Yes, it was the trip of a lifetime: a five-night train journey all the way from Beijing to Moscow, via Mongolia. But if I went again, I would do things a little differently. Here is my ‘alternative’ packing list – including a fair few items Lonely Planet forgot to consider.
– A good travelling companion. I had a great one. Numerous pertinent factors here, including: Are they clean? Do they snore? Do they enjoy tinned food? Will they ask to borrow your socks?
– Vodka. Loads of it, particularly of the (foul-smelling) Ghenghis Khan variety, if you’re travelling with Mongolians. Or perhaps fermented horse milk. Or rice wine. Whichever you pick, nothing says getting down with the locals like being drunk on the same substances.
– A certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. One day into our journey, we had to help hide a carriage companion in overhead storage so the Russian guards wouldn’t find her. This was distressing. We needed more British reserves of cool.
– Less pâté. Never mind that we bought in a supermarket in Ulan Bator and it smelled special to begin with – three days in, a small cabin later, it stank. Bring dried food: crackers, hard cheese, noodles and milk powder. Trying to unglue your mouth after every meal will provide at least an hour’s entertainment. Vodka will help with this.
– Dry shampoo. (Because washing your hair upside down in the toilet of a moving train is bound to go wrong.)
– Thrillers. A five-day journey across the Siberian wastes is not the time to crack into those Norman Mailer tomes you ‘always meant to’ read. You will need books that grip you for nine hours a day, every day. And given there is only one plug socket in the carriage, which is carefully guarded by the carriage guard, your laptop cannot help you here.
– Stamina. Ever wanted to eat in on a Russian dining car? Don’t. (Unless you love drama, in which case: what are you doing on here? Did you realise this was a five-day train journey?) Expect lantern-jawed waitresses with a gimlet gaze and a plate of soggy chips. Midway through your meal, a teary-eyed woman may come barrelling out of the kitchen fridge and down the hall. On no account ask why.
– A calculator. Eight time zones to cross, which – if you’re travelling east to west, like we were –means a lot of rolling back the clocks. Feeling ‘timeless’ is a weird experience, so keep an eye on Google.
– The invaluable maxim: the train doesn’t wait. Useful to remember when stretching your legs at a station, or buying pies or ice creams from the local vendors.
– Most importantly – a sense of adventure. TRANS-SIBERIAN, BABY! No matter which route you take (there are several) you are training across an unparalleled panorama of some of the least accessible parts of the world. We passed unkempt sections of the Chinese wall, camels in the Gobi desert, and days of sweeping Russian pine forest. Prepare well, and the travel will be most of the fun. Do it badly, and you’re essentially stuck on a train with nothing but Jilly Cooper and a farting friend for company.