Over Land And Sea To Japan And Back Again
Although our round trip to South Korea and Japan was a little while ago, I’ve rounded up some of our best (and worst) memories of the journey and put them down in writing. Since returning to Europe, many friends, friends of friends and even complete strangers have asked us for help or advice in planning a trip on the most infamous of all train journeys through Russia. Writing down our experiences and logistics will hopefully help others wishing to make the grand voyage.
Initially, our aim was to make it to South Korea ‘by any means’ except aeroplanes. Some information was quite difficult to glean, particularly in relation to ferries in Asia. Despite this, we managed to find the online ticket office for the ferry from Vladivostok on the eastern seaboard of Russia to Donghae in South Korea. This booked, we knew we had a date by which we had to be in Vladivostok. In-between times we were free to move as quickly or as slowly as we liked.
Part 1 – There
Leaving the UK and crossing western Europe proved to be one of the most difficult and expensive tasks of all on both trips. We remedied this by using Bla Bla Car both times. BlaBlaCar is a website for car pooling; someone puts up a lift and how many spaces are available and you can book into the car. Outbound, we took a ride with the wonderful Piotr and Anna, meeting them at the roundabout in front of the port at Dover. They took us all the way to Lodz in Poland, where they also (very much above and beyond the call of duty), had us staying in their house for the night, meeting their children and having a party with their friends. The next day they took us walking through nearby forests and then dropped us off at the bus station where we travelled to Warsaw. Unfortunately, the train connecting Warsaw to the Baltic states was in a state of disrepair, a state that was supposed to be fixed by the time we returned, but, alas it wasn’t to be!
Taking the overnight bus to Vilnius was….literally our least favourite mode of transport 😦 And it was horrible. Zero sleep, awfully uncomfortable seats, and then upon arrival into Vilnius at 6am we spent the entirety of the day waiting for the overnight train to depart to St. Petersburg.
The sleeper train was such a treat after a sleepless night on the bus. We were in a cabin for four, but had it to ourselves at the beginning. Lulled into a false sense of security, we decided this would be the opportune time for a quick ‘danger’ wash. Although the element of danger was unbeknownst to us until we were butt naked in the cabin with a cup of hot water plus a flannel to wash with, and the train began to slow down….uh oh. Dan had finished just in time, I however, experienced one of those dreadful moments where your hands just refuse to work and clothes rebel against wet skin and I just could not get dressed quick enough! Nightmare. So when the conductor came and rapped loudly on the cabin window I was beyond stressed. Dan stalled them for the necessary time (by keeping the door shut!! Not with his magical Lithuanian linguistic skills), and we finally opened the door allowing a grandmother with her grandson to saunter in, looking somewhat disgruntled.
Prior to commencing our voyage, a little more research was required. Finding out about trains in Russia seemed an endless task until we found the website ‘The Man In Seat 61’, which is truly brilliant as a source of information for overland/sea travel. Before reading the information there, it seemed as though we would be almost obliged to buy Russian train tickets ahead of time via Real Russia. Again, this is a marvellous website that allows pre-booking of all train travel throughout Russia, but it adds an extra third to the price. We were confident (hahaha) of our ability to buy train tickets on the day, station by station, in Russian.
A laughable time was had at the ticket office in St. Petersburg, where all manner of faux pas’ reared their ugly heads. This included; a two-hour wait in the wrong queue (cash only queue, we only had a card), a thorough misunderstanding of the train set-up, an enormous mistake about the train departure time (all train times are in Moscow time in Russia), and exasperated faces from the Russian ticket office staff (not to mention the other people in the epic queues). Alas, all is well that ends well and after a lovely few days in St. Petersburg we boarded a night train to Moscow. It was fascinating to watch how everyone else on the train made no big deal about this. The young woman opposite simply curled up on her bag and slept solidly for the next 6 hours.
After our first experience with the ticket office we made some notes on improvement. Writing down the destination station in Russian (thank you Google), alongside drawing a simple layout of the carriage with arrows pointing to the beds we wanted really helped for the subsequent trains. Having our passports ready, the cash for the train as well as the exact train time we wanted (because there are so many trains moving all the time) also helped the transaction go smoothly. For our next train we were still a little bit novice when it came to booking and we were just guided by the ticket person. Big Mistake. When we came to the train, which we were on for the next five days, we had booked two upper bunk beds in the platzkart (3rd class) carriage of 52 people. Luckily, we were sharing an area with a mum and her son, where the latter had a hankering for the upper bunk and actively wanted to swap with us. This was such a blessing, having an upper bunk and a lower bunk. There is a certain train etiquette which implies that people allocated to the upper bunks may sit on the lower bunks during the day to use the table to eat at. However, this does not account for the consistent changing of the time zones and therefore eating times, the continual stops and changing of people on all beds, many of whom get on and want to go straight to sleep. So if we had been restricted to the two upper bunks, which you can’t sit up in, for five days, it would have been awful.
