Highlights from a second visit to Japan

From Busan in South Korea we took another overnight ferry – the final one on this trip! – to Shimonoseki in Japan. This was my second visit to Japan and Alex’s third. The last time we visited was in 2007 and it was the first time I’d ever travelled outside of Australia. It’s a wonderful country to travel in: efficient transport, great food, clean, safe, and the people are honest, helpful and kind. The only downside is it is a bit on the expensive side, but you can minimise costs by staying in hostels (which are some of the cleanest in the world) and enjoying cup noodles and supermarket sushi (both quite decent in Japan) for some meals.

Lanterns, Kyoto

We spent significantly longer in Japan than any other country on this trip – a little over three weeks (27 Oct – 18 Nov). Three weeks is a good amount because it ties in nicely with the longest Japan Rail pass you can get, but even so it still didn’t feel like enough time. All up we visited Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Okayama, Naoshima Island, Kyoto, Osaka, Shibu Onsen, Nagano, Sapporo, Sendai and Tokyo. I’ve already mentioned some of these places in a previous post so I thought I’d just highlight some of the new ones this time round which really stood out.

Miyajima Island

Miyajima is an easy day trip from Hiroshima and famous for the “floating” red torii marking the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine. It’s the most famous of the three most beautiful views in Japan. It’s worth staying to observe the torii at both high and low tide: at high tide you get the floating effect and at low tide you can walk right up to it across the sand. Other things you can also do while visiting the island are to hike or take the cable car up to the top of Mount Misen, eat local delicacies (including grilled oysters), and befriend the wild deer that roam around freely.

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

Naoshima Island

Naoshima is a cool and arty place. You can visit as a day trip, which is what we did, but it would be even better to stay at least one night to give yourself more time to explore everything it has to offer. We hired bikes to get around and visited the bizarre 007 Museum as well as the modern art museum section of Benesse House. There’s a cute cafe near the entrance to Benesse House which serves delicious and somewhat unique Japanese food and is run by a nice girl who took orders, cooked and served all by herself. If we’d had more time we could have checked out the Art House Project, Chichu Art Museum and Lee Ufan Museum. We almost visited the surreal I Love Yu bath house but hadn’t brought soap and towels with us and we didn’t want to pay extra for new ones.

Yellow pumpkin, Naoshima Island

Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen museum, Osaka

This museum gets a special mention all of its own just because it was so much fun! Maybe it’s not for everyone, but if you’re as much a fan of authentic Japanese Nissin Cup Noodles as we are this is a must visit. For those that don’t know the humble Nissin Cup Noodle, is is quite simply, the best cup noodle you will ever eat. But! Only the Japanese ones are worthy of this qualification. You can get Nissin Cup Noodles in other parts of Asia, even in Australia, but they’re not nearly as amazing as the original Japanese ones. Truly.

Momofuku Ando was the inventor of instant ramen (ie 2 minute noodles) and part of the team that later perfected the cup variety. The museum is on the outskirts of Osaka and dedicated to the development of these products but the best part is the My Cup Noodle Factory. Here you get to create your very own one of a kind cup noodle, from designing the cup itself to choosing which ingredients are added. The museum is free but it’s ¥300 to participate in My Cup Noodle Factory. (Well worth it in my opinion!) The factory section is very popular so head there first to make sure you get to do it before the museum closes.

My Cup Noodle Factory

(Credit goes to our friend Hamish for mentioning this place to us. Catching up with Hamish was a another highlight of our brief time in Osaka!)

Shibu Onsen and the Jigokudani Monkey Park

We knew we wanted to visit the famous monkey park and picked Shibu Onsen as a base because it is the nearest town. Staying in Shibu Onsen turned out to be even better than the park we’d come to visit and is quite simply one of the loveliest experiences we’ve ever had in Japan! It’s a small hot spring town with 9 public baths which are free to use if you’re staying in local accommodation. It’s perfectly acceptable, in fact actively encouraged, to walk around Shibu Onsen wearing your yukata – you can even wear it to visit the local restaurants in between baths. Our favourite of those restaurants was the soba house Yariya where the food was delicious and staff lovely – they even gave us a small piece of art as a gift. We stayed at Senshinkan Matsuya and it’s quite possibly the nicest ryokan we’ve ever been to: super nice owners, beautiful room, excellent breakfast, right in the centre of town, free lifts – and it was actually the cheapest option we could find! Amazing, and highly recommended.

