Trains, Cakes and Planning

Quite a few people have asked me about how I planned the trip, with a lot of interest specifically in the Trans Siberian Express part of my travels.

Grab a brew (cuppa), a biscuit (or a slice of cake) and pull up a chair… I shall explain my approach to travel planning. Please note, some of you may be appalled by the rigour or the cavalier method of my groundwork – it depends where you place yourself on the organisational detail spectrum.

A spreadsheet was involved. Colour coding said spreadsheet also featured. Relevant (i.e. travel) adverts of Facebook also played a role. Sometimes, the algorithm works.

The first element I considered was money. I wanted to get a ballpark figure of what things were likely to cost, even before I started working out where I wanted to go. Fortunately, there are a lot of blogs on this subject – while the travel section of Waterstones is an intoxicating place, travel guides are rapidly heading out of date as soon as they are printed, especially in relation to currency.

Blogs and articles by people sharing detailed breakdowns of their costs were the most useful. The majority of these appeared to be written by (very helpful) American writers which meant I had an element of rough estimates in converting this to sterling. (And, as the UK heads towards Brexit, every time certain politicians open their mouths this trip gets more expensive).

Secondly, destination decisions to shape the actual trip. Having quit a very good job, I want to make the most of this year out and I like the idea of having a structure. (I interrailed around Scandinavia in my 20s and spent the time winging it – loved every minute of it but: been there, done that).

The destinations were shaped by the following questions:

  • What trips have I always wanted to do?
  • Which countries have I always wanted to visit? I began to realise that I am working my way through a travel essay I wrote for GCSE English.
  • Who had I been talking to who made good suggestions? There is a cast of thousands – friends who have travelled, friends who’ve had some amazing holidays, lived in fascinating places, watched bizarre documentaries and the pilot I had a coffee with in Reykjavik five years ago.
  • What would the weather be like? This was also important for planning the packing – some consistency in conditions was going to be helpful – I have no intention of taking a massive rucksack.
  • And finally, ooh, where was that treetop zipline gibbon safari thing that Facebook highlighted for me?

The number of countries grew and shrank (and grew again) as I honed my grasp of international geography and took advice from friends about potential routes.

The third element was transport… potentially the most expensive element of the trip. I initially thought I would book a Round The World (RTW) ticket but by this point it was clear I wasn’t planning a usual RTW trip – I’m going as far as New Zealand (via Russia and China) and then doubling back through Australia and Southeast Asia. I couldn’t find a ticket that offered this.

Then I discovered the Man in Seat 61. His website is dedicated to international train travel – more environmentally-friendly and often cheaper than flights. This completely changed my thinking especially when I discovered: “Oh, you can travel by train all the way from Manchester (UK) to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam.”

The first element of the trip that I booked was the Trans Siberian Express. I started with Seat 61 to explore possible routes, how to buy tickets, what the carriages were like. I then read a number of blogs about travelling on the Express and the itineraries that their authors had followed. Another excellent source of information is holiday companies – where do they take people on their dream excursions?

My route goes from Moscow to Beijing, through Mongolia, stopping at Vladimir, Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Irkustk, Ulan-ude and Ulaanbataar in September. Other routes are available, other towns exist, but I don’t have time to see everything. Limited time and money require a level of pragmatism.

The other excellent aspect of the Man in Seat 61 is that his website includes links to reputable booking agencies. While he encourages his readers to go for the full experience of booking their own tickets, I’m quite keen on making my life easier.

So I used the Real Russia Trans Siberian journey planner. It gives you three route options: Trans-Russian, Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian. Once you select one, the box below fills up with the towns that are along each route. You can select stops and how long you wish to spend in each place.

There is no hop-on-and-off ticket option: you’re buying a series of tickets.

That was pretty straight forward.

Next issue: visas. I’m travelling to Moscow by train, through Belarus, then through Russia, Mongolia and into China. So I need four visas. Am I reasonably intelligent? Yes. Am I reasonably capable of following instructuctions? Yes. Did I have time to do all of the… what’s the word… faffing required to organise collection and resending of my passport to get all four visas? No, I most certainly did not.

For UK citizens, the Mongolian and Belarus visas were straightforward, in terms of form filling. You can’t apply for the Belarus transit visa until the Russian visa is approved. For the Chinese and Russian, fingerprints are needed and the paperwork is fairly extensive, as well as requiring proof of accommodation and train bookings to verify that you will be where you claim you are going to be.

I booked accommodation through the Hostelworld website (before downloading the app to my phone, in the hope of future discounts) and

I’m not used to staying in hostels and Hostelworld is a great way to search. Many hostels also have private rooms so the newbie here can gently let myself get used to staying in hostels before graduating to bunks in dormitories… a lot of hostels don’t have private rooms. While the facilities information for each hostel is very helpful, the most useful sections are the photos and the reviews – especially to get a view of who the usual clientele are and whether this is a party hostel. I’m too grumpy for that and the photos quickly indicate whether that’s a risk. Confirmation via the reviews to be on the safe side and you can filter by age group and the categories include 41+. What do the other ‘grumpy old buggers’ think?

I’ve been using for years and I now have a certificate that says, not only am I a Genius but I am a Level 2 Genius. I look forward to using this on future job applications.

This ‘membership’/regular use does get me discounts – free breakfasts, cheaper prices and slightly bigger rooms. This comes in handy when I don’t like the hostel options: “Parties until 4am every night, you say? Hmmm. Lovely. Maybe not this time.”

The entire visa process took just over one month, mostly because the Russian Visa Centre takes 20 days to process (unless you pay to fast track); two trips to London to go to the Chinese and Russia Visa Application Centres to do the biometrics (fingerprinting). Yes, I could have gone to the Manchester Chinese Visa Application Centre but Real Russia is based in London and they were managing all four visas – the Mongolian one being processed after the Chinese one.

Was it worth paying a company to manage this process for me? I’ll let you know.

And the costs?

  • Belarus, Russia, Mongolia and China visas £535
  • Trans Siberian Express tickets £623
  • Accommodation (Moscow for five days plus along the route to Beijing) £275

This is much cheaper than I anticipated. It pays to be a pessimist. At some point I’m planning to post the costs of the trip. My spreadsheet includes some estimates of travel costs alongside actual fees paid.

  • Featured photo: The cake made for me by one of the amazing PAs where I (used to) work. This was presented to me on my last day in the office. I was overwhelmed by the kindness and well wishes of everyone. This is the point when the trip became real.
Categories: Preparation, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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