Our total fail in Harbin aside, in early 2019 Mr Fluskey and I travelled the length of Asia by train over almost three weeks. We managed 4770 miles on the tracks! At the very start of our journey, on our flight to Shanghai, we had watched the map on the monitors, wondering what the landscape below had in store for us. Even at 39,000 feet it seemed to take forever to pass over Russia, but somehow we crossed quite a sizeable chunk of it by train…in January! (And I didn’t freeze to death!) We wanted to look back over our whole adventure, so let us share some Trans-Siberian reflections:
Thinking of planning your own Trans-Siberian travels? Check our post all about planning a Trans-Siberian trip, including our top ten tips!
The Good – Our Ten Trans-Siberian Reflections High Points
I’m not going to lie, this whole trip was pretty amazing. It has been so nice to relive it by blogging my way through it, but I didn’t get to tell you everything that happened and these highlights deserve to be shared:
1.) Incredible Timing….After Terrible Timing
So, after missing our train in China (more about that fail further down the list) we returned to our hostel and began to investigate alternative routes into Russia. It was with crazy luck, the flight between Harbin (China) and Irkutsk (Siberia) left the next morning. This flight on a rather tiny plane, only flies once a week and we were so fortunate to snag what seemed to be the last two seats.
Fluky Fluskeys eh!?
2.) Actually Enjoying Winter Sports
Barrelling through the snow on a dogsled in Lake Baikal was my kind of winter sport. I say, legs stuck out in front of me, bouncing and giggling. It was mildly adrenaline fuelled, involved almost zero effort from me, and they lent us huge boots and beautifully padded jumpsuits. The best thing was to finally be interacting with the landscape that had been on the other side of the train window. Read all about it here.
3.) Ice, Ice Baby
Harbin Ice and snow festival, in northeast China, was a complete marvel. I had seen pictures of its giant ice structures, I had read that they were life-sized, but I’m not sure I truly believed it until I saw the entrance gate looming above us. As the sunset, the lights inside the immense glass-like structures were turned on and the incredibly gaudy colours shone across the site.
Read our ultimate guide to the Harbin snow and ice festival here
We were SO lucky with the weather. -10°C may not sound warm, but when you realise that this is 10-15°C warmer than the seasonal average, it doesn’t seem so bad. It meant that we could stay at the festival for a good amount of time, only feeling the serious sting of cold towards the end of the evening.
The next day, the clouds cleared and we had a bright blue sky, contrasting beautifully with dazzling white snow sculptures. It was everything I had dreamed it would be, and really quite a lot more!
4.) …More Ice, Ice Baby
On a day trip from the Russian university city of Perm, we explored the glittering caves of ice in Kungur. We have been through a fair number of caves, but I’ve never seen them lined with glitter before. I don’t know what I was expecting but there was a lot to see down there, and it was weird to feel like 0°C was warm! Check out the whole blog post see all those surprises.
5.) A Dessert-esque Cathedral
Saint Basil’s Cathedral was so beautifully colourful inside and out, like an ice cream sundae laden with E-numbers. Even though it wasn’t actually the end of our journey, it felt like the spiritual end. It is always the first image that springs to mind when I think of Russia and its iconic towers held more treasures than I knew. Every room had a crazy colour scheme or a stunning wall of art. It was like Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen had been given free reign to build a cathedral.￼￼
Heading to Moscow? Read all about the best way to spend 48 hours in Moscow here!
6.) Chilly Buddhists
Exploring our first city in Russia, I was expecting a few orthodox churches, and a giant stone head of a famous Soviet leader, but who knew there was going to be a golden pagoda in the snow in Ulan-Ude!? It was definitely strange to feel my body in utter confusion trying to resolve its usual state of warmth when visiting Buddhist monasteries with the utterly bitter winter wind. Still, it was a nice view across Ulan-Ude and I taught us a little about the diversity of Russia.￼￼
7.) Reliving Someone Else’s Childhood
Just around the corner from Red Square in Moscow is a very special games arcade. Machines here are relics of a gaming era gone by. Metal, very tactile games kept us thoroughly entertained for almost two hours. It was a lovely, carefree time. We had to buy more tokens because it was so nice to unwind like kids.
