Trans Siberian Leg 3 – Irkutsk to Kazan

View from the train

I struggle to keep my eyes open as I slouch in the waiting area. While it isn’t so late as to be early, days of travelling and rising early have convinced my circadian rhythm that anything much beyond 10 o’clock is unacceptable so that as we begin to board at 11:40, I am hard pressed not to full asleep standing up. This did have its advantages because, as we finally crept from the station, I was able to quickly fall asleep and not get jerked awake by the train.

Third Class

My first day on the train passed quietly and I was finally able to finish my book. This was both good and bad because on the one hand plot progression and story arc conclusion but on the other hand I now have to wait for the next book to come out, which will undoubtedly be in a few years time. Since then I have been working my way through the first few books of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series which, while different from the writing styles to which I normally isolate myself, has so far proved itself to be an enjoyable read. The only real disturbances to this blissful peace and quiet was the videos the small boy opposite me was watching and a very odd Chinese lady who was almost continuously leaning across me to charge or check her phone.

One of the longer platform breaks

The second day trickled through the sand timer of life in much the same way as the first. I was awoken at six thirty and then again at seven by the Chinese lady kneeling on the edge of my bed and leaning over me to plug her 77% charged phone in and later check on it. I also had a small audience eating my lunch as everyone wanted to know what the mayo was and we spent five minutes trying to explain it to the Chinese woman. After that, the young lass in the bunk above mine seemed to pick up the courage (with some encouragement from Mum) to practice her English with me and I spent a large slice of the afternoon trying to remember what sort of vocabulary secondary school languages teach and asking relevant questions such as “what is your favourite subject” and “do you have any hobbies”. This was pretty fun and with Google Translate murdering our respective languages, we just about manage to cover any vocabulary holes.

The covetted charger that was right next to me and which I did not need to use once.

The third and final day of this leg crawled by as it always does when one is anxious about not missing their stop. A large contributor to this was also that the clock kept going back an hour until we eventually reached Moscow time, three extra hours in total. As well as chatting to a few of my fellow passengers, I had a portrait drawn by a gentleman at one end of the carriage. Considering I struggled to write smoothly on the train, I was most pleased with the finished piece. Although, baring in mind I barely recognise myself these days, especially without glasses, I have no idea if it actually looks like me.

Several stations had old steam engines on display which quickly became children’s climbing frames when we disembarked.

Arriving in Kazan, I bit the bullet and agreed to the ridiculously overpriced taxi, deciding one and a half hours walking was too far even for me. I suspect the extortionate rate was further compounded by leftover football fever from the World Cup since Kazan did host one of the stadiums.

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Trans Siberian Leg 2 – Ulan Bator to Irkutsk

After a few days of recovery from riding and several glorious hot showers, I set off on the next leg of my Trans Siberian adventure. The morning before I left, I stocked up on food. With less than twenty four hours of travelling, I managed to avoid instant noodles, instead opting for a loaf of bread, a cucumber and some tomatoes along with some snacks to stave off any nibbles I might catch.

Boarding the train was easy and I quickly found my bunk. In the cabin of four, I was sharing with a Korean couple and an Israeli. With the couple on the bottom bunks I mostly spoke to the Isreali who had been travelling around Mongolia and China for a few months. Needless to say, I was rather jealous of how long he had had in Mongolia. As we chatted I could hear the distinctive tones of an American and Brit drifting throughout the carriage as they chatted away to their various companions. It is amazing how certain accents carry above others.

The Russian side of the border.

Our border crossing was painless in that nothing went wrong but at the same time seemed to drag on forever on both sides. With the late hour (we didn’t leave the Russian side until 0145) everyone got a little grumpy and there was some screaming and crying from the aforementioned Brit although this was quickly stopped with some stern Russian words.

As always, I slept well once we set out from the border, even if it was for far too little time since we pulled into Ulan Ude around 0600 and the Isreali disembarked, sadly waking me up despite his best attempts to be quiet. I think the sun was halfway to waking me up anyway. I dozed fitfully for a little longer before giving up and staring out at what I could see of the scenery from my position on the top bunk.

We eventually pulled into Irkutsk, my first stop in Russia, and I set off towards my hostel ignoring offers of a taxi, instead choosing to walk and see a little of the city.

