Now that I have done 5 legs out of 6 and completed my 30 days out of 74 days of travelling, I believe that I am eligible to write something about it. If you want to know what Trans- Siberia railways really is, the routes and what not then I suggest that you ask Mr. Google and do some reading. These are based on my experience and remember everybody has his or her own journey. If you feel like reading an SOP then pardon me for doing so. It’s just the technical writer in me doing the writing.
Research! Research! And more research!
Before I finalized my destinations, I did an extensive research on the attractions and the activities available at each location. Of course a few locations were selected on the basis of visiting my friends. But most of the locations were chosen for the museums that they have and the sceneries in winter. Lonely Planet’s Trans-Siberian Railways was the first book that I read. But after reading some forums, I found out that most of them have been reading Trans-Siberian Handbook by Trailblazer.
The three Trans-Siberian’s traveler whom I met along the journey read the book too and religiously followed the recommendations. They made their preparations and chose their locations based on what was written in it. I must say that it is more comprehensive compared to Lonely Planet’s edition. Based on the book’s recommendation, I brought my own tumbler and food container to be used on the trip. You can prepare your instant noodles, eat your cereals or make your own tea for there is hot water boiler in each coach. There is even a chapter on what you should wear when in the train. Thank god that I read the whole chapter for I had known what to expect on the train. Wearing pajamas on the train for 52hours train trip is nothing to write home about but be prepared to see men walking around in their boxer and normally those are drunken people. Some of the sights that I have seen along the train journey are not for the faint of heart. Consider yourself being warned.
It’s all about the money! Money! Money!
Trans-Siberia railways trip is not cheap. I paid 750-pound sterling for my tickets, which I bought from Real Russia. This company is excellent in providing suggestions and their service is superb. Buy your tickets early so you can get some discounts. Along the trip you will spend your money on some other things.
For this journey, I booked hostels that are in town center, has kitchen and laundry facilities. So far, most of the attractions that I visited are just a walking distance. A hostel in Kazan upgraded me to their hotel room next door for free since I was the only traveler at their hostel. I usually take taxis if I arrive at the stations too early in the morning or late at night. Most of them are booked through the hostel so I don’t have to negotiate the price and it is far more reasonable too.
As for me I always like museums, so 5 percent of my budgets for each country goes to museum fees. For example, the average entrance fee in Russia is around 100 to 250 rubles and additional 50 rubles for camera. Since I’m doing this on a shoestring budget, I am quite particular about my transportations budget hence the long walk around town and of course I try to set a budget for money spends on museum’s entrance fee.
Since Halal food is scarce, I turn on my vegetarian mode and get my protein from milk and cheese. I also brought some ‘serunding’ ,daging dendeng and ‘sambal ikan bilis’ from home. I try to plan my food supply based on locations and activities so I could save up on my money. Energy bar is great should you decide to spend some time at the museums or just walk around town for it is cheap and fast energy source. Rice could easily be found, so if you stay at the hostel with kitchen then just cook your meal. When I stayed in Irkutsk, I planned my menu and cooked my meals for a few days. I’m no Nigella Lawson but suffice to say I won’t end up starving and trust me when you’re travelling you’d suddenly become very creative and hyper at times. If I get too lazy, I’d just cook some rice and eat it with my Malaysia’s food supply. Or boil some spaghetti noodles and mix it with tuna in tomato sauce. Still lazy? Just call for food delivery. The keyword here is budget and not frugal.
Cold? Nah! It’s super chilly!
I’ve heard stories of the harsh Mongolian weather and dry Russian winter so I deduced that it’s nothing like the European winter that I have experienced before. Thus, I decided that it’d be wise to let my body slowly get used to the weather so I could enjoy the trip. And it works for my body that is. When I arrived in Beijing, it was already end of autumn so the temperature was somewhere around 2 °C to 0 °C. When I got to Ulaanbaatar, it snowed a bit and the temperature could easily drop to -5°C in a blink of an eye. I fell on my bum for the first time here, for I was still struggling to walk on icy pavements.