The monkey park was great fun too. It’s better to visit when the weather is cooler as the monkeys are more likely to be bathing in their personal hot spring: winter would be a particularly enchanting time to go. But even when they’re not bathing they’re great fun to observe. There are so many of them and they have lots of character!

Jigokudani Monkey Park

Sapporo

The last time we visited Japan we went south to Okinawa, this time we went north to visit Hokkaido. We based ourselves in Sapporo at Jimmyz Backpackers, a great little hostel run by one super cool dude. We wandered around town and visited some of its unusually western buildings, admired the stunning autumn leaves at Nakajimakoen, devoured super tasty soup curry, and maybe tested a little bit too much beer at the Sapporo Beer Museum. Nothing particularly fancy, but we had a really enjoyable time because Sapporo is just a really nice and laid back town. (The people seem to have particularly cool fashion sense too.) I’d like to go back to Hokkaido one day and spend some time exploring the rest of what it has to offer as it feels quite unique and distinct from the rest of Japan.

Nakajima Park, Sapporo

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Discovering South Korea

We didn’t know quite what to expect from South Korea but we really rather enjoyed it! It has the cleanliness and modernity of Japan at a fraction of the price and the people are super friendly, to the point where randoms would occasionally strike up short conversations with us on the subway or (outside of Seoul) call out hello from the other side of the street. And after Beijing it was so orderly and quiet (not to mention the significant improvement in air quality).

We only had a little over a week (18-26 October) and spent most of it in Seoul, with a couple of days in Daejeon and Busan on our way down to catch an overnight ferry to Japan. We could have happily spent longer! It would have been great to get out to Jeju Island, to see more of the country’s many national parks, or just delved deeper into Seoul and Busan.

Cheonggye Stream, Seoul

10 great things to do in Seoul:

  1. Explore cool areas such as Myeong-dong, Hongdae and Insa-Dong. Myeong-dong is full of restaurants, bars and shops and is particularly lively at night. Hongdae is the area around Hongik University and good for cheap eats and a youthful studenty vibe. Insa-Dong is probably the busiest area we went to and full of interesting street food snacks, shops and stalls selling handicrafts, and occasionally live street performers.
  2. Namsan Tower. You can take a cable car up to the base of the tower and pay again to ride up the tower itself, but if you’re feeling energetic you can save money by walking up to the base where you’ll get a pretty decent view without even having to fork out for the tower.
  3. Five Grand Palaces. If you’re short on time try to visit the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace. You can only enter as part of a guided tour and there are a limited number in English so it would be best to go in the morning to secure a place. (We missed out!)
  4. Museums and architecture. There are some fascinating examples of modern architecture in Seoul but you can combine it with some meatier culture by visiting one of its many museums, some of which are worth visiting just to marvel at the architecture alone.
  5. Gwangjang Market. A huge traditional Korean market full of food stalls on the ground floor and silk and satin goods on the second floor.
  6. Dongdaemun shopping area. If you’re in the mood for some clothes shopping you could easily spend a whole day exploring the floors of the multiple shopping centres on Jangchungdan-ro near the Dongdaemun History & Culture Park metro. (It’s unbranded stuff, but that’s the only kind I’m interested in.)
  7. Dolsot bibimbap. The best kind, served in a hot stone bowl so raw egg cooks when you stir everything together and the rice goes crispy towards the end.
  8. Korean BBQ. They’re everywhere in Seoul but there are some all-you-can-eat ones (the best kind!) around Hongik University where you can eat as much barbequed meat, seafood and vegetables as you like for around ₩12000 per person.
  9. Unusual street food. Different areas offer different types of stalls – if you spot something you’d like to try grab it while you can because you might not come across it again. Some of the more interesting ones we saw were hotdogs plastered in crinkle cut chips, spiral crisps and pastries filled with soft serve icecream.
  10. Demilitarised Zone half day trip. A variety of companies offer tours to the DMZ, we just picked one at the tourist information office. It’s quite a sobering experience. It’s actually very touristy and the whole idea that people are profiting from visitors going to see it is quite surreal, but I definitely recommend it. Some companies offer full day trips that also include a visit to the Joint Security Area on the actual border at Panmunjom but you’ll need to book one of those at least four days in advance and submit a copy of your passport – there’s also a very strict dress code.

