It’s been a busy few weeks for me when it comes to travel. I expect a lot of people think a travel writer is always travelling, but I choose to work part time and limit the number of trips I make so that I can be here for family and my beautiful dogs. Nevertheless, travel is always a privilege. Kyrgyzstan really blew me away, but 16 hours after stepping through the front door it was off to Devon, having written three articles and done five loads of washing – oh how glam! As we drove across the Dartford Bridge, a Eurostar passed beneath us, reminding me that travelling by train really is the best way to travel. So I was very pleased to have a day out in London courtesy of Greater Anglia to look forward to.
One of the most frustrating things about train travel is when there are no trains. The dreaded words “rail replacement bus” strike fear into us all, so I was really pleased when Kerri from Greater Anglia informed me that there is almost no engineering work planned on our lines into Liverpool Street all summer. She told me:
“Network Rail has paused its engineering work on the mainline for the summer with only a couple of exceptions – Sunday 16th June, when all journeys will involve a change at Stratford for the Underground into London, and Sunday 8 September, when there are buses between Colchester and Chelmsford during the morning.”
So if you were thinking of a trip up to London, then this summer’s an excellent time to go. For this week’s visit, I decided to focus on the South Bank. It’s a great area for families as there are a number of kid-friendly attractions. The London Dungeon, Shrek’s Adventure and Namco Funscape are all located close together. I opted for a visit to the SEA LIFE London Aquarium and a ride on the Coca Cola London Eye.
First up: the aquarium. What used to be the London Aquarium, housed in the bowels of County Hall at Westminster Bridge, was bought by Merlin Entertainments in 2008 and reopened a year later with a new look. It receives mixed reviews on Trip Advisor, but I was interested to see what it was like for myself. I’m sorry to report that my visitor experience didn’t get off to a good start. The member of staff who dealt with me on the ticket desk was rude and her manager wasn’t much better. Fortunately the other members of staff I encountered were more helpful and enthusiastic.
The SEA LIFE London Aquarium exhibits are arranged IKEA-style. Once you’re in, there’s no going back and even though I was assured it was a quiet day, there were some bottlenecks. At the penguin enclosure, two large primary school groups meant that it was difficult to see the birds, who’d taken themselves off down to the far end of their space, presumably for a bit of peace and quiet! The huge shark tank was very impressive, however, and I thought that it was well designed as you could get access to the tank’s windows on two different levels. Most impressive were the jellyfish, mesmerising as the lights illuminating them changed colour.
Throughout, there are a lot of opportunities to interact with the exhibits. The kids I saw really enjoyed being able to stick their heads into the perspex domes to get a 360° view of the marine life swimming around their heads. However, it isn’t a cheap day out. Standard tickets cost £27, though families could save a little by purchasing a family ticket. Adults would pay £26, children from 3-15 £22 and under 3s free. To snorkel with sharks for 15 minutes would set you back £150.
Next: the London Eye. This was a completely different kettle of fish if you’ll pardon the pun. I’ve been before and it never disappoints. Their customer service is excellent. Every member of staff I spoke to couldn’t have been more friendly and genuinely wanted to ensure I had the best time. And it wasn’t just because I had a complimentary pass; I listened in on a few other conversations and was delighted that staff were so polite and helpful to everyone. Though they offer a VIP experience, it seemed that those staff managing the queue to board treated everyone like a VIP.
The flight was great, even though the sky was threatening rain with dark thunder clouds in all directions. It brought to mind my first ever visit to the London Eye, not long after it opened, when an elderly lady behind me in the queue was rocking a hat she’d fashioned from a John Lewis carrier bag. This time, the rain held off and visibility was pretty good. We were a mixed bunch in our capsule, with visitors from the USA, Brazil and New Zealand all giving it the thumbs up.
“Best day ever!” one lady said.
Big Ben of course is covered in scaffolding, but it was interesting to see how much the skyline had altered in those almost two decades since my first visit. If you don’t know your Gherkin from your Walkie Talkie, there’s a useful 360 degree map that will cost you £2 on top of the price of your ticket which will help you identify what you’re looking at. Prices are pretty much the same as for the SEA LIFE London Aquarium and there are occasional special events for a similar entrance fee, like Time Out’s smart phone masterclasses. Of course, you can opt for a champagne experience too, for something extra special.
