It was on the top of my list. The Trans-Siberian / Trans-Mongolian train trip is the greatest and longest train trip in the world. I finally did this back in December 2012. My brain associates Siberia with winter, which is the reason I picked to go in December. Having gone through it, my take is, doing it in summer is nicer because day time is much shorter in winter, it gets dark around 4pm, so you don’t get to see much. It is not as difficult to get around, since most of Russia is well equipped to deal with harsh winter. You may think this is given, but I’ve been to some places in northern China where heating is so insufficient in winter that I really suffered.
This trip from St. Petersburg to Saigon was completed in 2 separate trips. The first one was from St. Petersburg to Hong Kong, via Ulanbaatar, Beijing and Guangzhou which I did from 16 December 2012 to 7 January 2013. Back then, I couldn’t be bothered to plan everything myself, so I got someone from Monkeyshrine in Beijing to arrange everything for me, including the train tickets, excursions, etc. The man in seat 61 has tons of up to date information that you can tap into if you’re looking to arrange everything yourself. In general, I think it’s not difficult to get around Russia, but be mindful if you’re doing this in summer when it’s high season.
I then did the second trip last week, from Hong Kong to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh, but Saigon is so much cooler name), via Guangzhou, Nanning, Hanoi, stopping in Hue, Hoi An and Nha Trang. Unfortunately, I had to complete the Nanning – Hanoi leg via bus, as I missed the overnight train by about 5 mins, so I had to take the bus rather than spending a full day in Nanning. This time, I arranged the trip myself, getting Chinese train ticket via Wechat and Vietnamese train ticket via Baolau, although you can get it directly from Vietnam Railway which is better not only from pricing (no commission) but also you can choose the exact seat you want (Baolau can only let you choose the class you want), but Vietnam Railway website keeps rejecting my credit card so I went with Baolau.
Here’s a map of the overall routes taken.
Initially I wanted to go all the way to Singapore, but I didn’t have enough time, so there will be the third trip from Saigon to Singapore in the future. Stay tuned!
MOSCOW – 16-18 December 2012
The trip started with a flight to Moscow. Stayed a couple of days there. Moscow is big, with lots of old style buildings. Some famous landmarks include the Kremlin and surrounding buildings, Gorky park, Bolshoi theatre. Hitchhiking is a common way to get around town, which I did a couple of times, but I must admit, freaked me out a bit.
The architecture in Moscow extended to places like subway station. There’s lots of beautifully decorated subway station, such as Mayakovskaya, that’s worth visiting. Also went and tried the famous Cafe Pushkin, where you can dine on caviar while listening to live classical music!
SAINT PETERSBURG – 18-20 December 2012
The trip continues to St Petersburg where the Trans-Siberian begins. I took the Sapsan train #158A to St Petersburg, which is the fast train. Having done it, I think getting on the Red Arrow party train would be much more fun!
St Petersburg lives up to my expectation. Stunning city, with pretty buildings around and of course, beautiful women everywhere! You can walk around Nevskiy Prospekt for a couple of days exploring the department stores, historical buildings, book store, cafes. The Hermitage Museum is a must go, housing tons of interesting stuffs and paintings, even I was impressed and I don’t even like museums in general.
YEKATERINBURG – 22-23 December 2012
I got on the Trans-Siberian train in St Petersburg, with first destination to Yekaterinburg, on train #72, departed 1707 on 20 December 2012 and arrived in Yekaterinburg at 0826 on 22 December 2012, a long ~40 hours on the train speeding through past the Ural Mountains. I was a bit worried that it might be unbearable to be on the train for so long. Well the books helped, I read all of Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series on top of a couple of Daniel Silva’s and John Grisham’s. At the end of the 3 weeks trip, I finished 11 books! The Russian train actually quite nice, I got myself on first class sleepers where it’s 2 beds in a compartment. Bags are secured under the bed, so there’s no way people can steal your stuffs unless you are an exceptionally heavy sleeper.
The views along the way are just pretty. Siberian winter with white snow, Russian dachas, generally clear blue sky.
Yekaterinburg is an old, but quite pretty city. The Church of All Saints where Russian last emperor and his family were slayed is worth a visit inside.
I’ve also went to a spot where there’s the border between Asian and European continents. I love these landmarks, having been to a number of them globally. Particularly, I love those poles that show distances to major cities in the world.
A Russian winter is not complete without ice fishing and dog sledding! Look at those adorable, fearless Russian kids!
KRASNOYARSK – 25-27 December 2012
Next destination was Krasnoyarsk, famous for its landscape and an important stop on the Trans-Siberian network. Train #82 departed Yekaterinburg at 1825 on 23 December 2012 arrived Krasnoyarsk at 0654 on Christmas day 2012. Another long train ride, with Christmas eve spent on the train.
The landscape is quite spectacular. Also visited the Stolby Natural Reserve for a hike, but then decided not to do in the cold winter because, oh well, I could die! Krasnoyarsk is also home to one of the world’s largest hydro power plants!
