For many rail enthusiasts, the Trans-Siberian is considered the pinnacle of train travel. Hailed as the longest railway line in the world connecting Moscow with Vladivostok in the far east, this railway line has since expanded to connect Mongolia (Trans-Mongolian) and China (Trans-Manchurian) and continues to expand at pace.
We always have plenty to talk about when it comes to the Trans-Siberian, however, nothing quite beats the first-hand experience from a fellow traveller. Speaking about his adventures to Tibet via the Trans-Manchurian Railway, seasoned Trans-Siberian travel expert and long-standing friend of Real Russia, Matthew Woodward sits down with our team for a quick Q&A session to discuss all things trains, along with the release of his upcoming book ‘The Railway to Heaven’.
What’s your earliest memory of ‘trains’?
I wasn’t ever a trainspotter, but I did travel quite a bit by train when I was a small boy. I was a latch key kid and used to spend most of my pocket money travelling to places that seemed far away and exotic like Kentish Town and Bedford Midland. I was given the Hornby mixed freight OO gauge railway set for my tenth birthday and got quite excited whenever visiting the nearest model shop in Mill Hill – by train of course.
Do you have a favourite rail journey?
It’s hard to beat a modern Russian train in the middle of the Siberian winter, but I have been lucky enough to travel on so many amazing journeys. I loved travelling on the International Express that used to connect Bangkok and Butterworth, and also some of the Amtrak routes, the Southwest Chief and the Coast Starlight in particular.
Is there an explorer that inspires your adventures (living or not)?
I was lucky enough to meet Sir Ran Fiennes at the RGS a few years ago. We only spoke very briefly, but his penetrating eyes, firm handshake and lovely way of speaking totally captivated me. Of course, I don’t think of myself as an explorer in the carrying an ice axe sense, but more in that one job of an explorer is to bring back news from a distant place, and I do try to do that. I wrote a bit about Sir Ernest Shackleton in my new book, and I have always imagined it would have been truly inspirational to meet him. Instead, I used to plan my adventures in the front room of his Edinburgh home. More practically I have always loved reading about the adventures of Robert Twigger. Some of his journeys have been absolutely awesome, and when we met at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I found him to be something of a kindred spirit.
You worked in marketing before you started dedicating your life to be a professional rail adventurer, what made you throw the towel in on corporate life and follow your dreams?
It didn’t happen in one single moment, but looking back, like many I was in a bit of a comfort bubble when I used to wear a suit and sit behind a desk. Once I had left this world, I started to really challenge myself on what I wanted from life, and to begin with, it wasn’t easy to find the right answer. I had always travelled a lot, and as I had more time I started to blog and write articles. The first book came at the suggestion of a good friend, and I wrote it for personal satisfaction rather than for commercial success. Since then my travels have been very rail focussed, and this has become the niche that I now love writing about.
Do you take lots of photos on your travels?
I try to take fewer photographs, but better photographs these days. I carry compact mirrorless cameras that are great to use and allow me to capture the essence of my journey without standing out too much as a traveller or photographer. I like to get into a routine each day of reviewing them and transferring only the very best ones to a portable hard drive that I back up in the cloud.
Night owl or early bird?
Night owl unless forced to be an early bird by work and travel plans. I go out my way to avoid early starts having survived the experience of years’ worth of red-eye flights when I was living the corporate existence.
Do you save all your tickets?
I have a series of thick files with all the tickets and paperwork from each of my adventures. It is helpful to keep them as I often find myself wanting to find out the detail of which carriage I was in or the exact time and date I travelled on a particular train.
What do you never leave home without on a rail adventure?
I’m guilty of carrying far too much kit, and each time I set off on a new adventure I try to lighten the load. There are some things that I would never set off without - my portable espresso machine, my lucky Flying Scotsman thermos flask and an industrial supply of Jelly Babies. Oh, and the secret key that seems to open all doors and windows on Russian trains.
If you could only take 5 things with you on your Trans-Siberian journey, what would they be and why?
I never travel without a portable espresso maker! Other than that, a good supply of music and books on my Kindle, plus plenty of jelly babies and I’m happy. A head torch, a good penknife and a roll of duct tape will solve most problems on board. I used to take far too much kit, but I’m getting better at carrying less now.
What has changed from your first Tran-Siberian journey to your latest one?
My first two trips were on the Trans-Mongolian. Whilst it's very comfy, it’s not as nice on board as the modern Russian carriages like on the Vostok and the Rossiya. The timekeeping has changed too. Until recently trains kept Moscow time which was a complication.
So, would you say that the Tran-Siberian has got easier since your first trip?
Well, it’s always been easy once I learned to let Real Russia worry about getting the tickets. Every journey presents a few challenges, but the only thing that has changed is that I am more used to how things work. In a way that’s not as much fun as your first trip, when it’s all so new.
On your latest journey, you mention that you went as far as Tibet, how easy was it to get the permit needed to travel to Tibet?
Well its actually quite complex, but I used Real Russia to handle all my tickets and visas. The advantage of this was that the paperwork was tied up together. A ticket on the train is no good without a permit for the same dates, and you also need the services of an official guide. Knowing that the same people in the visa and ticketing team were dealing with this gave me a lot of confidence in my plan. You need a Chinese visa before you can even approach applying for a permit too.
You have been on the Trans-Siberian quite a few times now – what makes you keep going back?
With three major routes and several branch lines, there are lots of places to explore. For overland adventurers, it is also the easiest way to reach Central and South East Asia. It was the perfect way to reach Beijing to connect with the train to Lhasa on my last trip. I have been as far as Singapore by train too, using the Trans-Sib as part of the route.
