Now that we have travelled from London to Vietnam by train we can confidently offer these 5 tips on long distance train travel. For us nothing beats travelling by train. It is a lot more civilized (except during Chinese National Holiday, more on that later) than any other mode of transport. It is also a lot more social. We communicate a lot more on trains than we do aeroplanes. Train travel inspires romantic images of The Orient Express and the epic Trans Siberian railway. We are happy to say that long distance train travel still creates that adventurous feeling!
Find a good spot
Let’s face it, you are going to be on here for a long time so you may as well get comfortable. This is especially true on sleeper trains. Always try and book the bottom bunk if you are in a 4 berth carriage. There is less room on those top bunks and you do not get to see all that wonderful scenery flowing past. Plus if you need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night getting down from those top bunks on a moving train, half asleep is a bit tricky!
We only managed to get the bottom bunks once in our epic journey. We were so chuffed until an older couple came into our room who clearly were going to struggle to be going up and down the top bunks. So we gave them the bottom ones instead. Train Etiquette number 1! By the way, if you are on a Chinese sleeper train in 3rd class, DO NOT book the bottom berth!!! There are 3 levels of beds in 3rd class. The top level is so close to the ceiling you feel like you are in a coffin, the middle one is the best as you can see outside and the bottom one gets used by everyone to sit down on even if you are sleeping! (we witnessed this a few times.)
This is a very important tip! Our journey from Berlin to Moscow could have been a disaster if it was not for the kindess of strangers. Basically we presumed that on a 27hr train journey there would be a restaurant carriage. Wrong! To our dismay we found out that the restaurant carriage got added in Belarus which was around 20 hours away. All we had was a bottle of red wine (priorities!) and some tuc biscuits. Amazingly (or embarrassingly) word had got around the train that there were 2 idiot travellers that had no food. A man knocked on our door and gave us half of his food. So began 18 months of kindness from strangers! So take lots of food with you even if there is a restaurant carriage. On Russian trains there is boiling water at the end of each carriage so we brought dry noodles, pasta etc for our massive trips. In South East Asia there are a constant flow of people walking up and down the trains offering home cooked food and in Japan (see photo above) you get waitress service!
This could be a huge list but I will try to stick with the essentials, after all you have to carry all of this, unless you are like Mariah Carey and have a team of porters with you.
A Big Mug – Very versatile. From vodka to hot noodles our mugs came in very handy.
Lots and lots of reading material.
Ear plugs & eye mask – You will inevitably have a snorer in your carriage.
Toilet paper, wet wipes, a small face towel and hand sanitizer.
Moleskine notebook – To jot down your thoughts, observations and great ideas that will come flowing because you have slowed down!
A Blanket or fleece – Believe it or not this is not for Russia but for South East Asia! They put the a/c on so high that you will freeze for the whole journey. If you don’t have the above mentioned items, you can always do what we did and cover the vent with newspaper!
I have purposely left out ipad, laptop etc though you will probably have one. The reason being is that train travel is the perfect time to disconnect and just be. So switch off those devices and watch the world go by.
Strangers are friends you haven’t met
As I mentioned before. Train travel is a social way of travelling. So don’t be shy, strike up a conversation with your neighbour. We shared our room once with a Russian couple for 2 days. They could not speak English and our Russian was none existent and yet for those 2 days we got to know a lot about each other! Somehow you manage to get yourself understood. Sometimes Russian vodka can help with this! In South East Asia we met so many different travellers on train journeys and many have now become friends. It’s a great way of swapping traveller tales and getting tips on destinations too!
Booking ahead can really save you money depending on what country you are travelling in. We saved a lot of money on our Russian trains by booking direct from the Russian rail website. A word of warning about Russian train travel. All Russian trains are quoted in Moscow time even if you are 8 time zones (hours) away! It’s very confusing especially if you are getting an early morning train. For the best up to date information on any train anywhere in the world, go to Seat 61 the godfather of train travel information. Booking ahead is very important when you are in China as we found out to our cost. We needed to get a train from Datong to Pingyao. Unfortunately on the day we were travelling most of China was travelling too as it was the last day of the National holidays. Most people were heading back home after seeing family elsewhere. When I say most people, I mean MOST people. We read the following day that 280 million people were on the trains the day we went to Pingyao! 280 million. So not surprisingly everything was booked up. Miraculously we managed to get a “standing” ticket, (yes they do exist) which was an experience to say the least. So my advice is go to the train station days in advance to book your next leg and don’t travel during Chinese New Year & National Holidays unless you want to know what a tin of sardines feels like.
As you can see in the photo above not all train travel is what you expect! I hope these tips come in handy and if you know of anymore please drop us a line, we would love to hear from you.
Have a great weekend,
Love & Peace,
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