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Formulating a travel plan on the Trans-Siberian Railway

Updated on November 3, 2014

The Grown-ups Gap Year

From September 2005 until September 2006, My partner, Sheila, and I went on one of those extended holidays for adults that have become known as the “Grown-ups’ Gap Year”. In our case, it was return to my hometown of Sydney, that I had left 20 years earlier. The bulk of our stay, 7 months, was spent driving around the continent (including Tasmania) in a campervan. As you can imagine, it was a challenging adventure in which we experienced monsoon rains, a cyclone, outback floods, searing heat, and ultimately, a catastrophic breakdown in the desert. Despite the hardships and the scary moments, it was a great trip, an adventure we’ll never forget. In fact, you can read all about it right here in Hubpages (or just read the odd bit if the thought of wading through 55 chapters of someone else's holiday is a bit overwhelming).

The inspiration

The Citadel at Hue, Vietnam
The Citadel at Hue, Vietnam
on the night train to Saigon, 2006
on the night train to Saigon, 2006


But driving around Oz in a dodgy truck wasn’t enough of a challenge (or lesson learned) for us. Before we eventually returned to England, we flew to Bangkok and ended our Gap Year with 7 weeks of make it up as you go backpacking around four Southeast Asian countries – Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Our Asian travels were fabulous but they had a curious effect on us. They exposed us to the Travel Bug, and consequently we have spent the past five years scratching the itch of our next big adventure. In fact, it was during our last two lazy weeks on a beach on Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand, that we were asking ourselves the question - “What can we do next time?

Under the swaying palms, with the aroma of Massaman curry and Thai seafood barbeque wafting through our overloaded senses, we came up with an idea based on something we experienced earlier in the South East Asia trip, during the 10 days we spent in Vietnam...

The Inspirational route

Hue, Thua Thien-Hue, Vietnam

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'The Night Train to Saigon' - Hue to Ho Chi Minh City, an inspiring journey.

Ho Chi Mihn City:
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, carries great historical resonance, especially for our generation - but what a busy, cool place it is now.

It's only a plan

...We had travelled south by sleeper train from the Imperial City of Hue, in the middle of the country, to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. “The Night Train to Saigon” was a memorable experience in many ways, none more so than by the idea it inspired. “Wouldn’t it be cool if next time, we could to travel back to Australia by train.”

Now, obviously there are no train lines between Australia and the rest of the world, so some of the journey would have to be by plane… or boat. But fundamentally, the idea of travelling from England to Australia, in this day and age, without flying is a pretty interesting plan I reckon, if not a little ambitious…

...So, five years later, after much talk, procrastination, research and planning, that’s what we are about to do – Sydney is our goal, and trains, boats and buses will be our primary methods of transport. We will try not to fly, though of course we will if we have to, without feeling like we've let ourselves down. After all, it's only a plan.

It's all in the planning
It's all in the planning

Idea > Plan > Action

Last year we bought a large world map to plot our route and we have scoured the internet for information and ideas. Most importantly, we have worked and saved to finance the journey. It is the sort of trip that wouldn’t be possible for everyone, but our kids are grown up; we are renting our house in Norwich and as we are, for all intents and purposes, semi-retired, our time-limit to achieve this goal is not really a problem. Plus, I have the added advantage of Australian citizenship which means we have a “home” at either end of the journey.

I don’t think we would have even contemplated this tour if we hadn’t made that trip around South East Asia in 2006. That was the training run, where we learned to live in countries foreign to us; where we gained some skills in the art of backpacking and budget travelling, and where we realised that this kind of travel was something we wanted to do a lot more of.

Now, our trip is looming large before us. Our departure date is Thursday 11th August at 10.30am. At that time, our train will leave Norwich Station and clatter south through Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex to Liverpool Street in East London. That will be the first of many train journeys we will make over the coming year. Our itinerary for the first month away will be: London – Brussels – Cologne – Warsaw – Moscow – Tomsk – Irkutsk – Ulan Bataar – Beijing. From there, we will more or less make it up as we go.

Looking at it from here, it’s one hell of a plan and we can’t quite believe that we are about to put it into action.

Our route...

Norwich UK:
Norwich, Norfolk, UK

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Home 1: Norwich. We start from here

City of London, UK

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Just a short hop.

Brussels, Belgium:
City of Brussels, Belgium

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First stop on the Continent. Change Trains here.

Cologne, Germany:
Cologne, Germany

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First night stopover in Koln.

Warsaw, Poland:
Warsaw, Poland

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Getting further away from our comfort zone.

Moscow, город Москва, Russia

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We will be well and truly riding the rails by the time we reach here and it's still the beginning.

Ulan bator:
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

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We can only imagine ourselves this far from home.

Beijing, China

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This will be the end of an epic rail journey and the beginning of Part 2 of the trip to Oz.

How we planned it.

Lists - we write lists anyway, planning this trip has spawned a list explosion. Hint: Write down everything as you think of it and cross it off as you do it, then chuck the list away. Then write a new list and repeat until departure.

Map - As in any journey, you gotta look at the map to know where you are going. In our case we are travelling from western Europe to eastern Asia, by train. The map helps us plan and study the route. Hint: Either pin your map to the wall or do what we are doing - leave it out on the table, like a proudly completed jigsaw puzzle or a trendy coffee stained tablecloth.

