8 Tips for the Trans-Siberian (for S$500 or less)

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There’s something about being trapped in a crowded cabin for several days with a dozen burly Russian guys who all smell suspiciously like smoked fish and vodka which has made the Trans-Siberian Railway the dream of backpackers, romantics and adventurers for hundreds of years. If you are one of these people, you will find a conspicuous absence of available information online regarding this most legendary of journeys, and if you come unprepared for the Russian train experience, you will have a bad time.

IMG_6001[1]

I completed the journey from St Petersburg to Beijing in 15 days, stopping at 9 cities for the combined price of S$490. For reference, according to Transsib, a well-used travel company, this is supposed to cost you 769EUR or S$1150, and you this is entirely on 2nd Class without stopovers! If you’re considering embarking on the journey of a lifetime, or you’re just curious how one overcomes insanity, let me introduce you to the weird and wonderful world of the Trans-Siberian with these 10 tips:

TIP #1: Plan Your Journey

The first step to planning your journey is to find out where you want to start and where you want to end. There are three choices for this – Beijing, Vladivostok or Moscow. Depending on your visa requirements (only Russia for Singaporeans), you also have to choice between the Trans-Mongolian and the Trans-Manchurian (which doesn’t go through Mongolia).

IMG_6159[1]

The Moscow to Beijing train is a crazy monster of a journey taking several days and affording you precious few stops along the way. The train stops for maybe 30 minutes for you to get a short smoke break at each city, but hardly enough to do anything in the city. This is a bad decision because many of the cities along the Trans-Siberian are actually pretty gorgeous. Why spend all day on a train when you can see the majestic sky-blue and cloud-white Qolsarif Mosque in Kazan, or the sparkling and iridiscent Lake Baikal in Irkutsk, or even go horse-riding along the grand steppes of Mongolia?

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TIP #2: Don’t Book In Advance (and Don’t Buy Online)

Now if you read online you’ll quickly find several websites offering to help you trawl through the bureaucratic mess of purchasing tickets for trains on the Trans-Siberian. Most will tell you that tickets are difficult to come by or that the trains are fully booked for months on end. This is an evil ploy to get you to use their services, which are often double or even triple the original price.

In mid-June, I was able to secure tickets two hours before the departure of the train with no issues at the counter. If by any chance you’re not able to secure tickets to the destination you want, trains usually leave to the major Siberian cities every few hours so you can just hop on the next one. And if by some extreme stroke of misfortune there are no trains to your intended destination, all you need to do is find a train heading east (or west) and you’ll already be moving in the correct direction! If there really is nothing at all, sleeper buses run very commonly between the cities as well. You will get there.

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For reference, the trip cost me: St Petersburg – 1300RUB (S$27) Platzkart – Moscow -3748RUB (S$77.90) Kupe – Kazan – 1778RUB (S$27.40) Platzkart – Yekaterinberg – 2738RUB (S$57.60) Platzkart – Novosibirsk – 5288RUB (S$111.20) Kupe – Irkutsk – 5944RUB (S$124.90) Kupe – Ulan Bator – 24,000MNT (S$16.60) Platzkart – Zamyn Ood -200CNY (S$40.60) Sleeper Bus – Beijing

So just show up at the ticketing counter or the kassa, smile your sweetest smile at the grouchy lady behind the counter and hope your Russian pronunciation doesn’t suck too much!

TIP #3: Understand Your Ticket

If you’ve done everything right, you know have your ticket in hand. Which is completely in Russian. Unless you have complied with Tip #5, you will realise to your complete shock and horror that you have no idea what your ticket says and you also have nobody to help you. Never fear, save this photo and I will explain what the ticket says.

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1: Origin; 2: Destination; 3: Seat Number; 4: Passport Number; 5: Name; 6: Birthdate; 7: Nationality; 8: Train Timing

TIP #4: Buy Platzkart

Train tickets come in two varieties: Platzkart or Kupe class. Platzkart gets you a bunk in a 6 man cubby hole with no doors or anything that gives you even some semblance of privacy. Kupe gets you a bed in a 4-man cabin with a door and a table. Even Russians will tell you to take Kupe, but honestly, Platzkart is the way to go.

