Much has been written in the press over the past week on the subject of a ban on larger electronics items entering the United States with airline passengers. Following on from the March policy shift in which inbound flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African destinations, there’s speculation that such a policy could be extended to European destinations.
What’s the current situation?
At present, passengers travelling to the US from ten airports are affected: Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), Cairo International Airport (CAI), Ataturk International Airport (IST), King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED), King Khalid International Airport (RUH), Kuwait International Airport (KWI), Mohammed V Airport (CMN), Hamad International Airport (DOH), Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).
Large electronics items, including laptops but also larger cameras like DSLRs and tablets such as the iPad, must be carried in the hold and cannot be taken on board the flight. How airlines are implementing this varies, but some are offering gate check in and secure packaging in the form of bubble wrap and cardboard boxes. This policy doesn’t extend to the return leg; flights departing the US for these ten airports are not subject to the same restrictions.
So why are people getting upset? Surely they can do without their gadgets for a few hours?
As talk grows about an extension to the ban, so too do certain worrying facts emerge. Many of these larger items are powered by lithium ion batteries, which up to now have been banned from the hold for safety reasons. They carry a risk of catching fire, something that could have disastrous consequences if unnoticed. The FAA itself stated its concerns in 2016:
There’s more here, from The Independent:
There’s also the issue of sensitive data on company laptops and directives from some businesses to their employees requiring them to keep such equipment on their person whilst travelling. For the regular tourist, it’s more a case of a lack of insurance. I might just about be able to cope without my iPad on a long flight if I went back to those old fashioned paperback things I used to lug around, but if the airline then loses my suitcase, my travel insurance policy won’t pay out. I really can’t afford to replace my DSLR if the lens gets smashed in transit. So, with a flight to Houston looming on Friday, I’ve been watching the TSA website and Twitter like a stalker.
So have they made a decision yet?
There were some misleading headlines last week, like this one in NYMag following a piece in The Daily Beast:
Retweeted and quoted to within an inch of its life, The Daily Beast’s article, claiming an announcement would be made Thursday 11 May, sparked an angry reaction. In part, there was a touch of indignation along the lines of European nations being way too civilised to be lumped together with the Middle East.
But amidst all the fuss, some serious issues for the Americans began to be raised, not least the impact that it would have to the US economy and its tourism sector. This article from The Independent explains:
Yes, you read that right: 1 in 3 potential foreign tourists would think twice about going if this policy becomes a reality. I’m among them. I’d be seriously concerned about that fire risk, especially on such a long flight.
Here’s a follow up article, also from The Independent:
I’m hoping, as we get closer to my departure date, that even if the electronics ban is widened, the changes won’t take effect until after I’m there. Getting my valuables back to Blighty in one piece will be, as it has always been, down to me. But after that, much as it pains me to say given my love of the USA, I’d have to give it a miss, at least until the TSA came to its senses once more. It was reported that the TSA met with representatives of the US’ major airlines last Friday to see how a ban could be implemented; sources indicate that further meetings were to be held with EU personnel today. At the time of writing, there’s been no announcement.
Watch this space.
Well as it turned out we didn’t have to wait too long for an update. Common sense has prevailed and the EU have persuaded the US authorities that widening the ban on larger electronics would be foolish:
The ban still exists for the ten Middle Eastern and North African airports, so think about your safety before you opt to fly. Happy travels!
It was August 2004. I was in Bali and I’d heard about a celebration known as Kuningan. This ceremony was held to mark the end of Galungan, a holiday similar to our New Year. Devotees dress in white with red sashes and bring offerings for their ancestors who are returning to heaven after spending time on earth for the Galungan festivities. They bring yellow rice, fish and fruit, placed in bowls made from leaves. The rice symbolises their gratitude to God for the blessings he has bestowed and the bowls are adorned with little figures representing angels which bring happiness and prosperity. It promised to be an incredible sight, so I made my way to the temple near Candidasa on Bali’s eastern coast.
Arriving, I wasn’t alone. In front of me was a sea of white, a crowd of people thronging the space between me and the temple entrance. Resigned to a long wait, I found a place in a queue of sorts and waited. It was late morning. The sun was already high in the sky and packing a powerful tropical punch. I wasn’t unduly worried. I’d put on some sun cream and had chosen what I thought to be a sensible outfit – a long sleeved cotton blouse. Time passed slowly and my shoulders began to redden. I applied more cream to the visible parts and thought no more of it. Eventually, I entered the temple and observed the prayers and rituals. It was a fascinating scene.
