China and they were great at eliminating the stress of packing and unpacking and not being able to find things.
I have an Osprey Farpoint 55 backpack. I bought it here in Dublin before my last trip to Hong Kong. I researched all the available medium size travel packs and this one stood out. It really is an intelligent design (note the use of lowercase here, in case you’re wondering). Its creators really thought about the function of a travel backpack and designed an excellent product. I used it travelling around China and although I was packing more stuff than I needed, it was quite manageable. I often saw people struggling with cheaper and badly designed packs and was glad that I spent the extra money in getting this one. A huge bonus is the detachable backpack. I can leave the pack locked away at a train station or hotel and have my valuables in the daypack. It too is very well designed and perfect for what I will need it for. It’s also possible to clip it to the front of the pack so it hangs down in front of my chest. This is useful to help distribute and balance out weight if the pack is heavy. All in all, a very good purchase and will eliminate a lot of stress and make my journey a lot more gentle on the amygdala…
This is the end, my friends
That’s about it, possums. I’ll be working Mon to Wed winding down my business and making sure my rooms are presentable for the counsellors who will rent them during my absence. I have painters in this weekend to freshen up the rooms and to install secondary glazing. I also have a meeting with my accountant on Wednesday to finalise 2016 accounts so Revenue don’t chuck me into a damp dank debtors prison on my return from the East.
I’ll just chill and do nothing on Thursday except prepare for my departure the next day and tidy up the flat so it is welcoming for my return.
And then, next morning at 7am, turn off the electrics and water and close my hall door. Clunk.