It took us about 70 days (from 20 July – 27 September), but that’s mainly because we did it in a leisurely way and stopped at every city for about 3 nights on average. If you wanted to blaze through the journey (not what we’d recommend), you could probably do it in close to or under a month.
It cost us about 6,500 SGD (or GBP 3,400) per person. For everything! Including all transport (often 1st class on trains), all accommodation (not high end, but always with an en-suite bathroom), all experiences (including camping in Mongolia, diving in Thailand), all meals (usually at mid-range restaurants). We initially budgeted about 10,000 SGD per person, but came in comfortably below budget. We reckon you could probably do the trip for slightly less if you go for hostels/couchsurfing, maybe around 5,000 SGD. On the other hand, you can also go as fancy as you like, splurging on great hotels, and fancy meals.
Note: One thing to consider is that these costs are on a twin sharing basis. If you travel alone, accommodation costs will likely be higher.
We’d been talking about the trip as a pipe dream for a couple of months, but we only got serious around 2 months before setting off. And by “getting serious”, we mean that we listed which cities we’d like to pass through and argued about where we wanted to spend more days. Most of our discussions concluded with us extending the trip to slot in another city we just couldn’t bear to skip! We had booked absolutely nothing until 3 months before the journey.
There are, however, 3 critical things you need to start thinking about a few months prior to your journey:
- Trans-siberian rail tickets: The only thing we booked in advance was the Trans-siberian train across from Moscow to Irkustk. As we didn’t go through an agent, we were booking via the official website. Bookings open 45 days before the journey and fill up fast, especially if you’re gunning for a first class cabin. Some travel agents offer pre-booking, but charge for the service.
- Shots: You need to visit a GP to see if you need to get any vaccinations for anything from rabies to encephalitis. Some of the vaccinations might need multiple booster shots over a few months before the vaccination is “active” so it’s good to get these done before you travel.
- Visas: Depending on your nationality, you might need to plan ahead on visas. The last thing you want is to have to delay your trip because you couldn’t get a visa to, say, Russia (most travellers including Singaporeans will need to get a visa for Russia)
Apart from that, (and depending on your personality), just relax. Nothing else really super critical, especially if you’re planning on booking hotels/travel as you go! We booked everything along the way – when we left London, the only advance ticket we’d booked was the Moscow to Irkutsk leg.
Prior to departure, most helpful, without a doubt, was ‘The Man on Seat 61.’ This guy has pretty much traveled everywhere via rail, and all train schedules, recommendations, etc are on his website. The train schedules are also surprisingly accurate and very detailed (including telling you which train is the first class one, etc). Check out: http://www.seat61.com/
Apart from that, it was a mix really, we just spent time on google, youtube, wikitravel, and tripadvisor. Oh, and now you can also check out www.fromlondontosingapore.com 😉
For accommodation, we used www.airbnb.com primarily in Western Europe, and started moving to www.booking.com as we ventured into Asia. Mobile apps for both helped us keep track of reservations and dates, and it’s super easy to book stuff the day before you reach a new city.
One app that was absolutely critical was maps.me (or any equivalent offline map). Before entering a new country, we would download the map of the new country, and so always knew where we were (especially since we weren’t on any data roaming plan). The app allowed us to place pins for accommodation, train stations and key sites. Beats having to walk around with a map!
The real heros of this trip were probably our backpacks. We completely, 100%, recommend the Osprey front loading Farpoint backpack. We got the 70L and the 55L backpacks, both come with detachable day bags and are incredibly durable. If you still don’t have a backpack, this is the one we recommend.
Two key elements of this backpack we loved – the frontloading bit and the detachable day bags. Getting a frontloading bag (as opposed to a toploading one) makes it super breezy to pack and unpack because it literally opens up like a suitcase and you don’t have to worry about everything being super crumpled or something critical being stuck at the bottom. And the detachable day bags were where we generally kept our valuables and reading material etc so that we could chuck the big ones in the back of buses. The design on these bags is quite clever so it’s easy on the back. The 55L farpoint was very comfortable for N to carry despite her small frame.
Here’s our list of critical items to pack/have:
- An ATM card that works internationally. We used our Citi visa UK account linked card, which worked pretty much everywhere.
- 1-2 backup ATM cards and potentially 1-2 credit cards. We also had ATM cards linked to SG bank accounts. Make sure all your cards are activated for international use!
- 1-2 smartphones, with backup international roaming. We got 3G SIM cards in a few countries that we were staying longer (e.g. Russia, Thailand), but mostly got by on wifi hotspots and wifi in our hotel rooms.
- Backup battery packs for your phones. Especially handy on the Trans-siberian when there isn’t always a powerpoint in your cabin.