Later on, returning to the hotel, I realised the thin cotton blouse I’d worn was no match for the midday sun and my skin had not only reddened, it had blistered badly. I spent the rest of the holiday in the shade, cursing how ill-prepared I’d been. I’ve never been as casual about the sun since. Several of my friends have had skin cancer, and that’s not something I wish to emulate. According to statistics compiled for Cancer Research UK, there are over 15,000 new cases of melanoma skin cancer each year. While many are treatable, some, sadly are not. Realistically, with the amount of travelling I do and how fair my skin is, I need to be proactive about the precautions I take. Sun cream alone isn’t enough of a solution. Yet there are many tropical places in the world that I still want to visit. I don’t want to find myself in a position where I’ve got to stay out of the sun completely and miss out on the chance of seeing them.
But here’s the rub. I’ve never found much in the way of UVA resistant clothing that I thought I’d actually like to wear. The thought of putting on one of those clingy long sleeved surfer shirts in soaring temperatures and high humidity just doesn’t appeal. Nor do I find the functionality of the standard traveller clothing appealing; it just doesn’t feel like I’m on holiday if I’m wearing a collared shirt. So up until now, I’ve slapped on the sun cream (ruining many a white blouse in the process with those impossible to remove stains) and hoped for the best.
I’m not ready to give up my view of a tropical beach just yet. So when a friend offered to let me trial a UVA resistant kaftan, I jumped at the chance. Finally, something that would prevent a repeat of my Balinese burns. Its first outing was to Ibiza. In May, the temperatures are in the mid-twenties, perfect for a trial in conditions similar to a good British summer. Here’s how I got on.
I just loved the colours in this. Blue always feels so summery and the mix of the palette works well as a pattern and means that it goes with a wider range of bottom halves. The longer length style, sitting flatteringly mid-thigh, meant this kaftan hid both generous hips and a tummy that likes to eat. I’m not usually a fan of the tie waist, as I do sometimes think such styles make me feel like a trussed turkey, but actually it too was attractive. I found that in a bow it did have a tendency to undo itself, but in a loose knot it looked just as good. The batwing sleeves hung to my elbow, giving it a pretty waterfall silhouette. The round neck, though high, was loose enough to be comfortable. In my selfies, though, it looks a little too high, reminding me of a hairdresser’s gown. In real life, this isn’t the case, as the length of the garment more than balances this out and obviously if you have someone else taking your holiday photos you’ll get a better image.
I trialled this in a number of situations. As I was on the move, it’s yet to sit round a pool (watch out for an update later this month when it comes with me to hotter Texas). When I first looked at the label, I was a little concerned to see that it was made of 100% polyester, usually favouring cotton and linen for high temperatures. It was so lightweight though, that I never felt hot and sticky; it didn’t cling and hung beautifully. The versatility of this style means that it’s as at home in a cafe as it is on the beach, sophisticated enough for the city yet casual enough to wear poolside. I even went for a short hike in it. The floatiness of the fabric meant it didn’t ride up or become too rucked up around the legs. My only criticism is that with half-sleeves the lower parts of your arms are exposed. I’d love to see that the range is widened to include a long sleeve tunic blouse in the same colourway and fabric.
I’m not alone in praising its versatility. Fellow tester Kate had this to say when she packed it for a Med cruise:
“In Rome today and melting. The kaftan is absolutely brilliant. I don’t need cream under it and there’s been no burning at all. I feel posh too! Ingenious.”
Kate’s a skin cancer survivor and adds:
“It gave me so much confidence, took away the worry I have when I see the sun is shining! I could sit on a beach and look like everyone else in a glamorous floaty cover up, yet I knew my skin was being protected.”
Value for money 10/10
This item is new for 2017 and the retail price has yet to be finalised. I’m assured that it should be in the region of £25 to £30. At this price bracket, that’s excellent value for money in my opinion. The kaftan is well made and you’re getting a quality product. With little competition in the UK market, it’s hard to find a comparison, but similar clothing from high-end retailers can go for up to £100, making this a bargain.
Let’s get real for a minute: the main reason you’re going to be looking at the Sunwise UVA product range is to buy clothing that is going to protect you from the sun. So did it do its job? I spent the day in and out of the sun, and even when my lower arms were reddening at my sunny cafe table over lunch, the parts covered by the kaftan were well protected. I’ve covered the lack of wrist-length sleeves in the style score, so for me this garment’s ability to protect me from sunburn in temperatures of around 25°C was first rate. If that changes when I up the temperatures a bit, I’ll edit this section to reflect its capabilities.
Would I buy it? Yes, absolutely, and another one too if further colourways were to become available. It’s not something I’d have considered before, but I’m a convert.