IRKUTSK – 28-31 December 2012
Irkutsk is the last stop in Russia on this trip, a short 18 hours train #8 from Krasnoyarks leaving at 1335 on 27 December 2012, arriving at 0732 on 28 December 2012. I spent a night staying with local in the Listvyanka village next to Lake Baikal, the largest lake in the world and the main attraction in the region. Unfortunately, the lake was just starting to freeze when I was there, so it’s very foggy, but still quite pretty with the sun in the background.
Irkutsk city itself is not overly interesting, but again, full of charming buildings. There’s also a big park in the center of the city with snow slides and lots of happy people at night. Fun!
ULANBAATAR – 2-3 January 2013
After Russia, it was Mongolia. The train #362/264 from Irkutsk left at 2210 on 31 December 2012, arrived at 0610 on 2 January 2013. I spent new year’s eve on the train. The attendants were very nice, they actually invited me to their compartment for a champagne to celebrate new year. Now that’s not something that happened every day. The train itself was the worst on all the trip, but still bearable. I didn’t take many photos in Mongolia, since at this point I have visited Ulanbaatar like 20 times for work.
BEIJING – 4-5 January 2013
Train #24 from Ulanbaatar to Beijing was awesome! It took 30 hours, mainly because the train need to change the bogie (wheels?) when it crossed from Mongolia to China. You see, Mongolia use the wide rail gauge from Russian legacy, while Chinese railway system use narrow gauge. It took a couple of hours to change this, where the train cars were lifted up, to bogie changed, and then voila, we’re on. Immigration also took some time.
A stop in Beijing, in winter, warrants a visit for a Peking duck, with Made in China at the Grand Hyatt an excellent place for this delicious dish, one of my favorites.
GUANGZHOU / HONG KONG – 6 January 2013
Chinese train is awesome. They’re new, modern, clean and comfortable. And they’re fast. I got on the bullet train from Beijing to Guangzhou, taking only 8 hours to cover the ~2,400kms, with the train traveling at an average of, your math is right, ~300km/h. It was also my first time to Guangzhou South station, massive structures probably 3 times the size of Hong Kong airport.
HANOI – 11-12 January 2016
After a three years break, the trip continued from Hong Kong. You can basically get from Hong Kong to Hanoi in about 20 hours on the train. Initial plan was to get on the 0815 KTT train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, followed by train D3612 from Guangzhou to Nanning taking 4 hours (departing 1215 arriving 1632) to catch the cross-border overnight Nanning to Hanoi train #T8701 departing at 1820 which will get you to Hanoi bright and early at 0520 the next day. It should works flawlessly, there’s enough 2 hours break in between the 3 train rides to get tickets at the station. The problem is that, you can’t purchase the overnight Nanning-Hanoi ticket in advance, but I reckon in low season, 2.5 hours is more than enough to queue and get the ticket. I was wrong, because there’s only 1 bloody line to get this ticket at the station and for some reasons everyone queue at this line #1. I literally missed the cut by 5 mins. So it was about 6pm in Nanning, and I’m stranded. There’s only 1 overnight train, so the choice was to get the one next day or go with Plan B, taking the bus. There’s not much to do in Nanning so I decided to take the bus the next morning. Bus was actually a little more expensive, but it’s more comfortable.
Have not really properly explored Hanoi before, but because of the changed of plan, I only got a couple of hours between the bus arrival at about 1500 to my overnight Hanoi – Hue train at 1930. Managed to squeeze in a couple of meals and coffee of course. Hanoi actually quite pretty with very strong French architecture influence, obviously.
HUE / HOI AN – 13-16 January 2016
My first train experience in Vietnam was not bad. Similar to the trains in Russia. Acceptable, relatively clean. Beds bit small though. I was on SE1 train, which is supposedly the better ones, in the 4-beds soft sleeper.
Upon arrival in Hue, I was picked up by the guys at Hue Easy Rider for a 2 days motorbike trip from Hue to Hoi An. It covered ~150km over 2 days, where we ride on the Ho Chi Minh trail, finishing up with the spectacular Hai Van pass just outside of Da Nang before Hoi An. It’s all said in this video, which cover both Hue – Hoi An and Nha Trang – Da Lat motorbike trip.
Hoi An remains my most favorite little city in the world. Small, charming, quaint. Just love it. Good food, nice walks around, delicious coffee. You can go to the beach about half an hour away, or see the sunset from the old building just next to the river. Nice life.
NHA TRANG / DA LAT – 17-18 January 2016
Next was Nha Trang, an overnight train away from Da Nang. I joined another motorbike trip, where we rode all the way to Da Lat and back.
SAIGON – 19-20 January 2016
Saigon is an exciting place. The hustling and bustling of a typical southeast Asian city, combined with great architecture, friendly people, good food. This would be my fourth visit to Saigon, so I didn’t actually take many pictures. But to close off, here’s photos of some great food I’ve consumed during my 10 days in Vietnam. It includes Banh Mi Huynh Hoa and Pho Hoa Pasteur in Saigon, barbecue at Lac Canh in Nha Trang, cao lau and beetle beef in Hoi An, Bun Bo Hue in Hue and many more.