Seoul tip: some of the metro subway stop names are very similar, make sure you’re heading towards the right one!

Seoul skyline at night

Daejeon

We chose to stay in Daejeon because it was close to Songnisan National Park and a nice halfway point between Seoul and Busan. The park was particularly beautiful when we visited as the autumn leaves were out in full colour. There are different hiking routes available and they are pretty serious hikes – I may have scoffed at the people with hiking poles when we started out but I’m sure they were laughing at us later on when it got tougher. Just inside the park entrance you can also visit a 7th century Buddhist temple complex called Beopjusa. Its features include an impressive 33 metre tall golden plated bronze statue of Buddha and Palsangjeon, one of the only two wooden pagodas left in South Korea.

Little stone cairns at Songnisan

Busan

With not even a full day in Busan we barely scratched the surface of what there is to do and see. The main thing we did manage to fit in was to visit Jagalchi Fish Market, which I highly recommend. There are three different fish markets in the area: dried, fresh and live. The live fish section is on the first floor of a multi story building and is as fascinating as (if not even more so) than an actual aquarium. We have no idea what half the things in there were! They had mussels ten times the size of normal mussels, strange fat worm like-like things, tanks stuffed full of octopus, striped fish, flat fish, squid that would have jumped out of their containers onto the floor if there wasn’t a clear lid keeping them in, and more besides. You can eat many of these things as super fresh sashimi on the second floor (even the strange fat worms).

Jagalchi Fish Market, Busan

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Travel update

I’m writing this from Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan. To quickly bring you up to speed, after China Alex and I travelled to South Korea by ferry. We really enjoyed our short week and a bit (18-26 October) in South Korea and I’ll write more about it as soon as I get a chance. From Busan we took another overnight ferry to Japan, which is where we’ve been for the last three weeks.

Tonight is a bit of a turning point in our five month world tour. We flew out of London to Croatia on the 24th of July this year and tonight will be our first flight since then. In four months we’ve travelled all the way from Croatia to Japan by surface transport only: rail, bus and ferries.

Our route took us up through the middle of Europe, across Scandinavia and the Baltics, then we had our Trans-Mongolian adventure across Russia and Mongolia, ended up in China, and from there we took the ferries described above to end up in Japan. Whew!

So where do we go from here? We have about a week and a half in Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur and Penang), a week in Sri Lanka (Colombo and Galle), then a few days in Singapore before we finally fly back to Australia. By the time we get there we’ll have been away from our home country for nearly two and a half years.

And it doesn’t end there. ^_^; We’re not flying straight back home to Melbourne but into Brisbane where we’ll spend a few days with friends and family before hiring a car and driving down the east coast to Newcastle. It will take us about a week, stopping off in Byron Bay, Coffs Harbour and Seal Rocks along the way. We’ll have Christmas with our families (Alex in NSW, me in Vic), then New Year’s and some beach time in Newcastle, before finally returning home to Melbourne on the 10th of January 2013.

How to travel from China to South Korea by ferry

There are a couple of different options for travelling between China and South Korea by overnight ferry. We read up on them over at The Man in Seat 61 but until we took the crossing ourselves we had a lot of questions we couldn’t quite find definitive answers to online. Now that we have travelled one of the routes I thought I’d share the process we went through for anyone else that might be considering it. If you are, hopefully it will answer some of your questions. And save you from being screamed at in Mandarin by an irate cabin mate as a bonus.