The trouble with London, understandably, is big city prices. Finding somewhere reasonably priced to eat in a city with such high rents can be a challenge. Fish and chips from the wagon on the South Bank would have set me back £10. If the weather’s fine, there’s another option. The Jubilee Gardens Trust work hard to maintain a sizeable patch of green space right next to the London Eye. There’s a play area for young children and the Trust have just purchased what was once a car park and have plans to turn it into an adventure playground for older children. It’s perfectly located for a summer picnic on a dry, sunny day.
Around ten minutes walk further east is one of my favourite spots this side of the river: Gabriel’s Wharf. This eclectic mix of boutiques and eateries has a more local vibe than the tourist traps closer to Westminster Bridge. Spend your £10 here, and it will buy you a delicious sit down lunch rather than an average takeaway. It’s worth checking out some of the independent stores here too. The House of Eunice works with artisans in India to create some unique clothing designs – the owner runs trips to India too if you’re keen to learn about the processes for yourself.
We really are lucky to have such a magnificent city on our doorstep. Thanks to the speedy trains, from my Essex village by the coast I can still be in the City of London in under 70 minutes door to door (as little as 48 minutes on the train). That is always a good feeling, particularly on the way home! The recently launched Norwich in 90 and Ipswich in under 60 services bring East Anglia even closer to the capital.
Need to know
If you buy your train ticket in advance you can travel to London from Colchester or even as far as Norwich for just £10 each way. From Southend, getting to London can cost as little as £6 single if you are flexible with dates and times. You don’t need an Oyster card to score the lowest fares within the capital, as you can tap in and tap out with a contactless debit card in the same way.
You don’t need me to tell you just how many visitor attractions there are in London. Greater Anglia offer a range of 2for1 deals which can add up to some pretty significant savings. Museums, theatre tickets and even bike tours are included in the promotion – dates and specific savings vary so check on Greater Anglia’s website for more details. While the SEA LIFE London Aquarium isn’t participating, their sister attractions in Southend and Yarmouth are. The current London Eye offer with a valid rail ticket is a 2for1 deal for £30.
With thanks to Greater Anglia for my train ticket and to Merlin Entertainments for complimentary passes to SEA LIFE London Aquarium and the Coca Cola London Eye. I appreciate their generosity. All views expressed in this blog are my own.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve worked with Greater Anglia on several occasions. They sponsor me to go to places in the Greater Anglia network and in return, I share my experiences. This weekend, I took the intercity train to Norwich.
Journey time is only an hour from Colchester station, typically around half an hour quicker than it would be by road, and with standard advance fares costing as little as £8 each way, surprisingly cheap. Factor in Greater Anglia’s offers – accompanied children go for just £2 (just turn up on the day and nab this fare for any off peak journey on the network) and 2for1 deals on many attractions – it’s a tempting prospect.
To be honest, the intercity trains that currently run on the Greater Anglia network look pretty dated from the outside. However, when you step inside, they’ve been refurbished as part of a £12m upgrade. What you get is a very comfortable ride. The seats are like armchairs and there’s plenty of legroom. There’s a choice as you’d expect of table seating, great for families or groups of friends, and airline-style seats. That upgrade has paid for new carpets, seat covers, improved lighting and upgraded toilets. Best of all are the at-seat powerpoints, which came in very handy on the return journey when I needed to use my phone which as always had a woefully low battery. It’s also convenient to have onboard WiFi. The only thing I didn’t like was having to lean out of the window to open the carriage door, but fortunately those waiting on the platform helped when I couldn’t quite reach. It reminded me of the slam door trains in the 1970s, though getting out wasn’t as impossible as it was with that horizontal squeeze – if you travelled by rail back then, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Anyway, I’d got so comfortable it was almost a pity to arrive in Norwich (and I promise I’m not just saying that because Greater Anglia paid my fare) But the sun was shining it was the first really mild day of the year, perfect for a stroll alongside the River Wensum which does a loop of the city centre. The river is almost right in front of the station. Within a couple of minutes, I was walking along a riverbank lined with willow trees. The first landmark I passed was Pull’s Ferry. This flint building was once a watergate and takes its name from John Pull, a ferryman, who ran the boats in the first part of the 19th century. Apparently, the stone that was used to construct Norwich Cathedral came in via this route, having been imported from Normandy.
