November 29, 2013

Final Preparations

Downtown Pyongyang. Source: TripAdvisor

I had a bit of a quiet day on the work front yesterday, so some time to get myself into blogging traveller mode. I’m really quite new to blogging, and like not just the way I can diarise and share my journeys, but also interact with others who have similar interests.

I have found inspiration for this trip in a few great places. Of course, as always, Mark at Seat Sixty-One. He has given me the confidence to plan the parts of the route I did not know much about – especially the crossing from China into Vietnam and from Cambodia into Thailand. But then I started to take on board the richness of other people’s blogs and their own unique experiences of long distance overland travel. I have started to keep a link to some of these (below right) – all are people who have travelled on parts of my journey (and elsewhere) and provide real insight into the places, the people, and of course the trains.

The one I was fascinated to read yesterday was by Helmut in Austria – The Forbidden Railway. His site has a variety of journeys which could be a shopping list of the most amazing routes you could ever imagine. The one that got me going though was his trip from the Trans-Sib down into North Korea. I had not realised it was possible, but after some reading and investigation – it is, and I wonder if a version of this could be my next trip. (Note – there is more than one route, but the main Beijing – Pyongyang service seems to be the most “approved” and therefore, straightforward. Seat Sixty-One will give you the lowdown on the practicalities).

I had an email last week from Ian at Tropical Expat – his blog is full of Asian trips with loads of detail and ideas. Hopefully we will meet to compare notes (and for a curry) in Penang in January. I’m looking forward to that, as he is living the dream of life in the East, having sold his home in London.

The Rakyat Express. Source:

Back at Toad’s Travel HQ this week, I tried to book the Malaysian part of my journey on the KTMB website – amazingly the prospect of an e-ticket – the only one on the whole journey. After a promising start registering, it would not let me have a ticket for my travel dates – at first I thought it was a compatibility glitch with my Mac, but I now think it was because they had not released dates in line with their ticketing from 60 days prior to travel date. Anyway, the positive conclusion to this was that I used a company called International Rail (in London) who seem to know their onions and had a local agent who could get the tickets as soon as they became available. I suspect that some readers will raise their eyebrows and mumble about using agents and paying their commissions. My view is I am very happy to pay for a service, and the service here was great – a £10 booking fee (for tickets costing less than £100), and I had the e-ticket in just a couple of days. I also didn’t have to worry about long distance credit card security, something that does concern me. So using the intel on Seat Sixty-One I have bought a ticket in air conditioned first class (Premier) on the Rakyat Express – a 14 hour journey from Butterworth to Singapore. My seat is 4A – a single row, I think in the middle of the carriage. It is this sort of booking precision – with things like seats – that makes all the difference to me. Real Russia were the same – they managed to get me the exact seats I requested on the Amsterdam-Warsaw-Moscow-Beijing trains (where I could spot the better carriages on VagonWeb). I’m going to have a bit of deja-vu on the Trans-Sib as I am actually in the very same compartment in the same carriage as my last trip. Just as well I didn’t trash it last time!

I decided not to chance it with any last minute Cambodian bus bookings, so a lovely lady called “Vi” at my hotel in Saigon has arranged them for me. I’m going with Mekong Express who seem to get the best write ups – (there is another operator that looks good – Giant Ibis – but they don’t seem to operate the whole route I need). The only problem I had was that the security certificates on the Mekong Express website don’t allow me to book online – hence needing the help of a good hotel concierge.

In other news, it’s official. I am now fully packed. I have not done the 300 meters “lift and carry” test yet though – I suspect I have about 35kg of stuff across two bags (both on wheels). I have now ruled out the possibility of a smaller case. My problem is that the temperature difference from cold to hot is going to be about 65 degrees – from the -30 C’s in Siberia to the +30 C’s south of HCMC. That means ushanka, boots, down jacket and lots of gloves and scarves are needed, but as well as diving gear, and tropical lightweights.. and I need somewhere to put them.

How much luggage is too much!?

I haven’t been in the best of health for the last few weeks, and without boring you with my medical problems, its made me think very hard about how to be prepared to be on a train in the middle of nowhere without the possibility of seeing a doctor for hours (or days). So my medical kit has had to expand from a pouch into a chest that is stored in my suitcase. There are some practical considerations here.

Firstly is the availability of what you might need in other countries. Sometimes a drug that is available over the counter in one country is not to be found in another – or only be available from a hospital. So beyond the basic first aid kit I will be taking a 45 day supply of some medicines. I’m not going to list them here, but its a big pile of stuff, but at least it will get smaller as I take them..

Secondly is the legality of bringing these medicines into some countries. If you don’t know, you might be surprised to find that some UK pharmacy products are banned substances in certain countries. All I have read suggests (generally) that if you have been prescribed the medication, and have a copy of the prescription (or a Doctor’s letter), then you will be fine. So I have got prescriptions for everything (to be ultra safe, even some things that I could buy over the counter) and added to my supplies the following –

– copies of all prescriptions
– British Airways travel clinic passport (looks very official, but just notes on various jabs)
– a schedule of prescribed medications, produced by me, but looking very official
– a detailed travel itinerary (evidence of the need for a 45 day quantity)
– a wikipedia type page for medical conditions (this would ideally be translated)

I understand that the quantity of medicine can also be an issue, as some people sell their prescribed medications on the black market. I feel the above documents provide a complete medical justification, should I get questioned by Customs. Fingers crossed that my papers will be in order.

I had a look at the weather for the route yesterday. Things are not looking as chilly as the same time last year, but I suspect the temperatures will plummet over the next couple of weeks..

I think that is all for now. Thanks for visiting and I hope this was of interest.

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