Weidong Ferry

Route & schedule

We travelled from Qingdao in China to Incheon in South Korea with Weidong Ferry. This ferry only travels in this direction three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Your schedule for taking it would run something like this:

  • 06:00 – Depart Beijing accommodation and take the subway to Beijing South Station.
  • 07:10 – Train (category D) departs Beijing South Station.
  • 12:22 – Train arrives at Qingdao Station (terminus).
  • Transfer to Qingdao Port Passenger Station. It’s about 2.5km but there are no signs or directions. Your options are:
    1. Walk. We did this with the aid of preloaded Google Maps on our smart phones (GPS works even without a data connection). It takes 30 minutes if you don’t get lost on the way.
    2. Bus. According to Google Maps you can take the 8路 bus towards 康宁路 from the front of the train station. The bus itself takes about 11 minutes (3 stops) then it’s a 5 minute walk to the port.
    3. Taxi. You may want to have the address ready in Chinese if you take this option: 山东省青岛市北区新疆路6号.
  • 14:30 – You need check in before this time and be ready to board.
  • 16:00 – The ferry’s scheduled departure time. (Ours didn’t depart for another 2 hours.)
  • 11:00 (following day, Korean time) – The ferry’s scheduled arrival time at Incheon. (Ours was about 1 hour late.)
  • Transfer to Incheon Metro Station (a short walk or a very short taxi ride). Incheon is on the outskirts of the Seoul metro system and it takes about 1 hour to travel into the city centre.

Booking tickets

The train is more likely to sell out than the ferry so definitely book your ticket to Qingdao in advance. We used China Trip Advisor and had the tickets delivered to our accommodation in Beijing. (China Travel Guide was also recommended to us for this service.) This seems to be a pretty common procedure but you should give your hotel a heads up in advance as a courtesy. (Or you can have a go at buying the tickets yourself.)

Unless you’re travelling during Golden Week you most likely won’t need to book the ferry in advance. By the the few accounts we found online it’s fine just to turn up at the port and buy your tickets on the day. However, we booked ahead because I just didn’t want to risk it. To make a reservation (we did this 2 days before we wanted to depart):

  • Ring Weidong’s Qingdao office on +8653282803574 during business hours. It’s expensive to call from a Beijing number so we used Skype credit (using the app on a smart phone) and it cost 17p for an 8 minute call.
  • There’s at least one lady who speaks some English at this office but you may want to enlist the assistance of someone who speaks both Chinese and English (hotel staff, a friend, maybe information centre staff) to assist with pronunciation of passport names and numbers so everything is clear.
  • You will need to provide your passport number, name as shown on passport, date of birth, date of departure and desired cabin class (see note below).
  • Regarding payment: foreign credit cards are not accepted and the website talks about paying by wire transfer but we didn’t know how to go about doing that. We asked if we could pay in cash at the port and this was fine.

You won’t receive a reservation number but the booking is linked to your passport numbers so you don’t need one.

Cabin classes

You can read about the available classes and their prices at Weidong’s website but I think the prices might be out of date. Alex and I booked one way Business Class tickets and they cost 832 CNY each including Bunker Adjustment Factor (October 2012).

Note that Business and Economy Class are shared with other passengers and segregated by gender. If you want to stay with a travelling companion of the opposite sex you’ll need to book a Royal Class or Deluxe Royal cabin.

Business Class cabin

At the Qingdao Port Passenger Station

Weidong Ferry’s windows are on the left hand side inside the terminal. Show your passports at window 3 and the staff member will look up your reservation using your names and passport numbers, take your cash payment and print your tickets. (When we were there the girl that served us spoke a little bit of English.) If you get stuck you can go up the slightly dingy looking stairs in the corner and they’ll take you to the Qingdao Weidong Ferry office (that you phoned to make your reservation) and they should be able to help you.

After you buy your tickets you’ll need to pay a port tax of 30 CNY at a different window. (You’ll be pointed in the right direction.)

There are not many facilities at the port. You can buy a couple of snacks but if you want to bring your own food supplies on board it would be best to go shopping at a supermarket the day before you leave Beijing,

On the ferry

All prices are listed in Korean won. You can access boiling water from a coin machine but it only takes won. It was never very clear to us whether Chinese yuan were accepted at the shop or restaurants (they weren’t accepted at the cafe), but we later met someone who had been able to use yuan at the shop and received their change in won. If you want to be on the safe side, take some won with you or bring enough food supplies to last you for dinner and breakfast.

