The entire trip took 4 weeks to complete.
We passed through 14 countries if you include Belarus, and may have obliviously passed through Latvia whilst we slept en route from St Petersburg to Vinius- we never did work out the route that this train took. Malaysia-Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam-China-Mongolia-Russia-(Belarus)-Lithuania-Poland-Germany-Belgium-France-UK.
The total cost for the transport was around £1400 per person for the trains and buses (not including some extras for taxis that we probably spent getting from train stations to hotels, and the Metro tickets for getting around cities- probably an extra £200 or so).
We took 19 trains including split trains with connections (it should have been 18, but we were forced to take the local train after being removed by Belarussian immigration), 1 taxi, 4 buses.
We stayed a total of 13 nights on trains, 1 night on a bus and 12 nights in hotels.
Total hotel bill was around 630 pounds, with the majority of that being spent in Europe.
Other expenses incurred include for food, snacks, drinks, SIM cards and entry to tourist sights.
The best and the worst
Best trip- the most comfortable sleeper train was the first overnight trip from Thailand to Bangkok which cost approx £10, and was really nice because you got to curtain yourself off in a spacious and comfortable bed, with an almost empty train carriage. Amazing value- everyone should try Thai trains!
Worst trip- the appalling bus ride over the border from Cambodia to Vietnam, mostly because of the terribly designed bed-seats.
In general we thought that the older trains are much more comfortable to travel in, providing more space, but they have limited electrical supply and there has been no internet in any trains on the entire trip, except for the ones travelling from Warsaw to Berlin, and from London- Beeston which both promised wifi, but it each case it did not work.
We would recommend taking first class in the bullet trains in China which is a more pleasant experience than second which was a bit cramped.
Booking the upper or lower bunks is a matter of preference. The upper bunks are a hassle to climb in and out of, but you do have a bit more privacy with your territory marked off. The lower bunks are better to sit on and for using the table and you have better views out of the window, but your cabin mates may expect to share the space during the day.
There is plenty of scope for buying food on platforms on Vietnamese trains, including baguettes by people who come to the train at stops (keep plenty of change for this). There are fewer opportunities for buying food on Chinese trains, but the buffet cars are very good, and seem to be under-used. You can buy snacks on Russian trains when they stop and there is usually a buffet car, but the food is expensive and it’s not great. Most Russians advise taking your own food onto trains with you.
Toilets are locked at least 10 minutes before and after stopping at train stations on Russian and Chinese trains. For the longer stops this can be pretty inconvenient.
If you want to see the wheels of the train being changed at the China- Mongolia border- stay on the train- don’t get off onto the platform or you’ll spend 3 hours in a duty free shop.
The trains schedule is usually posted in the carriage wall in Russian trains, so finding out when the long stops are allows you to run out to get supplies.
Beer is much cheaper from the station kiosks in Russia than from the restaurant car.
Toilets in Russian stations usually cost money, and are not very pleasant; the toilets on the trains are usually nicer.
Having initially been reluctant to book second class tickets on the sleeper trains, which involved sharing a cabin with strangers, we found that meeting a variety of people was one of the most interesting parts of the trip. We would have had a completely different and probably more boring experience in a cabin on our own.
Things we would do differently
If time was completely unlimited we would have stayed longer to explore some of the cities we stopped in. We would have taken a more circuitous route in China to take in more cities. It would have also been nice to have stopped in Mongolia. However, the trip did provide a taster of some of these places, which we will most likely visit at a later date.
Things to take with you
The best gadget that I packed was my travel coffee filter with a good supply of coffee. (Tea and coffee sachets always useful too- but you can buy these most places….filter coffee is rare in China outside of the big cities)
A mug & cutlery (spork/ chopsticks/ army knife)- can be borrowed on Russian trains.
Tissues/ toilet paper- many of the train toilets were well stocked, but not all.
A good/ dense book- eventually electricals run out and you will read a short novel too quickly.
Power pack for electricals
Pot noodles- always good as a stand by, and all trains have a boiling water supply
Flip flop shoes that are easy to take on and off
Wet wipes- for keeping your carriage and yourself clean
Comfortable clothes like sweat pants and t-shirts that you can sleep in
A small bag- some of the trains do not have a large amount of luggage space. They can accommodate a suitcase just about, but best to have bags that can be squashed into small spaces and removed easily so you can get to your things.
A translation of the Cyrillic alphabet is very useful and provides some entertainment for understanding which stations you are stopping at
Small travel towel (I took a tea towel)
Disposable paper pants (or underwear if you are N American). This means that your bag gets progressively emptier as you travel instead of filling up with dirty laundry. This genius idea is courtesy of a colleague at UNMC, who will not thank me for revealing their identity in association with underwear travel secrets….but thanks….you know who you are!
Don’t bother with:
Pillows are not necessary- we carried them as far as Mongolia and realised that the trains provide well on this score.
Blankets/ linens- on a previous trip to SaPa in Vietnam, we were really cold on an overnight train due to the AC and so we were concerned about this. However, on this trip, we were well provided with enough blankets and we got sheets and a small travel towel in some trains. It was the middle of summer, so I can’t vouch for how this translates at other times of the year.
The standard reference website for train trips all over the world is the amazing and comprehensive Man in Seat 61 http://www.seat61.com/
The information on the booking agents below is provided in the website above, but we used the following:
Russia (including trans-Siberian trains across from China) http://realrussia.co.uk/