The reasons are threefold: 1It’s literally half the price. 2) The beds are actually exactly the same, and you won’t be able to tell anyway once you’re asleep. 3) It’s not actually possible to make friends in Kupe since you’re stuck between the Walls of Antisociality and the Door of Mindyourownbusiness. People sitting in Kupe want their privacy, which is why they paid for it, and you won’t get the random spontaneity of Platzkart. I’m talking about wild drinking parties, babushkas offering you food, and conversations on the philosophical meaning of art and its purpose in relation to the human condition.

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Naturally, if you’re doing long 24 hours or more stretches, you might want to consider getting Kupe so you can rest in peace and comfort.

TIP #5: Learn Russian

We live in the age of dictionaries freely available on mobile phones, and I can personally attest to the power of Duolingo for picking up Russian vocabulary. Basically you have no excuse not to know enough Russian to have a conversation, and if you really don’t, there’s not much meaning in taking the Trans-Siberian. Russian is also the lingua franca in Mongolia, so with Russian and Chinese you don’t need to know any other languages. Getting arrested by police who think you’re a spy is not a particularly enjoyable experience if you have no idea why they’re shouting ‘GUN! GUN! BANG! BANG!’ in your face. You don’t have to spew Dostoevsky and Pushkin, but learn enough to introduce yourself and your country and you’ll have a pleasant time!

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TIP #6: Bring Multiple Portable Chargers

Our phones are basically appendages of our mortal existence, and nowhere is this more true than on the endless Trans-Siberian, where time is truly relative. Unfortunately, there really is nowhere to charge your phone, which means you should bring several portable chargers. Charging your phone at the train station is also banned, but if you ever come across any open charging ports you should rush for them like a Japanese housewife with coupons at a department store.

If you’re lucky enough to be staying at the ends of the train, you should rush to use it too. They’re meant for people to shave with, but you can probably charge your portable charger without too much trouble.

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TIP #7: Buy Food

On the Trans-Siberian, the man with half a sausage is king. Sure, you can buy food at the restaurant car, or wait until the train pulls into a station and buy some at the platform, or even buy from the roving food cart. That would cost you easily triple of what you would pay if you just stopped being so lazy and just bought food at the supermarket before you boarded the train. Did your mother give birth to you to waste money? I’m going to go with no. A good meal on the train would be a small loaf of bread, some sausages or smoked fish, a bit of cheese will cost you just 300 rubles (S$6.30) for three meals.

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Siberia is also famous for its fresh fruits, particularly strawberries, kiwis, cherries and peaches. Think strawberries the size of your nose, cherries the size of your eyes and kiwis larger than your fist! Hanging around too long in the dank, unhygienic conditions of Platzkart life is bound to give you an illness eventually, so get yourself some gorgeous Russian fruits for that extra boost of Vitamin C. Make sure you try the Omul or apple-wood smoked fish at Irkutsk!

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TIP #8: Read Some Russian Literature

Russians are really crazy about their literature, and for good reason. Russian literature is at once evocative, rich, and filled with tragedy and drama. In fact, some have suggested that Russia’s chief export, apart from vodka, petroleum and smokey ladies, is in fact – suicidal authors. All Russians large and small will have some idea of the basic Russian works of literature, and if you want to be invited to the fun side of the train, you’d best at least appear as if you know what you’re talking about. Russian books are notoriously long, so don’t try to read War and Peace (though you will have time), but Dostoevsky has the rather short and very charming White Nights, and if all else fails, the movie version of Anna Karenina starring Jude Law and Kiera Knightley will definitely win you some new friends.

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8 Tips for the Trans-Siberian (at a 60% Discount)

IMG_6273[1]

There’s something about being trapped in a crowded cabin for several days with a dozen burly Russian guys who all smell suspiciously like smoked fish and vodka which has made the Trans-Siberian Railway the dream of backpackers, romantics and adventurers for hundreds of years. If you are one of these people, you will find a conspicuous absence of available information online regarding this most legendary of journeys, and if you come unprepared for the Russian train experience, you will have a bad time.