8.) Staying Upright in Moscow
No, not because of the vodka! Surviving a whole session in Gorky Park’s amazing ice rink without landing on my bottom was a sensation! The rink is immense, and skaters can follow long tracks, eat, drink and be merry over 800m² of ice. It makes every rink in London feel teeny tiny and I am incredibly jealous of Moscovites that we don’t have this in London.
9.) Exploring a Palace
We didn’t have much time in St Petersburg, but we made the most of what time we had by heading straight to the huge and beautiful Hermitage Museum. Spread across five buildings, this is part palace, part gallery, part history museum and wholly gorgeous.
10.)Smashing Our Preconceptions of Russia
Give Russia a quick google, look on BBC iPlayer, or log into Facebook, and the image of Russia that appears is one of a scary state, ruled by a hard-face, hard-abbed semi-dictator. Human rights are sliding into reverse and the background of grey concrete is ever present. But boy, was it great to replace those images with great memories of lovely people, ready to help and eager to chat. We saw snow-covered, brightly-coloured wooden buildings and stunning natural scenery. I am going to try and hold these with me next time I see all that bad news coming out of the country.
The Bad – Our Ten Trans-Siberian Reflections Low Points
Messing up during our travels usually make the best stories. There were only a couple of serious fails during this trip, and then there were the times things just weren’t going our way:
1.) The Harbin Trans-Siberian Epic Fail
The day we missed the train was almost a total bust. If it wasn’t for the wonders of the snow festival on Sun Island, I would have had a mini meltdown (snow pun intended). Luckily, exploring the amazing snow sculptures left me feeling so elated that I had just enough joy to get me through that weird and horrible mistake.
To cut a long story short, we somehow sat at Harbin station and never actually caught our train to Russia. To make a short story long, read all about our epic Trans-Siberian fail in the blog post all about that frustrating day here.
2.) Guidebook Fails
As much as I love my guidebooks, they are only ever as up to date as the last time the writer visited that destination. That could be up to three years before the book was actually published. This has led to plenty of long, pointless searches for places that are shut, gone, closed or changed.
Trekking around the streets of Harbin, after a long day in the cold, my tummy was growling and my legs were freezing. We got to the right area of town and began looking for the spot recommended by LP. As we searched fruitlessly, the potent stink of tripe wafted across the street. It permeated everywhere and we just couldn’t seem to escape it. There are many unpleasant smells to encounter around the world but tripe is one that poor Mr Fluskey just can’t abide.
We finally discovered the restaurant closed and dark, clearly long shut, and this disappointment, my freezing feet and Mr Fluskey’s offended nasal passages left the whole evening with a thoroughly unpleasant aftertaste.
3.) Temperature Control
We just had one proper argument during the trip, and Mr Fluskey didn’t even realise that it was one. During our sightseeing day in Ulan-Ude, with temperatures down at -19°C, my legs began to hurt n a new way. The muscles ached, and the skin felt completely red raw as I walked. I was desperate to get back to the hotel to warm up, but he wanted to see one last thing (a tank across the other side of a huge road). I started shouting at Mr Fluskey in the street and I was close to tears.
We went to see the tank and it was NOT worth it.
When we got back to the room, I peeled off my base layer tights, leggings and jeans, as well as several pairs of socks. My thighs were bright pink and very cold to the touch. We both began wondering how close to hypothermia I was when my thighs would not return to their normal colour for hours. We went up to the rooftop bar, and despite being up there in a new pair of trousers, and with a blanket over my legs, they stayed cold. It was only when I had a shower and finally got into my pyjamas and dressing gown, that they warmed up and returned to their normal pale colour.
4.) Temperature Control, the Other Way
This one was a little less dangerous but…
I have always said that I’d rather be too hot, than too cold. I still stick by that, but travelling from Perm to Moscow by train, we were starting to melt. The train was really hot, at 24°C. Normally that wouldn’t be bad but we were both forced to wear our thermal base layers they were the smallest clothes we had. Stupidly, we hadn’t packed anything for the possibility of warmth. Plus, our bodies had become so used to temperatures well below 0°C that I just think they had forgotten how to cope!
