Matthew and friends in Irkutsk (Matthew Woodward)
Blog Words : Matthew Woodward | 22 November

Last minute preparations for a grand rail adventure

As the departure date for his great railway adventure fast approaches, Matthew Woodward scrambles to get everything done

I consulted the world weather map in my Daily Telegraph over some tea and toast this morning at expedition HQ. I can see that the forecast temperature in Moscow tonight will be -2C. Freezing already and it's still only Autumn. This is a sure sign that winter is now approaching and it is also a reminder that I must press on with the final stages of my preparation – equipment, visas and tickets.

The visa situation is well in hand. I actually managed to get my visa for the Russian Federation issued a couple of months ago. The new fingerprint system proved to be no problem, as I was able to use the consulate office here at my home in Edinburgh. If you have never applied for a Russian visa before, it is an impressive piece of paperwork and there are many strange questions, some probably originating from the Cold War. 

The hardest part for me is to record every trip to every country that I have made over the past ten years. In practical terms that really means that I need to account for every stamp and visa that I have in my current and quite full passport. You also still need an invitation document, easier to get if you are using a Russian agent for other aspects of your arrangements.

So now I'm just needing visas for Belarus (transit) and China (tourist). No Mongolian visa is needed this trip as I'm bound again for Russian Far East and the Trans-Manchurian connection with the Chinese border at place called Manzhouli. I'm using my agent (Real Russia) to get these, and as usual they have proved to be brilliant at coming up with answers to questions with all the paperwork. It is a real weight off my mind and allows me to focus on the other arrangements.

The kit has been piling up in my study for some time and I now it is time to see if I can fit it all into my new 'smaller' bags. I'm pleased with my new 'less is more' approach as I will be far more mobile than on past trips... and I hope more likely to fit into some busy Chinese long distance sleeper trains.

Tickets are always a bit of an issue at this time of the year. Although I will be travelling during a relatively quiet period (in Siberian terms), the new winter timetable comes into effect at the start of my journey, and this normally delays trains coming onto the booking system in Western Europe. 

I think the Russian train can be booked 60 days in advance, and the Chinese trains are now 30 days in advance (until relatively recently this used to be just 12 days) –  so I have a bit of waiting until I know that everything is in order. The plan is that I get as far as Beijing on tickets passed to me in the UK, and then get a courier delivery with the rest taking me as far as Hong Kong.

I had an email from my good friend Taegeun earlier in the week. You can see him (centre) in the photo at the top of this post, together with myself and Alex (a Romanian coffee trader) . It was taken early one evening on the platform at Irkutsk. 

One of the great memories of my rail journeys has been the huge diversity of brilliant people that I have been fortunate to meet. I met Taegeun on the journey from Moscow to Vladivostok last year. We then took the ship together to South Korea. 

I shall never forget his tolerance and calmness, even under some duress. He was travelling in third class on the Trans-Sib, and had a friendly but adhesive group of Russian and Ukrainian vodka drinking carriage mates. There are 64 people in an open plan 'plaskart' carriage! Thanks to Taegeun's help and generosity I got to see the sun rise on New year's Day from a crazy resort hotel built like a ship near Donghae.

I wonder what adventures await me on this new journey?

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.