IMG_6001[1]

I completed the journey from St Petersburg to Beijing in 15 days, stopping at 9 cities for the combined price of S$490. For reference, according to Transsib, a well-used travel company, this is supposed to cost you 769EUR or S$1150, and you this is entirely on 2nd Class without stopovers! If you’re considering embarking on the journey of a lifetime, or you’re just curious how one overcomes insanity, let me introduce you to the weird and wonderful world of the Trans-Siberian with these 10 tips:

TIP #1: Plan Your Journey

The first step to planning your journey is to find out where you want to start and where you want to end. There are three choices for this – Beijing, Vladivostok or Moscow. Depending on your visa requirements (only Russia for Singaporeans), you also have to choice between the Trans-Mongolian and the Trans-Manchurian (which doesn’t go through Mongolia).

IMG_6159[1]

The Moscow to Beijing train is a crazy monster of a journey taking several days and affording you precious few stops along the way. The train stops for maybe 30 minutes for you to get a short smoke break at each city, but hardly enough to do anything in the city. This is a bad decision because many of the cities along the Trans-Siberian are actually pretty gorgeous. Why spend all day on a train when you can see the majestic sky-blue and cloud-white Qolsarif Mosque in Kazan, or the sparkling and iridiscent Lake Baikal in Irkutsk, or even go horse-riding along the grand steppes of Mongolia?

IMG_6371[1]

TIP #2: Don’t Book In Advance (and Don’t Buy Online)

Now if you read online you’ll quickly find several websites offering to help you trawl through the bureaucratic mess of purchasing tickets for trains on the Trans-Siberian. Most will tell you that tickets are difficult to come by or that the trains are fully booked for months on end. This is an evil ploy to get you to use their services, which are often double or even triple the original price.

In mid-June, I was able to secure tickets two hours before the departure of the train with no issues at the counter. If by any chance you’re not able to secure tickets to the destination you want, trains usually leave to the major Siberian cities every few hours so you can just hop on the next one. And if by some extreme stroke of misfortune there are no trains to your intended destination, all you need to do is find a train heading east (or west) and you’ll already be moving in the correct direction! If there really is nothing at all, sleeper buses run very commonly between the cities as well. You will get there.

IMG_6277[1]

For reference, the trip cost me: St Petersburg – 1300RUB (S$27) Platzkart – Moscow -3748RUB (S$77.90) Kupe – Kazan – 1778RUB (S$27.40) Platzkart – Yekaterinberg – 2738RUB (S$57.60) Platzkart – Novosibirsk – 5288RUB (S$111.20) Kupe – Irkutsk – 5944RUB (S$124.90) Kupe – Ulan Bator – 24,000MNT (S$16.60) Platzkart – Zamyn Ood -200CNY (S$40.60) Sleeper Bus – Beijing

So just show up at the ticketing counter or the kassa, smile your sweetest smile at the grouchy lady behind the counter and hope your Russian pronunciation doesn’t suck too much!

TIP #3: Understand Your Ticket

If you’ve done everything right, you know have your ticket in hand. Which is completely in Russian. Unless you have complied with Tip #5, you will realise to your complete shock and horror that you have no idea what your ticket says and you also have nobody to help you. Never fear, save this photo and I will explain what the ticket says.

IMG_6826

1: Origin; 2: Destination; 3: Seat Number; 4: Passport Number; 5: Name; 6: Birthdate; 7: Nationality; 8: Train Timing

TIP #4: Buy Platzkart

Train tickets come in two varieties: Platzkart or Kupe class. Platzkart gets you a bunk in a 6 man cubby hole with no doors or anything that gives you even some semblance of privacy. Kupe gets you a bed in a 4-man cabin with a door and a table. Even Russians will tell you to take Kupe, but honestly, Platzkart is the way to go.

The reasons are threefold: 1It’s literally half the price. 2) The beds are actually exactly the same, and you won’t be able to tell anyway once you’re asleep. 3) It’s not actually possible to make friends in Kupe since you’re stuck between the Walls of Antisociality and the Door of Mindyourownbusiness. People sitting in Kupe want their privacy, which is why they paid for it, and you won’t get the random spontaneity of Platzkart. I’m talking about wild drinking parties, babushkas offering you food, and conversations on the philosophical meaning of art and its purpose in relation to the human condition.

