Real Russia Blog

Q and A with rail adventurer Matthew Woodward

Q and A with rail adventurer Matthew Woodward

What is it about travel that excites Matthew Woodward?

New to the Real Russia website in 2016 are guides to help you plan your Trans-Siberian journey. From how to prepare before leaving, to what to eat while you are travelling, the new guides will help you get the most out of this incredible rail journey.

In order to make the guides as relevant, we decided to bring in outside experience in the form of frequent Trans-Siberian adventurer, Matthew Woodward. Matthew has recently completed his fourth(!) Trans-Siberian adventure as part of an epic journey from Edinburgh to Hong Kong, including a detour to Tibet on the high altitude Beijing to Lhasa line, and writes extensively for both his own website, Toad’s Travel Adventures, as well as Wanderlust.

To complement our new guides we decided to ask Matthew about why he chose to write about travel, and what it is that makes the Trans-Siberian so special.

The interview

When did you first decide to write about travel?

I started writing a blog for the first time in 2011. This was originally more of a project to share my adventures with some of my friends. However, I quickly realised that I actually quite enjoyed recording my experiences, so I concentrated on fine tuning and improving the quality of my work. Perhaps I am also an explorer in the Victorian sense, and like the idea of having an account of my journeys that might be read by a future generation of adventurers.

And what was it about travel that inspired you to write about it for a living?

Whilst I have always been a serial traveller, I did not actually set out to become a travel writer. What I have found is that there is much satisfaction to be had from passing my experiences on to others. I think that is part of the job of being an explorer.

What is your favourite kind of adventure?

One that involves plenty of armchair planning, a degree of social alienation, perhaps a challenging environment and the chance to meet people from totally different cultures. If it also involves interesting food and anything to do with military history, then I'm doubly excited.

What is the first rail holiday you took, and what do you remember of it?

Back in the 1980's I spent two summer holidays travelling with friends around Europe by train. This was the original InterRail, something that you can actually still do today. Rather than do the sensible thing and stop in lots of nice places to enjoy the local culture, we were forever pushing on to new destinations and sleeping on overnight trains or station platforms to keep our costs down. As a fresh faced student, getting to places like Istanbul and Marrakesh by train seemed something of an accomplishment back then. It definitely opened my eyes to the possibilities of long distance rail travel. But then my career as a marketing man got in the way for the next 25 years.

And is this when your passion for rail travel begin?

I was never a full blown train spotter, but I was interested in railways as a small boy. I used to go on mini adventures, often by myself, to what seemed faraway places with my saved up pocket money. A Saturday afternoon trip from St Albans to Flitwick or Bedford Midland felt like trans-global adventure back then. I used to get in occasional bother at home and at school for doing this, but one day by chance met a government schools inspector on Borehamwood station platform. My junior school was soon praised for producing such independent and world wise children. It just wouldn't happen today.

What do you feel rail travel offers that other forms of transport do not?

People behave differently on train journeys, especially the longer ones. There is a much stronger connection in the shared experience of the journey, and also a closer bond with the landscape and the local people. By comparison plane travel is a very one dimensional experience. Rail travel is also accessible to almost all. You don't need to be a polar explorer or Everest mountaineer to have an amazing adventure on a train!

Train on the Trans-Siberian railway, Russia

What has been your greatest journey?

That's hard for me to judge objectively. Getting to Singapore had some interesting challenges along the way, and the trip felt very rewarding as I got further and further south. This year managing the physical challenges of altitude and distance made my 21000km trip on the Trans-Manchurian and Qinghai-Tibet railways seem quite an achievement.

What is your favourite train?

I'm a big fan of the journey between Moscow and Vladivostok on the 001/002 service. It's such a well-run train. Further south I love the ‘International Express’ that travels nightly between Bangkok and Butterworth. It's a fun train with amazing food and even an impromptu disco in the restaurant carriage! For sheer speed, the Shanghai Maglev never fails to excite.

What is it that keeps pulling you back to Russia, and the Trans-Siberian?

I have learned to love Russian trains. Some travellers might take them for granted, but it's an amazing achievement to have trains that are so well maintained running so reliably over such long distances. It has taken me a while to see it, but I also really like the (often at first hidden) character of the Russian people I meet along the way. People are generally very hospitable, and you quickly make friends, even when you only have few words in common.

Siberia in the winter is a beautiful place, but at the same time a brutally harsh environment. The train allows you to experience this very directly, but yet provides a place of comfort and safe refuge. I find it amazing that one moment you can be in your compartment heated up to nearly 30C, and then you hop off for a stroll in a climate that can be colder than -30C.

What are your most memorable Trans-Siberian experiences?