Trans Siberian Leg 1 – Beijing to Ulan Bator

The superstitious may consider my trouble reaching Ulan Bator from Beijing a result of travelling over Friday the 13th. However, the real culprit was much more mundane. The Naadam Festival in a Mongolian national holiday which stretches from the 11th July to the 15th July. By all accounts it is a lot of fun to go visit and I know a lot of tours will digress from their normal route to attend for at least a day. Unfortunately for me, the Festival also meant that the China/Mongolia border was closed.

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Fooood!

My travels started out smoothly. On the morning of the 12th I had gone to Yongdingmen Bus Station and purchased my sleeper bus tickets for 180 yuan (£20). After lazing around the hostel for the day and enjoying some potatoes and skewers for lunch at a little shop in the Qianmen area, I returned to the bus station and boarded the bus. So far so good. It was smooth travelling the entire way to Erlian on the border and aside from being rather hot (all modes of transit in most of Asia are either roasting ovens or competing to host the next winter olympics) I had a good nights sleep.

Quick price hike.

This good fortune came to abrupt halt when I returned to the bus stop having got some more cash to be told “border closed. No bus, no car, train tomorrow” via phone translator. Ah. Now that could be a problem. Just a tiny one. Interestingly it seemed that no one realised the border as closed until we arrived in Erlian and there was no mention of it anywhere online. Thankfully I didn’t have to worry about my visa running out – I still had a few days on that front – and I still had a number of days before my Mongolian tour started.

I’d just go to the train station, book my ticket, and find somewhere to spend the night. Simple right? Not so much. When I tried the most obvious ticket office they sent me off, saying that I would have to buy the tickets the morning of the following day at a different office in that direction. Deciding to try and find the office in advance, I went next door but they waved me off further down the road. My exploration of “100m down the road” yielded a couple of maybes but no concrete ticket offices (no English signs here). It was only later in the day when I ran into another foreigner that they were able to show me which building to go to.

Train in Erlian Station.

I spent the night in a 40 yuan (£4.50) a room night that, had I wanted to use the shower (considering the lack of door, I didn’t) would have cost me an additional 80 yuan). Waking up the next day with a few new bites, I set out to the ticket office two hours before it opened to ensure I was at the head of the queue.

It was just as well I did. Over the next two hours more and more people arrived, many determinedly shoving themselves in the front, until the front of the queue resembled sardines in a tin. This didn’t stop a couple of small fist fights from breaking out ahead of me. Think of the US’s black Friday sales. Eventually the door opened. And I mean door. The entrance may have had double doors but the crush of bodies forcing their way through was so great that the moment one was opened outward, there was no way the other could be opened. After stopping everyone from crushing a small Swiss lady whose bag was caught, against the door frame, I dashed up the stairs and began the queuing process all over again.

Train in Zamiin Udd.

Fortunately it wasn’t as tightly packed. Instead there was lots of shouting and even more fisticuffs. Oh joy. Mercifully I was able to buy my Erlian to Zamiin Udd ticket (66 yuan, £7.50) and my Zamiin Udd ticket (233 yuan, £26) with little issue. The only downside was having to leave my passport so I could collect the second ticket later in the day. This was considerably cheaper than I had been expecting as the only online prices I had been able to find were for the official Trans Siberian from Beijing to Ulan Bator so I been expecting the price to be somewhere between £80 and £135. I think the difference was than this train was travelling from Hohhot rather than Beijing so had more local prices.

I spent the rest of the day with the swiss lady I previously mentioned and an American expat who works in Ulan Bator since they were both waiting for the train as well. This was a blessing as not only was it good to have someone to talk to, but the American had a wealth of infomation regarding Ulan Bator. We eventually boarded, my penknife getting confiscated as we went through security. After an interminable wait to get moving in Erlian and an even longer one for passport checks in Zamiin Udd I was ecstatic when the train finally began to move onward to Ulan Bator.

Government Palace in Ulan Bator.

The next day, after three days of travelling I finally made it safely to Ulan Bator, only a few more insect bites worse for wear. Upon reaching my hostel, I luxuriated in a hot shower and treated myself to a nice meal at the Veranda restaurant before catching an early night.

The Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass

My day and a half trip to the Kanchanaburi and the Bridge on the River Kwai started off less than smoothly. I had hoped to get the boat across the river and then walk the remainder of the way to Thonburi Station. However, I was informed that there was a fifteen minute wait for the boat and Maps.me reneged on its previous prediction of a ten minute walk from the pier, instead opting for a twenty minute slog. Reluctant to push my timings, I opted to grab a taxi. This would take four minutes according to Maps.me, which steadfastly ignores the existence of traffic, or twenty minutes according to the official advice online. With just under forty minutes until the train left, this seemed a perfectly viable option.