Important note! There is only one key per Business Class cabin. To avoid upsetting fellow cabin members (who may or may not scream at you in Mandarin like mine did), lock the door and return the key to reception whenever you’re not in the room. Normally the door is left unlocked while anyone is in the room.

Bon voyage!

Arrival in Asia: 5 days in Beijing

Leaving the safety of our final Trans-Mongolian train and stepping out into the big wide world again seemed almost daunting at first but we acclimatised quickly enough. The first thing we were struck by on our arrival in Beijing was the sheer number of people, but at least Ulaanbaatar had prepared us in part for dealing with the crazy traffic.

Beijing Railway Station

Beijing wasn’s quite what we were expecting for a city in a communist country. It’s like any other bustling modern metropolis with advertising and shops galore. Food and public transport are super cheap and admission to attractions is usually very reasonable. Public transport is especially great in Beijing! The subway is very easy to navigate, clean, airconditioned and only 20p for a one way trip. Buses are another great option once you figure out the most useful routes and they cost half the price of the subway.

Our lovely London friend Danni grew up in Beijing and armed us with loads of excellent recommendations for things to do and, most importantly, places to eat. The guy running the guesthouse we stayed at was also very helpful. As a result of all these suggestions we had a great time in Beijing, although we only really scratched the surface. And I have to admit, the crowds and the traffic did get a little exhausting by the end of the five days we had there (12-17 October).

Forbidden City seen from Jingshan Park

Places to visit in Beijing:

  • Tiananmen Square. Rich in history, surrounded by museums and offers your first glimpse of the iconic Forbidden City entrance. You can also visit Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum.
  • Forbidden City. It’s no wonder it’s called a city, it’s huge. We thought we explored half of it on our first day and later realised we hadn’t even made it through the ticket entrance! (There’s a fair walk after the famous gate with Mao’s picture on it before you reach the real heart of the city.) The audio guide is worth getting to make sense of the almost endless halls and palaces.
  • Jingshan Park. Directly north of the Forbidden City, the central of five pavilions sitting atop the large artificial hill offers a spectacular view of the Forbidden City and the greater Beijing skyline.
  • Beihai Park. West of Jingshan Park, Beihai is another beautiful oasis in the middle of the city. It features a large lake that you can go boating on, Buddhist temples and even caves.
  • Tiandi Theatre. Here you can watch a jaw-dropping performance by the China National Acrobatic Troupe. Absolutely spectacular and a really fun night!
  • Wangfujing Snack Street. Super touristy but it has an enjoyable night time atmosphere. Worth a wander just to gawp at the creepy crawly snacks on sticks such as scorpions, seahorses and starfish. Other food is available too but it’s pricey for what you get.
  • Beijing Zoo. The pandas are definitely the star attraction here. Unfortunately some of the other animals’ enclosures aren’t quite the same standard as the zoo’s main drawcard.
  • Water Cube. This place looks super cool but we didn’t have enough time to visit. Apparently the entry fee is a little steep but it sounds preeetty fun!

Panda, Beijing Zoo

Places to eat:

  • Sha Guo Ju (砂锅居), 60 Xisi South Street, Xicheng. Established in 1741 and famous for their claypots but they do lots of other dishes too. (English menu available.)
  • Hai Di Lao (海底捞火锅). Various locations, but we went to the one on the 7th floor of the Xi Dan New Wedding Center, 109 Xidan North Street, Xicheng. A super popular hot pot/steamboat restaurant. Plan for an early dinner – as in, 5pm early. Otherwise you may have to wait a very long time for a table: when we left at 6pm there must have been 50 or more people waiting! Tip: you can order half portions of the dishes which is great if you want to try lots of different things.
  • Li Li Restaurant (力力餐厅), Xianyukou Street, Qianmen. Established in 1954 and specialises in SiChuan cuisine. There’s no English but we just followed Danni’s recommendation and ordered the super cheap and tasty Dan Dan Noodle.
  • Huatian Emei Restaurant (峨嵋酒家), 58 Bei Li Shi Lu, Xi Cheng Qu. Another restaurant specialising in SiChuan cuisine. The menu doesn’t have any English but look out for 宫保鸡丁 (Kungpao Chicken) and 麻婆豆腐 (Ma Po Tofu), both of which are mindblowingly delicious!
  • There’s also a good selection of places to eat inside the giant shopping centre on Wangfujing Street. We enjoyed Chef Hung’s Taiwanese Beef Noodles and Danni also recommended a traditional hotpot restaurant called Donglaishun (东来顺).

