7 mins

What's so special about the Trans-Siberian Express?

As Matthew Woodward prepares to set off on his next massive train adventure, he explains what is so appealing about the world's longest rail journey

Trans-Siberian at night (Matthew Woodward)

I was trying to explain to a friend this week what I find so appealing about Trans-Siberian travel. It's not an easy question to answer – the extreme climate, the questionable catering, the lack of sleep, the lack of sanitation, the sense of isolation and the challenge communicating with nearly everyone would put many people off. But these are not insurmountable problems and I actually long to be back there.

The photograph above is from a night stop on the Trans-Mongolian somewhere in Siberia on my Edinburgh-Singapore journey in 2013. The local time is about 9 or 10pm, and the platform is totally deserted. I managed to get through the snow and ice right down to the front of the train and I am keeping an careful eye on my watch so I don't get left behind. It is a pretty lonely place. Just the enormous locomotive with its engine ticking over – and me, shivering whilst trying to hold my camera steady enough to take a picture.

High up inside the locomotive the drivers change shifts. Outside on the platform a lady announces on the tannoy what is going on in a language I can't understand. It's cold. Very cold, in fact. So cold you would not last long without the life support of the train. You really could be on the dark side of the moon.

It gets cold (Matthew Woodward)

Now, I am about to set off again. Back at Expedition HQ everything is coming together. The ticketing is progressing well. I now have a confirmed place on the Trans-Manchurian (carriage no 4, berth 9/10).

Poland has yet to go live with its winter timetable, so I'm still waiting for a ticket on the D10 "Polonez" from Warsaw to Moscow, but that's unlikely to be a problem. I like the Polonez – I always feel it's the real start of my adventure as I chug through a snowy Eastern Poland as the sun sets and reach the border with Belarus at Brest. This is where we change the wheels whilst I score some blinis and a beer from one of the babushkas who board the train. 

Now I have my Chinese visa I'm in the hands of my people in Beijing to get the special permit issued to allow me to travel onward to Tibet. And then there is also the no small matter of actually getting a ticket for the train to Lhasa. I'm not going to worry about this. I have learned from past trips that it is too hard to consider the whole journey in one movement – it is a series of legs and I must focus on one at a time.

What will happen will happen, and I really have done all I can to prepare. This is a new religion for me. A special type of train travel Buddhism that I have adopted to cope.

I'm writing this blog on the move today in order to check that my mobile set up is working okay. Better to test now and still have time to fix any problems. I have invested in a new bluetooth Logitech "Keystogo" keyboard for this trip – it is a really great bit of kit, and makes blogging from an iPad almost as good as doing it from a Mac.

Last year I ditched all the third party apps for blogging and went back to Blogger as my writing app. The formatting isn't brilliant but at least images can be inserted more easily. I just need to get back into the routine of using the other apps that allow me to pull together my camera images with my editing software and blogger applications, mainly Photoshop Express and iWatermark+.

I'm hoping that by the end of this month I will have all the Chinese tickets and the Tibet permit sorted out. If there is a problem, I do have a slightly mad but possible Plan B – a trip from Beijing to Pyongyang by train!

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.

Related Articles