Interview with a Trans-Siberian traveller to Penang

Idly browsing my blog statistics one day – something I almost never do – I saw that someone had been referred to my blog from a blog called Toad’s Travel Adventures. I read “Wind in the Willows” when I was a kid, so I clicked on this, to discover the author was soon planning to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Beijing, and then catch the train through Vietnam and travel on to Singapore.  Well, I hope to do a similar trip,  have more or less done the train myself from Hanoi to Singapore,  and as he was stopping off in Penang on the way, we decided to get together. Meanwhile I read about his progress on his blog until he actually arrived in Penang. Here are his answers to my questions.

Matthew

Matthew

Matthew, a two times veteran of the Trans-Siberian Railway, talks about his two  trips.

Tell me about about your usual travelling style.

My normal travelling style would be much more luxurious I would say.  I’ve spent 20 years probably spending too much money on business class and enjoying nice lounges. But that doesn’t necessarily equal the experience I’m looking for. I’m not now trying to be a backpacker, but find some sort of middle ground that gives me some of life’s great memories without having to spend the sort of money I used to. It’s a much richer experience travelling by train. It is not about the luxury but more about the people you are with and the experiences.

I believe you did this trip before, but to Shanghai  last time – why are you doing it a second time?

I can now call it a dress rehearsal for the current one.  It was my first foray into solo train travel to places I hadn’t been to before. From Shanghai I hopped onto a plane down to Thailand and bumped into a couple of women from London on a cooking school who told me their journey, and I realised I hadn’t been adventurous enough. I realised I’d be able to go the whole way. After two months of thinking it was a mad journey I’d done, I realised how much I’d enjoyed it and I decided to stretch myself a bit more and do the whole mission. Even though it meant repeating the beginning of the journey – as far as Beijing – which takes 10 days to two weeks. The challenge this time was getting from Beijing down to Penang. The other thing is that generally land routes from Europe to Singapore have been quite difficult, but I realised that with the train it is possible to do it.

What was different about this overland trip to the last time?

To begin with I had more certainty of what was going to happen and that has advantages of allowing you to relax a bit. But the disadvantages are it’s not quite as impactful or meaningful. It’s been a much bigger stretch than the previous trip as it’s  longer and involved a considerable deal more planning from a red tape point of view and contact with a lot more local agents. The organisational phase was probably three times longer than the previous trip, but the rewards are probably three times greater, and the reward comes from the difficulty. It’s valuing personal achievement. So you’re having fun, but it’s been more of a challenge.

How did you decide the direction – west-east – as opposed to east-west?

As someone who lives in the west and always gone east it’s normal for me to think of going this way. If I were doing the silk route classically I would think of doing it east-west, and maybe I will. I think a key reason is the planning – it is easier to plan a trip from west to east because the greatest red tape problems come around exact dates of entering and leaving countries around Russia particularly, and if you start at that end it is easier to get that right rather than the other way unless you are absolutely precise about when you are landing it could be quite hard. I think there are two styles of traveller.  The free and easy “I’ll see if I can get a train there tomorrow” kind – and I applaud those people, but then there are the kind of people who are maybe a bit control freaky who want to know more precisely what is ahead. I’m definitely in that category,but I have a degree of flexibility; but I like to stick to a plan if I can, and I think that has benefits. So for my planning phase I can recall it was much easier going from the west to the east and also there was something else about the conditionality of visas. For example, for China, where you needed to be able to show exit and entry – it definitely just flowed better going in that direction.

Why do you travel by yourself?

As I have got older more of my friends have got family travel commitments, and I find two things. Firstly, fewer and fewer people have the time and focus on the thing you are interested in, and also the slightly selfish thing is that travelling alone is more fun. And I mean that from the point of view that you get that richness of – you can’t just sit back and not talk to people when you travel alone, so it forces you to get into the culture of a place a bit more.  So I am not saying I don’t enjoy travelling with friends . but the combination of a lack of friends with the same mission in mind, plus that means that solo travel is rather good. A perfect compromise would be to meet friends for a bit of a journey  – or meet up in a city for a few days – and then you don’t have the pressure of no two people wanting to do the same thing on an itinerary.

 How did you go about planning the trip, which is a really complicated thing I imagine?

 The research phase normally starts off with a visit to Seat 61,which everyone will go to, and it’s 98% bulletproof for basic travel planning. I think then there is a phase of checking with agents that the services you need are there and that they are affordable, which gives you the confidence that you can actually do it. I tend to spend a long period of time until I commit, wanting to know as much as possible about a trip before I finally pull the pin.

Which websites did you use apart from Seat 61?