We actually didn’t get around to having proper Peking duck in Beijing which is a bit of a shame, but I kind of got the impression it was something you might have had to order in advance… either way, we definitely ate our fair share of delicious meals in Beijing.

Qianmen restaurant

The Great Wall of China

Several sections of the Great Wall of China are accessible as a day trip from Beijing. The nearest section, Badaling, is about a 1 hour drive and the furthest section, Jinshaling, takes 3 hours. Badaling is touristy and over-restored but possible to reach by public transport. Our accommodation arranged a private driver to take us out to the Jinshaling section and while it was one of the priciest day trips we’ve taken it was worth it. It cost 1100 CNY for the car and driver but we didn’t get dragged through any tourist shops, just 3 hours drive to the wall, 3 hours to explore the wall at our own pace, then 3 hours back to Beijing. We left Beijing at 5:30am and were the first people on the cable car – we practically had the place to ourselves.

Great Wall of China, Jinshanling section

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Lifting the curse of the black spot from a Panasonic Lumix

The first two digital cameras I owned were different models of Canon IXUS. I loved them both, but when the zoom ring died on my 870 IS last year I upgraded to a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ20 (ZS10). It took me a little while to get used to it (and if I’m honest I think Canons are still better in low light situations) but now I’m very happy with it, especially the brilliant 16x optical zoom. However, about two months ago I noticed two black spots would appear on the edge of my photos whenever I zoomed in:

Green roof with black spot

Cleaning the lens made no difference. When I researched the problem online I discovered the cause was a speck of dust that had found its way inside the camera and onto the sensor. (Apparently when the lens barrel extends after the camera is turned on a small amount of suction is generated, enough to pull tiny specks of debris inside.) I found a detailed video showing how to open up a Lumix in order to clean its sensor but I was in Estonia at the time I just couldn’t find a screwdriver small enough to undo the screws holding my camera together.

I could put up with the issue in the meantime because often the spot would be lost against the background of the image anyway, and when it stood out like a sore thumb I could retouch or crop it away. I kept an eye out for small screwdrivers as we travelled through Finland and Russia but didn’t have any luck there either.

Happily, the spot disappeared of its own accord about two weeks after it first appeared. (Maybe the suction was enough to eventually dislodge the dust.) I was delighted – problem solved!

But then, this week it came back. And it was WORSE.

Now I had three blotches, two smack bang in the middle of frame, one of which was present whether the camera was zoomed in or not:

Blotches

Luckily, by this time Alex and I were in Japan (I’m a bit behind on our travel posts!) and without even going out of our way we stumbled across a street of computer part shops in Kyoto, all of which were selling small screwdriver sets. We bought one and the next day I sat down to follow that video:

My model of camera is slightly different from the one shown  here but I was still able to get it apart and access the sensor. The trickiest part was unlatching the LCD screen, but once I did that I found I didn’t have to unhook the ribbon cables connecting it to the rest of the camera because I could just carefully put it to the right hand side.

Accessing the sensor unveiled SIX specs of dust:

Lumix TZ20 sensor with specks of dust

(You can see how the three in the middle match up with the spots on the text image above, the others were sitting out of frame.)

Removing them all was very satisfying.

I put the camera back together again and turned it with baited breath… it still worked! And the spots were gone! やった! Not ever having dabbled in electronics before I was really rather proud of myself.

Many thanks to Graham Houghton for posting his video tutorial explaining the fix, my Dad for tech support and advice via Skype mid-repair session, and Alex for putting up with me whinging about black blotches on our photos and dragging him in and out of shops literally half way around the world hunting down a size 0 Phillips head screwdriver. Due to the nature of the camera and the suction side effect of the barrel extending as it powers on there’s every chance more dust could end up on the sensor in the future, but now that I know how to fix it it shouldn’t be a problem.

