As mentioned earlier, we got our tickets through travel agents which we mostly found thorugh „The Man in Seat 61“ Alle Reisebüros haben hervorragend funktioniert:
Vietnam: Vietnam Impressive was our travel agent in Hanoi, we dealt with “Dora” (=Nguyen Thi To Uyen). Vietnam Impressive should not be mixed with „Vietnam Impressive Travels“.
We booked the tickets from Hanoi to Guilin/China with Dora first, since we needed the confirmation letter for the Chinese visa. Before we left Australia, we ordered the tickets form Saigon to Hanoi, too, and aske for delivery at the hotel in Saigon (holding our breath…) – we had just dropped our backpacks at the hotel room when the tickets arrived. Perfect!
Vietnamese travel agents can only issue tickets to the first stop across the broder in China, so we had to book our ongoing tickets from Guilin to Beijing ourselves, but that we duscussed with Dora on the phone or via Skype – very effective!
Payment for the tickets was carried out via the vietnamese online payment method “Onepay”, obviously a very reliable provider.
Again: perfect service!
Saigon-Hanoi: compartment for 4, from Saigon to Nha Trang sharing with a vietnamese couple, alone to Da Nang, from there a young vietnamese couple with their baby on their way to the hospital, in Hue and finally sharing with a British couple from Hue to Hanoi.
You can get the 4-bunk compartment for 2, if you pay for the 2 other bunks.
Small Rice-and-something (pork, chicken…) meals were offered. Good!
The train is, as the hotel manager in Saigon said, a bit “rough”, we found it sufficiently convenient. Somebody warned us that there would be cockroaches, but there were non. Startingn in Saigon, we had fresh bed linens.
Hanoi-China: Locomotive with an old, single railway car (german, by the way, as all the way to Berlin!), and 2 passengers only – which was us. No meals At Dong Dang you havbe to leave the train, do customs and immigration and change trains, since China railways run on a narrower gauge..
Stop in Nanning, where you are guided into a huge waiting hall; no (no!) way to communicate… but luckily they pick you up again to guide you back to the train.
In Guilin we had asked the hotel in Chaolong to have us picked up by a taxi, which worked fine – it would have been a bit difficult to find the bus station from the railway station, and also to find the bus from Yangshuo to Chaolong. Returning to Guilin for the onward trip to Beijing, we took the express bus („express“ is better since there are only few stopps where they could pinch your luggage – we had multiple warnings! )
The manager of the „Outside Inn“ in Chaolong had recommended his friend and travel agent Sam Yu, who booked the ticket for us, again a very efficient service, he made reservations for various trains and finally dropped the tickets at the railway station (I would have preferrred to have some paper tickets in my hands the day before, but it worked fine that way).
Buying the tickets yourselves at the Guilin railway station wold have been a real adventure.- endless queues in front of counters, no communication in any direction…
The train was the most perfect we had on the trip, impeccable, fluffy pillows, air-con, TV screens – the class is called „soft sleeper“. Sharing with 2 young chinese men was fun.
From Beijing onwards we used the London agency “Real Russia“. Natasha Zhukova was our countact – very friendly and thoughtful. We made reservations from Australia through the agency. They provided us with the necessary invitation for the russioan visa and advised about visa issues. The sister of some cruisers we met in Scarborough (Paul and Sue from RIONA), had made the same positive experience a couple of years ago and „the man in seat 61“ recommends them also.
Up to now, e-tickets can not be issued from Beijing so we had to collect the tickets for Ulaan Baatar at the RealRussia office in Beijing. Easy – you will be provided with a marked city map and all details. Perfect.
The train „K3“ to Moscow via Mongolia has old classic cars with coal heating and wood-heated samowar. You can smell it at the Central station in Beijing! Friendly car attendants fire up the oven, watch the door at the station, distribute the linens… We had a comaprtment for just the 2 of us. fine. .
The class is „hard sleeper“ but there was not much difference to the soft sleeper from Guilin to Beijing. Maybe a bit harder, but comfortable enough anyway. The soft sleeper on these chinese-russion trains are one class up and true 2-bunk compartment with separate toilets.