IMG_6204[1]

Naturally, if you’re doing long 24 hours or more stretches, you might want to consider getting Kupe so you can rest in peace and comfort.

TIP #5: Learn Russian

We live in the age of dictionaries freely available on mobile phones, and I can personally attest to the power of Duolingo for picking up Russian vocabulary. Basically you have no excuse not to know enough Russian to have a conversation, and if you really don’t, there’s not much meaning in taking the Trans-Siberian. Russian is also the lingua franca in Mongolia, so with Russian and Chinese you don’t need to know any other languages. Getting arrested by police who think you’re a spy is not a particularly enjoyable experience if you have no idea why they’re shouting ‘GUN! GUN! BANG! BANG!’ in your face. You don’t have to spew Dostoevsky and Pushkin, but learn enough to introduce yourself and your country and you’ll have a pleasant time!

IMG_6283[1]

TIP #6: Bring Multiple Portable Chargers

Our phones are basically appendages of our mortal existence, and nowhere is this more true than on the endless Trans-Siberian, where time is truly relative. Unfortunately, there really is nowhere to charge your phone, which means you should bring several portable chargers. Charging your phone at the train station is also banned, but if you ever come across any open charging ports you should rush for them like a Japanese housewife with coupons at a department store.

If you’re lucky enough to be staying at the ends of the train, you should rush to use it too. They’re meant for people to shave with, but you can probably charge your portable charger without too much trouble.

IMG_6216[1].JPG

TIP #7: Buy Food

On the Trans-Siberian, the man with half a sausage is king. Sure, you can buy food at the restaurant car, or wait until the train pulls into a station and buy some at the platform, or even buy from the roving food cart. That would cost you easily triple of what you would pay if you just stopped being so lazy and just bought food at the supermarket before you boarded the train. Did your mother give birth to you to waste money? I’m going to go with no. A good meal on the train would be a small loaf of bread, some sausages or smoked fish, a bit of cheese will cost you just 300 rubles (S$6.30) for three meals.

IMG_6212[1]

Siberia is also famous for its fresh fruits, particularly strawberries, kiwis, cherries and peaches. Think strawberries the size of your nose, cherries the size of your eyes and kiwis larger than your fist! Hanging around too long in the dank, unhygienic conditions of Platzkart life is bound to give you an illness eventually, so get yourself some gorgeous Russian fruits for that extra boost of Vitamin C. Make sure you try the Omul or apple-wood smoked fish at Irkutsk!

IMG_6217[1].JPG

TIP #8: Read Some Russian Literature

Russians are really crazy about their literature, and for good reason. Russian literature is at once evocative, rich, and filled with tragedy and drama. In fact, some have suggested that Russia’s chief export, apart from vodka, petroleum and smokey ladies, is in fact – suicidal authors. All Russians large and small will have some idea of the basic Russian works of literature, and if you want to be invited to the fun side of the train, you’d best at least appear as if you know what you’re talking about. Russian books are notoriously long, so don’t try to read War and Peace (though you will have time), but Dostoevsky has the rather short and very charming White Nights, and if all else fails, the movie version of Anna Karenina starring Jude Law and Kiera Knightley will definitely win you some new friends.

IMG_6201[1]

NORTHERN ASIA

Timezones

Russia has 10 timezones, which means that the western most part of Russia is 10 hours behind the eastern most part. For our travels we only passed through 7. St Petersburg and Moscow’s timezone is GMT +3 while Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude is at GMT +9. However one very important note to remember is that all trains within Russia operate at Moscow time (both departures and arrival). Should you come in or exit through another country such China or Mongolia, the time stated on their end is local time and not Moscow time.

Russian

The only language that is spoken here is Russian. Sure you can get by in hostels and some restaurants with basic English but buying train tickets and asking people to move out of the way is virtually impossible without Russian. For those who have no clue about Russian, bring a Russian speaking friend. If that fails then get a SIM card and use Google Translate. If that fails than no amount of help can save you (lol), unless you get very lucky and have a local who understands English or whatever language you speak to help you translate.