Where to find it:
Sunwise UVA is a recent start up and would value your custom as well as your comments. Their current range can be viewed online at:
They’re also on Facebook: look for Sunwise. UVA clothing
The authorities in Venice have recently announced that they will be introducing a series of measures to limit visitor numbers. Amongst other things, Venice’s city council plan to issue tickets for St Mark’s Square and leaflet tourists to encourage them to head to less-visited parts of the city. Supporters of the plan claim it’s necessary to protect a city that’s already on UNESCO’s endangered list; critics respond vehemently that a city should be open to all. Where do I stand? Somewhere in the middle, if I’m honest.
The more mobile the world’s population gets, the busier tourist honeypots are getting, and our visitor experience is suffering as a result. Travelling to many European cities in the middle of August can be more of a chore than a pleasure. I had to visit the Swiss city of Interlaken in August a couple of years ago and the sheer number of people competing for space was dangerously close to what the infrastructure could cope with. Added to that was a liberal scattering of selfie sticks, overflowing rubbish bins and a bunch of people whose disdain for queuing manifested itself in elbowing and shoving. It was about as far from tranquil as you could get, and certainly not what you’d imagine if you pictured a trip to the Swiss Alps in your head.
Over time, however, tourist numbers can increase so rapidly that not taking action can jeopardise not only the visitor experience but the site itself. When I first visited Machu Picchu in 1995, I remember wandering with a friend amongst the ruins with hardly another soul there. Memories can be a little rose-tinted; statistics put the annual figure in those days at about 250,000, averaging out at a little under 700 a day. By the time I returned in 2006, the site felt busy and the prices hiked in what proved to be an ineffectual attempt to limit the number of people. Statistics estimate visitor numbers to have reached about 700,000 per annum by that point.
By 2014, an estimated 1.2 million tourists came, around 300,000 in excess of limits agreed between UNESCO and the Peruvian authorities. Erosion of paths and stones, waste disposal issues and the risk of landslides are, still, very real threats. The diesel-spewing fleet of buses might have been replaced by newer models and the threat to build a cable car that could well have sent the whole ruins tumbling down the mountain seen off, but Machu Picchu isn’t out of danger yet.
There are plans to introduce compulsory guides, expect tourists to follow set routes through the ruins and limit time at the site to prevent Machu Picchu collapsing under the strain. I can’t face returning a third time under such conditions, but if I’d never been, I guess it would be better to accept these strategies than to miss out completely. I feel lucky that I got to visit many of the world’s iconic sights ahead of the crowd yet at the same time saddened that the way I experienced them is, by necessity, a thing of the past.
Even off season, Iceland’s wild views are coming under pressure
A whole raft of amazing places have implemented, or are planning to, measures to limit the impact of tourism. Whether following the Bhutanese model of insisting on a minimum spend of $200-$250 via a compulsory daily package, limiting numbers arriving by cruise ship à la Santorini and Antarctica or regulating hotel beds and the likes of Airbnb as is being considered by Iceland, the goal is the same: to find a limit which works for the environment and people. If your next bucket list destination is nearing breaking point, you’d better get organised (or rich) so you don’t miss out.
One of South America’s iconic bucket list activities is to visit the vast Salar de Uyuni. It’s been on my wish list for a while:
This March I finally made it to Uyuni, 22 years after my first trip to Bolivia. On the way, I travelled from Salta along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, one of Argentina’s most attractive areas. A side trip from Tilcara took me to Salinas Grandes, Argentina’s largest salt flat. The two tours were as different as they come, so which was best? Here is my review.
The salt flats
The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It covers an area over 4000 square miles and sits at an altitude of over 3600 metres above sea level. The crust of what were once prehistoric lakes dries to a thick layer of salt, and the brine which lies underneath it is rich in lithium with something like 50-70% of the world’s known reserves. Even on a day trip, it’s not long before you’ve driven far enough out onto the salt flat to be totally surrounded by a sea of white. Losing your bearings is entirely possible though the position on the horizon of distinctive volcanoes such as Tunupa makes things a little easier.
In contrast, Argentina’s biggest offering is paltry by comparison, though still the second largest in the world. Measuring a little over half the area of its Bolivian neighbour at 2300 square miles, it’s still enormous of course. Like the Salar de Uyuni, it’s a high altitude location, coming in a few hundred metres lower. Salt mining is also a feature of the landscape here and as in Bolivia, you’ll see piles of salt, blocks of dust-striped salt for construction and other industrial activity.