I strolled further along the river bank until I came to the Red Lion pub. On its slipway, a group of people were stepping into wooden Canadian-style kayaks. Chantal and Nick set up Pub and Paddle a few years ago – this year will be their fourth summer and the business is going from strength to strength. Chantal told me that one of their most popular excursions is also their shortest, suitable for anyone. This four hour rental takes paddlers past the cathedral, football ground and Colman’s mustard factory to the village of Thorpe St Andrew. Most people take a break at one of the riverside pubs before returning to the Red Lion. At only £20 per person, it’s good value. Chantal and Nick make their own kayaks and also have a couple of wooden rowing boats for hire for those wishing to stay in the city centre. I didn’t have time to do this, but it’s definitely a good excuse to return.
My next stop was Cow Tower, a 14th century artillery tower built as a response to the threat posed to Norwich not only by the French but also by local rebel forces. Contrary to what its name suggests, it wasn’t constructed to shelter cows, though this Eastern Daily Press article suggests that might have happened later. Instead, it was named after the surrounding meadow, which was called Cowholm. It was big enough to hold a garrison but now, it’s just a shell, the floors and roof long gone. As a consequence, you can’t go inside. Nevertheless it’s an imposing structure, standing almost 15 metres high, and very photogenic in the spring sunshine, particularly when the daffodils are in bloom. On the other side of the path from the Cow Tower there’s a rather lovely carved wooden seat, its smooth curves perfect for lying back to watch cotton wool clouds scud across a blue sky.
I was reluctant to leave my seat, but wanted to take a look at Norwich Cathedral. Construction began in 1096, using local flint and mortar faced with that limestone imported from Caen. It’s quite a large site – actually two churches and an Anglo-Saxon settlement were knocked down to make room for this new structure, such was its scale. The cathedral close is the largest in England. By 1145, the cathedral was pretty much completed. The same building you see today would have had a wooden spire clad with lead, added in the 1160s. It was struck by lightning in 1169, less than two years after it was finished, so today’s spire dates from 1480.
The cloisters of this very grand church bear a resemblance to the colleges of Oxford or Cambridge and are the second largest in the country after those of Salisbury Cathedral. A quadrangle is bounded by walkways featuring elaborate vaulted ceilings; inside, the cathedral itself is even more impressive.
One of the more interesting modern additions is the copper baptismal font. Formed from two bowls, one upturned, it was donated to the cathedral when it was repurposed from its previous use – making chocolate in the Rowntree’s factory until it closed in 1994. Though a donation is suggested, entry is free. Allow plenty of time as the building warrants more than a quick look.
It was time for lunch and over on Tombland, Cocina caught my eye, two white statues flanking its doorway. Samson and Hercules are Norwich icons, though the figures that you see today are replicas, installed when the originals became too fragile to leave in place. In 1657, the two figures, both symbols of strength, were placed outside the home Christopher Jay, then the Mayor of Norwich.
The statues were removed from their pedestals in 1789 and reinstalled in the rear courtyard of the building; a century later antique dealer George Cubitt moved them back again. At that point, Hercules was in such a bad way he had to be replaced. In the 20th century, the building housed a dance hall and later a nightclub. In 1993, one of Samson’s arms fell off and years of paint were revealed. The two figures you see today might only have been placed there just before the millennium but are a much treasured part of the city’s history.
Taking a circuitous route to take in cobbled Elm Hill, my next target was the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell. Whether you know a lot about Norwich or like me, embarrasingly little, it’s a fascinating place to spend a few hours. The £5.95 ticket charge is a steal. Originally constructed as the home of a rich merchant in 1325, it became a prison for women and beggars in the late 16th century (that’s what a Bridewell means).
The first inmate was one John Flowers, banged up for being accused of having “a lewd life and to be a counterfeiter of begging licences”. But the most interesting story was that of Jane Sellers. She was the Bridewell’s most persistent offender, serving nine sentences in just eight years in the early 17th century. Her first stint was for “being found idle at Trowse”. Several times she returned, did her time and promised to leave town to find work. But she never did. Instead she was caught stealing numerous times. The burglary she committed at the end of 1631 would be her last. The authorities lost patience with her and she was hanged.
After a pit stop at Jarrold’s for tea, I set off for the Plantation Garden, pausing for a quick look at the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral along the way. The garden is the work of a dedicated team of volunteers. Occupying an abandoned chalk quarry, the garden is Victorian in origin, something you might guess from the many follies and statuary that litter the garden. There’s a gothic fountain, Italianate terrace and mock mediaeval terrace wall, plus delightful woodland walkways and vibrant flower beds. Judging by the many people who’d spread picnic blankets or settled into the benches for a natter, it’s well used by locals and visitors alike. A honesty box is located by the gate for your £2 entrance fee.