When looking back across all your Tran-Siberian experiences, is there one thing in particular that really stands out for you?
Perhaps that first moment when you sit back in a cosy compartment on your first ever trip to Siberia in the winter. The smell of coal burning to heat the samovar, and the view outside of everything working normally in such a hostile environment. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Who would you recommend the Trans-Siberian to?
Almost everyone. As long as you do not expect to be on board the Orient Express, it’s fun for all. It is very social, very relaxed and pretty safe. People often ask me what you do to fill the time, but it rushes by.
Looking back across all your trips, what would be your most important piece of advice for travellers looking to do the Trans-Siberian?
Talk to everyone. There are so many interesting people on a train like this. Make friends with the staff and they will go out of their way to look after you.
Do you ever take a more conventional holiday? Will we find you lazing on a sun-lounger sipping cocktails by the pool for example?
I have tried. I like to treat myself to a few nights somewhere at the end of a big trip, but if I hadn’t done the trip I would not be able to settle down. I wrote much of my second book in a lovely hotel in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand.
What’s the dream rail journey…your bucket list?
That’s really tough to answer as there are so many. I have never been on a private train like the Venice Simplon Orient Express or the Golden Eagle, and I like the idea of dressing for dinner. The Mauritania iron ore train is on the other end of the spectrum, and I will finally be ticking it off soon. I’d love to do the full length of both the Indian Pacific and the Ghan. I did a night on the Ghan a few years back and loved the atmosphere (and the good quality wine) on board. But Europe offers so many possibilities closer to home. Steam trains in the Hartz Mountains, the Glacier Express in Switzerland, and the Arctic train in Scandinavia.
So let’s talk about your upcoming book, ‘The Railway to Heaven’. Writing a book of any kind takes a lot of dedication and perseverance; how long did it take to write?
It took close to a year, but I did move from my home in Edinburgh to West Sussex at the same time. The Engine Shed had no roof on earlier this year, and I had an army or builders around me demanding tea and biscuits. I think this could take just 3 or 4 months if I were more disciplined. I should learn from Enid Blyton. She wrote a 60000-word book, The River of Adventure, in just five days!
How do you prepare yourself for a writing session, presumably with your love of coffee it starts with a flask of a strong brew?
I often find that I have my greatest breakthroughs in how to describe my journeys in the darkness of the night or even first thing in the shower. I like to get an outline of these thoughts down on paper as placeholders in the draft before I lose them. Although social media can be a huge distraction, I need the internet to fact check everything as I go along. Coffee is both my saviour and my biggest enemy. I like to kick off with a cup of something quite strong and exotic, but then make frequent trips to my trusty espresso machine, often resulting in procrastination from writing.
When sitting down to pen a chapter or two how long do you write for, usually?
I can’t keep my focus for more than a couple of hours. I like to write in the mornings, but sometimes dabble with a glass of wine in the evening, which some say to be a dangerous pursuit. I can always change it the next morning though.
This is the third book about your rail adventures, does it get easier with each one to tell your tales of train travel?
It gets easier in some ways and harder in others. I have had to grow into my writing style, and whilst I feel more confident in my writing ‘voice’ now, I really fuss over the detail. After several redrafts of my latest book, I have occasional moments of self-doubt that it isn’t fluid enough or interesting enough, then I reread, and it seems fine. You can just get too close to it at times.
What’s your personal style…are you an avid notetaker or does it all come flooding back to you when you put pen to paper?
I do have very vivid memories of all my journeys, but I take lots of notes and keep a diary as a travelogue. I feel I owe it to my readers to have layers of detail so that if they were to take the same train they would recognise it from my description. Possibly even the staff.
The book shows your humorous side…is this a natural part of your personality? Do you see the funny side in yourself and situations?
I don’t think of myself as a funny person, but I guess I’m not afraid to share my experiences when I get it horribly wrong. Travelling solo I can get quite introspective and self-deprecating. Maybe I get therapeutic benefit from being totally honest with the reader about my experiences. I’m not trying to big myself up as an adventurer, more to prove that I’m a human being and anyone could do what I’m doing.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I believe that there are days when things don’t come easy, but as I’m writing about a real adventure, not fiction, I don’t have to worry about the story or the narrative structure. By far, my biggest problem is staying motivated to start writing at all. There are so many distractions at The Engine Shed, the place where I now write in my little corner of rural West Sussex.
Before your book goes to print, aside from your publisher and editor, do you read any to family or friends?
I have tried reading it to some close friends, but they seem to end up laughing too much for me to concentrate. I’m not sure if it’s the subject matter or the reading style. Maybe I should release an audiobook next time.
What does literary success look like to you?
I think I was lucky to set out without any hard goals, as I have not had to pressure myself to write in a certain way or to a certain timescale. At the moment success is when readers tell me to keep writing as they enjoy my books. The next stage will be for the popularity of my books to allow me to fund increasingly complex new journeys.
What’s next on the horizon…more rail adventures?
I have started researching and planning for the journey that will hopefully become my next book, but before then I’m off to the Sahara to take the iron ore train in Mauritania.
We would like to thank Matthew for his detailed responses to our questions! For more information about Matthew Woodward and his adventures, visit his website www.matthew-woodward.com, or visit Amazon to get a copy of his new book. Alternatively, take a look at our interview with Matthew from 2016, as part of the launch of our Trans-Siberian Guides, and find out what his funniest Trans-Siberian experience was!
If Matthew’s experience has inspired you to create your own Trans-Siberian journey, then please contact us directly or use our custom-made Trans-Siberian travel planner to begin your adventure!