Choosing the tour
Salar de Uyuni tours are big business. It’s firmly on the backpacker trail and the scruffy, dusty town of Uyuni is rammed with operators selling one-day and three-day tours to the flats. I opted for a one-day tour. Having been just across the border in Chile and seen some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, I didn’t feel the need to spend hours in a cramped 4X4 to do the same in Bolivia. Three-day tours offer basic accommodation and rudimentary facilities; the days of cold showers and BYO sleeping bags are long behind me. I opted for a mid-range tour with a respectable outfit called Red Planet Expeditions, booking online via Kanoo Tours at a cost of $83. (It is cheaper to book when you arrive but I didn’t want to have to hang around so was prepared to pay the extra few dollars to arrange my tour in advance.) Even this, one of the better companies, had mixed reviews, so I figured if I had a poor experience for a day I’d be happier than if I’d opted for the longer tour.
The nearest tourist base to the Salinas Grandes is at Tilcara, the other side of a mountain from the salt flats. I found a highly regarded tour operator called Caravana de Llamas which offer a range of llama trekking tours, opting for a tour that spent a few hours walking out to the salt flats. The tour itself was excellent value at $65 per person, minimum two people. However, this doesn’t include transport. You’ll either need a rental car to cross the mountain pass (it’s a good road) or a car with driver. Caravana de Llamas can arrange this for you for 1500 Argentinian pesos per car (rates correct as at March 2017) which is reasonable for a car load but expensive for a solo traveller.
The tour: Bolivia
Choosing to visit in wet season, the Bolivian tours cannot reach Incahuasi Island which is a fair distance across the salt flats (and home to giant cacti). I’d been sent information requesting that I check in to the Red Planet office at 9am for a departure by 10am. On arrival, I was told we’d actually be leaving at 11am. On departure we were a convoy of three vehicles with one guide between us. The car was in good condition; judging from the reviews this isn’t always the case. The driver was pleasant enough, though he spoke no English which may be a problem for some. There were five travellers per car, but this can be six or seven which would have been cramped. Two at least have to sit on the back seat and there, the windows do not open. My fellow travellers were a pleasant bunch, though much younger than me. I wasn’t as keen as the others on having the music turned right up, making it very hard to talk, but everyone else seemed happy. The guide, Carlos, split his time between the three vehicles. I didn’t take to him, finding him obnoxious and arrogant, so I was pleased we didn’t have to have him in the car very much. I had several concerns about his attitude and behaviour (some shared with other members of the group). I contacted Red Planet for their comment but have yet to receive a reply two weeks later. It’s not appropriate to go into details here but I would hesitate to book with this company again if they couldn’t guarantee the guide would be different.
The tour allocated a great deal of time to the train cemetery – which had the potential to be a fantastic place to visit if you don’t time it to coincide with the 30+ 4X4s which stop there on the way to the salt flats each morning. Having woken to clear skies, the clouds had rolled in by the time we arrived which was frustrating given how close the site was to the town. There was also a lengthy stop in the village of Colchani where we visited a salt factory (just a room where not much was going on except for attempts to flog us bags of salt) and where we were given lunch of lukewarm chicken, stone-cold rice or cold potatoes plus a delicious apple pie. Eventually we reached the salt flat itself and the scenery at that point took over. In wet season the reflections in the water are a crowd-pleaser and it wasn’t a disappointment. What was a pity was the lack of thought given to pre-departure information. As requested I’d come prepared with sun cream, but no one had thought to tell us we’d need flip-flops for the salt flats. It wasn’t just a case of getting our feet wet, more that the crust is sharp and uncomfortable to walk on. I ended up in socks which was better than going barefoot but still unpleasant.
Later, we drove to a drier part of the salt flats for the famous perspective photos. These were cheesy, clearly well rehearsed (we did the same poses as every group I’m sure) but a fun souvenir. The guide did take the photos, which was kind of him, so those on their own could participate. Afterwards we had an enforced and quite lengthy stop near a monument. I think it was included to enable us to arrive at the edge of the salt flats in time for sunset, though it felt like time-wasting. Six out of the fifteen travellers in our cars had overnight buses to catch and were very worried they’d miss them. Given we were all filthy dirty and covered in salt, they’d have needed time to clean themselves up before boarding. The rest of us had what turned out to be quite a rushed sunset photo stop. However, we were dropped off at the Colchani salt hotels on the edge of the salt flat. This was a bonus; if we’d have had to return to Uyuni and then take a taxi, this would have added an hour at least as well as the additional cost of transport.