This five day stint proved mighty interesting; a resident dog and rabbit, coupled with 40 degree heat in a non-airconditioned carriage made for a rather smelly experience. Although, the owners of the rabbit were supreme at keeping it clean and the dog just wanted to runaway and hide under the seats. Mild surprise ensued when I saw the owner of the dog holding it over the toilet to do its business, and there was me thinking I only had to share the toilet with the 52 other people. Silly me.
Days were filled with crochet, reading Tolstoy (although my Kindle broke just ahead of our return journey 😦 ), tea from the samovar, trying to convey meaning to intrigued Russian teenagers, playing universal card games, snoozing, managing the drunk male Provinista (train attendant), gazing at the landscape, working out ‘train lag’, eating salted cucumbers, and general people watching.
After the five day train marathon we took refuge on the sandy freshwater-shores of Lake Baikal. It is the biggest freshwater lake in the world by quite some margin; it is bigger than all of the Great Lakes combined. It was a very welcome relief staying on Olkhon Island and not moving for a few days. It also gave us chance to notice that the faces had begun to change as we delved further across Eurasia.
The next train ride was a little shorter, at only 3 nights on the train. It took us right into Vladivostok through Siberia. We learned that Siberia has a lot of trees! Beautiful rivers, lakes and forests. The train on this leg was much quieter than the leg to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, with most Russians getting off before the bulk of Siberia and travellers turning south into Mongolia.
Once in Vladivostok, we had a day or two before jumping aboard the 24 hour ferry to South Korea. I have never felt a bed to be so comfy as the beds on that boat. It was like a dream 🙂 The ferry hugs the coast of the Korean peninsula giving a full view of the North Korean coastline. We arrived early morning into Donghae, and then searched for some food followed by a luxurious bus trip to Seoul. We made it!
Part 2 – And Back Again
Upon leaving South Korea, we ventured over the water on a two-hour ferry ride to Kyushu in Japan. We spent six blissful weeks WWOOF-ing, bathing in onsen, visiting temples and living life with our Japanese families. It was a truly awesome experience, but one for a separate post. Getting from Japan to China by boat was a little challenging, but it was bookable prior to departing from ROK. It was the most expensive part of the entire journey, costing roughly £150 each for the 30 hour crossing.
At the port in Shimonoseki, we boarded an old vessel from Panama, which was mostly used for transporting freight but with a few passengers thrown in for good measure. It was a very pleasant trip across the Yellow Sea, the water was like glass for the duration of the journey, gently lulling us to sleep. The boat docked in the Chinese port of Qingdao, where the famous beer comes from. I had visions of a moderate sized port town – how wrong I was. The stretch of coastline used for freight was immense. Around 30kms. With huge freight liners all the way along. When we disembarked and went through to customs, we noticed an entire fleet of brand-new trains parked up on bricks, with Spanish writing all over them ready to be shipped over to Argentina. With feelings of glee at being back in a territory where we felt very comfortable, we spent a few days in Qingdao eating our favourite street food; jiaozi and BBQ.
The next leg was the bullet train from Qingdao up to Beijing. It was megatron fast, reaching speeds of 300kph. It cost £33 and took under 6 hours to get into Beijing, where we spent a week seeing the sights and meeting up with old friends. Before leaving Korea we had pre-booked our place onto the first train on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, from Beijing to Ulanbataar, and also obtained our Chinese visa. Getting to this train during rush hour in Beijing with massive backpacks was eventful! Once on the train, we found it was choc full of backpackers. In true Chinese style, food was included, so we met up with lots of the fellow travellers during mealtimes.
Scenery was pretty awesome on this train ride. Firstly, travelling through the seemingly endless desert-like agricultural fields which feed the incomprehensibly large population of China’s cities. Scarily, the fields look so barren and dry, and with a huge sandstorm blowing through from the Gobi desert, they looked even worse. The sandstorm continued as we entered the Gobi and train assistants were desperately trying to stuff every nook and cranny with pieces of rag to stop the raging wind from blowing any more sand and general muck inside the train.
As we awoke the next morning, we had travelled through the sandstorm into an entirely different climate. A brilliant sunrise glinted off the backs of a thousand camels. Finally we could see the desert along with a growing number of yurts. We were in Mongolia. Overnight, we had been awakened by very loud banging and jerking just before leaving China- nothing dodgy, it was for the changing of the bogeys under the train. This was quite the operation; all the carriages must be pulled apart from one another and then jacked up (with all the passengers inside), their wheels changed so they fit the different gauge of railway tracks in Mongolia and Russia, the carriage lowered back down and then each carriage fixed back to the next. At 2am, for two hours. Needless to say, sleep was impossible but it was a fun experience watching the process. Immediately after that we had to go through border control, which took another two hours. So it wasn’t until we woke up the next morning that this hit us. The food carriage had been changed into a magnificent wood-carved affair and the number of travellers had reduced significantly.
