I consulted the world weather map in my Daily Telegraph over some tea and toast this morning at expedition HQ. I can see that the forecast temperature in Moscow tonight will be -2C. Freezing already and it is only mid October. This is a sure sign that winter is now approaching and it is also a reminder that I must press on with the final stages of my preparation – equipment, visas and tickets.
(As far as I’m concerned the colder Moscow is in the winter the better. In the past I have experienced the city in the -20’s and also at only just below freezing. As long as you wrap up the cold is not an issue, but if it is only closer to freezing it can be really treacherous as the platforms and pavements become sheets of black ice).
The visa situation is well in hand as I actually managed to get my visa for the Russian Federation issued a couple of months ago. The new fingerprint system proved to be no problem, as I was able to use the consulate office here at my home in Edinburgh. If you have never applied for a Russian visa before, it is an impressive piece of paperwork and there are many strange questions, some probably originating from the cold war. The hardest part for me is to record every trip to every country that I have made over the past ten years. In practical terms that really means that I need to account for every stamp and visa that I have in my current and quite full passport. You also still need an invitation document, easier to get if you are using a Russian agent for other aspects of your arrangements.
So now I’m just needing visas for Belarus (transit) and China (tourist). No Mongolian visa is needed this trip as I’m bound again for Russian Far East and the Trans-Manchurian connection with the Chinese border at place called Manzhouli. I’m using my agent (Real Russia) to get these, and as usual they have proved to be brilliant at coming up with answers to questions with all the paperwork. It is a real weight off my mind and allows me to focus on the other arrangements.
On the subject of the Trans-Manchurian route, I loved reading the headline in the Lonely Planet guidebook on the Trans-Siberian:
“For connoisseurs of obscure rail routes, the Trans-Manchurian Railway ranks high on the wish list. It is not on the main line to Vladivostok, nor does it take the tourist route via Mongolia; rather the weekly Vostok (19/20) chugs through China’s rust belt, where foreign faces are few and far between.”
It feels to me a bit like Douglas Adams and his brilliant Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describing Planet Earth “mostly harmless”..
The kit has been piling up in my study for some time and I now it is time to see if I can fit it all into my new “smaller” bags. I shall post a picture of this in case it helps with your Trans-Siberian packing. I’m pleased with my new “less is more” approach as I will be far more mobile than on past trips.. and I hope more likely to fit into some busy Chinese long distance sleeper trains.
Tickets are always a bit of an issue at this time of the year. Although I will be travelling during a relatively quiet period (in Siberian terms), the new winter timetable comes into effect at the start of my journey, and this normally delays trains coming onto the booking system in Western Europe. I think the Russian train can be booked 60 days in advance, and the Chinese trains are now 30 days in advance (until relatively recently this used to be just 12 days) – so I have a bit of waiting until I know that everything is in order. The plan is that I get as far as Beijing on tickets passed to me in the UK, and then get a courier delivery with the rest taking me as far as Hong Kong. I shall then regroup in Bangkok before my death railway trip.
I had an email from my good friend Taegeun earlier in the week. You can see him (centre) in the photo at the top of this post, together with myself and Alex (a Romanian coffee trader) . It was taken early one evening on the platform at Irkutsk. One of the great memories of my rail journeys has been the huge diversity of brilliant people that I have been fortunate to meet. I met Taegeun on the journey from Moscow to Vladivostok last year. We then took the ship together to South Korea. I shall never forget his tolerance and calmness, even under some duress. He was travelling in third class on the Trans-Sib, and had a friendly but adhesive group of Russian and Ukrainian vodka drinking carriage mates. There are 64 people in an open plan “plaskart” carriage! Thanks to Taegeun’s help and generosity I got to see the sun rise on New year’s Day from a crazy resort hotel built like a ship near Donghae. You can read more about that particular adventure here.
Television presenter Chris Tarrant has a new series on Channel 5 here in the UK called “Extreme Rail Journeys”. Whilst I’m not a massive fan of his slightly instructive style of covering the history, the series is very watchable. In the first episode he has taken the journey that I will in January – up to the River Kwai and Nam Tok. I wrote about this here. I’m looking forward to see how he covers the Trans-Siberian railway in a couple of weeks time.