All in all I felt that the wow-factor of the salt flats themselves redeemed the day. The guide was a big negative, but I was told it wasn’t possible to go deep into the salt flat without one. Walking from the salt hotels to the edge of the salt flats wouldn’t have given me the same experience, so although this was one of the worst tours I’ve taken in years, I’m still glad I did it. But even more relieved I didn’t opt for the three-day tour.
The tour: Argentina
I was sent a reconfirmation email the day before my tour to ensure I knew that the driver would be on time; in fact he was early when he arrived at my hotel in Tilcara. The car was almost brand new and spotlessly clean. Another traveller had cancelled so I had a private tour. Jose Luis the driver was friendly, courteous and knowledgeable, as well as being safe over the mountain pass. I was offered several stops at viewpoints to enable me to take some great scenery shots as we climbed above the clouds. Arriving at the tiny village of Pozo Colorado, llama handler and guide Santiago was ready, welcoming and cheerful. Jose Luis joined us for the first part of the trek to ensure I was comfortable leading a llama and then joined us later at the salt flats.
Walking with the llamas was fun. Oso and Paco were well behaved and to my relief didn’t spit. From time to time Santiago told me a bit about the llamas, the scenery and the way of life up there on the Argentine Puna, but he also knew when to let me enjoy the silence and serenity of the place. The trek was easy, over flat terrain, and when we arrived at the edge of the salt flats, there was time for me to wander off and take photos while lunch was prepared. A picnic table had been set up loaded with delicious food: local goats’ cheese, llama meat, ham sandwiches, salad and more. There was plenty to go around. Jose Luis joined us for lunch and the inclusion of a third person made chatting easier as he was bilingual.
After lunch, the llamas had rested and we walked onto the salt flats for some souvenir photos. Afterwards, Jose Luis drove me to some of the industrial workings a short distance away. There wasn’t a lot of activity going on, though as with Bolivia, I did see the piles of salt “bricks” and also heaps of mined salt. By the time we’d driven back over the mountain the tour was a similar length to that taken in Bolivia, arriving in Tilcara late afternoon.
If I’d have visited Bolivia before Argentina, I’d have probably been disappointed with this tour. The scenery just didn’t have that sense of scale that gave it the bucket list wow. However, as an activity, walking with llamas was a lot of fun and I felt that Santiago had gone to a lot of trouble to make me feel comfortable and, despite his basic English, to put the scenery in context. I was left wanting more and would definitely book with Caravana de Llamas again if I returned to the area.
Both tours were worth doing but very different. The Argentinian tour was very civilised and the llamas incredibly cute. Regular readers of this blog will know how much I adore these fluffy creatures. The people involved worked hard to ensure I was well-looked after. In contrast, the Bolivian tour encompassed my worst nightmares with a bossy, inflexible guide and yet – the scenery was so incredible that I’d still do it again.
Expectations are key. In Uyuni, there doesn’t seem to be a single operator winning consistently excellent reviews. In this respect, having a horrible guide but a good driver and a vehicle that didn’t break down was the best option – if there’s a weak link, at least your safety isn’t compromised. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to take a backpacker-style tour, so perhaps I’m out of the habit of being herded around – and it’s no surprise to those readers who know me to hear that I don’t like being told what to do.
Perhaps taking a budget option in Bolivia would have been the way to go: there were day trips for under $40, half the price I paid, and given how poor the guiding and the lunch were, maybe it would make the tour seem better value. However, I certainly wouldn’t recommend taking a basic tour for the three-day option as the mileage covered is considerable and the area remote. I heard good reports about the scenery from a private Dutch group, but having seen similar (better?) in the more accessible Chile a couple of years ago, I don’t regret my choice to cut out the mountain lakes and volcanoes.
So – which tour? Tough decision: I’ll call it a draw! Have you taken either tour? What were your impressions?
Footnote: I paid for both tours myself; all opinions expressed are my own.
It’s almost time for me to fly off to South America. My itinerary is pretty much fleshed out now and most of the bookings are made. One thing that’s easy to overlook, though, is specific vaccination requirements. For Bolivia, the regulations concerning yellow fever have just changed.
As you’ll see from the map above, parts of Bolivia are affected, like much of South America, by yellow fever. Travelling to Uyuni and then La Paz, however, I’m not going to be venturing into yellow fever territory, so it’s tempting to think I wouldn’t need the vaccine. But early last month, a Danish traveller was found to have the disease. The National Health Director was quoted as saying: “This person came from another place and was not vaccinated.” There’d been an outbreak of yellow fever across the border in Brazil, but whether the Danish traveller had been there is unclear from the news reports. You can read Reuters’ report here:
What this means in practice is that from yesterday, 2nd March, all travellers entering Bolivia from a country which has a current outbreak of the disease or remains a risk area for it, must hold a valid yellow fever certificate. I’m travelling across the border from Argentina so that means me – even though I won’t have passed through yellow fever areas within Argentina. I’ll still need a certificate. That certificate would need to be issued at least 10 days before I’d be due to enter Bolivia. Potentially, without one, I could be refused entry at the border.