- Insurance – Comprehensive backpacker/gap year insurance. You’re going to have to check for this online, as it depends on whether you’re traveling from SG to the UK, vice versa, and/or whether it’s a round trip. Still, get good insurance, and store your policy docs on your phone or in the cloud. Thankfully, we didn’t need it in the end, but on the off-chance you need to be air-lifted out to Siberia, might be good to have.
- A list of emergency numbers – We had an online google-drive backed-up list of emergency contacts of our home consulates in each country, plus a few phone numbers of friends in some of the countries we were visiting.
- A folder/pouch for ticket printouts and stubs
- Your passports – with all them visas, of course!
- Photocopies of your passports/ID cards etc. Keep these separated from your passports at all times.
- Emergency USD cash: Depends on how much you want to carry. We didn’t want to be stressed about having too much cash on us, and so carried under 1,000USD, distributed across our packs and wallets. In general, we carried limited cash through the tip as we paid for lots of our accommodation/ticket bookings via credit cards online. (Pro tip: A good hiding place for cash is your toiletries/make-up bag.)
Recommended, but not critical:
- Laptops and portable speakers, for those long train rides
- Books (preferably on an e-reader or something light)
- Carabiners (I’d almost put this as a critical item just because we so often clipped stuff to our bags. Keep your hands free!)
- Water bottle (a heat-resistant one is especially handy for hot water on trains)
- A great backpack (see above)
- Slippers (nice for when you wanna get comfy on trains)
- Clothes (hopefully)
- A pocketknife (yay!! You’re not flying, so you can actually carry your Swiss Army knife!! Comes in handy when cutting fruit, opening beer bottles etc.)
- A nice camera, and potentially a go-pro (or equivalent)
- Locks for your backpacks (probably more so for your bag with the valuables)
- Caps/hats. Expect unplanned walks in the sun when you’ve reached a new city and have no clue where anything is.
- Waterproof jacket. It’s impossible to carry an umbrella when in backpacks. We also brought some disposable plastic ponchos (which we had to use one rainy morning in Irkustk to get to our train).
- A scarf for the ladies (or gentlemen too if you’re inclined). Helps to dress up a t-shirt and jeans outfit without taking up much space in your luggage.
See our post on surviving long train rides: http://fromlondontosingapore.com/2015/09/how-to-survive-the-trans-siberian.html
They say that when packing for a long trip, you should pack everything you’ll need normally, and then discard half the stuff. We agree. You’re going to end up packing more than you need. We did; and ended up dumping stuff along the way. So never pack that amazing outfit you just can’t part with. Everything in your backpack should be stuff you’re willing to throw away/get stolen. We’re not going to be prescriptive here and list items (sorry!). Check out our list of critical and recommended items above, and apart from that, know that you’re not going to need all the stuff you pack AND you can always buy stuff you need along the way. (Yep – stuff you buy along the way is probably going to be cheaper than stuff in either Singapore or London, hahaha).
Some packing tips: Pack heavy stuff (like your toiletries kit, shoes) near the base of the bag – this is why a frontloading bag is awesome. Rolling clothes totally saves space and keeps them less wrinkled! Get smaller bags for internal organisation – we had a laundry bag where dirty clothes would be accumulated, and a few smaller dry sack bags for socks, chargers/cables, etc. This helps you find the small items quickly without the annoying rustling/breakage of plastic bags. Added bonus is that dry bags tend to be waterproof.
Not at all! You might miss a connection or two, but that’s ok! That’s another reason not to book everything to the end – there’s some buffer to unplanned adventures!
The trip was definitely safe overall for us – no mishaps or unpleasant incidents. That said, standard caveats apply. We were careful about our stuff, and the places we went to. For example, a night out in Riga (or anywhere, for that matter) can go from fun and relaxing, to a disaster and a night in the clink very quickly – but not if you avoid them shady places. In Mongolia, about a third of the travellers we spoke to claimed to have been victims of petty theft (mostly on buses). But we found Ulaanbaatar perfectly safe, and a wonderful city to explore on foot. So it’s a delicate balance between being adventure seeking/saying yes to new experiences, and being a risk averse, chain-my-passport-to-myself, travel nerd.
Oh, a bunch of reasons:
- After finishing grad school in London, we wanted to go on a long trip before the “real world” (aka our jobs in Singapore) made it impossible.
- We wanted to try living out of a backpack like nomads.
- We figured it would be fun to see whether we would survive months of being together 24/7 without one of us being murdered by the other. It was also our second marriage anniversary on the day we set off from London so it was a gift to ourselves (unless it resulted in aforementioned murder).
- We also really enjoy train journeys (bunk beds are awesome) so there was that.
- But mainly, we thought it would be so much more fun than a straight up flight from London to Singapore. (And it was!)