White night

As we approached the summer solstice, the days in Russia get longer and longer. No it does not mean that we have more than 24hours a day, it just means that we experienced a lot more sunlight than countries nearer to the equator. The sun sets at 11pm and rises at 3am. Eventually there will be a phenomenon called “white night” where the sun does not set for at least 48 hours. Interestingly there are festivals around the world celebrating this phenomenon. It started in St Petersburg, Russia before spreading to other cities. It is practically a party for as long as the sun is out so if you feel funky and high, feel free to check it out. The festivals usually run in May through July.

Dandelions

There are plenty of dandelions in Russia and a short walk anywhere will guarantee an encounter with a few of the cotton stuff that you can blow off the flower. While this is merely irritating for most people, there are certain people who are allergic to this kind of stuff so it you are one of the rare few I suggest bringing whatever medicine or measure you have in case of a reaction.

EASTERN EUROPE

Trams

For a person not used to seeing trams, Eastern Europe sure has a lot of them. They are similar to the metro but are located at ground level and are very easily accessible. Quality and cleanliness of the trams vary greatly from country to country with some being state-of-the-art while others are almost falling apart. Trams may suddenly appear out of nowhere even during red lights so always proceed with caution when crossing roads.

Free walking tours

As Europe in general can be quite expensive, this is the best place to prove the old adage that the best things in life are free! In almost every major city in the region, there are organisations that provide free walking tours. These tours are not affiliated to government organisations and are conducted by locals. The guides usually have a background in the history and culture of the city and are very knowledgeable. Feel free to ask them questions! At the end of the tour it will be very much appreciated if a small token tip is given, especially if the tour guide was very interesting and engaging. However this tip is not obligatory and if you are on a tight budget (likely) or just didn’t enjoy the tour (unlikely) you do not have to give anything. If the tour is for some reason bad, just walk off and enjoy the city on your own. If you see a tour midway, you are also allowed to join; just talk to the guide to confirm that it is indeed a free tour.

Language

Each of the individual countries have their own languages, and although some of the countries are right next to each other, their languages could have be more different since they come from completely different branches. As a guide, English is widely understood but may not be as widely spoken. Russian on the other hand is a surefire way to communicate given the Soviet legacy left in Eastern Europe.

Currency

While most of the countries in Eastern Europe fall under the Eurozone, there are exceptions such as Bulgaria, Romania and Poland which uses their own country of lev and leu and zloty respectively. The Eurozone was created in 1999 with 11 European Union (EU) members in it. In subsequent years more countries would join, reaching a total of 19 today. That said, the three aforementioned countries are obliged to join the Eurozone eventually once certain conditions are met, such as strengthening their domestic economy. Currently some nations such as Hungary are in the process of phasing out their old currency (e.g. the florint) so both the Euro and the old currency are acceptable as legal tender.

Schengen

The Schengen Area was created in June 1985 to create a borderless entity to facilitate the movement of capital and manpower in the region. Originally only 5 members of the European Union signed the treaty but over the next 25 years a total of 26 states have signed the treaty. Currently twenty-two out of twenty-eight EU states are in the Schengen (with another four wanting to join but unable to due to other restrictions). Additionally some countries outside of the EU such as Norway and Switzerland are also part of the Schengen agreement. More importantly, we travellers only have to display their passports upon entry and exit of the Schengen Area and not between the borders of participating nations, allowing us to enjoy more sleep and hassle free movement. However with the recent Paris terrorist attacks and influx of immigrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq some countries have placed some form of border control within the Schengen.

Alcohol!

As a remnant of the Soviet legacy, there is a culture of drinking in the region (hurhur stereotypical Russians, just joking). While the first impression of the alcohol drunk here is without a doubt vodka, many of the Eastern Europeans have branched out to other spirits such as brandy and beer. Many hostels offer pub crawls at cheap prices and alcohol is generally a surefire way to get to know how other people are like. I’m going to do a public service announcement now: please drink responsibly and make sure that you are around people you can trust. Usually the quality of alcohol available is quite high but there are always black sheep so you should ask around as there will definitely be some self-professed “connoisseurs” ever so ready to help.