Even some transit passengers are likely to be affected. If you hub through an airport in a neighbouring country on your way to Bolivia, you could still be refused entry into Bolivia if you have cleared immigration and gone landside. That’s even if you never left the airport. Basically, the Bolivians are playing it safe and you can’t blame them for being cautious.
I’ll update this post in a couple of weeks to tell you if the certificate was requested by border officials or not. Fortunately, my jabs are up to date and the yellow fever certificate I needed to get into Panama a few years ago is still valid. But make sure you’re not caught out by this change in immigration requirements by seeking health from a medical professional before you embark on your trip.
At the land border between La Quiaca and Villazon, I was not asked for a yellow fever certificate.
I love a good train trip and the ultimate in rail journeys has surely got to be the Trans-Siberian in some form or another. If you’re thinking of crossing Russia by train, I’d suggest doing some background reading beforehand to get your head around what seems like a complex trip but in reality is more straightforward than it looks.
What is the Trans-Siberian?
Some people wrongly believe that the Trans-Siberian is one single luxury train. It’s not. It’s one of several long distance routes that stretch across Russia. Generalising a little, there are three main routes: the Trans-Siberian, the Trans-Manchurian and the Trans-Mongolian. Following each of these routes, it is possible to travel on a single train, but most people stop off along the way to explore some of Russia’s great sights – and see something of Mongolia and China as well, perhaps.
How long will I need?
To follow the classic route from Moscow in the west to Vladivostok in the east without stops will take 6 days. If you plan to do this, you’ll need to book the Rossiya train (number 1 or 2 depending on the direction you take). Extending your journey , you could begin (or end) in St Petersburg rather than Moscow, which are connected by an overnight train taking about 8-9 hours, or the high speed Sapsan train which covers the distance in about 4 hours. Personally, I’d allow at least a couple of days to scratch the surface of Moscow or St Petersburg, though it’s easy to spend more time in either. To cover the whole route with a few meaningful stops, it’s best to allow a couple of weeks, more if you can. And of course, you can do the whole trip overland with connecting trains via Paris and a route that takes you through Berlin, Warsaw and Minsk.
What was my itinerary?
Mine is, of course, by no means the definitive tour. On these three routes, it’s easy to tailor your journey according to your own personal preferences. I flew from London City airport to Moscow as at the time I booked, this worked out cheapest. When I planned my trip, I’d already been to Beijing, so I opted for the Trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Ulan Bator in Mongolia, leaving the Trans-Siberian on the map above at Ulan-Ude and heading south to the border.
I stopped at Vladimir (for Suzdal and the Golden Ring) and then Perm (to visit one of Stalin’s notorious gulags). I skipped the popular stop at Yekaterinburg for reasons of time, though I’d like to visit next time, making the journey from Perm to Irkutsk in one go (a little under three days and over 3000 miles) as I wanted to experience a multi-night trip.
I had a couple of days at Irkutsk so I could visit Listvyanka at Lake Baikal before reboarding a train to cross over into Mongolia. Having seen a little of the Mongolian capital and surrounding countryside, I then retraced my steps to Ulan-Ude from where I caught a flight back to Moscow with budget airline S7 – a six and a half hour domestic flight which gives you some idea of the country’s vast size. This worked out considerably cheaper than finding a single leg fare to Moscow and home from UB. In all, the train tickets cost me about £500, with flights adding about £350 to the total.
Is it easy to do as an independent traveller?
Yes and no. I’m a big fan of independent travel, not only for the cost savings, but also for the flexibility it gives me to tailor the itinerary to suit my exact requirements. But I’m also not a Russian speaker and I felt I needed support with the booking process to ensure I ended up with the right tickets for the right trains. As you can see from the ticket below, it’s not at all easy to understand not only a different language but a different alphabet as well.
Due to the complexities of the railway ticketing system plus visa considerations, I decided to use a single specialist travel agent for those two aspects of my trip. As is my usual style, I booked my own flights, accommodation and most of my sightseeing myself; the exception was a private tour to Perm-36 Gulag which I also outsourced.
The company I used at the time was Real Russia.