5.) Google Maps Fails
Isn’t it interesting how we all rely so heavily on Google Maps these days? I am definitely guilty of this and it got us a little lost on two main occasions during this trip:
- When heading to get our train from Moscow to St Petersburg, we went to the wrong station. Horrible memories of the epic fail in China rushed through me and I felt genuinely nauseous. It was my phone that had maps so it was my fault…or so I thought. Luckily, the right station was just across the road and we managed to catch the train. Crisis averted!
- It was a little heartbreaking discovering that our Irkutsk hostel was in the wrong place on Google Maps After a good fifteen minutes of searching in snow that in some place came above our boots, we then ended up walking in the cold for another hour trying to find it. A very nice man stopped to try and help but he was as clueless as us and in the end, I was left feeling even colder and more despondent.
6.) Where’s a Peg When You Need One
That moment of dread when we realised our cabin companion in the train, was in dire need of a wash. Oh, how we prayed that he wasn’t staying on in our cabin for the entire 56 hour journey! We couldn’t believe our luck when he got up just two hours later
7.) Getting Chilled to the Bone
It’s funny, being out and about in below zero temperatures seems almost bearable…until you decided that you have had enough that is. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s like a switch flips internally and the cold is just unbearable all of a sudden. Every second after that point is unbearable.
In Harbin, China, there is a strange lack of taxis. Demand outstrips supply considerably, and so it is not uncommon to find yourself sharing with other people. This also means, that even when taxis do come past they can be full, or deny you travel because they’re going in another direction. Imagine my dismay when I realised we had missed the last bus back to our hostel, and the only way to get back was by taxi. After being out and about all day my switch had flipped and I needed warm. We could not get a taxi for love nor money. It took a full 20 minutes to find a ride. I couldn’t help but take every rejection personally.
8.) Yet More Terrible Timing
I thoroughly enjoyed our trip out to Moscow’s Ostankino TV tower, however, getting back to central Moscow turned into a bit of a farce. Our train was delayed, then our train didn’t come. We were stuck at that station for a surprisingly long time before a train finally came. We knew we were cutting it fine as it was, but with the delays we got to Red Square long after the mausoleum had shut. I guess it’s an excuse to go back one day but I was so looking forward to seeing that waxy-faced Lenin.
9.) Technology Fails
And we all love technology, as long as it’s working. During our Trans-Siberian travels we had two major technology fails.:
- I took the most epic jacket on this trip. This bad boy was heated and it pretty much kept me alive in North China. Sadly, when i got to Russia, the plug adapter didn’t blend together so well, and the thing wouldn’t charge. After that, it was just a regular down jacket.
- As you can see from this photo, I smashed my phone. It fell from my hand onto the see through floor of the TV tower on Moscow. Thank goodness it was only in the last couple of days.
10.) The End, Running Out of Trains
If we had it our way, we would have had another week to travel. With that extra time, we could have carried on right across Europe. It was sad to realise that we wouldn’t quite make it all the way home from Asia by train. I guess with that whole “missing our train in China” thing, we wouldn’t have really achieved it anyway, but it still would been pretty cool.
The Yummy – Our Ten Food and Drink Trans-Siberian Reflections
The Trans-Siberian is not, for most people, a culinary adventure. We settled down to plenty of dried rice and noodles meals. However, we did have a few standout moments.:
1.) Peking Duck
What do you do with 8 hours in Beijing? Well obviously, you plan in a little sleep but mostly, you go for some world-class Peking duck at Da Dong. These guys take their duck very seriously. Perfectly crisp skin, tender meat and ALL the trimmings. Peking perfection.
2.) Dumpling Delights
We all know I love (and am probably quite addicted to) dumplings. Anything steamed in a little dough wrapper will make me smile. I have several meals of dumplings during this trip, but Mr Yang’s in Shanghai took the trophy. The dumpling plate at just 27RMB (£3.00) were half steamed, half friend and ridiculously tasty. They squirted boiling porky lava across the table as we chomped into them with gusto. I am awfully tempted to return on my next swing through Shanghai. That’s three weeks and counting.
3.) Freezing Al Fresco
Trying traditional sage tea and munching on slightly frozen ham in the middle of the snowy forest was a weird bonding experience with our dog-sled drivers. If you suggested that I sit in the snow and have a picnic, I’d have stuck up some sort of digit but the hot tea, and little meat pelmeni dumplings made it almost warm enough. Let’s face it, put food in front of me, and I can make it through anything.
