After 17 days, ten trains and one deportation … home
How much did it cost?
It may have looked the unlikeliest thing on the agenda for the majority of the trip, but after all the drama of the previous two and a half weeks, I reached Manchester at the expected time, on the appointed day, on the train I’d originally intended. The immigration bureaucracies of several nations along the way had tried their best to thwart me, but whatever fortune had sustained me on my course, it held good enough to get me home on time and pretty much alive.
I was met, naturally, by the dark skies and pissing rain I’d convinced myself I’d missed, as I stepped out of Piccadilly station and onto the grey Manchester streets. But it was good to be back. Over the next few days I could unpack, delouse, and reflect on a mission well accomplished. I could sleep a full night in an adult-sized bed without the constant clack-clack of a trundling Trans-Siberian train dictating my dreams; I could sleep free from the likelihood of being shaken awake by a Ukrainian border guard at four in the morning demanding to see my passport; and since I’d become an increasingly well-stocked, walking bureau de change during my trip, I could pile the near £300 worth of unspendable cash that fell out of my rucksack upon shaking, and photograph the six-currency mound for posterity.
I’m not sure how much I spent overall. Maybe it’s better if I don’t attempt to calculate it. According to my initial budget, the trains alone would cost me £470. Add to that the £140 for my Russian visa (HK$600 + £15 invitation letter), Mongolian visa (Y495 same day service) and Chinese visa (HK$360). Plus the Y600 for my unscheduled late night car journey from Hohhot to Erlian, accommodation in Beijing and Moscow (Y120 & €12.90), daily food and drink and added extras, and the total cost climbs to around £700. To put a figure on it, let’s say the whole thing cost around £750. Quite a premium compared to the £500 it would have cost to fly from Hong Kong to Manchester. But not so much as to leave me regretting the extra £250 worth of experience I gained instead.
Was it worth it?
Which brings us to the journey itself. Was it everything I’d hoped and imagined it would be? Well, yes and no. Despite the almost constant threat of implosion, it was worth every last penny and every last panicked moment now that I was back in time and in one piece. In fact, in a way, it was the drama made the trip. Had I ended up missing my Ulaanbaatar to Moscow train and had to muddle through to Moscow and fly back from there, then the thought of all those unrefundable European train tickets and the cost of the flight would have probably made me cry for the next three months. It could have been a disaster. But somehow it wasn’t.
And the Trans-Siberian Railway experience? I’d imaged it’d be just as I’d read in the guide books – an alcohol-soaked rail party rolling across Russia. There were a few sociable glasses shared and a chef that was at least half drunk for most of the journey, but the alleged 24 hour vodka orgy was distinctly missing. This was no bad thing in itself of course. Travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway for four days non-stop is still a unique experience no matter how raucous or sedate things get. And though the train was, for the most part, less than half-full, and most of those on board spoke nothing I could passably speak with them, this was probably still preferable to a train full of flip-flop wearing Westerners enjoying their own private Grand Tour.
Would I do it again? Without a second thought. I want to try the Beijing – Harbin – Moscow route next time around. I want to experience the -50°C of the journey in winter. I want to see what I missed of Lake Baikal, Irkutsk and all the other places along the route that I didn’t have time to visit. There is also the route through North Western China and Kazakhstan which joins the Trans-Siberian Railway in Novosibirsk. In fact, I already have it mind to get on the rails again at the earliest opportunity. When exactly that will be, I can’t yet say. But maybe next time, I’ll try and sort out my visas beforehand. Or would that not be doing away with the fun?