Their website has a dedicated Trans-Siberian section which enables you to check train times, suss out possible routes, check prices and order visas. It’s clear and in my experience the support offered by the team was excellent. All my tickets were sent in good time with English translations, the visa process was uncomplicated and every aspect of the trip that they’d arranged went according to plan – which was more than could be said for some of my own bits:
Since switching careers, I’ve done a lot of work for Just Go Russia, another London-based agency specialising in Russia, and they are always extremely efficient. If you’re looking for a tour, they do offer a wide range of options. You can find them here:
Even if you don’t end up booking a tour, it’s a good way of getting an overview of the route and whittling down the options about where to stop off. Another source of information is The Man in Seat 61, my starting point for every train trip I’m planning outside the UK. There’s a good overview here:
What’s it like on the train?
Each of the trains I took was a little different. I “warmed up” on the short leg from Moscow to Vladimir and this was a regular seated train. From Vladimir heading east, some of the long distance trains leave in the middle of the night, so I opted for one departing early evening which arrived after lunch the following day. The overnight trains varied considerably in terms of speed and quality, something that is reflected in the price. Another thing to factor in if travelling in Russia’s hot summer is that the air-conditioning is turned off when you stop at the border and the windows of such carriages don’t open; more basic trains have windows that can be pulled down to let in a breeze. (In winter, in case you’re wondering, the trains are heated.)
Some compartments featured luxury velour seating, others were more basic, such as the one I travelled on from Perm to Irkutsk. In my opinion, that didn’t really matter as I followed the lead of my compartment companions (all Russians) and stretched out on a made bed all the way rather than converting it back to a seat. When I did the Irkutsk-UB leg, the train was more luxurious, those sharing the compartment were all tourists like me and we all sat up during the daytime. To be honest, I liked the native approach best.
In all cases, I opted for second-class tickets which provided comfortable accommodation though no en-suite facilities. The logic to this was that as a solo female traveller I didn’t want to be alone in a compartment with a single man and the first-class compartments came as two-berth not four-berth kupe. I shared with three men from Perm to Irkutsk but as everyone sleeps in their clothes nothing untoward happened and actually I was well looked after by one of them in particular, a Russian army officer heading on to Chita.
What should I pack?
As you are likely to sleep in your clothes then picking something comfortable like jogging bottoms and a loose T-shirt is a good idea, though clearly you won’t win any fashion awards. Who cares? I found it helpful to pack changes of clothes (socks, underwear and T-shirts) in a day pack so I could store my suitcase under the bed and forget about it. In terms of footwear, most of the locals seemed to favour blue flip-flops with white socks. Slip on shoes of some form are convenient to help keep your bedding free of dust picked up from the floor.
When I travelled, the bathroom facilities were pretty basic so I would definitely recommend taking lots of wet wipes and also a can of dry shampoo. It’s amazing how clean you can get yourself in a small cubicle with just a small sink. These days, most Russian overnight trains have a special services car with a pay-to-use shower which would have been great. You do need your own towel, but I use a special travel towel which folds up small and dries fast. I won mine in a competition but you can get something similar here:
In terms of sustenance, each compartment has a provodnitsa, a carriage attendant who keeps order and makes sure the rooms are hoovered. She also keeps a samovar boiling from which you can get hot water to make tea, noodles or soup, so I packed some of these too.
There’s a restaurant car as well and at station stops, despite the queues there was often enough time to nip off to buy food from the platform vendors, so carry enough small change for these kind of purchases. Finally, it’s a long way. Although batteries can be charged (though sometimes in the corridor on older trains) I’d pack an old fashioned paperback to read or carry a pack of cards to entertain yourself. It’s also true that a bottle of vodka can break the ice though some compartments sounded more raucous late at night than others – the luck of the draw! I also had a copy of the Trans-Siberian Handbook (as opposed to the Lonely Planet which I would usually take) because the level of detail about what you’ll see out of the train window was much better.
Anything else I should know?
One of the things I was most worried about before I set off was missing a train or missing a stop. In the event, neither of these were an issue. At the station, huge signboards helped identify where the train might pull in and showing the ticket and smiling a lot got me escorted to many a carriage door. The trains run on Moscow time which can be a little confusing at first, but there are timetables up in the corridors and even on the longer legs I usually knew roughly where I was. A phrase book helped me decipher the Cyrillic; my technique was to focus on just the first two or three letters rather than trying to remember the whole name. Thus Suzdal became CY3 etc. The train provodnitsas were very good at giving their passengers plenty of warning when their stop was imminent and so I managed to get across Russia without incident.
I never felt unsafe during my trip but I would say that you need to be a bit savvy when it comes to your valuables. Keep your passport and money with you, don’t flash around expensive cameras or laptops but equally, don’t get too paranoid.
