Practical guidebooks for the more adventurous traveller.
- The Herald
What to take
What to take
The best advice today is to travel as light as possible. Some people recommend
that you put out everything you think you’ll need and then pack only half of it.
Remember that unless you’re going on an upmarket tour, you’ll be carrying
your luggage yourself.
For summer in Moscow and Siberia pack thin clothes, a sweater and a raincoat.
In every hotel you will be able to get laundry done, often returned the same day.
Take shirts and tops of a quick-drying cotton/polyester mixture if you are going
to wash them yourself.
Winter in Russia and northern China is extremely cold, although trains and
most buildings are kept well-heated: inside the train you can be warm enough in
a thin shirt as you watch Arctic scenes pass by your window. When you’re outside,
however, a thick winter overcoat is an absolute necessity, as well as gloves and a
warm hat. It’s easy to buy good quality overcoats/jackets in Beijing. If you’re
travelling in winter and plan to stop off in Siberian cities along the way you might
consider taking thermal underwear. Shoes should be strong, light and comfortable;
most travellers take sturdy trainers. On the train, Russians discard their shoes and
wear flip flops – the type you can wear with socks. This is a good idea and you
can buy them at any station or on virtually any street. Russians also wear track-
suits throughout the journey, while the Chinese might resort to pyjamas.
If you’re going on one of the more expensive tours which include baggage
handling, take a suitcase. Those on individual itineraries have the choice of
rucksack (comfortable to carry for long distances but bulky) or shoulder-bag
(not so good for longer walks but more compact than a rucksack). A zip-up
holdall with a shoulder strap or a frameless backpack is probably the best bet.
It’s also useful to take along a small daypack for camera, books etc. Since bed-
ding on the train and in hotels is supplied you don’t need to take a sleeping-bag
even when travelling in winter, although some travellers prefer to carry their
own sleeping bag liner.
A money-belt is essential to safeguard your documents and cash. Wear it under-
neath your clothing and don’t take it off on the train, as compartments are very
occasionally broken into. A good pair of sunglasses is necessary in summer as
well as in winter, when the sun on the snow is particularly bright. A water bot-
tle (two-litre) or flask which can take boiling water is very useful, as is a mug
(insulated is best), and fork/spoon/knife set.
The following items are also useful: a few clothes pegs, adhesive tape, ball-
point pens, business cards, camera and adequate capacity memory cards for a
digital camera, torch (flashlight), folding umbrella, games (cards, chess – the
Russians are very keen chess players – Scrabble etc), toilet paper, calculator (for
exchange rates), notebook or diary, penknife with corkscrew and can-opener
(although there’s a bottle opener fixed underneath the table in each compart-
ment on the train), photocopies of passport, visa, air tickets, etc (keep them in
two separate places), sewing-kit, spare passport photographs for visas, string (to
use as a washing-line), the addresses of friends and relatives (don’t take your
address book in case you lose it), tissues (including the wet variety), universal
bath plug (Russian basins usually don’t have a plug), washing powder (liquid
travel soap is good) and multi-purpose travel body wash that doubles as sham-
poo. A compass is useful when looking at maps and out of the window of the
train. Earplugs are useful on the train and in noisy Chinese hotels. Don’t forget
to take a good book (see pp42-5).
It’s also a very good idea to bring things to show people: photos of your
family and friends, your home or somewhere interesting you have been.
Everyone will want to look at them, and will often get out photos of their own to
show you. Looking at photographs, especially of people, is a great way to break
the ice when you don’t speak much of the local language.
The Russians are great present givers (see box p73), and there’s nothing more
embarrassing than being entertained in a Russian home when you have nothing
to offer in return. Cakes and chocolates can be bought locally, or better, bring
things that are harder for Russians to get, such as postcards or souvenirs of your
country. Foreign coins and badges are also good, as Russia is full of collectors.
It is essential to ensure that you have things to share while you’re on the
train, such as chocolate biscuits, sweets or other snacks.
Though the menus in Russian restaurant cars are sometimes long, often they’ll
only have a few items on the list: soup, a meat dish and a few refrigerated sal-
ads. Beer, chocolate, crisps and biscuits are generally available. There’s also a
good selection of things to eat available from hawkers on station platforms
along the way.
It’s wise to buy some provisions before you get on the train, especially if
you’re going the whole way without a break. Take along fruit, cheese and sau-
sage; you can almost always buy bread, tomatoes, boiled eggs, boiled potatoes,
soft drinks and beer on the platform. If you’re sharing a compartment with
Russians, they’ll probably insist you share their food. To refuse would be rude.
You should obviously offer some of your food as well, though often it will not
be accepted as they will see you as their guest.
Some travellers bring rucksacks filled with food, though it’s more realistic
to bring just some biscuits and tea-bags or instant coffee (with whitener and
sugar if required). Other popular items include drinking chocolate, dried soups,
tinned or fresh fruit, fruit-juice powder, peanut butter, Marmite or Vegemite,
chocolate, crackers, pot noodles and instant porridge. If you forget to buy provi-
sions at home there are Western-style supermarkets in both Moscow and Beijing
where you can stock up with essentials.
