Once we had managed to decipher the large Departure Board at Beijing Railway station we worked out that train K23 bound for Ulaanbaatar would depart on time at 7.45 am, and all ticket holders were required to assemble in Waiting Hall No.1. It was hard to believe our Trans Siberian Railway Trip would start in thirty minutes. As we wheeled our bags to the waiting room we hoped, with a little trepidation, that all our pre-trip planning would work!
Together with my wife Margaret, and two friends Colin and Pat, we decided about eighteen months before that we would like to undertake the Trans Siberian Railway trip all the way from Beijing to St. Petersburg commencing early June 2007. The trip we eventually chose was one of twenty three days and was broken up into four stages.
Our information package indicated that our first leg was a thirty hour trip from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. We would then have six days in Mongolia before boarding a train for a further thirty hour journey north west to Irkutsk, located on the fast flowing Angara River and one of the largest cities in Siberia. Here we would enjoy a four day stopover. We all agreed the third and potentially most worrying section was a three day trip carrying us 5,185 rail kilometers across to Moscow where we would stay for two nights before an overnight train journey to St. Petersburg.
Our travel company told us we had a different train on each leg and the standard of trains ranged from non airconditioned without fans and windows which couldn’t be opened, through to modern carriages with airconditioning. Thankfully the train on the three day section was a modern airconditioned one!
Being a Type 1 diabetic for the last three and a half years I had many questions concerning amenities and conditions throughout the trip. Getting definite, even satisfactory, answers was difficult because most travel agents have not done this trip and our tour company, World Expeditions, could not guarantee the answers they gave me were totally correct as conditions and trains in this area changed regularly. My main concern was being able to keep my insulin cool, not only for the duration of the train journey but for the entire twenty three day journey.
The trip was to take place during the northern hemisphere summer and we were advised the daytime temperature would be in the range of 16C to 36C. I asked about the possibility of refrigeration on the train and was told there was none available. It was suggested that power points might be available in First Class cabins, (albeit not guaranteed to work) but we were travelling to a budget. At the end of each carriage there would be a railway attendant (provodnik-male or provodnista-female) who has their own cabin. Whilst it was assumed there would be electricity available in this cabin, there was no guarantee a fridge would be fitted but if so it would be up to the attendant whether I could use it or not. Another problem we faced was one of not knowing if these cabin attendants would be able to speak or understand any English, let alone words such as “diabetes” and “insulin”.
We decided it would be best to approach the trip on the basis that no refrigeration was available and a strong possibility there would be no electricity available in some places. Margaret and I thought it best if we could take our own cooler/fridge so that if electricity was available we could keep the insulin cool. We visited a few Caravan and Camping Shows and finally discovered a Drinkmaster PC-068 can cooler made by Waeco1.. It cost around $30, plugs into both a power point and car cigarette lighter and only weighs 700grams including the power cord. It has a recess that holds a standard drink can. At the same show we bought a sheet of Techni Ice2. which comprises several sachets that can be cut from a larger sheet to obtain small ice packs. Techni Ice contains a chemical solution and stays frozen much longer than water. We also found that a plastic seal from a coffee jar at home was the exact size as the recess for the can and this gave us two options. We could either stand the insulin pens in the can recess to cool or virtually freeze the Techni Ice packs by putting them in the recess with the seal over the opening. Next we needed a wide-mouthed thermos to allow easy access for the ice packs and tall enough to hold the insulin pens. Eventually we found one and we were satisfied that we had everything we needed to overcome the first obstacle.
The next problem to tackle was the content and availability of acceptable foods both on the train and during our stays in rural areas. We had been told we could only be guaranteed a dining car on the Russian section of the trip but food could be purchased from vendors at a number of railway stations along the way. However, as we did not know what types of food would be available on the train or from the platform vendors we decided to take several dehydrated pasta meals which are readily available from most supermarkets for around $1.40 per pack. Prior to leaving we sampled several different varieties and packed enough for me to have one available for every lunch and dinner on board the train if suitable food wasn’t available from the dining car. Whilst they take up a reasonable amount of space in a suitcase, there is very little weight in them. We were told that boiling water was continually available from a samovar (water urn) in each train carriage, but we also packed a two cup thermos as backup so that if I needed to have a dehydrated meal and the samovar was not working then alternate hot water was instantly available.
The pre-trip planning certainly proved its worth on the train trip. On the first section of our journey from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, the wide mouth thermos had Techni Ice (frozen in the hotel room the night before departure) and this kept the insulin cool. On the second leg, which was the same duration I approached our attendant, Nikolai, and asked if I could use his fridge. The only problem was it took a while to communicate to him that I wanted to store insulin but when he realised what it was, he was very happy to oblige. Nikolai was so helpful he must have asked me five or six times if I needed to get any more insulin from his fridge during our journey.