Would I do it again?
Yes! The scenery at times was monotonous but that was missing the point. The adventure was in the interactions with people on the train; the sightseeing came after I alighted at the station. Next time I think I’ll begin in St Petersburg, detour to Kazan and make that visit to Yekaterinburg before heading east to Vladivostok. Now where did I put that Trans-Siberian handbook?
Despite a house move – and subsequent endless weekends spent decorating and driving to and from every DIY store in a fifty mile radius – I’ve managed to fit in a few trips this year. What follows is a review of my favourite travel moments from 2016 and what I’m looking forward to in 2017.
There are a few countries on my “still to visit” list that I really should have ticked off years ago, and Sri Lanka was one of them. I finally managed to get there in March and had a fabulous week riding trains and exploring the southern half of the country. Here are some of my posts from that trip; I’ve you’ve never been, I’m sure you’ll want to add it to your wish list.
Sigiriya – to the tune of Duran Duran’s Save a Prayer…
Tea time in the hill country – dare you swallow and not spit?
Uda Walawe – watching the elephants play!
From Sri Lanka, it was a short hop across the Indian Ocean to the beautiful island archipelago of the Seychelles. This one had been saved as a potential honeymoon destination, but in the end we opted for a US road trip and I visited the Seychelles as a solo traveller. Anse Source d’Argent was every bit as sublime as the glossy travel magazines would have you believe, and being able to do the trip on a budget without sacrificing style and comfort was an added bonus. Definitely one to return to one day.
New York – but this time in business class!
I’ve almost lost count of the number of trips I’ve made to New York and there’s much to read on this blog that will explain to you why it’s a city that has held my interest for so long. But this year, I travelled in style with British Airways for less than the cost of an economy fare, courtesy of a very attractive error fare. It’s likely my article on how to blag a business class fare on the cheap is going to be in the Sunday Times Travel Magazine before the spring, but in the meantime, I blogged about error fares here:
Stockholm and Sweden’s High Coast
I took a slight detour on the way back from NYC and visited Stockholm, another place that’s been on my bucket list for a while. The Swedish capital was fun to visit, its ABBA museum exceeding expectations and the outlying islands providing an alternative to city traffic. I then drove up to the High Coast area for a few days in the splendid isolation of some of the country’s best beaches and sheltered harbours. If you’ve never heard of this part of Scandinavia, then I’d urge you to check it out.
Extremadura – hidden Spain
I’m a big fan of Spain and was delighted to have the opportunity to explore a region that has been overlooked by Brits – Extremadura. With a mix of stunning natural beauty, characterful towns packed with history and outstanding food, it ticked all the boxes and then some. I only scratched the surface, but my short trip has left me keen to return. My guide is just an overview; it will get you started but to fully explore the region before you go, then I’ll point you in the direction of native Irene Corchado and her excellent site:
September brought with it the opportunity to spend some of hubby’s air miles and a respite from the muddle that is our half-finished house. We chose to fly to LA for the weather, but having been there before, headed south down the coast for a few days in San Diego and then inland to the heat of Palm Springs. Good food, lots of sunshine and a chance to witness the crazy run up to the elections first hand before returning home to even crazier news a month later when the result was announced. The highlight of the trip, for me at least, was a visit to San Juan Capistrano, one of SoCal’s mission towns:
A few day trips to end the year
With two dogs to take care of, I need to juggle the trips I make so that they are well looked after. One of the ways I achieve this is to take shorter trips which means my husband can work from home to keep them company. So, the last three trips of the year were day trips: to Budapest, Regensburg and Copenhagen. I’ve done many such trips and it is always a big surprise to realise how much it’s possible to fit in without the day feeling like one big dash from sight to sight. To see what I mean, check out these three and the previous similar trips I’ve made. It’s also a great way to get your travel fix on a budget – flights for that day out to Regensburg (flying to nearby Nuremberg) cost less than a fiver.
And so, that was my travel year; I hope yours was as satisfying. What’s in store for 2017?
To kick off the New Year, I’m off to Puerto Rico for some winter sunshine and a chance to explore the historic sights of San Juan’s Old Town. Then a couple of months later I’m off to South America for Uruguay’s gaucho festival and a chance to finally visit Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. After that, who knows? Writing some background material about the ‘Stans for Kalpak Travel has put Central Asia on my radar, a part of the world that suits my preference for off the beaten track destinations. Georgia looks like a strong contender right now, along with neighbouring Armenia and some fascinating breakaway republics, but nothing is set in stone. I’ll be keeping an eye on those error fare notifications just in case…