Essential items are: aspirin or paracetamol; lip salve; sunscreen lotion; insect
repellent (vital if you’re travelling in summer); antiseptic cream and some
plasters/bandaids; an anti-AIDS kit containing sterile syringes and swabs for
emergency medical treatment. Note that some Western brands of tampons and
condoms are not always easily available in Russia or China, so bring your own
if you favour a particular kind. Bring an extra pair of glasses or contact lenses
if you wear them. You may want to take along something for an upset stomach
(Arrêt, for example) but use it only in an emergency, as changes in diet often
cause slight diarrhoea which stops of its own accord. Avoid rich food, alcohol
and strong coffee to give your stomach time to adjust. Paradoxically, a number
of travellers have suggested that it’s a good idea to take along laxatives. For
vaccination requirements, see pp45-6.
Mobile phones, laptops and music players
Internet cafés are available in every city along the Trans-Siberian route. The
number of travellers using laptops in Russian trains is increasing, even in platz-
kart, so if you bring one along you won’t be terribly conspicuous.
Most travellers bring mobile phones on the train, including Russians, and
these can be charged using outlets in the carriages. If you have an unlocked tri-
band phone and you are spending a lot of time in Russia, it pays to pick up a
SIM card from a Russian mobile company. These are usually available for free;
all you pay for are the credits. Your phone will be registered in the city where
you buy it, and while local calls there are cheap, roaming charges once you leave
that region can get expensive. The rates offered by different mobile companies
are comparable, but the ones with the greatest coverage are Beeline and MTS.
MP3 players are commonly used, so an iPod doesn’t look too out of place.
Many Russians and Chinese have digital cameras. Batteries can be charged on
board from outlets in the carriages. Every city along the route has digital print
shops, and in most internet cafés the staff will burn your photos onto a CD for
you if you bring a USB cable. Many travellers on long journeys carry portable
hard drives for storing photos.
If you shoot with film, bring more than you think you’ll need. Don’t forget
to bring some faster film for shots from the train (400 ASA). It’s wise to carry
all your film in a lead-lined pouch (available from camera shops) if you are
going to let them go through Russian X-ray machines at airports.
Most major brands of film are available in Russian cities, but slide or high/
low ASA film may be difficult to find outside Moscow and St Petersburg. In the
large cities in Siberia and China, you can have your film processed in one hour
and the quality is acceptable. In Ulaanbaatar there are plenty of developers with
imported machines. It is becoming more difficult to get film processed as most
people have switched to digital photography.
Photography from the train The problem on the train is to find a window that
isn’t opaque or one that opens. They’re usually locked in winter so that no warmth
escapes. Opening doors and hanging out will upset the carriage attendants if they
catch you; if one carriage’s doors are locked try the next, and remember that the
kitchen car’s doors are always open. Probably the best place for undisturbed
photography is right at the end of the train: ‘No one seemed to mind if we opened
the door in the very last carriage. We got some great shots of the tracks extending
for miles behind the train’. (Elizabeth Hehir, The Netherlands).
(See also pp66-7) With certain exceptions, you will have to pay for everything
in local currency (roubles in Russia, RMB/yuan in China, tughrik in Mongolia).
Russian hotels must accept roubles, even though some set their rates in dollars
There are abundant, well-signposted, 24-hour international ATMs in all
major cities along the Trans-Siberian, and in Beijing. Most accept Visa,
MasterCard and other major cards and give cash advances from your own
account in local currency. This is the most convenient way to get by without
carrying a huge stash of cash. Cards are also accepted by many hotels and a
growing number of guesthouses, restaurants and shops.
But there are many times when cash is essential, for example when the
banks are closed or there are no ATMs, for visa fees at many embassies, and in
Mongolian restaurant cars on the Trans-Siberian. It’s essential to have a stash of
cash; by far the most useful currencies in Russia, Mongolia and China are US
dollars and euros. Carry only a small amount in your pocket and the rest safely
under your clothing in a moneybelt (worn in bed at night as well as during the
day). Keep a second stash somewhere else for emergencies. Although cash may
seem more risky than travellers’ cheques many Russians carry far larger stashes
around with them than you will probably have.
See pp66-7 for tips on what kind of banknotes to bring, and on places in
Russia where other currencies are commonly accepted.
In Russia you’ll only succeed in cashing travellers’ cheques at selected
banks, and therefore only during weekday banking hours. Few banks are inter-
ested in anything but US$ cheques. In China travellers’ cheques are accepted at
better hotels, though most are very fussy about signatures and will ask for your
passport. The exchange rate is usually slightly better than for cash, but the dif-
ference is too small to matter. You may also be asked to show your original
purchase receipts. If your cheques are lost or stolen, you’re unlikely to get a
swift refund or replacement.
- Contents list
- Planning your route
- Breaking your journey
- What to take
- Background Reading
- Sample Route Guides
- Steam Locomotives in Siberia
- Other Regional Railways
Price: £14.99 buy online now…