Thursday, 26 February 2009

‘You had to be there' Moments

I love photography; I love the ability to capture a moment, a point in time. I love the fact that pictures are immediate ‘postcards’ on my life, where I have been and what I have seen. But more importantly I am attracted by the unlocking of emotions and thoughts that photographs give.

You look at a photo you have taken and immediately the door to that memory is thrown open. Long after the immediate reaction to the pictures content vanishes, you are left with the thoughts and emotions of the experience, my mind wanders in and around the picture, what was going on in the scene, who was there and what could I hear and smell.

An example if this is my 2 current favorite pictures I have taken – a simple shot of my hero Sachin Tendulkar and a sunset scene of Chicago. Neither are going to win awards and neither are perfect, but each time I see them I recall and unlock so many thoughts.


The Chicago sunset was my first taste of real freedom, I was on a summer vacation in the US, and I had gone to Chicago, alone but so excited. That boat trip came at the end of a long balmy summers day and the shot represents the new period of my life I hoped would start – independent, aspirational and ambitious.

20070826_020337_DIG_BHX_SPO_1081_A100_Inda England Edgbaston ODI_!!

Sachin Tendulkar, the God on this earth, up close and personal. I took this shot when india were playing in Birmingham, and in taking this shot I got so close to the little master, and he actually looked at me. Sounds so ludicrous, but any sense of connection can be powerful.

These are real “you had to be there” pictures, where the full impact is not contained in the prints, it is contained in the moment.

I will continue to take photos - I hope throughout my life - but I hope even more that I have more of these types of moments where the photo is just the start and actually it is the experience that holds the value. I hope that this world trip is just full of these times.

Less than 10 weeks to go...

Not long now, we have done loads since the last update. Some of the highlights:

  • All shopping is done (I hope!) – We bought all the required items between our trip to see Ashish last November [2008] and the New Year sales in the UK. Nothing else to buy
  • We have done a trial pack – all the stuff fits, and the packs are not as heavy as we thought, that is a good sign, but we still need to trim a few things out I think.
  • We have bought our flight tickets from Birmingham to St Petersburg – so if nothing else we can go on a city break there!!
  • We have booked our Trans-Siberian railway tickets (see previous post)
  • We have applied for and received our Russian Visas and Australian permits – the bureaucracy did not defeat us
  • We have applied for our Chinese, Mongolian and Vietnamese Visa’s
  • We have opened all the credit card, and current accounts we need for the trip and have set the trip budget – a big deal looking at what all we want to do!

Will update again in some weeks, when hopefully nothing else will be left, other than to pack (I wish!)

Trans-Siberian tickets and planning

A few tips if you are planning a trans-Siberian journey

Think about the season you want to go in – we are going in spring time, it will be nice but it won’t be snowy, if you want to witness the real real Siberian world, go when there is snow on the ground. Late winter and early spring aren’t great as the melting snow leaves slush and mud everywhere!

Decide which way to go – you can go eastwards or westwards. For us this is the start of our trip (good for visa planning etc) so were are going Eastwards

Trans-Siberian, Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian? – There are actually many options and routes

We taking a fairly traditional trans-Mongolian route – as it says through Mongolia.

1st class, 2nd class or 3rd class – personally keep it simple go 2nd class, 1st class you will get a coupe for 2 and sometimes a ‘shower facility’, 2nd class is for 4 people and I think 3rd class is for 6, and is a little open.

This is 2nd Class - better than many hostels!!!

Stop or Non-Stop?
– There are trains that will leave Moscow and go all the way to Beijing or Vladivostok, and people often buy a ticket that will take them all the way there. However it’s my opinion that this is for the rail geeks amongst us, and if you really want to get the most out of this trip, take a couple of stops. We are stopping at Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar. Each time we will take a few days out, and explore the local areas around Lake Baikal (the deepest lake in the world) and the Mongolian Gobi desert.

It is important to note that you can’t buy a single ticket which allows you to make stopovers, so you will need to buy separate tickets. This makes the coordination of the trains to fit your schedule really crucial and therefore makes the next bit of advice important.

How do I get a ticket?
– 3 main options, buy them yourself in Russia, buy the tickets through an agent, or buy a ‘package journey’ from a western agent.

1st off, I would not buy a package trip. They cost significantly more and ultimately you don’t get much more for your extra £s. The trains used are the same (unless you go for a really exclusive package costing £1,000s), you may get some excursions, but then exploring yourself is fun (as long as you make it back to catch the train!).

I also would not wait to buy tickets in Russia – unless you are flexible with your times/dates, and possibly unless you want a single ticket to take you through to the destination directly, tickets are hard to get hold of. Tickets are released 45 days before the departure date of the train, and most get snapped up by the agents (option 2!) therefore unless you are in Russia for a while, or can be flexible getting your own might be tough.

We are taking option 2, and buying our tickets only through an agent. As with most of these things Seat61 has the best advice. We selected RealRussia as the agents we would use as they seem to know everything about anything to do with the trans-Siberian! They are the best in the business and thus far have been fantastic for us, in particular Alla has been the agent I have been talking with and she is great. The biggest benefit about is that they have a UK presence. The prices they quote are in £s and you will get your tickets posted to you in the UK. There are of course others that you should look at.

All in all our tickets cost about £500 each for St Petersburg-Moscow-Irkutsk-Ulaanbaatar-Datong. I am sure the official price may be much less than that in Russia, but I am mentally prepared for that, and have the peace of mind that I have a ticket. Also a similar package (with stops, and therefore accommodation) costs about £1500 (!), so unless you stay in top notch accommodation throughout the trip, the agent sourced price is still a bargain.

Not much more to say, would love to hear others experience of the Trans-Siberian, and of course we will be blogging the whole way round, so I will update you on how much coffee I drank!

Taking the longest railway journey in the world

Ok! To be accurate the longest railway journey you can take is from Portugal through Europe, Russia, China and down to the tip of Vietnam, this is one hell of a journey and would take about 19months (!).

However the trans-Siberian is the longest single country journey you can do by train, and is possibly the most well known and inspiring. I am no train geek, but in line with my trip philosophy of doing as many ‘you had to be there’ experiences, it was high up the agenda of things to do. Nowhere near shark diving! but high up the agenda nonetheless

We will be arriving at St Petersburg at the start of our trip and then travelling to Moscow, where we will catch the ‘Rossiya’ (even the trains name sounds perfectly authentic!). From there it’s straight to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, where we stop over for a few days, before carrying on to Mongolia. We will be in the desert for a few days and then on to Datong, China before arriving in Beijing.

Many people would ask why do the trans-Siberian? It will take 7 days pure ‘train time’ to trundle across Russia, Mongolia and arrive in Beijing, the trains are not luxurious and you have to pass the days peering out of windows over scenes that could be said to be barren and bleak.

I think the trans-Siberian is reflection of life and times gone by, and soon to disappear altogether. Communal travel that is not all about the end destination and getting there in breakneck speed. This journey, more than any other is about what you see do and experience on the way, we will see the real Russia, we will meet real people and others from other countries, we will have time to share a coffee in the dining car, and yes, gaze aimlessly at what I would class as achingly beautiful barren landscapes.

Luxury can be a false veneer that covers the authentic beauty and individuality of a country. You have to just look at the range of 5 star hotels out there, they all look the same and they all feel the same. The trans-Siberian is going to feel different because it is different. I can’t wait to feel the hum of activity as we get lost on the platform in Moscow, I can’t wait to bedding down for a relaxing snooze as you are rocked gently by the train.

I know this sounds a bit too poetic and probably the experience is going to be challenging and uncomfortable, if so, then so be it!

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