4.) An Unexpected Risotto
Perm is a small university town at the foot of the Ural mountains. I wasn’t expecting to find anything amazing there but we found a wicked hipster-cafe for lunch. I ordered spectacularly good butternut squash risotto topped with incredibly tender venison on top. After so many meals of meat and potatoes, it was a beautiful difference. Mr Fluskey got a burger in a charcoal bun. It looked terrifying but apparently it was rather good.
5.) A Hot Milkshake…Type…Thing
Did I mention that Harbin was cold…oh, only twice? Well, it was. It was FREEEEEEZING. Out of sheer desperation, we ducked into the beer lounge at the festival. Every other indoor space was packed, but it was blissfully empty and wonderfully warm in there. Best of all, they had more than just beer. We found these weird hot milk drinks. Just add boiling water and you’ve got what was just like a warm Nesquik. It was completely restorative and gave our insides just enough of a heat boost to get us home without weeping.
6.) A Prawn Bar….an Actual Prawn Bar!
Moscow’s hipster haven, Danilovsky Market, was a revelation. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the food across Russia but it was all quite heavy and so, to spot something a little lighter was quite exciting. I ordered prawns and squid and treasured every salty, citrus-sprinkled bite.
I did have to get a slice of pie afterwards…but that’s not the point.
7.) Omul Fish
In most guides about the Trans-Siberian, they tell of babushkas on the platforms, selling smoked omul fish. However, it seems like the Siberian winter keep these lovely ladies from the trains, and we didn’t see anyone. Apparently Lake Baikal is teaming with these tasty guys and so I was quite sad not to try them.
Luckily, we found omul on the menu of Kochevnik, a Mongolian restaurant in Irkutsk. It was a lovely, meaty white fish that felt like a fresher contrast to the heavily smoked fish beside it.
8.) Fish Eggs Make me Happy
In any sushi restaurant my first move is to scour the menu for those little balls of joy. Bright orange flying fish roe, big shiny salmon roe, the more eggs the better! Imagine the sheer joy I had slowly savouring a big spoon full of caviar in Moscow’s most luxurious shopping centre. Well, half a spoon. Sadly, I had to share with Mr Fluskey…and we could only afford the cheapest caviar but at £30 a gram (with a shot of Beluga Vodka) it was still excellent quality.
9.) Birthday Bubbles
Working our way through a bottle of Champansky on my birthday was the best way to celebrate. Timing meant that I had to be onboard all day, but the semi-sweet bubbles slipped down like a dream and we chatted with mild tipsyness very merrily.
10.) A Tasting Menu
Our very last night of the trip, we decided to do something a little special. Our buddy Anna recommended a restaurant called Birch, and on arrival, we decided to go the whole hog and try their 10 course tasting menu. In London, this would have cost at least twice as much so you know, in for a penny, in for £50.
I originally planned to blog about the experience and tried making notes. For the first two courses they were detailed intelligent and sounded vaguely like a Masterchef critique, but as the wine pairing and courses continued the notes started to slip. By the end, incoherent ramblings that mentioned the word dessert were all that was left. It was tons of fun, exciting, surprising, and delicious, the perfect end to our trans-siberian reflections.
Final Trans-Siberian Reflections
It’s been tricky to get everything down on paper (screen?) but to see absolutely everything we we have written about our Trans-Siberian adventure, you can check out all of our blog posts here or why not pop over to our Instagram and look through our Trans-Siberian story highlights!?
Looking back, there were a few things we didn’t do like:
- Get drunk with randoms on vodka.
- Catch the train in China and see them change the wheels at the Russian China border.
- Buy a fur hat.
- Play with Russian dolls.
- Miss home.
- Lose any digits to frostbite. (Thanks heated gloves).
- Meet any other travellers on the train from other European countries.
- Stay awake through more than 10 minutes of our Siberia history audiobook.
- Eat borscht.
However, despite, and perhaps due to some of these missing things, this was the most amazing trip. Traversing from Shanghai to St Petersburg along the Trans-Manchurian by train (…mostly…) felt pretty epic. I know that in the travel blogosphere, everyone is tempted to make everything look perfect, but hopefully, this collection of blog posts has helped share all sides of this trip: the good, the bad and the yummy!