Back in the heart of the city, there was time for one last stop before I would catch my train. Norwich Castle occupies a hilltop site overlooking the shopping streets below. There’s a £9.50 entrance fee which is expensive, but I was told that for the final hour each day, you can get in for just £2. Inside, as well as an impressive keep, you’ll find a collection of exhibits, some temporary. Right now, there’s a Viking display which is worth a look, as well as a section telling the story of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni. For me, the museum lacked the emotional connection I got with the Bridewell, but I’m a hard sell, much more interested in social and industrial history than that of early Britain. If you’re local and have kids, I think they might enjoy the castle’s Knight Club or some of the special Easter events that are planned.
Have your own rail adventure
If you’d like to have your own rail adventure, then why not take a look at Greater Anglia’s website? You could visit Norwich, but there are plenty more places that offer a great day out – read my previous blogs on Harwich or Wivenhoe, for instance. I’d also love it if you would answer the simple yes/no review on this survey – being purely selfish, if you’ve been inspired by my day out, I get to do another!
Do you suffer from the winter blues? If you do, this month’s hell. Without Christmas lights to lift the spirits – excepting the neighbour whose outdoor tree will be a beacon of defiant brightness until the temperatures rise in the spring – the long hours of darkness can seem endless. If there’s a rare blue sky to tempt us to take a walk (it’s free and healthy after all!) it’s accompanied by a merciless cold north wind that defies the toughest hat, gloves and winter coat combo. The Arctic has nothing on the damp, seeping cold that whips off the North Sea in January while I’m stood waiting for the dog to finish his interminable sniffing. The sales are on, but there’s no longer anything worth buying, and even if there were, we couldn’t be persuaded to drag ourselves off our sagging sofas to investigate, such is the pervasive lethargy that blights January. Yet throughout this, our TV screens are awash with adverts featuring smiling families in sun-drenched locations having the holiday of a lifetime. It’s like a parallel universe, designed to torment us while we wait for our January paychecks and lament how our less than perfect life fails to measure up to that depicted by TUI.
Yesterday I escaped from all that, just for the day.
Despite living out on the Essex coast, it’s an easy run into London thanks to the swift and reliable service from Greater Anglia trains. This time, in preparation for the day ahead, I made a point of stopping by the Kelvedon station book exchange to pick up some reading material. It’s not often I have the luxury of curling up with a book on a working day, so this would be a real treat.
It was bliss. I spent the day trialling a new concept, a daycay, and it was just the thing to banish those winter blues. My day stay at the stylish Trafalgar St James in the heart of Central London had been arranged by DayBreak Hotels. They specialise in providing accommodation that would otherwise go to waste. Think about it: occupancy rates are lower than average in the UK at this time of year. Factor in that many people check out early and check in late, and you have hours and hours in between where those beautiful hotel rooms sit empty.
In the award-winning and recently refurbished Trafalgar St James, I was allocated a junior suite, complete with a comfy sofa looking out over a sunny Trafalgar Square and an even comfier bed promising to help rid my face of the grey skin and black circles that had settled in over Christmas. Watching from above the pillow was a black and white photograph of a youthful looking Mick Jagger, one of many in the hotel to be taken by acclaimed celeb photographer Dave Hogan.
The room was thoughtfully equipped, the attention to detail marking it as one of Hilton’s prestigious Curio Collection properties. Waiting for me, I found a Nespresso coffee machine, a book on London’s curiosities and a selection of glossy magazines, as well as a plate of melt-in-the-mouth macarons beside a welcome note.
There were a selection of Molton Brown toiletries lined up in the spotless bathroom and a couple of inviting dressing gowns hanging in the wardrobe. This was like a home away from home, but unlike home, I didn’t feel guilty that I wasn’t doing the hoovering or clearing away the dishes.
You might expect that as you’ve only checked in for six hours you might not be treated with the same respect as an overnight guest, but you’d be wrong. Every interaction I had with the hotel’s staff, from the receptionist to the restaurant servers, emphasised the close attention paid to customer service. I was offered a tour of the hotel, the highlight of which was enjoying the views from the rooftop terrace. The rooftop spaces make great entertainment venues; if I wasn’t a freelancer I’d already be bombarding my boss with emails about where to hold next year’s Christmas party.
I was also invited to see one of the suites that used to be one of Cunard’s corporate offices. The Landseer Suite was occupied, a minor disappointment as this was the boardroom where Cunard first received word of the sinking of the ill-fated Titanic. Next door, I did get to look around the Barry Suite, its original woodpanelling preserved under a coat of contemporary matt grey paint. It managed to be grand without being stuffy, the kind of place that makes you want to pop in to John Lewis on the way home to buy a few more cushions to spruce up your own place.
