After months of planning and rejigging routes, Matthew Woodward is finally ready to depart for Hong Kong. Here's how his plans came together
I'm now in the final phase of preparation for my latest railway challenge. In a couple of weeks I shall be heading east again – this time with a destination of Hong Kong.
But there is a twist. I'm going to take the Trans-Manchurian route across Siberia, and then the Qinghai-Tibet railway to Lhasa, before crossing back again across China towards my final destination. My trains will be mainly be the slow and old-fashioned variety, and I have arranged a few "weird weekends" along the way, so I should have some interesting experiences to share.
The Silk Route was my original objective for this year, but sadly I have had to shelve it once again for logistical reasons. Whilst the situation for visitors to Iran is getting progressively better, the visa rules are still very hard to meet for the solo British traveller – especially coming over by train from Turkey.
The situation in Turkey itself is unfortunately getting worse, with the Trans-Asia Express now cancelled, apparently owing to security concerns. In Europe, the line into Turkey is currently dug up with engineering works coming in from both Sofia and Bucharest. For me, arriving in Istanbul by bus just isn't an option.
On the other side of the route, the 'Stans remain workable, but some of the connections still need a lot of patience, and security isn't brilliant in a couple of places. So I am going to wait until things hopefully get more a bit more straightened out until I tackle the Silk Route again. I think there will always be some sort of problem on this route, so when most of it next 'lines up' I shall just go for it.
Back in July I regrouped at expedition HQ and consulted the huge National Geographical map on the wall in my study: "Asia and Adjacent Areas" (the 1956 edition – it keeps me on my toes!) This gave me the idea for a different route. There was another possibility – to cross Siberia again, into China via Manchuria and then to get up onto the high ground from the Chinese side. The Qinghai-Tibet railway is a marvel of modern engineering, and I immediately realised Lhasa would be a great objective. Then it is all downhill from there (literally) as I head for the finish line in Hong Kong.
Given this will be my fourth crossing of Siberia, I have decided to take the much lesser known Trans-Manchurian route, which bypasses Mongolia, heads for Harbin and crosses directly into China at a place called Manzhouli. The history of this line is quite interesting with all sorts of construction problems including crossing the Greater Khingan Mountains, bandit troubles, and an outbreak of the plague. More of this in future posts.
So that's the cunning plan. The route is just over 20,000km, with the usual Siberian winter challenges and also a climb to over 5,000m at the Tanggula Pass on the way to Lhasa.
In more detail, the route looks like this:
Edinburgh-Newcastle-Amsterdam using the DFDS ferry crossing (to Imjuden)
Amsterdam-Berlin on the IC 147 train
Berlin-Warsaw on the EC 43 train
Warsaw-Moscow on the new Russian version of the D10SZ train
Moscow-Irkutsk-Harbin-Beijing on the "Vostok" 020 train
Beijing-Xian-Xining-Lhasa on the Z21 train
Lhasa-Xining-Xian-Guangzhou on the Z266 train
Guangzhou-Hung Hom (Hong Kong) on the Z823 train
I'm taking day trains as far as Warsaw this year. It will make a change to see some places in the daylight, and also to enjoy a stopover in Berlin. The D10 has been moved to an evening departure with the new winter timetable – I understand it to be a new train, so that's a bonus. My intel on the "Vostok" is a little limited, but I'm hopeful it will turn out to be a very reasonable train.
As for China, its going to be interesting. I have no real expectations of the specially-built carriages for the high altitude legs. I'm just happy to have a ticket on these sectors, as I hear they can be really hard to come by. For this I have Real Russia to thank once again.
There is not too much left to organise now. My bags are pretty much packed and I'm just busy printing out several copies of all the red tape at HQ, whilst drinking a lot of tea. All my permits and visas have now been issued, and I have tickets as far as my forward operating base in Beijing.
One of my little travel pleasures is having paperwork that is fully 'in order'. This normally smooths the red tape at border crossings. So I have a bulging folder with everything sorted in chronological order and printed in duplicate. My mobile office will be a couple of kilos lighter when I shift some of this paperwork into the hands of enthusiastic officials.
I have also started popping vitamin pills and taking more exercise. Some last minute guilt that I should be fitter than I currently feel for what is ahead!
My next post will probably be from the North Sea!
Matthew Woodward has completed several amazing long distance rail adventures using the Trans-Siberian railway and onward across Asia. From from his home in Edinburgh he has reached Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo and is now headed for Tibet. His blog can be found at Toad's Travel Adventures.
Main image: Essential Trans-Siberian kit (Matthew Woodward)