Just over two weeks ago we set out on our five month trip, vowing two things – not to kill each other and to try and complete as much of it as possible by land, at least until we reach the ocean and it becomes necessary to take a flight.
It’s slow, noisy and can be expensive compared to flying, so why train? Well, why not – we’ve got time, the noise is all part of the experience, and we’ve budgeted for it!
Both the famous Michaels of the travel world – Palin and Portillo – have immortalised train travel in their documentaries, travelling across Europe and Asia via this much romanticised form of transport, and it’s definitely inspired us to follow suit.
After countless miles and multiple time zones, we’ve emerged in Central Asia, with another long journey to go in China. Here’s what it’s been like so far!
London to Warsaw
We start at London’s iconic St Pancras station, the start of many a European mini-break. We stand out with our huge backpacks and what we are about to embark on seems so surreal when we’re surrounded by so many weekend-trippers.
What also makes the beginning of our trip so surreal is that while we are in total anticipation of the oddities that lie ahead, for now, from London to Brussels, we are encased in the familiar sights, sounds, smells, scenery and service of the good old Eurostar. We even treat ourselves to a beer (cherry flavoured for me) in Brussels during our first changeover.
Brussels to Cologne ends in a pit stop at the local Cologne institution Fruh (thanks to Phil’s mum’s friend Gaby for the top tip), for some beer, pork knuckle and bacon pancake. Here it’s all about hearty food and hearty laughter, and both the portions and atmosphere are epic (it seems normal to take your leftovers with you, as we had to!). Don’t even try to keep up with the groups of men when it comes to your calorific intake for both food and drink!
Cologne to Warsaw marks the first of our long journeys, and being a late night departure, we’re able to straight away set up camp for the night in our bunk beds. That bacon pancake even feeds us for breakfast, ahead of our complimentary coffee service an hour before arrival.
Warsaw to Moscow
From Warsaw to Moscow we’re lucky enough to score a slick Russian railways sleeper with a surprisingly comfortable shared shower, but this modernity is contradicted by a faded restaurant car run by a little old man. Here, our new Azerbaijani friend Mehdi shares his breakfast with us, of bread and chicken loaf. The restaurant car joined at Brest, near the Russian border, at midnight the night before, and the wait here lasted for two hours while customs checks were not only done, but the entire train’s carriages were shifted onto different wheels to adapt them to Russian rails.
We make our first traveller friend, a tall, middle aged Brit named Patrick taking advantage of his recent redundancy to take a train adventure from London to Hong Kong. Patrick was puzzled by the offer of a breakfast buffet by the previously mentioned little old men, only to be disappointingly served a single biscuit.
Moscow to St Petersburg and back
Now we’re travelling in style, in the jewel of the Russian Railways empire, the Sapsan superfast train that will get you from Moscow to St Petersburg in less than four hours. Immaculately dressed (yet unsmiling) staff complete with hat and gloves check you in on touchscreen devices before you travel at 200km an hour, with Russian villages, rivers and lakes roaring past you. The in-carriage screens play promotional videos about the Sapsan for you to fully appreciate how these trains benefit not just travellers but the environment and economy. The icing on the cake are the tiny portioned microwave meals in the restaurant car, served by even more unsmiling staff, but at least they’re dressed the part.
Moscow to Tashkent
This is when we feel the exotic part of our adventure truly kick in as if we’re shifting abruptly from first to third gear. Now, we really start to feel like travellers, and the ‘WTF’ moments/memories begin to come thick and fast. Our first sight is a hallway lined with a grubby red and yellow rug and a grumpy, heavyset conductor with gold front teeth (common in Uzbekistan due to poor dental services) handing out frayed bedlinen and musty blankets for us to make our own beds despite it being first class. This, along with no sink in our room and the only shower to speak of being a cut out water bottle to fill and pour over yourself in the toilet, set the tone for the rest of the trip and we were quick to embrace it as this would be home for the next three days!
Even at 11pm at night, as we’re trying to bed down, there are men hawking treats like shazhlyk and chibureki up and down the carriage. The next day, the plain clothes policemen who did our passport checks are to be found chilling in the dining car, at the tables lined with plastic table cloths, single flowers in glasses and threadbare curtains. We drink ice cold beer and fresh tea out of an ornately decorated tea set to go with our lunch of glistening traditional Uzbek plov and thick brown bread, and later slurp down another national dish, lagman, with perfectly made noodles nestled in a meaty broth.
Some of the men around us are playing cards and smoking, while others are washing their lunch down with large vodka shots. The train stops in one town where women on the platform roll wheely baskets up and down selling whole tiger skinned smoked fish.
That evening, we had been intent on watching a film on our laptop, but the heavyset, grumpy, gold toothed train conductor I mentioned earlier is somehow intrigued by us and has other plans. He seems to have found his humour and comes to our carriage bearing a portion of said smoked fish in newspaper and two beers as a welcome gift. Garat, his name is, but the other conductors call him Gary or Gary Potter, so Gary it is. Phil and I become ‘Marri’ (roll the double R heavily) and ‘Steve’ (at least that’s what we think he was saying, every time he looked at Phil he said ‘Steve’). I make Phil force down the smoked fish out of politeness and with gritted teeth he gallantly follows through.
We spend the next hour sharing photos with Gary (our wedding is a huge topic of interest) and Gary shows us film clips of, bizarrely, Ukraine’s Got Talent. Did I mention Gary doesn’t speak a word of English, so this whole exchange is carried out with sign language and the drawn out use of our Russian phrasebook.
Our three days goes relatively quickly, by the time we’re done eating, chatting, chilling, looking out the window, finally watching that film, playing cards, writing notes for the blog, etc. But as soon as we are about to cross the Uzbek border, the passport and immigration checks which had been quite painless now escalate. As officers check every passenger on the train (going through our bags, phone and laptop), we’re stuck at a four hour standstill in 40 degree heat. It’s a long, un-air conditioned train, so it’s a long four hours, and by the time the train pulls into Tashkent, our jellified arms and legs can barely lift our backpacks.
Tashkent to Samarkand, Samarkand to Bukhara
Thankfully we’re back to travelling in style from Tashkent to Samarkand, also on the high speed ‘Afrosiyab’ that takes as much pride of place in the Uzbekistan Railways portfolio as the Sapsan does for Russian Railways – staff are similarly dressed and similar promotional videos play in the carriage, and there’s even free coffee and sweets.
It’s back to basics though from Samarkand to Bukhara, but at least there’s a hot dog seller and screens showing an Uzbeki soap opera to keep us entertained. When we get there, the station is still being built so we have to amble across the tracks.
So by now, you’d think we are train travel pros, but it’s only going to get better. A 30 hour train in China awaits us from Urumqi to Turpan, and all the private carriages were sold out, so next time we’ll be in an open plan carriage with god knows how many other people. But we survived three days on a train with a cut out water bottle for a shower, so bring it on!
PS. The website, ‘The Man in Seat 61’ is our train travel bible, so do check it out if you are contemplating international train journeys. I’m happy to take questions but I’ll probably just refer you his way!