It’s the rail journey that tops every bucket list. Long time rail rider Matthew Woodward reveals the resources you need to ensure your trip of a lifetime runs smoothly
Organising a trip on the legendary Trans-Siberian railway can appear a little daunting to the uninitiated, but to fortunately there is plenty of great impartial advice and guidance out there on how to do it.
Be careful though, as there are also websites trying to sell you "packages" that you may not want, as well as articles written by people who have yet to visit the inside of a railway station.
Speeding through Siberia (Dreamstime)
A great place to start is The Man in Seat 61. Mark Smith has devoted his life to showing others how to plan using up to date schedules, route advice and quoting ticket fares.
I'm planning a trip on the Silk Route at the moment and it can get pretty confusing connecting the trains together between cities like Astana (Kazakhstan) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan). On The Man in Seat 61, I can find possible solutions linking the infrequent trains as well as updates and information from recent travellers.
Once your confidence has grown, you can then visit rail operator websites to get even more detailed train information on the dates you are looking to travel.
Taking a breather near Lake Baikal (Dreamstime)
Bloggers provide up to date and often live experiences of the route you might be looking to follow. Find the very best ones at Wanderlust or in the links at the end of each route section on The Man in Seat 61.
You can often engage with these travellers in real time on social media to get the inside track. Nothing beats solving a problem on Twitter when you are in a tight spot with someone who knows the answer. On my trip to Istanbul last year I was able to get help from a blogger with my connections across Romania and into Turkey. The rail situation is constantly changing and bloggers often have the most up-to-date information.
At the moment I'm really enjoying the journeys and pictures from long term rail travellers andybtravels.com and wilburstravels.com. I like share my adventures as a blog too, and try to post a journal each day during my rail trips on matthew-woodward.com
Russian Railways insignia (Dreamstime)
There are many organisations out there, ranging from those selling discounted tickets without any frills, to companies who can organise visas and accommodation as well as train tickets. My advice is to speak to several and get a feel for their knowledge, service and ability to meet your needs.
Both DB and RZD (the German and Russian rail companies) have great online booking systems, where you can check live availability, timetables and prices. (The German site is most useful if you plan to combine your Trans-Siberian adventure with a rail trip across Europe) You can then decide if you are going to buy your own tickets or get an agent to do this for you. Personally, I like to plan the trip myself and then use an agent to buy point-to-point tickets for me.
I currently use a company called Real Russia, as they have a habit of not letting me down and can organise my visas too. They also work collaboratively with other specialist companies, so for example, they have got me a berth on a ship from Vladivostok to Japan (where no one spoke any English) and even the tricky Tibet entry permit.
Take care though. Some of the travel companies marketing Trans-Sib trips seem to only want to sell packages with hotels or group tours and are not really geared up to the independent traveller.
Mobile phone users in Russia (Dreamstime)
Assuming you have a signal, mobile apps can be a lifeline of information when you need answers in a hurry. Get the app for the rail companies and countries you will be visiting. Knowing your platforms for a tight train change or finding an alternative train can be hugely helpful when timing is tight. I once missed my connection in Germany and using the DB app I managed to overtake the train by road and get aboard at a station down the line!
I have tried quite a few of the language translators on my phone too. I have yet to find the perfect one for train travel – many seem orientated to the dating scene! – so I also have one that just shows pictures of things you can point at called BabelDeck.
Although Russian trains seem to operate in any almost any weather, being English it's good to know just how cold it is, so I use WeatherPro for this. Finally, a multi-time zone map is pretty useful on the Trans-Sib, where local time and train time (set to Moscow) are always moving together or apart, depending on which direction you are travelling in. It's part of iOS if you use an iPad.
You'll have plenty of time to read (Dreamstime)
Don't think of books as something you will just read on the train. They can provide inspiration and a fantastic sense of anticipation for your very own adventure. I stocked up on a healthy back catalogue of Paul Theroux, Eric Newby or even Michael Palin in the months before I left. As for guidebooks, I prefer the printed format rather than an ebook, so that I can make notes and quickly find the right sections. The one I like best is the current edition of the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas.
I was surprised by the lack of books available about what life was really like on board the modern day Trans-Siberian train, so I wrote a book about my own experiences: Trans-Siberian Adventures – Life On And Off The Rails From The UK To Asia. In it I share my discovery of things like how not to blow up the samovar, how to cope with some alarming toilets, a love of Russian restaurant food and why you should always make friends with the provodnitsa (carriage attendant). Not everything went as smoothly as I planned, but as I discovered that's very much part of any good Trans-Siberian adventure!
Matthew Woodward is a rail-based adventurer. He has completed several Trans-Siberian, Trans-Manchurian and Trans-Mongolian journeys from his home in Edinburgh to distant parts of Asia. In 2016 he successfully completed a solo journey on the longest and highest railways in the world to reach Tibet by train. His book, Trans-Siberian Adventures can be ordered on Amazon now.
Main image:The tracks heading east on the Trans-Siberian Express