Tips and advice for Trans-Siberian train travel

If you’re planning a Trans-Siberian, Trans-Manchurian or Trans-Mongolian journey the first thing I’d recommend is to read The Man in Seat 61’s excellent article on the topic. His website is a must for any rail, bus or ferry travel research but this particularly in-depth piece will help you decide which route to take and how to go about doing it; from organising it all yourself to finding an agent to arrange it for you, and anywhere in between.

The following advice and general info is based on our experience and covers things you might want to know before getting on that first train. (Unless you want it all to be a complete surprise, which is okay too – stop reading now if that’s the case! :)

The trains

Personally I think second class (four bed compartment) is the best way to go. First class (two beds) is significantly more expensive and you’ll miss out on much of the social interaction which is half the point of taking this journey in the first place.

Third class (an open carriage with numerous bunks) is available on some trains, but while it’s cheap and sometimes recommended for single female travellers (safety in numbers) the complete lack of privacy is a bit much for me.

Speaking of safety, we found the whole experience to be very safe. Indeed I’ve read that the Trans-Siberian is sometimes considered safer than any Russian city. If you do have any problems report them immediately to the conductors on your carriage. There’s a decent chance of stolen items being recovered as the thief can’t escape the train while it’s moving, and if need be the conductors will involve the police at the next station.

Beds are allocated in advance and your place number is printed on your ticket. You can find your allocated bed by referring to the number either on the door of your compartment or on the wall near the window.

If you get a choice when booking your tickets I’d recommend a lower bed for solo travellers, or for couples/pairs to take one upper and one lower bed. The lower beds have the best storage (see below) but they’re also seats for all four compartment members during the day: if you take both of the lower beds you could be kicked out of bed if those on the top wake up early and want to sit down. (It’s unlikely because they’d probably be too polite to do that, but I wouldn’t want to feel like I was keeping them trapped up there if I wanted to sleep in.) If you share the cabin down the middle by taking one upper and one lower bed the storage space is evenly distributed and it’s easier to run on your own schedule.

As far as storage goes, most of the space in the compartment is underneath the two lower beds. Sometimes this area is even enclosed in a metal box that can’t be accessed unless the bed is lifted up. The only other storage space is above the compartment door but sometimes it’s only enough for one large travel backpack or a couple of small backpacks.

As a result of this, backpacks or small (carry on size) suitcases are the easiest to deal with. There isn’t any room in the four bed compartments for large suitcases (I’m not sure about first class) but it may be possible to store one in the conductor’s cabin (possibly for a fee).

You need to show your train ticket (and sometimes passport) before you board the train, then your ticket again shortly after the train departs. Sometimes the conductors will keep your ticket during the journey but they’ll give it back just before you disembark.

There are Russian, Mongolian and Chinese trains. The staff are from the same country as the train they work on.

The trains generally have a similar layout but there are slight differences. For example, the Rossiya (Moscow-Vladivostock) is newer and features a powerpoint in each compartment. Other trains may only have a couple of powerpoints in the corridor, if at all.

You could be mixed in with the locals or separated from them in a kind of “tourist only” carriage. We took four sleeper trains on our Trans-Mongolian route: two of them were mixed and two were segregated. You never know what you’ll get but both are great experiences in different ways!

Eastbound Trans-Mongolian trains run on Moscow time until they switch to Ulaanbaatar time in Mongolia, even though they pass through four other timezone changes before then.

The restaurant car is changed in each country to match, ie it will be a Russian restaurant car in Russia, Mongolian in Mongolia and Chinese in China.

Then there are some legs where there’s no restaurant car at all. For example, between leaving the Russian one behind and collecting the Mongolian one after crossing the border.

The restaurant car food is okay but there are cheaper ways to feed yourself (see below). Also, the restaurant does sometimes run out of food (or particular dishes, at least).

A samovar (boiling water dispenser) is available at the end of each carriage and it’s free to use. (I did see a price list which included plain boiling water on a Mongolian train but no one ever had to pay – we think maybe that was the fee if you asked the attendant to bring it to you.) It’s best to bring your own tea/coffee making supplies but if you don’t you can buy teabags from the conductors and they can also provide a glass.

