Since returning from my journey to Japan earlier in the year I have been trying to decide upon my next adventure. To help me with planning I have a large National Geographic map on the wall in expedition HQ – the 1959 version – “Asia and adjacent areas”. This keeps me on my toes, as so much of the world looks quite different today!
Thanks to the huge amount of information online I have been able to save a lot of time this year and compress my planning cycle, so here I am in April for and for the first time I think I now have the initial plan for my trip in December. I have learned to focus on the hardest countries and routes first – so that if I have to move on to an alternative route I waste a lot less time on the easier sectors of such a journey.
By far the biggest prize to me in long distance rail adventure is the Central Asian route through Turkey, Iran and on into Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and finishing somewhere like Xian in China – The Silk Road, or to me the “Silk Railway”..
This route remains quite challenging to the long distance rail adventurer. Whilst the political climate in Iran may be warming, if you have a British passport it still seems very hard to get the required local agent to gain a visa at the moment. You even need to visit Frankfurt personally to get to the embassy to issue it once you are sponsored..! The trains across the Stans seem to never properly link up, and only depart once a week and on randomly varying days (depending on if it is on odd day or an even day, or if there is an “R’ in the month). I exaggerate a little, but it is tricky if you want to have an itinerary that keeps you moving and you don’t have a people on the ground helping you. I continue to read mixed reports of the current levels of bribery and corruption in certain places on the route. Also the situation in Xinjiang also remains delicate, and the advice (and risk) seems to change quite frequently.
So sadly, once again, I have decided to shelve this journey for the time being and I have been looking for something new. Last week I was staring out of the window towards the (still snow capped) hills near my home, and it came in a moment of inspiration – Tibet! So I’m now in full steam ahead planning. I have two main options, a route south of Russia through Kazakhstan and into China where I can pick up the train to Lhasa at Xining, or a more northerly journey on the Trans-Manchurian route to Beijing, and then back west to Tibet. I favour the longer northern route as I have never been on the Trans-Manchurian and have to be honest in saying that I love Russian trains! It would be my first time over the Russian border with China (rather then Mongolia) and on to Harbin. Sadly no time to stop in Harbin for its famous ice festival as I need to get to Lhasa before the closed season where permits are not issued for a month or two..
So I now have some dates in a trip diary and I’m waiting to hear back from Moscow and Beijing about how this might work in practice. The two biggest problems are getting the Xining – Lhasa rail ticket (apparently it is in very high demand, but hopefully not in winter) and more importantly getting a permit to visit Tibet in addition to the normal visa. Neither should be insurmountable, so I’m really hopeful this will all become possible with help from my Russian and Chinese contacts.
It feels really good to have a new adventure on the horizon – I seem to have immediate purpose and excitement that didn’t exist before..