November 27, 2015

The Story So Far…

First of all, welcome to you if you are a new visitor to my blog and have found my website from great places like Wanderlust, Seat 61 and Real Russia. It’s great to have you here.

I’m now in the final phase of preparation for my latest challenge. This post is a bit of a recap on my plan, just in case you might not have read some of my earlier posts. In a couple of weeks I shall be heading east again – this time with a destination of Hong Kong. But there is a twist. I’m going to take the Trans-Manchurian route across Siberia, and then the Qinghai – Tibet railway to Lhasa, before crossing back again across China towards my final destination. My trains will be mainly be the slow and old fashioned variety, and I have a arranged a few “weird weekends” along the way, so I should have some interesting experiences to share.

If you have read my blog before, you might wonder why I’m not taking the “Silk Route” across Central Asia this year. After all, I have already made three Trans-Siberian crossings. I must love Siberia! The Silk Route was certainly my original objective for this year, but sadly I have had to shelve it once again for logistical reasons. Whilst the situation for visitors to Iran is getting progressively better, the visa rules are still very hard to meet for the solo British traveller – especially coming over by train from Turkey. The situation in Turkey itself is unfortunately getting worse, with the Trans-Asia Express now cancelled, apparently owing to security concerns. In Europe, the line into Turkey is currently dug up with engineering works coming in from both Sofia and Bucharest. For me, arriving in Istanbul by bus just isn’t an option. On the other side of the route, the ‘Stans remain workable, but some of the connections still need a lot of patience, and security isn’t brilliant in a couple of places. So I am going to wait until things hopefully get more a bit more straightened out. I think there will always be some sort of problem on this route, so when most of it next “lines up” I shall just go for it.

Source: National Geographic (1956)

Back in July I regrouped at expedition HQ and consulted the huge National Geographical map on the wall in my study – “Asia and Adjacent Areas” (the 1956 edition – it keeps me on my toes!) – this gave me the idea for a different route. There was another possibility – to cross Siberia again, into China via Manchuria and then to get up onto the high ground from the Chinese side. The Qinghai-Tibet railway is a marvel of modern engineering, and I immediately realised Lhasa would be a great objective. Then it is all downhill from there (literally) as I head for the finish line in Hong Kong. Given this will be my fourth crossing of Siberia, I have decided to take the much lesser known Trans-Manchurian route, which bypasses Mongolia, heads for Harbin and crosses directly into China at a place called Manzhouli. The history of this line is quite interesting with all sorts of construction problems including crossing the Greater Khingan Mountains, bandit troubles, and an outbreak of the plague. More of this in future posts.

So that’s the cunning plan – the route is just over 20000 km, with the usual Siberian winter challenges and also a climb to over 5000 m at the Tanggula Pass on the way to Lhasa. In more detail, the route looks like this:

  • Edinburgh – Newcastle – Amsterdam – using the DFDS ferry crossing (to Imjuden)
  • Amsterdam – Berlin – on the IC 147 train
  • Berlin – Warsaw – on the EC 43 train
  • Warsaw – Moscow – on the new Russian version of the D10SZ train
  • Moscow – Irkutsk – Harbin – Beijing – on the “Vostok” 020 train
  • Beijing – Xian – Xining – Lhasa – on the Z21 train
  • Lhasa – Xining – Xian – Guangzhou – on the Z266 train
  • Guangzhou – Hung Hom (Hong Kong) – on the Z823 train

I’m taking day trains as far as Warsaw this year. It will make a change to see some places in the daylight, and also to enjoy a stopover in Berlin. The D10 has been moved to an evening departure with the new winter timetable – I understand it to be a new train, so that’s a bonus. My intel on the “Vostok” is a little limited, but I’m hopeful it will turn out to be a very reasonable train. As for China, its going to be interesting. I have no real expectations of the specially built carriages for the high altitude legs. I’m just happy to have a ticket on these sectors, as I hear by reputation that they can be really hard to come by. For this I have Real Russia to thank once again.

There is not too much left to organise now. My bags are pretty much packed and I’m just busy printing out several copies of all the red tape at HQ, whilst drinking a lot of tea. All my permits and visas have now been issued, and I have tickets as far as my forward operating base in Beijing. One of my little travel pleasures is having paperwork that is fully “in order”. This normally smooths the red tape at border crossings. So I have a bulging folder with everything sorted in chronological order and printed in duplicate. My mobile office will be a couple of kilos lighter when I shift some of this paperwork into the hands of enthusiastic officials. I have also started popping vitamin pills and taking more exercise. Some last minute guilt that I should be fitter than I currently feel for what is ahead!

If you find this trip of interest you can follow it here on my blog – and also at Wanderlust. If you would like to stay in touch, please do connect with me via the links above. There are sections of this journey where I will have no connection to the outside world, and also places where blogging is not easy. I always publish notifications of progress and updates and new posts on my social media.

My next post will probably be from the North Sea!

8 Comments on “The Story So Far…

Jon Connorton
November 28, 2015 at 8:57 pm

I've enjoyed reading all your previous journeys, and am really looking forwards to hearing what Tibet is like. Good luck!

Matthew Woodward
November 29, 2015 at 11:04 am

Thanks Jon. Good to have you here!

November 29, 2015 at 8:49 am

Hi Matthew, I discovered your blog on Wanderlust. Your trip to come and past trips sound absolutely wonderful. I am green with envy! Seriously, I have the TBE on my bucket list and intend to do Porto to HCMC. The Silk Route would be wonderful by train/bus but as you say stability often gets in the way. I had to postpone Istanbul to Syria twice before finally making it in 2009. I think I need a career change like you! If you are interested in some train travel orientated reading for your trip, you could buy or download 'On the beaten track – travels in Eastern Europe' from Amazon. It's written by me and I think you would like it! Have a great trip and I look forward to reading about it. Will/Wilbur.

Matthew Woodward
November 29, 2015 at 11:06 am

Your trip sounds seriously good Will. I shall look up your book, it will help inspire me with my own writing and book from the first three trips.

December 9, 2015 at 12:46 pm

hi how long did the hong kong trip take and what was the cost return journey


Matthew Woodward
December 9, 2015 at 1:20 pm

Tom – this journey is one way and will take me about four weeks, but it would only take 2-3 weeks if I were going straight to Hong Kong, rather than via Lhasa first.

December 11, 2015 at 4:35 pm

Sounds a great trip. I did London to Sydney by train in 2012 (except the hop from Singapore to Darwin) & it was absolutely fantastic (book on Kindle, excuse the plug). Wish I hadnt omitted the Lhasa option. I found that all my blogs were blocked throughout China & down into Hanoi. I had to email them home for someone else to post. Hope you're going to be tweeting?

December 22, 2015 at 4:12 pm

Just come across you via Wanderlust. Wow! This trip sounds amazing…very much look forward to following your adventures. Have fun!


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