“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey that matters” TS. Elliot is credited with this quote along with countless others who have tried to justify a twenty hour bus journey so they could save $10 on a flight.
I normally fall into the category of those who spend a little money to save a lot of time. This one was different though. Before I traveled to Asia, the idea of a ten hour drive seemed like torture, especially when you think that the furthest you can drive from Dublin is about four hours. This all changed however and overnight buses and trains didn’t seem too bad, especially when you’re trying to stick to a backpackers budget. Considering I have never had trouble falling asleep on things like planes, buses, cars or dancefloors, I was happy enough to take an overnight bus and arrive bright and early in a new town.
Why would you travel 10,000km on a train instead of flying?
Fast-forward two years and my time in Australia was coming to an end. I decided I would head back to Asia to see some places I had missed on my last visit. It was while I was researching different countries that the idea of taking the Trans-Siberian Rail from China to Russia occurred to me. I had met a few people who had taken the journey in the opposite direction and they said it was such an amazing experience that I knew I couldn’t refuse the opportunity. I figured I would never fly to China just to get a train back again, I was travelling in that direction anyway and I had the time, so why not?!
Booking through STA
A quick bit of online research showed up some differing results. There was plenty of blog posts and TripAdvisor forums about doing it solo but the general consensus seemed to be that the visa process for China, Mongolia and Russia was going to be tricky. It was then I decided that I would book it through a travel agency to save myself the heartache of doing it on my own. This brought me to the aptly named Vodkatrain website where everything I needed to know for booking the trip was available. As I would be travelling by myself, I figured a group trip would be an easy way to meet a few people to enjoy it with. Vodkatrain specifically cater for 18-35 year-olds which was perfect as I knew I would be with like-minded people. What made it even easier was the fact that they allow you to book through a travel agent, in my case STA Travel. This meant I could go to the local STA shop, speak to a travel agent who was able to clear up any questions I had, and anything he didn’t know there and then was answered within a day.
Visa’s and Train Tickets
The least fun part of booking a trip anywhere is the effort of applying for a visa, or in this case two visas (Irish passport holders don’t need a visa for Mongolia). This is where Vodkatrain became a lifesaver. For both China and Russia, visa applicants need a letter of invitation, visa application forms, address of the hotels you will be staying in and information about the train you will be travelling on. The thought of doing all of these things separately wasn’t very appealing to me at all. Vodkatrain provided all of the documents and information I needed to fill them out correctly, they even made it idiot proof by providing a template so you can’t fill it out wrong! Once all of the paperwork was done, the next stage was getting myself to China for the beginning of the trip as Vodkatrain don’t include flights to or from the start and end points (although they can organise this as an extra).
Because there was only six of us in the group, we were able to get to know each other really well from the beginning meaning there was never a feeling that you were in a big tour group with strangers. Part of the package included a “honcho” in each city we visited. These honcho’s were locals with excellent knowledge of their city and who spoke perfect English as well. They were waiting for us at each stop to bring us to our hotel and they acted as personal guides to tell us all of the best attractions and restaurants everywhere we went. They also had funny stories and tales about their city’s which helped make the experience even more interesting.
I suppose one of the most important parts of the journey is the train itself. Considering it is where you spend about seven days in total during the trip, you would hope it’s comfortable, and it is. Vodkatrain book second class sleeper carriages for all of their trips. This means you will be sharing a cabin with three other people. While it sounds a bit tight it’s nothing unusual, especially if you have stayed in a hostel before. Because there were six of us, it meant two people had to share with two locals on the train. This is because the train is still a public service and Vodkatrain don’t reserve an entire carriage for their guests. This proved to be one of the most interesting talking points though. Because many of the locals only got on for shorter sections, you got to meet a lot of new people. Some of them spoke no English at all, but they were still very friendly and offered us a lot of food and even some vodka!
The accommodation in each of our stopovers varied from a hotel in China, a traditional ger in Mongolia, a homestay in Irkutsk and finally, hostels in Moscow and St Petersburg. While none of these were five-star, they were all more than what we needed considering we were out exploring for most of the day.
While there was plenty of activities included in the trip, there was plenty of chances to get involved in some local activities as well. We visited the Great Wall of China, went horse riding in Mongolia, snow-mobile riding and husky sledding in Irkutsk, as well as visiting all of the famous sights in Moscow and St Petersburg.
Would I recommend it?
Absolutely! While the travel style may not be to everyone’s liking, the experience is amazing. Travelling through endless mile of Siberian forests, across the Gobi Desert and visiting some of the most famous sights in the world are some of the things you will get to do. You could stare out the window and the beauty of the landscape for hours, or head to the dining cart and drink vodka with Russian soldiers, whatever tickles your fancy. I chose the Ruski Huski package but there are plenty more to choose from to suit every time-frame and budget. Just check out Vodkatrain journies to see which one you would fancy.
As always, thanks for reading and be sure to check back later in the week when I go through a photographic journey on the Trans Siberian Railway.
Note: I am in no way affiliated to Vodkatrain and this piece is just my opinion based on my own experience.