Around the world in eighty trains (well, nearly)

P1050396THIS article has been 3 years in the making. I guess you could say there has been a bit of trepidation over what to say, how to say it and whether anybody would be interested in reading! But what I do know is that there is an alternative to the common story of student travelling. Back in 2011, three friends and myself embarked on just that, travelling by train all the way from London to Hong Kong in South East Asia. From local European sleepers to the grand Trans-Siberian Express, the journey had it all. It was stressful, tiring and terrifying in parts, but without doubt still the most rewarding experience of my 22 years on this earth.

People laughed, scoffed and definitely looked at me like I was crazy. I even had best friends tell me there was ‘no way’ we’d pull it off. People bemusingly asked: what could be worse than sitting on a train for five days through the bleak, depressing landscape of Siberia? After travelling for two days through Europe we made it to Moscow. The complete change in language, culture and most notably the Cyrillic alphabet, was certainly a shock to the system.
The earlier doubt soon disappeared though as we set off from Moscow and snaked through some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. Packed with a supply of cuppa-soups, bread and cheap Chinese beers from our adorable conductors (who looked after us like their own children), we crossed seven time-zones and the line in terms of what constitutes a healthy amount of sleep, alcohol and games of ‘shithead’.

Mongolia soon found its way into our lives – and is just one of those places – very difficult to describe, very difficult to leave behind. From camel trekking in the Gobi to finding my least favourite drink in yaks milk tea, Mongolia is quite simply the best country I have ever had the pleasure of visiting…and off the beaten track in comparison to other travellers’ tales.

So the rail journey continued. Beijing was the next destination, with a conglomerate of tastes, smells and the Silk Market to boot. Copyright laws exempt, you can pick up some incredible treasures inside those walls, not to mention the experience of driving a hard bargain against the hardest of market stall owners. The end of the line for us was in the form of Hong Kong. There was a certain sense of relief to finally make it off the train for the last time, and Hong Kong provides the perfect melting pot where East meets West…a perfect way to end a perfect journey by train.

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The Trans Siberian Railway

I’m a huge advocate of ‘DIY travelling’ and for two reasons I can’t urge you enough to give crocked travel agents and ‘all-in-one’ journey tickets a miss this time. Firstly, the amount of money you save is incredible. For me, booking the journey from scratch and using independent travel agents (where I could), saved me up to £2000. I guess that was the main reason for the article – it made me think that I would hate for someone to not realise how simple and rewarding picking out your own journey can be. I know for a fact that companies take no prisoners when bleeding you dry with over-inflated package deals and fake promises with itineraries and locations. But then there is the excitement. It took me around seven months to fully plan the trip for the four of us, with visas, tickets, hostels and insurance all being planned from the start. We were unfortunately pinned to a strict itinerary – something I’d definitely try differently if there is a next time! But the feeling of finally setting off, or the moment we pulled out of Yaroslavski station in Moscow will stay with me forever.

I’m hopeful I’ve inspired someone to do something similar along the line (no pun intended). Travelling by train is an unreal way to see the world and you get to do it from the comfort of your bed – with your trusty book, bottle of vodka and friends (old and new) for good company. There are so many different journeys, routes and countries to explore out there and I’d love to try another one in the future. But for now, go check out The Man in Seat 61 online. His incomparable advice and amazing website inspired and guided my whole experience…and maybe you can find and dream up an even greater route and journey! A good friend of mine has set up an overland travel society at SOAS University in London, something I would love to see in Aber. Although my time in the town might be coming to an end, I’d love to see a group of students travelling the world – by any means possible. Hop on ferries, cargo ships or hire cars across the Caucasus’…you see more of the countries you’re travelling through, you meander at a slower pace and you might even do your bit for the environment at the same time!