A Siberian adventure or how I decided to trade an Australian summer for frostbite and borscht

Travel ?? Comments Sun 16 November 2014

Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal in Siberia

Okay, how about this. We start in Japan, catch the Trans-Siberian across Russia, and finish in Europe!

It was a boring, humid, irrelevant day back in March, and we'd retreated to the familiar interior of the UWA Tavern to waste some time, get a few drinks in, and (most importantly) avoid the crowds of freshers that invade campus at the beginning of every year. It was the beginning of our fifth year at uni, and you could argue we were beginning to sound just the tiniest bit jaded.

"They're just so enthusiastic. Ugh. They haven't even started skipping lectures yet!"

The conversation slowly meandered towards what we were planning to do that summer, with thoughts on Europe, Bali and more being tossed around. At the time, I was in the middle of applying for research placements in Japan, and found myself not-so-subtly suggesting Japan as the end year vacation to end all vacations.

"Japan would be awesome," I recall a friend musing, "but I wouldn't want to miss out on Europe either."

"Okay, how about this. We start in Japan, catch the Trans-Siberian across Russia, and finish in Europe!"

I was only (half) joking at the time (or so I thought), and my friend readily agreed before seemingly realising the scope of that decision and backtracking in the same sentence. Before long, the conversation drifted once more (applying for jobs, uni workloads, food, freshers - ew) until one by one we departed and returned to whatever is was we were originally doing that forgettable March day.

It was not until that July that I finally got the results for my research placement applications - success! I was to head to Okinawa Island, a subtropical Japanese island halfway to Taiwan, to complete a research project at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) under Thomas Busch of the Quantum System Unit (but more on that later).

Required to book the tickets myself in advance, I made a quick trip to the UWA travel agent in order to scope out possible flights to Okinawa (slightly difficult to get to without an internal flight in Japan, but not - as it turns out - impossible). Working through the details with the travel agent, my mind started to wander as I stared at the world map on the back wall, and I found myself thinking of travelling overland to Europe once more (well, I hadn't really stopped thinking about it to be perfectly honest). But it wasn't something that tourists actually did, right? I mean, the distance looks pretty intense, not going to lie. And I'd be leaving Japan in January, perfect timing to freeze to death in Siberia (not that summer is much better though - it's said that there are only really two seasons in Siberia, winter and mosquito). I'd be mad, right?

Somehow, I managed to suppress my sudden bout of madness until I was just about to leave the travel agent. In fact, I was midway through standing up when I couldn't resist the urge any longer.

"Oh, um, by the way. I'm just curious - I mean, it's not like I'm planning to do it anytime soon. But the Trans-Siberian railway from Beijing to Moscow - that's not actually doable for tourists in winter, is it?"

It's actually quite common, I found out - someone had booked a trip just the day before. "Just give me a bit of notice before you book it," the travel agent said in jest (or so I was assuming at the time), "I don't want to have to fly you out to Canberra to organise your visas a week before you leave!". I assured him I wasn't crazy enough to actually do it (betrayed slightly by the fact I was simultaneously making a mental note to put it on my 'eventual to-do' list), thanked him, and left.

"Jealous." my friend Shaun opined over lunch that day, as I went through my Japan plans. "You're going to Japan, everyone else is planning Eurotrips, and I've never even left the country!".

"So, why not meet me in Japan at the end of the year? Or, perhaps do a trip around Western Europe?" (the usual go-to first time travellers destination for Australians, if you ignore the rise of Bali). I suggested a detour past the travel agent on the way back, and being stereotypical uni students, we couldn't pass up such a sound procrastination plan. He hastily agreed, and off we went.

Two hours later, we walked out with a booking for the Trans-Siberian railway (starting in Beijing and ending in London) followed by two weeks in Europe. ("Easiest sale ever!" I could almost imagine the travel agent saying as we left).

"Shit." I thought. "I really should've cleared this with uni first."

In the four months since then, things have been moving ridiculously fast.

We've both managed to accept just how ridiculous this trip is. Especially Shaun, considering this is his first trip outside Australia.

I managed to suspend my candidature at uni for 3 months (and still manage to squeeze in my 4 weeks of annual leave!).

We've stocked up on all the winter gear that should (hopefully) enable us to avoid frostbite (did I mention we are planning on camping in a Ger camp in Mongolia? Which can reach -40°C at night?!)

I've been jabbed in my arm 4 times (twice in one day, even). Thankyou, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid and Tdap for being such highly recommended travel vaccinations (not really).

I've gone through the painful process of organising visas for Mongolia (B+), China (A++, thank you for having a visa processing center in Perth), and Russia (D-, a bureaucratic nightmare which for some reason beyond my comprehension requires a listing of the dates AND reasons of all travel undertaken in the last 10 years).

Planning a breakneck 3.5 hour transit adventure in Hong Kong despite almost everyone's advice (I am determined to make it work).

Oh, and I've started doing some reading for my research placement in Okinawa in the past week or so (I didn't forget in all the excitement, don't worry).

Just in case it hasn't sunk in yet, the map below shows my trip in detail (Shaun will be meeting me in Beijing to begin the Trans-Siberian/European leg of the trip):

I leave in one week, ready to begin possibly the biggest adventure of my life. We'll be seeing the shrines in Kyoto. The Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. The birthplace of Chinggis Khan. Staying the night in a Mongolian Ger. Dog sledding atop the largest freshwater lake in the world. Travelling almost 10,000 km by rail across Russia. And not to mention all the amazing sights and experiences of Europe.

And I am ridiculously excited.

Tags: russia siberia