Travel Guides - We are using Lonely Planet for Russia, The Trans-Siberian Railway and South East Asia, and The Rough Guide to China and also our old Rough Guide to South East Asia edition from 2005. Difference between the two - I think LP has more detail and information, whereas the RG is more evocative in its description but with less "how to info". They actually work well together. Hint: Get a Kindle to take on the trip, then you can carry as many travel guide ebooks as you like.

Countdown -10 days to go

1st August 2011

The tension is ratcheting up in the strangest of ways. The approaching journey is now dominating all our thoughts, even when we're asleep. It's a 24hr adrenalin rush. Our world map has been trodden and creased. The Lonely Planets and Rough Guides are dog-earred and tired. And our old iBook is smokin'. Our Broadband connection has paid for itself a hundredfold, mainly in savings made on the many return trips to London that we would have had to make to secure visas to four exotic countries, not to mention all the bespoke train bookings we have did we do this sort of thing before email?

The tension comes not just from thinking about and planning for the actual trip, but also from the thought that we are leaving behind our cosy, secure nest, our friends, family and total comfort zone. This generates strong emotions for both of us. During our previous Gap Year Sheila took a leave of absence, but his time there is no job to come back to as she has effectively retired. Likewise, I have wound up my various income streams and my band played its final gig last Friday night. Even our old car is about to be signed off the road and stored in a barn up on a remote farm (so we can have transport when we return). But this shedding of 'things' is the price we must pay to do something like this. The old familiar, bourgeoise routine is gone, long live the travelling life.

Man in Seat 61

Man in Seat 61 - Mark Smith's book is the bible of international rail travel. Well, actually the book is just a simple sermon compared to the Website. This is where we really began our planning in earnest. The website tells you everything you need to know about taking trains, including timetables, prices and handy hints. Speaking of which... Hint: Figure out your route on the map first then look at the website to see if it's doable.

The Bible of Train Travel in Europe and Beyond

Real Russia - The Man in Seat 61 introduced us to Real, a London-based specialist in the Trans-Siberian experience. After first contact by email, Sheila soon developed a good relationship with the girls at RR. They took over the Train bookings and Visas for the entire Moscow to Beijing journey which is known as the Trans-Mongolian. This isn't as straightforward as it might seem, as different international criteria determines when certain things can be booked, for example tickets can't be purchased too far in advance and visas to some countries must be used within a certain time limit, or something like that.... who knows? Real Russia sorted it out for us. Last week we received our tickets and itineraries, and this week our passports returned with visas to Belarus, Russia, Mongolia and China. Hint: Get Real Russia to do it.

The Internet Experience - To think, It started with a Map and a Guide Book, but since then, all our research, arrangements and bookings have been made via the internet. Sheila has quadrupled her screen time since this project began, but the more she uses the net, the better she gets at it. Once the rail tickets and Visa applications were underway, She began booking the first part of journey, from Norwich to Moscow. It's not a case of waltzing up to the ticket booth and asking for two singles to Moscow please. Just getting from Norwich to London by rail can be an adventure at times. Using patience, cunning and price competitive websites, she managed to piece together a sequence of journeys - Norwich to London to Brussels to Cologne thence Warsaw and across Belarus to Moscow. Hint: Find yourself a Sheila and get her to do it, otherwise be prepared to spend considerable time trawling through the net.

How to get between Russia and China...

Useful websites:

This is the place to go if you like trains and want to travel on them

The Experts at Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian Train Travel

A great resource for finding and pre-booking budget accommodation

ipad - for the truly modern traveller

Will our experience be like this? Hope not!

Wait and see...

This Hub is a basic account of how we went about setting up the first part of this adventure - the UK to Beijing. The real test of our organisational skills will become evident as the journey progresses. Until then, it looks good on paper to me. Now, the hardest part of the whole experience... packing!


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    • saltymick profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Pia, I read and bookmarked your article, fantastic. Thanks for the tips and the encouragement which we are desperate for at the very beginning of our own adventure.

    • PiaC profile image


      7 years ago from Oakland, CA

      Hi SaltyMick: No its called the Shuyuan International Youth Hostel, Xi'an ($18.50 for a private room, with attached bath)

      In general, we found the hostels runs by hosteling international (HI) extremely well-run all over the world, but especially in China.

      I've written more about this here:

    • saltymick profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Hi Pia, we have three month visas for China and Xian is definitely on the proposed agenda, and thanks for the Hostel tip (is it called the "Hi" hostel), cheers.

    • PiaC profile image


      7 years ago from Oakland, CA

      Saltymick: Very true! BTW, I'm not sure how long you are planning on staying in China, but if you can do visit Xian. It was lovely. The HI hostel near the ancient gate is absolutely wonderful!

    • saltymick profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks for your good wishes Pia. All you say is so true, the only thing I would add is the bit about the future. Once you have experienced the freedom and spiritual awakening of long term travel, you can't help thinking about "next time".

    • PiaC profile image


      7 years ago from Oakland, CA

      My husband and I did something similar to this from 2009 to 2010. Like you, we left our cosy, secure homes, put all our things in storage, left our jobs and went traveling. While it was nerve-racking, it really taught us to live in the moment, trust the universe, be kind to others, and enjoy the present without thinking too much about the future. Good luck for your adventure, and I look forward to reading your accounts here.


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