That's a hard question to answer, as there are so many. I think that one aspect of the journey that is always memorable to me is life in the restaurant carriage of the train. For me as a solo traveller this is the social centre. Here I get to meet people – both locals and fellow travellers – share experiences, enjoy a beer, and eat some often interesting food. Don't get me started on caviar blinis! You join a micro community that welcomes everyone in. I have made many good friends on the Trans-Siberian.

The varying landscapes of forest, desert and huge lakes are of course spectacular, as are the isolated and vast cities along the route. Sometimes the sights can be quite unexpected. This year, for example, as I pulled out of Krasnoyarsk I got to see great clouds of steam coming off the Yenisei River and rising up right under the train as we crossed the bridge travelling east. It was quite a sight.

Rail bridge on the Trans-Siberian railway, Russia

What is your funniest Trans-Siberian experience?

Well it wasn't very funny at the time, but on my way to Vladivostok a couple of years ago I saw the provodnitsa lift the steps of our carriage and shut the door ready to leave me behind on an icy Siberian platform. I was a bit annoyed about her apparent lack of concern for my wellbeing, and I panicked and started running as best as I could to the next carriage in the train – I definitely didn't want to be left behind. There were a few soldiers smoking on the platform who didn't seem to mind too much what was going on. It turns out she was just de-icing and maintaining the steps, but my reaction to seeing the door being closed was positively Pavlovian. Rather sheepishly I had a good laugh with the soldiers later, but felt rather embarrassed to have fallen for that.

Then there was the time one night that I spent about half an hour following a mime routine by a Russian paramedic in the restaurant carriage. If you ever saw the episode of ‘Blackadder II’ – the one set in the Spanish jail – it was just like that. He was trying to explain about the unique smoked qualities of the Omul fish (that you can buy around Lake Baikal) in world class sign language.

Or the time on the Russian/Mongolian border that a charming customs officer shook my hand, welcomed me to Mongolia and when I showed him my stash of several bottles of wine was concerned that I might not have enough alcohol with me.

Every day has moments that make you laugh about something, big or small.

How do you decide where you will visit next?

It's getting harder now, as I have completed many of the more obvious routes. It is often a compromise of the excitement of an idea combined with its practicality. I tend be quite flexible about where I might end up – it is more about how interesting the route might be. I like to do the ground work and research myself – this is very much part of the adventure. I tend to start with the train timetables, and once I know what's possible I then look at connecting trains up with other trains. Finally I then consider any safety and visa issues with the journey. If all of these look good then I start working out some possible dates and get on the phone to Real Russia.

Where would you like to visit next?

I am really keen to travel on the ‘Silk Route’ from the UK to Xian by train. The journey will take me across Europe to Istanbul, then across Turkey and Iran through to the 'Stans, finally crossing into China via Urumqi. Unfortunately there are currently a number of security problems and visa complications with this route, and some of the trains don't join up very well. To me it is the ultimate rail prize, and one day I really hope to be able to do this. In the meantime my eyes are also on some train travel in Australia and India at the moment.

Do you have any advice or tips for inexperienced travellers?

These days most people are pretty well travelled, but perhaps not so experienced in the art of long distance rail travel. I have had to relearn a few things myself to make things work well on the train. My advice would be to keep smiling no matter what, enjoy the sense of the moment – even when things don't work out quite as you planned. Try to carry a lot less luggage than you think you might actually need and keep the things you will need a lot close to hand – it's impossible to open a big bag in a shared compartment. Don't forget to talk to absolutely everyone that you meet. You never know when you might suddenly find yourself depending on their friendship.

What would you say to someone who is unsure about whether they should take the leap and travel on the Trans-Siberian?

Many people I talk to confess to being secretly interested in doing the Trans-Siberian at some point in their lives. I think that many put off actually committing to it by holding unanswered questions in their minds. For example, by the amount of time it might take, or basic things like the cleanliness of the toilets or the ability to sleep at night. It's by no means a luxury holiday, but provides a real sense of adventure on a budget. Furthermore the better Russian trains are actually pretty comfortable these days. A journey between Moscow and Beijing only takes a week, so could easily be built into a bigger holiday – and that week isn't wasted time, but a chance to experience what will probably be some lifelong travel memories.

Thank you Matthew for answering our questions! Don’t forget to follow his ongoing adventures on Toad’s Travel Adventures. We certainly will be.

To find out more about highs and lows of the Trans-Siberian railway, read Matthew Woodward’s new book ‘Trans-Siberian Adventures: Life on and off the rails from the UK to Asia’ available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon here.

If you feel inspired and ready to embark on your own travel adventure, click here to read our new guides on planning your Trans-Siberian adventure.