September 20, 2013

The Man in Bettplatz 42

The EN447 “Jan Kiepura” arrives on time at platform 5B, December 2012

Its been a productive week on trip planning. I have had confirmation that my first train ticket has actually been issued. It’s an auspicious sign of progress and adds some respectability to my otherwise still slightly ragged plan. The train in question is the EN447 that leaves daily from Amsterdam on its journey around Western Europe towards Warsaw. The really odd thing is that I seem to have been issued a ticket in exactly the same compartment and berth as I had on this very same train last year. What are the chances of that?! I’ll take it as a good sign and move on.

I had a slightly depressing experience booking the ferry crossing this week – I’m going to use the DFDS run again – from Newcastle (North Shields) to Imjuden (for Amsterdam). No major drama, but finding out my cabin allocation was like getting blood out of a stone, which is a shame when the ship is so good. On this boat there is quite a party going on, and you need to get a cabin in a galaxy far, far, away from the bar. After booking online I was at first told that they didn’t allocate cabins until the day before sailing, but would I like to pay a £23 booking amendment to find out my cabin number? Somewhat mysteriously I then found out my cabin number from another source, so it all seems a bit of a ruse to make money unless I’m missing the point.. I went for a Commodore Deluxe cabin in the end, which looks quite nice, and I will let you see what it looks like once I head East.

I’m pleased to report that my hotels are now pretty much sorted. The challenge with most of them is that the fixed prepaid rates are always so much cheaper – but of course the gamble is that I don’t know if I will arrive on schedule in every port of call. It’s interesting to see the different reactions you get from hotels and how obliging some can be when they learn about your journey. I must have booked about 20 hotels for this trip and my top three in terms of “long distance service” would be The Caravelle in Saigon, the Fairmont in Singapore and the Borie Ankor Resort in Siam Reap. You have probably not heard of the latter one, but it seems to be a bit of a gem – they even took it on themselves to work out when my bus would arrive and told me they were sending someone to the bus station to meet me. These touches mean quite a lot when arriving in places that you don’t know.

Some new problems emerged this week with the train from Beijing to Hanoi. Apparently from December 2013 you can’t buy a train ticket in China without showing both your passport and your visa(s) – last year just photocopy of my passport was needed to get a ticket to Shanghai. To work around this the visa team at Real Russia are going to get my Vietnamese and Chinese visas done first – hopefully in enough time to get this train ticket as soon as it goes on sale in China. Last year I thought there was a “Catch 22” here – you can’t get a visa without proof of tickets to leave China, but you can’t buy train tickets without a visa in the first place. The truth is actually that for a 30 day tourist visa you don’t have to show your exit tickets – but some visa agents seem to say that you do.. I have completed all the visa applications now (apart from my Cambodian E-visa). The set up at Real Russia means that if you have applied for that particular visa before, it pre-populates the form with most of the information. This saved me half a day in completing visas for Belarus, Russia, Mongolia and China that I had applied for in 2012. South East Asian visas much simpler to complete and more flexible with their dates – my Vietnamese visa, for example, has no entry dates, just an open 30 day validity from arrival. On other matters there is a healthy pile of kit growing in my study. I’m going to have to be careful I don’t fall into the trap of last year and decide to actually pack it all though! More news next week.

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