The hotel strives to be innovative – there’s not a hint of a bland, corporate hotel chain here. I found that also to be the case with afternoon tea. The dining room will shortly close for refurnishment, but the untrained eye would never guess. I was presented first with a menu of teas from the Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall. I had no idea that we even grew tea in this country and made a mental note to check that place out next time I was in the West Country. My question – was the rose tea better, or the red berry? – was met with the best possible answer – why not try both? (I did, and they were both a treat.)
The savoury treats were presented next, each accompanied by the Molton Brown scent that had inspired them. Coastal Cypress & Sea Fennel was represented by a slice of compressed cucumber topped with pieces of fennel crisp. Carpaccio of Denham Vale beef with pink peppercorn gel on sourdough toast exemplified Fiery Red Pepper. Following this were scones with jam and clotted cream, pleasantly warm and surprisingly filling. The patisserie was equally as inventive. A rose and rhubarb pastille was bursting with flavour and a mouthwatering prosecco sabayon with watermelon and berries decidedly moreish. My favourite Molton Brown aroma, orange and bergamot, came in the form of a chocolate and Earl Grey eclair topped with tiny strips of candied orange.
There was barely a crumb left by the time I’d finished. Had I not been in public, I’d have been tempted to lick the plate. With an hour and a half left on the clock, I chose to return to my room for a profligate nap. London, with its galleries and museums and countless other attractions, would have to wait. After all, it’s not every day a girl can say she fell asleep under the watchful gaze of Mick Jagger, is it?
About DayBreak Hotels
Daybreak Hotels offer a range of properties in destinations across Europe, the Americas, the UAE and Australia. The daycay concept is a clever one, with daytime and evening slots available. Same day and advanced booking as well as special offers can be found on their website:
There are so many reasons why you might book a hotel for the day instead of the night – perhaps you’re looking for a comfortable place to shower and change before a posh night out on the town or somewhere to relax before an evening at the theatre. Perhaps like me, you’re tempted by the promise of an indulgent afternoon tea or need a winter pick-me-up without the expense of a full-on holiday. Some properties come with spa or pool access, making them a great choice if you’re in need of a little pampering.
Maybe you could make use of a convenient city centre base for a sleepy toddler to have a rest in between seeing the sights? Or how about a place to leave a grumpy husband in the ultimate man crèche while you potter the shops at a leisurely pace? Also, there are plenty of hotels on DayBreak’s books that are conveniently located on or very close to airports, ideal for a lengthy layover – and far nicer than hours spent in an airport lounge. Whatever your reason for booking, the daycay concept is one worth checking out.
I was a guest of DayBreak Hotels and benefited from complimentary travel with Greater Anglia. To both: many thanks for your generosity.
I love a good train trip and the ultimate in rail journeys has surely got to be the Trans-Siberian in some form or another. If you’re thinking of crossing Russia by train, I’d suggest doing some background reading beforehand to get your head around what seems like a complex trip but in reality is more straightforward than it looks.
What is the Trans-Siberian?
Some people wrongly believe that the Trans-Siberian is one single luxury train. It’s not. It’s one of several long distance routes that stretch across Russia. Generalising a little, there are three main routes: the Trans-Siberian, the Trans-Manchurian and the Trans-Mongolian. Following each of these routes, it is possible to travel on a single train, but most people stop off along the way to explore some of Russia’s great sights – and see something of Mongolia and China as well, perhaps.
How long will I need?
To follow the classic route from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east without stops will take 6 days. If you plan to do this, you’ll need to book the Rossiya train (number 1 or 2 depending on the direction you take). Extending your journey , you could begin (or end) in St Petersburg rather than Moscow, which are connected by an overnight train taking about 8-9 hours, or the high speed Sapsan train which covers the distance in about 4 hours. Personally, I’d allow at least a couple of days to scratch the surface of Moscow or St Petersburg, though it’s easy to spend more time in either. To cover the whole route with a few meaningful stops, it’s best to allow a couple of weeks, more if you can. And of course, you can do the whole trip overland with connecting trains via Paris and a route that takes you through Berlin, Warsaw and Minsk.
What was my itinerary?