View from the train as we left Bangkok.

Despite my best efforts to say where I wanted to go, including vigorous pointing at my map and the Roman script of the station written down, I think the taxi driver closed his ears the moment I uttered the words train station. Ah, train station! Naturally this foreigner, this white girl, could only want Hua Lamphong Station. Why should I listen to her anymore? Or look at the map she is showing me? Why let her speak and explain where she wants to go? I will say chuu chuu to her and wave with my arms until she gives up and gets in the car. Perhaps not the politest picture to paint but if a city has more than one station, it makes sense to clarify which one is required and I fail to see how two stations on opposite sides of the city centre not to mention a river could be confused on a map.

Interior of the train.

Fortunately my lack of faith in the taxi driver meant that the moment I watched us drive straight pass the correct turning on my map, I knew we were headed for the wrong station. It took less than a minute for him to pull over and understand that I wanted Thonburi Station with me showing him exactly the same props as the first time. Imagine if he had just listened initially? Missing that crucial turning meant a long detour before we could join the major road that passes Democracy Monument and crosses over the river, all of which was spent stuck in traffic.

One of the many “stations” on our journey.

Creeping closer to the station with nose to tail traffic wreaked havoc on my nerves as I painstakingly watched the seconds tick by but thankfully we made it with two minutes to spare. Fortunately, Thai railway stations are a laid back affair and there were only a dozen or so metres between the ticket booth and train so I had plenty of time to buy my ticket to Nam Tok and board. Naturally the train did not leave for another ten minutes, but this was not a concern as I was onboard so, short of a breakdown, I would be making it to Hellfire Pass and the Bridge on the River Kwai eventually.

Crossing the Bridge on the River Kwai by train.

Riding the train to the end of the line was a relaxed affair as I alternated between reading and watching Thailand fly by outside the window. To visit both Hellfire Pass and the bridge within my rather constrained time limit I rode the train all the way to the end of the line in Nam Tok and visited the pass before catching a later train to return to Kanchanaburi and visit the bridge. This route meant I also rode the train across the perilous Wampo Viaduct. Watching everyone lean out of doors and windows with nothing to stop them toppling out as we crossed the sheer drop, I could not help but imagine the fit English health and safety would throw.

Travelling along the death railway. I think this section was the Wampo Viaduct.

Arriving just over half an hour late in Nam Tok gave me about two and a half hours to visit Hellfire Pass before the train left. I was initially confused as the websites I had read implied that the Pass would be right there when I disembarked however it was in fact necessary to get a taxi to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. This created another point of consternation upon my return to the station as it turned out the taxi driver who had said 300 baht for both ways, supported by his refusal to let me pay at the museum, actually meant 300 baht each way, a classic trick to pull and one I should not have fallen for but by that point it was rather too late to do otherwise without causing a scene.

Another shot looking down the outside of the train.

The Museum itself was under renovation but there were still boards to read about the plight of the 60,000 prisoners of war and 250,000 Asian labourers who were forced to work on the Burma – Thailand railway by the Japanese during the second world war. It was incredibly sobering to read about the forced marches, brutal treatment and horrendous hours worked all while the workers neared starvation and had little to no medical treatment.

Standing in Hellfire Pass, I imagined it lit with torches at night during the speedo period; listened to the hammers clanging onto the tap drills, forcing them into the rock, focusing on this rhythmic racket instead of the sounds of the guards administering a beating; smelt the caustic scent left by dynamite and exploding rock, tried to ignore the stench of festering wounds; felt the weariness and hopelessness seep into my bones, pain and gnawing hunger radiating throughout; and finally rolled the sour taste of bile and dehydration around my mouth.

Memorial plaque for prisoners of war in Hellfire Pass.

My imagination will never encompass the true suffering endured but it is enough that I will not forget the 12,399 POW and 70,000 to 90,000 civilians whose lives were lost to build the railway. I finished paying my respects to the fallen in the pass and solemnly made my way back to the train station in Nam Tok. With the misleading nature of the taxi driver and a slight cloud over my head from visiting the pass, I ended up giving the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall a miss, instead reading my book until the train back to the Bridge on the River Kwai arrived.