The following evening we slowly rolled into the Mongolian capital, Ulanbaataar. A wonderful social enterprise named Ger-to-Ger had caught my eye online as a way of experiencing Mongolian life in its most traditional form; living with nomadic families in their yurts. We set out for four days with three different families in the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, this experience was truly one of the best of my life. The way of life is so completely different to anything else I’ve seen, particularly interesting was the fact that the nomadic families are having their first taste of electricity in the form of solar. A total leap-frog of the vile fossil fuel industry, the families can now sit back and relax to the worldwide phenomenon: K-Drama. I actually couldn’t believe I had left Korea, travelled to the most far-flung place I could imagine and still Korean Drama was haunting me!
After serious adventures involving eating freshly sawn testicles, riding horses with wooden saddles, feeding all manner of baby farm animals, loos with views and motorbiking over frozen rivers with packs of dogs chasing us, it was time to leave the wilderness and catch the train to our old friend, Russia.
Feeling like train veterans in Russia, we were able to not only book the correct area on the train but also book a much more modern train. The older trains we travelled in on the outbound journey had an average speed of 50kph and the interior was seriously soviet; i.e. built to last although quite old skool. On the way home we managed to book other trains which were younger. They were identifiable when booking by their number. A train with a low number (one or two digits) is a more modern ‘firmeny’ train, often built in the last five years. Trains with three digits are more often than not an older and slower train.
Going from Mongolia to Russia, we shared a kupe (four berth cabin) with a lovely pair of German traveling buddies in what felt like a plush cabin! We took this two-day train into Irkutsk and kipped in the same home-stay we had found on the way out. A wonderful theatre director named Igor was the owner of the house. He’s fluent in four languages and had spent most of his life directing shows in Paris. His house was like a cross between Geppetto’s workshop and Mr Potts’ (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) house, with wooden contraptions everywhere you looked. It was fabulous and it was also the place where we had completed a full circle on the map.
A two day train took us into the city of Omsk, home of the exiled writer Dostoyevsky. We spent a night there before catching the final long train into Moscow. These journeys were far more pleasant than the outbound journey, mostly as a result of the time year. Travelling in April meant it was still pretty cold in Siberia, but it made for a far better temperature on the trains. It was also out of any school or national holiday time and so the trains were relatively empty.
We arrived into Moscow for a flying visit, and immediately booked the overnight train to Riga, Lativa, but afterwards we had 12 hours to kill. This was filled by going to a lovely district in downtown Moscow and watching a street artist create an almighty mural of some unknown Russian general. Soon enough we were back on another over night train (our last for this entire journey 😦 ), bound for Riga. And finally, we were back in Europe!
We toasted this with five days in wonderful Riga, before taking a long day-bus to Warsaw. After overnighting there, we met another BlaBlaCar driver who was to take us from Warsaw to Paris. Most unfortunately, this driver had been on a ‘lad’s weekend’ in Warsaw, and hadn’t gone to bed until 6am. It was 11am when he picked us up. Feeling quite annoyed/upset/terrified, we offered to drive. The trip took a loooong time and ended with Dan driving the car into Paris at 4am. This had been such an exhausting trip, yet we had another BlaBlaCar to catch on the other side of Paris. Once the metro opened, we hopped (although that makes it sound too energetic!) on and travelled to our stop across the city. We had two hours to wait and so found the closest McDonald’s, went upstairs and promptly fell asleep over our backpacks. It was a low moment. I was beyond tired by this point and was quite unhappy when Dan woke me and we had to be on the move again! This second BlaBlaCar was far more successful; the lovely chap drove so smoothly that we were quickly off to sleep again and being woken up at Poitiers train station where we met Dan’s mum, Janet.
Here ends our tale, the only thing left to say is that it was truly a perspective-altering adventure. I now love traveling slowly and embracing the good, the bad and the ugly that comes along with it. If time isn’t an issue, the experience is so much richer than popping on a aeroplane. A short story which was recounted to me somewhere in Siberia by Nika, a 19 year old traveling buddy, really stuck with me. She told me her mum believes that when you travel by aeroplane and arrive in a place we often feel uneasy or slightly out of sorts. She believes it is because you have traveled too fast for your soul and it is on its way, catching up with you. When it does, you feel much better. So why go through this at all, if you have the time? Keep your soul with you and travel slowly.