Mine is, of course, by no means the definitive tour. On these three routes, it’s easy to tailor your journey according to your own personal preferences. I flew from London City airport to Moscow as at the time I booked, this worked out cheapest. When I planned my trip, I’d already been to Beijing, so I opted for the Trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Ulan Bator in Mongolia, leaving the Trans-Siberian on the map above at Ulan-Ude and heading south to the border. Read more about Russia here:
I stopped at Vladimir (for Suzdal and the Golden Ring) and then Perm (to visit one of Stalin’s notorious gulags). I skipped the popular stop at Yekaterinburg for reasons of time, though I’d like to visit next time, making the journey from Perm to Irkutsk in one go (a little under three days and over 3000 miles) as I wanted to experience a multi-night trip. I think that was enough: though you can book itineraries which involve staying on board the train for longer, I was definitely ready to sleep in a proper bed after two nights on the train and it was an amazing feeling to luxuriate in a bath and soak away all that train grime and staleness. There’s only so much wet wipes and dry shampoo can achieve!
I had a couple of days at Irkutsk so I could visit Listvyanka at Lake Baikal. On a second trip, I’d build in more time here as it was beautiful – and frozen in winter, it must be a special place indeed. Reboarding a train, I crossed over the border to Mongolia. Having seen a little of the Mongolian capital I set off into the surrounding countryside for an unforgettable stay in a ger with the steppe nomads. Culture shock is an understatement! Read about it here:
I then retraced my steps to Ulan-Ude from where I caught a flight back to Moscow with budget airline S7 – a six and a half hour domestic flight which gives you some idea of the country’s vast size. This worked out considerably cheaper than finding a single leg fare to Moscow and home from UB. In all, the train tickets cost me about £500, with flights adding about £350 to the total. In all a couple of weeks’ holiday cost me around £1500 including basic hotels, meals and sightseeing.
Is it easy to do as an independent traveller?
Yes and no. I’m a big fan of independent travel, not only for the cost savings, but also for the flexibility it gives me to tailor the itinerary to suit my exact requirements. But I’m also not a Russian speaker and I felt I needed support with the booking process to ensure I ended up with the right tickets for the right trains. As you can see from the ticket below, it’s not at all easy to understand not only a different language but a different alphabet as well.
Due to the complexities of the railway ticketing system plus visa considerations, I decided to use a single specialist travel agent for those two aspects of my trip. As is my usual style, I booked my own flights, accommodation and most of my sightseeing myself; the exception was a private tour to Perm-36 Gulag which I also outsourced. I used a UK-based company called Trans-Siberian Experience (https://www.trans-siberian.co.uk) who were very efficient and helpful. The day trip was a 260km round trip from Perm, customised to my personal requirements and cost £170, the most extravagant part of my trip but more than worth the outlay.
The company I used at the time was Real Russia.
Their website has a dedicated Trans-Siberian section which enables you to check train times, suss out possible routes, check prices and order visas. It’s clear and in my experience the support offered by the team was excellent. All my tickets were sent in good time with English translations, the visa process was uncomplicated and every aspect of the trip that they’d arranged went according to plan – which was more than could be said for some of my own bits:
Since switching careers, I’ve done a lot of work for Just Go Russia, another London-based agency specialising in Russia, and they are always extremely efficient. If you’re looking for a tour, they do offer a wide range of options. You can find them here:
Even if you don’t end up booking a tour, it’s a good way of getting an overview of the route and whittling down the options about where to stop off. Another source of information is The Man in Seat 61, my starting point for every train trip I’m planning outside the UK. There’s a good overview here:
What’s it like on the train?
Each of the trains I took was a little different. I “warmed up” on the short leg from Moscow to Vladimir and this was a regular seated train. That took away some of the nerves about checking I was on the right train, right seat and so on, without the worry of a missed long distance connection. From Vladimir heading east, some of the long distance trains leave in the middle of the night, so I opted for one departing early evening which arrived after lunch the following day. The overnight trains varied considerably in terms of speed and quality, something that is reflected in the price.
Another thing to factor in if travelling in Russia’s hot summer is that the air-conditioning is turned off when you stop at the border and the windows of such carriages don’t open; more basic trains have windows that can be pulled down to let in a breeze. (In winter, in case you’re wondering, the trains are heated, so prepare to swelter on the train and freeze on the platform.)
Some compartments featured luxury velour seating, others were more basic, such as the one I travelled on from Perm to Irkutsk. In my opinion, that didn’t really matter as I followed the lead of my compartment companions (all Russians) and stretched out on a made bed all the way rather than converting it back to a seat. When I did the Irkutsk-UB leg, the train was more luxurious, those sharing the compartment were all tourists like me and we all sat up during the daytime. To be honest, I liked the local approach best.