There is a restaurant car for lunch and dinner (good!), the train was nearly empty – at first. In Erlian (Erenhot) at the mongolian border the chassis of the cars are exchanged for the wider russian gauge. Here, you have the choice to leave the train at the station (cold!) or stay on the train and watch what’s happening (mind: no toilet use for 3 hours…) The train gets a mongolian restaurant car here, but we did not try that one, since at the border the train fills with mongolian shoppers and makes the long way to the restaurant too tiring.
Mongolia – Russia Pick-up to the onward tickets at a travel agency in downtown Ulaan Baatar. No problem.
From Ulaan Baatar we did not take the through train to Moscow, but a mongolian one. A through-coach to Irkutsk is added to some train going to the border at Suche Baatar. Compartment for 2, nice. There is quite a long stopp for a very strict mongolian control and an even longer one (several hours) in Naushky across the border, wehre the car is dropped until it is picked up by some other train going into SIberia.When applying for russian visa, mind the date, when you reach the border – which is not the date when you arrive in Ulan Ude or Irkutsk…
Irkutsk-Moskau From here we got e-tickets which we printed out in China already, but we were told that a copy on a smartphone would be sufficient.
4 bunkcompartment with y young English guy and a far-east Siberian who left in Novosibirsk, danach nur noch zu dritt. The tickets included 4 meals for the foru-day-trip which consisted of soup plus some meat and rice or noodles. Plus some singel, cold peas! It was nice and warm and filling, so we were happy. You get a paper bag with a drink, bread and some chocolate bar with it. For dinner, we went to the restaurant car twice, which was quite empty – we guess it is too expensive for russion travellers. Since Beijing, we frequently filled our cups with hot water from the samowar and had soup or tea or coffee. The Chinese enjoy huge pots of instant pasta meals. We bought the flat type in bags without pots, but those are harder to find.
If the train stops, you can quite often buy food on the platform or milk, sweets… Stops are between 15 und 40 minutes, there are either kiosks or hawkers coming along.
Every morning one of the cooks went through the train and offered hot Pirashki, which makes a nice breakfast. In the evening she came again, but then the pirashki were no longer hot, o.k. but not as good.
Moskau-Berlin – modern train, compartment for 2 (3 places possible) with wash basin. A flirtatious witress took your orders for lunch and dinner and served it in the compartment.
with regard to sanitation you have to be somewhat forgiving, I think, especially in Vietnam. In China there are both squatting toilet and „european style“ toilets (the latter sometimes used for squatting as you can see from the footmarks on the seat…)
We brought toilt paper but usually there is some. Especially the car attendents in Russia are very busy with heating and cleaning (and closing toilets before reaching a station – that’s when you need it the most!)
There is advice to take a hose and a clamp and a big water basin to take a shower on Russion trains, however, in any of the russiona trains we used, there were ladles as we use them in saunas, so you can use these as a makeshift shower device Take mix some cold water with hot water from the samowar in a large plastic bottle and the ladle will make a nice „makeshift shower“ (pull the floor plug, though!)
The modern chinese train and the one from Moscow to Berlin had sanitation tanks, obvieously, on most of the other trains, toilets are closed at the railway stations, so keep yourself informed about the stops to come. All trains had schedules in the aisle.
We never missed the sleeping bags, but we used the fleece blanket occasionally on the train with air con. Linens were clean from Saigon to Berlin – I would take my thin cotton sleeping bag or an extra sheet anyway – you never know.
In all trains, you had disposable slippers, in russioan trains you can buy even better ones instead. Other shoes such as boots are not welcome .
Mostly we had a T-shirt and thermal underwear – a true russion will wear his undershirt… but we also saw Baby dolls“, negligés… Andreas‘ big hit was to have dinner in his „long johns“ and a T-shirt!
We had a set of cheap cutlery, a leatherman, the thermo mugs and, of course, chop sticks!