My body has already got used to the cold weather by now and I could walk around town with only 3 layers of clothing. On the night that I arrived in Yekaterinburg it was 0°C and I was surprised that it felt quite warm for my body and I ended up going to the supermarket only in my fleece jacket. Just imagine that when I arrived to the -2C in Mongolia, my teeth were chattering and I couldn’t feel my nose! All I could think of was that my toes would fall off! Now here I am in Moscow with -13°C with just 3 layers of clothing. Should you decide to do this trip in winter, I beg you to really understand how your body works. You wouldn’t want to be sick or feeling tired along the journey, would you? So decide on what season to travel based on your body and of course your pocket. If it’s deep enough then summer is definitely for you.
To exercise or not to exercise
I went to the gym before kicking off this journey for I was scared that I might be panting for air when I walk the distance. I would be lying if I say that the image of me crawling on the street alá Ju On to get to Kremlin in Kazan has never crossed my mind. It’s a big complex, mind you and the distance from my hostel is around 3 km up the hill. With the strong wind and heavy snow, it could easily take up to 30 minutes. So a little jog around the neighbourhood or some cardio routines before your trip won’t hurt your body. I had some routines before I started this trip so suffice to say that I could walk around town in the heaviness of my shirts while most of the time I look like a penguin. Suffice to say that I don’t have to hop on a cab just to get back to the hostel. What if you’re not fit and keep gasping for air even when walking to the pantry? Worst-case scenario: You might end up being towed away in an ambulance.
Do I look fat in these?
Clothing also plays a crucial role in my journey. They burnt quite a hole in my not-so-deep pocket. But after 30 days into my journey, I believe that it is worth every ringgit. I bought my jacket from a friend who ordered the wrong size from Amazon so I saved up a bit from this purchase. I got my thermal base layer from Columbia and they are superb. As for the pants, I bought additional fleece pants from Ulaanbaatar. I could easily wear it as a second layer or be worn on its own when I get on the train. The temperature in the train is usually between 20C to 24C so it would be best just to wear some t-shirt and pants like we usually put on in Malaysia. Or else you would end up sweating like a pig the whole way through.
If you decided to do your journey in winter, please make sure that at least your outer jacket and boots are waterproof. Heels are optional and Uniqlo’s thin jacket should be worn with layers. Melting icy pavement mixed with snow is just like the mud after rainfall in Kuala Lumpur. And letting your feet wet in this kind of temperature is like asking a vegetarian to eat chicken satay. It’s ok to ask the vegetarian to eat it but beware of the consequences. Either you end up with one black eye which is not as fun as Black Eyed peas or long lecture on the importance of being a vegetarian. And since I brought my DSLR with a few additional lenses, I put them in a waterproof bag for the walk in heavy snows. Love thy camera like thy love own life.
Before your trip, just learn a few phrases in local languages to make sure that you get a good service. Saying thank you or asking how are you in Russian will definitely take you far. My life on the train was quite easy when I, without fail asked the coach supervisor how he is in Mandarin. It’s the quickest way to win the local’s heart and it shows that you have full respects towards the country that you visit. If you’re going to stay for more than a week in a non-English speaking country, I suggest that you spend a few ringgits and get yourself the phrasebook. Nothing warms the cold Russian’s heart better than hearing you wish them good morning in Russian. It warms their body just like vodka, I should say. Besides, learning a new language is always a fun thing to do. Ask Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love. She’ll vouch for it.
Go, Gadget, go!
If you have a smartphone, then fully utilize it. It’s not only for Camera 360 or Candy Crush, people. In Mongolia and Russia, it is easy to get Wi-Fi connections at the cafes and even in the train stations. So if you are lost, then just step into any cafes with the Wi-Fi sign on its door and order yourself a cuppa. I use Google translate apps on my mobile phone and amazingly a few other Russians in the service industry used it too so they could offer a better service. I even used it to hold decent conversations with a few Russians. Not many cafes in Russia offer free Wi-Fi so make sure that you utilize the connections at the hostel before you step out.
Foursquare definitely is ace in finding the cheap cafes that the local frequents to and finding attractions near to your hostel or choosing the best museum to visit. Bear in mind that in each Trans-Siberia locations in Russia they have at least five museums. So, choose wisely!
Feel free to ask on the comment section or send me a snail mail. I will do my best to reply, I promise! Unless I get carried away at people watching then I would take some time to reply. Till the next update, here are some pictures from Yekaterinburg to Kazan taken while I was in the train. Enjois!