In all cases, I opted for second-class tickets which provided comfortable accommodation though no en-suite facilities. The logic to this was that as a solo female traveller I didn’t want to be alone in a compartment with a single man and the first-class compartments came as two-berth not four-berth kupe. I shared with three men from Perm to Irkutsk but as everyone sleeps in their clothes nothing untoward happened and actually I was well looked after by one of them in particular, a Russian army officer heading on to Chita.
Border crossings can be daunting, but knowing my visas and documentation were in order was helpful. Formalities vary and the immigration officials will make it clear whether you are to remain on board or not. It is normal for them to take your passports away; that can feel stressful but having a photocopy of your papers is a comfort. Note that the Chinese trains run on a different gauge so the carriages have to be lifted onto new bogeys.
What should I pack?
As you are likely to sleep in your clothes then picking something comfortable like jogging bottoms and a loose T-shirt is a good idea, though clearly you won’t win any fashion awards. Who cares? I found it helpful to pack changes of clothes (socks, underwear and T-shirts) in a day pack so I could store my suitcase under the bed and forget about it.
In terms of footwear, most of the locals seemed to favour blue flip-flops with white socks. Slip on shoes of some form are convenient to help keep your bedding free of dust picked up from the floor. The provodnitsa, or carriage attendant, will come round with the vacuum cleaner each day and will chastise anyone who’s made a mess, so keep the compartment clean.
It’s a good idea to book a lower bunk as you are then sleeping on top of your bags, affording grreater security than the open stow holes up top. It’s possible to lock the door from the inside, but not from the outside, so when you visit the bathroom it’s reassuring to know that your belongings are out of sight. Having a small handbag to carry passport, money and other valuables – like train tickets! – was also helpful. When I’m travelling by overnight train I always take a lockable, hard shell wheelie; it’s narrow enough to wheel down train corridors and light enough to lift from the platform, but also more robust than a slashable canvas bag. A determined thief will steal or break into anything, so it’s about making yourself a more difficult target than the next passenger.
When I travelled, the bathroom facilities were pretty basic so I would definitely recommend taking lots of wet wipes and also a can of dry shampoo. It’s amazing how clean you can get yourself in a small cubicle with just a small sink. These days, most Russian overnight trains have a special services car with a pay-to-use shower which would have been great. You do need your own towel, but I use a special travel towel which folds up small and dries fast. I won mine in a competition but you can get something similar here:
In terms of sustenance, the provodnitsa also keeps a samovar boiling from which you can get hot water to make tea, noodles or soup, so I packed some of these too. Some were more accommodating than others; if you get a grumpy one, she’ll lock her door or disappear for hours at a time. I was lucky to have a smiling provodnitsa on my longest leg, which made a difference. The Russians travelled with plenty of food which they generously shared, most memorably omul, a kipper-like smoked fish common in Siberia.
There’s a restaurant car as well and at station stops, despite the queues there was often enough time to nip off to buy food from the platform vendors, so carry enough small change for these kind of purchases. Finally, it’s a long way. Although batteries can be charged (though sometimes in the corridor on older trains) I’d pack an old fashioned paperback to read or carry a pack of cards to entertain yourself. Take family photos – in my experience it’s true that Russians love to share theirs. It’s also true that a bottle of vodka can break the ice though some compartments sounded more raucous late at night than others – the luck of the draw! I also had a copy of the Trans-Siberian Handbook (as opposed to the Lonely Planet which I would usually take) because the level of detail about what you’ll see out of the train window was much better.
Anything else I should know?
One of the things I was most worried about before I set off was missing a train or missing a stop. In the event, neither of these were an issue. At the station, huge signboards helped identify where the train might pull in and showing the ticket and smiling a lot got me escorted to many a carriage door. Pretty much without exception, I found the Russian railway staff very helpful. The trains used to run on Moscow time which could be a little confusing at first, but there are timetables up in the corridors and even on the longer legs I usually knew roughly where I was. Since summer 2018, they’ve switched to local time and are showing both times to help ease the changeover.
A phrase book helped me decipher the Cyrillic alphabet; my technique was to focus on just the first two or three letters rather than trying to remember the whole name. Thus Suzdal became CY3 etc. The train provodnitsas were very good at giving their passengers plenty of warning when their stop was imminent and so I managed to get across Russia without incident.