As the third leg would have us on the train for three days I asked our local guide in Irkutsk if she could write a small note for me in Russian to hand to the attendant explaining the need for some room in the fridge to store the insulin. As before, the attendants (two very pleasant Russian ladies named Natalya and Ludmilla) were more than happy to oblige. The last leg from Moscow to St. Petersburg was just overnight, so once again I just put the Techni Ice in the thermos. I only used the Drinkmaster once on this section of our trip and that was in a hotel where we had power but no fridge.
During the train journey my breakfast consisted of muesli bars (brought from home) and fruit (purchased from the cities where we stayed) and I usually had a dehydrated meal for lunch and dinner. Twice we ventured to the dining car. From talking to others on our trip it appears it did not matter what meal you ordered you got what they wanted to give you. It must be said that the meals in the dining car were acceptable although lacking in quantity. The menu varied from train to train and ranged from Chinese dishes to beef stroganoff served with potatoes.
Apart from Mongolia, we stayed in conventional hotels and I was not too worried about food in these places. However in Mongolia we were to stay in different Gers (felt lined insulated tents) for four consecutive nights and I had some concern about the availability and types of food. The most worrying was our night in the wilderness with a nomadic family as we didn’t have any idea as to what food or quantity we would be given. As it turned out, there was no problem with our host providing a scrumptious dinner cooked in a large lidded milk urn on an open fire.
Our planning and preparation worked out very well and if I was to do the trip again I would take the same equipment, principally because there are no guarantees given on the standard or regularity of trains, the reliability of the services (electricity), or the helpfulness of the carriage attendants. I found that having the wide mouth thermos was a good back up if there were periods when no electricity was available. This was the case when we stayed with the nomadic family out in the wilds of Mongolia. When dealing with diabetes in remote areas it is infinitely better to be over prepared than under prepared.
One major aspect of the trip we had to be aware of was the time changes. Between Beijing and St. Petersburg there are sixteen time zones and in Russia all trains run to Moscow time. This meant that when we crossed the Russian border into Siberia, because Moscow was six hours behind, we suddenly gained six hours. Our guide suggested we change our watches two hours each day for three days. Unfortunately this is not such a good idea for a diabetic whose regular insulation regime includes one injection with each main meal plus an additional injection each evening at 7pm. It actually turned out to be quite humorous because I kept my watch on Sydney time to regulate my evening injection, Margaret changed hers one hour each morning and evening for three days so that we could slowly adjust our meal times, Pat changed hers to Moscow time to keep up with the train timetable and Colin kept his on Siberian time, so when anyone asked what time it was they were given four different answers! It took a little while to get used to having my evening injection at different times during the day sometimes as early as 11 am local time but it worked out fine.
Looking back I’m so glad we did the trip. It was a wonderful experience with very interesting scenery ranging from the barrenness of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia to the lush greenery of Siberia. We experienced first hand many different cultures and we have come home with some terrific memories, many photos and a real sense of achievement.
There are two important points I would like to pass on. These apply to any group holiday that you may go on:
- the first is never be embarrassed because you have diabetes. Your tour guide may have been made aware of the situation if you had to fill out a medical form prior to the commencement of the trip. I suggest you discreetly speak to your guide and point out any special needs you have. I have found this invaluable in the six overseas trips we have done since becoming a diabetic as guides have often told me something I should be aware of and it, more often than not, applies to food. Some of the larger tour buses have a fridge for medical purposes only but they do not openly advertise its’ presence so that the driver and guide are not pestered by passengers wanting to use it for their drinks and food.
- The second point is that you must be prepared to be flexible with meal times. This happened on this trip in Moscow and St. Petersburg where, for a number of reasons, on two occasions our lunch was not available until 4 pm. Because our guide was aware of my situation she was continually checking to make sure I was ok and I was placed at the front of the queue when lunch was finally available. I was the envy of everyone as they were all famished! I can’t stress enough that you should always carry jellybeans and several snacks as things sometimes happen that are completely out of your control.
If you have thought about doing the Trans Siberian Railway trip but have not done so because of the perceived difficulties and/or lack of available information I hope I have been of some assistance to you. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me, Rob Croft, on my email address firstname.lastname@example.org . I am only too happy to offer any assistance.
1. Waeco website: www.waeco.com.au (go to Products, Personal Coolers, MyDrink)
2. Techni Ice website: www.techniice.com