I tend to try to hunt down blogs of travellers. I think that gives a more real edge to it and then compare those with the web sites of travel agents offering ticketing, transportation or tour services to the place you’re going and see you they compare.  It’s nice to see the alternatives to Seat 61. I found this blog of a German guy who went to Pyongyang and he’s got 10 years of blogged travel experiences of train travel around the world in extreme detail. And that’s quite a treasure trove. Whereas Seat 61 would just give the broad brush context, the timetable and the cost. It doesn’t  really tell you what it’s like crossing the border so it’s nice to find that depth of detail. I’ll have a large spreadsheet containing a calendar and then I’ll try like a large jigsaw puzzle to assemble each of the sub components of the trip. And see what days of the week the trains might be going and see where it fits together and where it doesn’t. And move the pieces around in such a way that you then get a viable itinerary.   There’s then that moment of wanting to know that everything’s possible before you commit to spending money on things – before you start buying a visa to a certain country, you book the hotel OK there,is the train available etc. etc. You try to de-risk it as much as possible. I would normally start with the train – if it’s a train trip – I would then be thinking about the visa requirement and then I would be thinking about the hotels, but I would check all three from the point of view of availability before booking any of them. Not that I am that fussy about hotels. But I might change the whole thing around so I can stay where I want to.

Why do you do these trips in winter?

That’s the available time of year. It’s easier to plan. But also I’d commend a Siberian winter to anyone. It’s quite good fun. It’s not that it’s cold on the train. It’s very hot.

You still need all the cold weather gear, don’t you?

You do.  This time I thought about trying to sacrifice some of it.  Because it’s not that long you’re outside for. But I don’t recommend it. You need a good pair of boots and you  need a good jacket. This year in Moscow it wasn’t cold enough, and there was a lot of black ice, so it was really dangerous on station platforms and so on.

Having more or less carried out your plan, do you think you could have made a better plan?

I can’t think of any massive flaws. I’d like to make more of Europe. I’d like to stop in Berlin. I stopped in Warsaw this time and loved that. If I was travelling in the summer I would always get off in Mongolia and I’ve not achieved that yet. But it’s not going to be comfortable in a ger in -35. I haven’t spent enough in Cambodia. I literally just dashed through the place. Other than that everything else has come together quite nicely. I think 6 weeks is a good length of time for it. 45 days gives you enough time to have a couple of semi breaks. 60 days’d be nicer,but…

If you had unlimited time, what would your plan have been?

I’d have stopped off a bit more in Vietnam, I’d spent time in Hue, Na Trang, Halong Bay, maybe tried to do something a bit off the beaten path in Cambodia. I’m quite interested in these motorbike itineraries you can pickup in Vietnam and Cambodia. Laos would have been an interesting side journey, but not on the main path, although I understand it’s possible to take a bus from China to Laos, and then a bus from Laos to Bangkok. I’d like to see St. Petersburg.

What went well, and what didn’t?

The plan went very well. It delivered everything I wanted it to from the trip.  The only problem was self-inflicted – too many oysters in central Vietnam which destroyed one of my train journeys. I think I over packed,but it’s been easy to get over whatever the situation. Every trip is different. There were a lot more mainstream tourists on the Trans-Siberian leg than the previous trip. It didn’t feel quite so Marco Poloish. The previous year there were very few of us. It’s funny how that changes the atmosphere and dynamics of a journey. On this trip, when I left Beijing for Hanoi I didn’t see a western person for the whole journey. Apart from that health problem, everything else has gone swimmingly.

What were your best memories of the trip?

Motorbiking with a side car in Hoi An was a definite highpoint – out in the fields. The food has been a high point. I’ve had some incredible dishes from around the world. And I’ve met some incredible people – local people I’ve met on trains in the country and also travellers on their own adventures. There are thousands and thousands of people doing similar but slightly different journeys and it’s great to meet them and compare plans. There’s a real spirit on the Trans-Siberian when everyone realises they’re arriving in Beijing. And the small-world paradox where you actually bump into people you have met on trains in other countries.

Is there anything I didn’t ask – or anything you’d like to add?

My next trip – I’m quite excited about the prospect about a central Asian escapade. But I’ve got all that research to do. Either to Vladivostok or head off from Moscow down to central Asia. That’s the next big question. I’d need to vary the season a little. Something tells me I should try that trip in September. I need to do the research.  And my mind is always trying to find film connections with stuff that I do. Has there been a film made there? As you see in my blog.

Thanks very much, Matthew.

Matthew at the Penang Club

Matthew at the Penang Club

So, have a look at his trip on his blog – http://toadstraveladventures.blogspot.co.uk/

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