I don’t have Photoshop on my tablet
When discussing this trip with friends and colleagues before we left, I always focussed on the first leg – ‘We’re going from London to Hong Kong by train and then on from there’. After just over a month we completed this journey, with only two small breaks – crossing the Poland/Lithuania border by rail replacement bus and walking over the China/Hong Kong border before taking the metro onwards.
I’m writing this post on our first flight – Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur. While I’m sure we’ll probably take a couple more trains, by and large major journeys by train are either impossible or impractical for the rest of our planned itinerary.
Some sexy journey stats:
Total distance travelled: ~13,500km
Countries travelled through: 9 (UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Mongolia, China)
Total number of nights on train: 9
Total amount of time on train: ~217 hours
Total amounts of delay: 1 hour (!)
Shortest journey (time): Guangzhou South to Shenzhen North (30mins)
Longest journey (time): Moscow to Irkutsk (~75 hours)
Shortest journey (distance): Sestokai to Kaunas (~85km)
Longest journey (distance): Moscow to Irkutsk (5185km)
Fastest train: Beijing West to Guangzhou South (top speed hit 310kmph, traveled 2170km in 8 hours!)
Slowest train: Sestokai to Kaunas (85km in an hour and a half)
Best night’s sleep: Ulaan Baatar to Beijing (I think I started getting used to sleeping on the train by this point)
Worst night’s sleep: Vilnius to St Petersburg (being woken up at 2am by a severe Russian demanding passports never really helps)
Best quality train: Brussels to Koln (although the Chinese ‘G’ class trains were very nice too)
Worst quality train: Sestokai to Kaunas (honestly wasn’t sure if this was going to fall apart on us)
Best quality station: Guangzhou South (all the new Chinese stations are pretty impressive though)
Worst quality station: Ulaan Baatar (not a lot of information or shops)
Best experience: Beijing West to Guangzhou South – 8 hours to cross almost the whole of China was very impressive
Worst experience: Irkutsk to Ulaan Baatar – 8 hours to cross the Russia/Mongolia border was not
Best scenery: Ulaan Baatar to Beijing
Worst scenery: St Petersburg to Moscow (well we left at 23:55 and arrived at 07:00 so to be fair we only saw the outskirts of Moscow)
It’s definitely an odd way to travel as far as we did – but a great way to stop off in so many places. The pace of travel was definitely more pleasant than an airplane (also significantly less cramped and less dry and nasty air). At most we crossed 2 time zones in one day so jet lag wasn’t really an issue, although keeping track of time on the Moscow to Irkutsk train was a complicated exercise. The train displayed Moscow time and provided all information in Moscow time – apart from the dining car which worked on local time. No indication was made at any point what local time was, however, nor when time zone boundaries were crossed.
All in all, it is significantly less stressful than flying. You don’t have to deal with the hassle of getting to airports, nor the waiting around and regular delays. The Chinese network of trains and huge hangar-like stations is pretty awesome – shows the advantage of being able to build a rail network in the 1990s and 2000s, not the 1890s and 1900s! The Polish network, by comparison is a bit of a disaster area with rolling stock from the 70s.
The ability to travel right into the centre of the city and link rapidly to metro connections, let alone not having baggage claim, overbearing customs and security issues on departure or arrival makes such a difference to the overall efficiency of the trip. When you’re travelling at >300kmph as well it can genuinely be considered to be faster than flying for end-to-end journeys even up to ~1500km (admittedly most countries aren’t anywhere near these speeds yet).