Hellfire Pass

The bridge was a somewhat less sombre stop, mainly due to the sheer number of tourists wandering back and forth across it and posing sitting on the tracks. I was almost surprised not to see a collection of pre-wedding photo parties claiming some of the lookout points. Nonetheless, it was an impressive feat to look at especially considering the limited materials and tools available during its building. I will confess that I remain unclear on just how much of the original bridge remains and how much has been replaced due to damage from bombs and time but to span the river was an undeniable feat of engineering.

Before walking the half hour to Kanchanaburi and my hostel, I tucked in to a particularly good plate of chicken and cashew nut stir fry at a small restaurant just off the main square. I chose it for the presence of locals (or patrons at all really) as all the other restaurants appeared to be deserted with the exception of the more expensive “floating” one on the river.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Knowing that to see both bridge and pass I would have to miss the last train to Bangkok, I had booked a hostel for the night next to to train station so I could catch the early morning train back. This resulted in an enjoyable evening where I finally got round to trying some durian, an experience I have know intention of repeating. While all bar one other in our group seemed to be able to tolerated the repulsive smelling fruit, I barely resisted the urge to throw the vile textured stuff straight back up, much to the amusement of the others. At least it can now be ticked of my somewhat cynical list of how to be a tourist backpacker in South East Asia.

The next day dawned bright and early and I and two other girls had the pleasure of a relatively on time train journey back to Bangkok. Sadly the Medical Museum, which I had intended to visit of the way back to my hostel, was closed on Tuesdays so I never did get a chance to visit it.

The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Taxi to Thonburi Station from near Khao San Road: 200 baht

All trains: 100 baht each, 300 baht total.

Taxi to Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and back: 600 baht – a mistake on my part and should have been negotiated down.

Hostel in Kanchanaburi: 220 baht

George Town to Bangkok by Sleeper Train

A hold over from my childhood and being island bound by fog or mechanical failure is that whenever I am changing locations, I obsessively leave as much time as possible between legs of my journey. Second leg an evening flight? No problem. I’ll get an early morning flight, barely restraining myself from catching the red eye, for the first leg.

Travelling in South East Asia it takes a certain level of self control not to take this to a whole new level with the constant delays and borderline horror stories passed by word of mouth down the traveller grapevine. There is always a friend of a friend of a guy someone met who got stranded next to a rice paddy somewhere.

The ferry from George Town to Butterworth.

Hence, I set out for Bangkok early on the day of my departure. I arrived at the ferry terminal from George Town to Butterworth around 0930 (apparently free in the George Town to Butterworth direction). By the time the “regular” ferry arrived in Butterworth it was 1030 and the “hourly” KTM Komuter train up to Padang Besar would not be leaving for another two hours. Finally boarding the train, I flopped into a seat and devoured my book until we eventually pulled into Pedang Besar station some time around two.

Navigating the border crossing was confusing, purely from the point of view that I and the small pack of other foreign travellers had no clue where we were going. Did we walk across the land border and find a different train station on the other side? Or were we somehow supposed to navigated the unmanned Malaysian and Thai border boxes on the floor below the canteen?

Seats on the sleeper train.

Eventually, we scraped together a vaguely straight answer that we were to wait until the boxes opened and then pass through the Malaysian and Thai boxes at the opposite ends of the ground floor. Next came another wait for the sleeper train that would carry us to all the way to Bangkok (naturally it was delayed by just under an hour). I passed the time playing card games with a lovely Swedish chap.

A few more games and dinner on the train passed the few hours before we turned in for a surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep. Just as we were leaving for the somewhat rickety dinner cart, the steward came through and converted each booth into a set of bunk beds, complete with pillow and blanket. While not huge, the top bunk was fine for my vertically challenged nature and I managed not to fall out despite only two straps to prevent me from doing so.

Upper bunk on the sleeper train to Bangkok. Not the anti fall out of bed strap.

The next morning, the beds were converted back to seats and I tucked into my somewhat squashed roll that had travelled from a 7-Eleven in George Town with me the day before. Only about an hour and a bit late we were making good time into Bangkok when disaster struck. Driving through a cross between building site and railway siding the train suddenly shuddered to a halted to the accompaniment of much shouting and gesturing from some workers.

View from the window as we waited to start off again.

No information provided, we waited on the outskirts of Bangkok unsure if we were going to have to walk the remainder of the way. Eventually the passengers in the last coach relocated to ours, before theirs was disconected and we rolled back into motion. We finally made it to our Hua Lamphong Station only three hours late, so all in all, very good time was made.