I never felt unsafe during my trip but I would say that you need to be a bit savvy when it comes to your valuables. Keep your passport and money with you, don’t flash around expensive cameras or laptops but equally, don’t get too paranoid.
Would I do it again?
Yes! The scenery at times was monotonous but that was missing the point. The adventure was in the interactions with people on the train; the sightseeing came after I alighted at the station. Next time I think I’ll begin in St Petersburg, detour to Kazan and make that visit to Yekaterinburg before heading east to Vladivostok. Now where did I put that Trans-Siberian handbook?
This week, in preparation for my upcoming trip to Sri Lanka, I’ve been booking train tickets to explore the country’s beautiful hill country. The Man in Seat 61 has, of course, been an invaluable tool as ever, and I’ve been very impressed with the service provided by Visit Sri Lanka Tours, a recommendation gleaned from Seat 61. It’s got me thinking about previous rail journeys I’ve taken. These are my favourites, but are they yours?
Peru: Cusco to Machu Picchu
Before tourist numbers reached epic proportions, to reach Machu Picchu by train you used to have to crawl out of bed in the dark to catch the early morning local train from central Cusco’s gloomy station, travel for five hours as the wooden bench seating slowly petrified your buttocks and emerge blinking into the middle of the market at Aguas Calientes to find your diesel-belching ride to the famous mountaintop Inca ruins. Periodically, the train halted in the dark to facilitate trade. Hands used to appear through the tiny windows to offer roasted corn and alpaca wool hats. It was one of those iconic travel journeys that is better relived from the comfort of your armchair several months later. Taking the journey again years later, this time in a glass-roofed backpacker train (boy, hadn’t backpacker expectations grown?!) I was delighted to see that snow-capped peaks lined the route and that the PeruRail authorities had built a fancy new station. The increase in comfort was worth the hike in the fare and best of all, the switchbacks to enable the train to haul the train out of Cusco’s bowl-shaped valley were still the most fascinating stretch of the journey. Then, in 2010, flooding and landslides caused severe damage to the track and when repairs were completed, the train began from Poroy, just outside the city, rather than from Cusco’s Wanchaq station. Despite the changes, it remains one of the best railway journeys in the world.
Switzerland: the Bernina Express
It’s hard to pick a favourite amongst so many standout lines, but if forced to choose, then the Bernina Express gets my vote. Run by the Rhaetian Railway, the Bernina Express covers two lines which together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site – Albula and Bernina. During its 122km run from Chur to the Italian town of Tirano, the train passes through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges and viaducts including the spectacular Landwasser Viaduct pictured here. To fully appreciate this engineering marvel, take a local train (the panoramic picture windows don’t open), head to the back and lean out of a right hand side window. The train loops and glides over the Bernina Pass, with the Morteratsch and Palü glaciers and alpine Lago Bianco darker Lej Nair lakes providing the glamour in terms of scenery. With no cogwheels aiding its descent, this impressive adhesion railway has one final wow up its sleeve: the 360° spiral that encompasses the nine arches of the century-old Brusio Viaduct.
Kenya: the Lunatic Express
I first read about this railway in Bill Bryson’s African Diary. His descriptions of being flung around as if being tumbled in a washing machine were as compelling as you’d expect from the undisputed king of humourous travel writing and I decided there and then I’d make the same journey. This narrow gauge railway runs from Nairobi to the coast at Mombasa, cutting through Tsavo National Park on its way. It gained its unusual nickname as several workers involved in its construction ended up as dinner for the hungry lions, dragged from their tents as they slept exhausted from the day’s hard labour. I didn’t see any lions, just a beautiful sunset over the savannah plains, though I was plagued by hungry mosquitoes and arrived in Mombasa covered in bites.
The best of the rest!
The longest rail trip I’ve done, with a trip that took me from Moscow to the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator by train. I saw a lot of trees, but I also learned first hand what a warm and welcoming bunch of people the Russians are: a special mention here for Aleksander the army officer who fed me smoked omul and showed me his family photos.
New Zealand: Tranz-Alpine
Not the Alps in Europe, but instead, New Zealand’s South Island. Crossing from Christchurch to Greymouth, this scenic ride crossed Arthur’s Pass and chugged alongside pretty Lake Brunner. Wrap up warm if you’re going to ride the open air viewing car in winter as I did – it’s freezing!
Update: I’ve just booked a ride on the Northern Explorer to see more of North Island out of a Kiwi Rail train window. Watch out in 2018 to see how I got on.