It is now that time of the year when my thoughts turn to mad ideas about possible train journeys to places that I can hardly even find on a map.
I seem to manage to suppress such thoughts most of the time, consoling myself by thinking about a comfy trip on a plane to somewhere where the food is quite spicy. However, this time last year my mood seemed to change quite quickly from “I’ll never do that mad train thing again!” to “I wonder if can I go by train all the way to Singapore?” in only a few weeks. Reflection some time after a big trip can be a strange thing. My glasses seem to quickly become rose tinted, and I forget about what -30 feels like, the lack of sleep, the language barriers, the occasional rodents, the food and the endless red tape.
Things moved up a couple of gears last month when I got to meet some great reference points for my next adventure. The first was Ran Fiennes. I had the privilege to meet both Sir Ran Fiennes and the Hon Alexandra Shackleton (Sir Ernest Shackleton’s grand daughter) at the Royal Geographical Society for the launch of a new polar expedition. His thoughts have made me think about the role of “proper” adventure and to somewhat revise my travel priorities, and it doesn’t get much more inspirational.
The second was Robert Twigger, a long time personal favourite explorer and adventure writer, who I got to meet and chat to at the Edinburgh Book Festival.
He was promoting his new book “The Red Nile”, but I will always be most inspired by his jungle adventures in “Big Snake”.. not to mention the brilliant “Angry White Pyjamas” and “Lost Oasis” (see picture above).
Both were truly amazing people to meet, and both have made me think hard about what I want from my next trip. Drinking ice cold Tiger beer on a remote Asian beach certainly appeals, but where is the sense of adventure that comes from getting on a plane to get there? For me this has long gone, and I feel that I need something more meaningful to get excited about.
Having now completed two Trans-Siberian rail journeys (the last one on as far as Singapore), I have been thinking about some rail alternatives that might present a fresh challenge.
I keep a short list (together with a map) in the study that reads as follows:
– The Silk Route – Across Europe and Central Asia to Hong Kong – “A bit mad, is Urumqi safe?”
– London – Tokyo via Vladivostok “Vostok – good train, ferry to Japan and South Korea”
– London to Pyongyang via Beijing “Beijing route only. Need two guides and driver”
– The Indian Pacific – Perth to Sydney “Bit touristy but could combine with wine making adventures!”
The Indian Pacific is a pretty comfy journey and I’m happy to take that next time I’m “down under”. The “Vostok” train looks good, and there is a ferry service twice a week to South Korea and Japan from Vladivostok. But the route is quite similar to the Trans-Mong route that I have now already completed twice. The North Korean trip would need a lot of organising and the journey would also be the same as far as Beijing. When the Russian border with North Korea becomes possible for Westerners, it might make quite a good continuation of the “Vostok” (I understand that two carriages travel from Moscow all the way..)
Which leaves the Silk Route. Traditionally this would be via Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, but as I have mentioned here before, there is also now a train that travels from Moscow to Tashkent (Ukbekistan) and also one from Moscow to Almaty (Kasakhstan). This means that assuming the visa situation is favourable, you can travel over the Tibetan Plateau and on into China.
There are of course a few logistical problems with such a trip, but none are insurmountable. The trains look a bit mixed, there is reported to be some minor bribery and corruption problems in places, and one of the visas can be a bit problematic. Anyway, imagining what Ran Fiennes would think of this, I got straight on the case and started asking the people at Real Russia what they thought. The visa team suggested immediately that I find another route (!), but the rail people say it is actually all possible… they are even willing to sell me most of the tickets should I manage to get the visas.
I have been progressing matters at a steady pace for the last few weeks, but have hit an obstacle this week. I wanted to take the train from Moscow directly to Tashkent, then travel through Uzbekistan to Almaty in Kazakhstan. However its not easy to connect this train journey up. The train into Tashkent is twice a week, the train out of Almaty is twice per week, but the train between the two is only once per week. My agent suggested I hop on a plane and fly between the two, but I had to decline this. Not only is it against the spirit of my adventures, but it is probably not on an airline of choice. Out of interest I visited the Uzairways website to be greeted by a banner advertising the opportunity to buy some of their aircraft. A veritable haul of – Tupolev, Yakovlev and Illyushin planes, and all at a bargain price!
Some interesting reading on TripAdvisor!
So I’m waiting now to hear back on my options – then I have to make a decision. Should I forget about Tashkent and take a direct train to Alamty? Or find a long range bus solution? Or switch back to “Plan B” and head to Tokyo via Vladivostok?
I always quite liked the idea of a Central Asian trip – you see I have a chapter in mind for it in my book already – Its called “The Man who would be King”!
I’ll keep you posted..