There should be a timetable posted on the wall of each carriage that lists all the stops the train will make and how long they’ll last. (Note however that it might only be available in cyrillic.) Some stops are only a couple of minutes but others can be up to half an hour, enough time to hop off and stretch your legs on the platform.

There are opportunities to buy food at these extended stops: either from convenience booths on the platform or from women who sell homemade snacks such as cooked or dried fish, piroshki and dumplings for around 50-100 руб each.

Some conductors will herd you back onto the train before it moves on but others won’t so you’d better keep an eye on the time or you may find yourself watching your train (with all your luggage) chugging off into the distance without you!

There are two western style toilets in each carriage and they are cleaned during the journey, but they can get a little smelly as toilet paper can’t be disposed of in the toilet bowl, it has to go in the bin – with everyone else’s used toilet paper. (But you’ll probably be used to this if you’ve spent any time in Russia, Mongolia or China.)

There are no showers in second class carriages, only the washbasins with the toilets. If you aren’t breaking up your journey with any overnight stays in towns along the way and are desperate for a shower there’s a lengthy (3 hour) stop at Наушки (Naushki, the last Russian stop before the Mongolian border where the first round of passport checks are done). Public showers are available on the platform for 90-100 руб per person.

People may come down the corridor offering goods for sale such as knitted shawls, fur hats or gold necklaces but you don’t have to buy anything. Near the borders you’ll also get people offering money exchange but the rate is very poor. (Either way, use up or get rid of your tugriks before you leave Mongolia as no one will touch them outside the country.)

I can’t speak for the Trans-Manchurian or the straight Trans-Siberian routes but as far as the Trans-Mongolian goes, the best views are between Irkutsk, Ulaanbaatar and Beijing. The view on the longest leg (Moscow-Irkutsk) is unfortunately flat and repetitive.

If you’re alighting from the train early in the morning it would be wise to set an alarm, but the conductors will most likely to wake you one hour before your stop (whether you think you need a whole hour or not).

What to bring:

  • Enough cash for the journey, ideally any rubles and yuan in small denominations (it doesn’t matter so much for tugriks). You won’t encounter any ATMs at the short stops along the way.
  • Some food. As mentioned above there are opportunities to buy food along the way but you should bring breakfast supplies and it’s worth having a back up stash of things such as cup noodles, easy open tinned tuna, crispbread, spreads that don’t require refrigeration, nuts, fruit.
  • Camping utensils or a good spork.
  • Light and sturdy cups and tea/coffee supplies.
  • Bottled water, although you can buy more at the longer stops.
  • Toilet paper. Sometimes it’s provided, sometimes it’s not – better to be safe than sorry!
  • Cleaning wipes.
  • Earplugs.
  • Eye mask.
  • Russian phrase book. You might not need it but we only had the bare essentials in a combined Eastern Europe phrase book and we wish we’d had something more detailed for the 80 hours we spent sharing a compartment with a chatty Russian babushka.
  • Lockable luggage cable to secure bags to handles and fixtures so no one will be able to walk off with them. (We did this and it actually felt a bit unnecessary, but again, better safe than sorry.)
  • A book to read – but don’t expect the journey to be extremely productive. Even though you’ll be spending days on a train after a while you do enter a kind of twilight zone where all you may be doing is chatting, eating and napping, but it somehow seems to consume a lot of time.

Regarding foodstuffs: you don’t have to bring these with you from your home country – if anything it’s more fun to stock up at a Russian supermarket!

Regarding alcohol: apparently you’re not supposed to take any (I’ve heard you can even get thrown off the train if you’re caught) but we were advised (by a Russian) to take one litre of vodka with us, “just in case”! In the end we took half a litre, but none of the Russians we met were interested in sharing it with us. (Plenty of travellers were though!) Note that the Russian way to drink vodka is to eat a bite of pickled gherkin after each sip, so if you do decided to take some vodka bring pickles too (or olives) for authenticity.

Packing tips:

  • Pack essentials into a smaller, easier to access bag – it can be quite difficult/annoying to get into your main pack once it’s stowed away.
  • Keep your food supplies together in one bag so it’s easy to access.
  • Have flipflops or slippers handy for walking around the train and on the platforms.