On the orange flag boat to Khao San Road.

A twenty minute walk to boat stop N3 and we got the boat up to near Khao San Road (N13) and out respective hostels.

Ferry from George Town to Butterworth: free

Train Butterworth to Pedang Besar: RM11.40

Train Pedang Besar to Bangkok: 870 Baht for a top bunk plus a online booking fee of around 30 baht

Boat (orange flag fixed fare): 15 Baht

Not Quite Smooth Travelling

I spent my last full day in Seoul purchasing some discount hiking poles and looking around the fabric section of the Gwangjang Market. Or in other words, getting lost in the identical aisles of the Gwangjang Market. I could have passed the same teetering pile of fabric half a dozen times and not known it. This is not to say that all the fabrics were the same, indeed there was a vast variety of colour and composition, it is merely that fabric shops of any reasonable size have an innate ability to become labyrinths to the unsuspecting customer. Thus, it is hardly surprising that an entire market of fabric stores had me without orientation within seconds. Eventually I escaped the maze, sanity and wallet intact (there was a long moment where I debated getting a hambok after the fun I had wearing one). I spent the rest of the day relaxing at the hostel and checking a few last minute details for my next stage of travelling. Because my flight to Japan was an early one, I’d elected to change to a hostel closer to the airport for ease of mind. This is where everything started to go wrong. Well not everything, just one particular thing that impacted on everything else. One very annoying little thing.

Remember how on my first day in Seoul I was complaining about the difficulties of getting money at an ATM? Well it happened again as I tried to pay for my hostel and again and again at the nearby ATMs. I was forced to cancel my hostel, though at such short notice they charged via the internet anyway. Ironic that I was forced to pay for something I could not have when the reason I was unable to have it was that I could not pay.

Having seen the train times, I knew there was no way I would have been able to stay at my previous hostel, where I technically still had a reservation, and make it to the airport on time. Hence I found myself sprawled and trying desperately to sleep on an airport bench while waiting for 04:30 and check in to roll around. It eventually did, and after a pleasant chat with my mother via the beauty of free, unlimited airport WiFi (take note all English airports), I checked in without a hitch.

The queue for both entrances to security was painfully long, so long in fact that the two ends collided out by the check in desks. I was reminded of the days when all the new security measures had only just been introduced and no one knew what was going on. Nowadays it is so streamlined in some airports as to be almost painless. My flight left on time and, other than a little turbulence, I naively thought I had left my troubles behind. More fool me, for in my pocket still lurked the card of doom, biding its time until I needed to withdraw my yen.

Safely through immigration and customs, I head straight for the ATM line up and start working my way down the line. To my utter devastation, not a single one would give me any money. There I was, stuck half way around the world, without a usable penny, or rather yen, to my name. I didn’t have a working sim card and with no money, I could not use a payphone. After a small meltdown and several failed attempts to phone home via Messenger, I found myself once more in front of the dreaded ATMs. This time my goal was only to get enough money for the pay phone. At the third machine along I started low and upon a miraculous success, worked my way up until the I once again got an error message.

This method was by no means perfect and I dread to think of the various bank charges I have incurred but I now had enough money for the train and my hostel, which was a marked improvement. Armed with my newly procured funds I took the JR line to Nagano where I said goodbye to English announcements and continued on to Yudanaka. I carefully monitored snow levels throughout my journey, after all my sole reason for coming to Yudanaka is to see the snow monkeys. Things did not look promising as the train set off from Tokyo. It was not until well after Nagano that dustings of snow began to appear and only in the final stretch, when we ventured in to the shadow of mountains, that any major snowfall occured. End of the line and I walked to my hostel, miraculously not getting lost. I enjoyed an amazing plate of sushi and some tempura with a couple of other guests before retiring for the evening.

An amusing aside observation is how airports and train stations gradually seem to be giving up on forbidding luggage on escalators. In Hong Kong, signs asked that people with big bags use the lifts but when I reached Seoul it was only if one had multiple bags that the lift was required (though the number of stairs in some stations made the lift a tempting option anyway); at Incheon Airport signs showed how to take two suitcase on the escalator; finally, when I reached Narita Airport in Japan, the escalator to the train station was labelled as being suitable for taking trolleys. On this last however, one must note the look of fear on the faces of those standing in front of the trolley.