TURKEY

Prices

As with most touristic places, restaurants and shops tend to be ridiculously overpriced in order to rip-off tourists. The Sultanahmet District in Istanbul is a prime example of this. One good example is the price difference of Lokum (better known as Turkish Delight) between this tourist area and the Taksim district, which is the shopping area for locals and tourists. Both stalls were having a discount for four boxes of Lokum. The former district sold it at 90TL while the latter sold it at 28TL, which is a third of the price. Goreme in Cappadocia is no different as the price of food everywhere tend to be more expensive than that in Istanbul although the quality may not be up to par.

Asia vs Europe

Istanbul has the unique honour of being the only capital city in the world to straddle both Europe and Asia. Although there were earlier settlements on the Asian side, the European side has a lot more historical sites and attractions. The European side is generally the tourist area and thus the work area for many people in this industry and the Asian side is the “dorm”. Prices are generally cheaper in the Asian side and the crime rate there is lower, but it will be harder to communicate as not as many people converse in English.

Football

Football in Turkey is a big affair and Turkish people take massive pride in the teams that represent their cities/districts. Prior to our visit, we read that certain colour combinations that some of the teams wear should be avoided, especially during match days lest we entered an opposition’s district and get beaten up. Shirts with numbers on them should also be avoid as we have received death stares from locals during match days as well. Our visit to Istanbul coincided with a local team Beşiktaş J.K. winning the league. Throughout the entire day we would see fans decked on in black and white jerseys and carrying the flag chanting and cheering. People of all ages and genders went out full force and it was a very intimidating atmosphere. That night when the trophy was awarded, the entire Beşiktaş district and stadium was awash with people. When we visited that neighbourhood the next day, the celebrations still continued (but died down considerably).

Safety

In recent times, Turkey has been the target of bombings, especially Istanbul. In fact, just days before we arrived in Istanbul there was a bombing there. Although the target was a military convoy, the fear is quite real as some of the tourists we talked to had to seriously consider whether to cut short their trip there. On the other hand there is a theory that right after an attack the safety of a place actually goes up due to increased vigilance and security. That said the only increase in police presence we saw was for crowd control of the football celebrations in the Beşiktaş district. If you are brave and fearless enough, there are benefits such as greatly reduced prices since shop owners will want to sell their wares admidst diminishing numbers of customers. The choice is entirely up to you.

SOUTH CAUCASUS

This region is named after the Caucasus mountains and is flanked by the Caspian and Black Seas. While the northern part of the Caucasus comprises of Russian territory, the southern half that we visited is comprised of several sovereign states. Since the beginning of human history in the region, there has been countless rivalries and conflicts among the people living there over several fronts (politics, military might, religion, culture etc.). This literal clash of empires have created a long and interesting history of the region. However this has also led to the current instability that is the status quo. Hopefully this guide will help you to negotiate the dangers while still allowing you to fully immerse yourself in the region.

Modern?

The capitals of the countries that we visited were very modern (comparable to Singapore), with buildings of glass and steel everywhere side by side with well restored old cities that teem with contemporary restaurants. Additionally, the public transport systems (metro, bus, taxi, marshrutka) is extensive and is able to reach just about any tourist attraction fairly quickly. That said the further one travels away from the capital, the less developed it becomes. In the words of a fellow backpacker, it may seem that the suburbs are “practically another country” in terms of development and infrastructure. On the other hand this also means beyond the capitals are havens filled with natural beauty and ancient architecture that are definitely worth visiting.

Breakaway states

There are a handful of heavily disputed areas within the region that feature mostly unrecognised breakaway states. They are South Ossetia, Abkhazia (from Georgia) and Nagorno-Karabakh (between Armenia and Azerbaijan). Along with Transnistria (from Moldova) they form the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations (also known as Commonwealth of Unrecognized States). While we were told that these places had absolutely stunning scenery and history, we were also advised to avoid these areas if possible as they are still “frozen conflict zones”, meaning that fighting could resume anytime. To fully illustrate this, we were in Armenia and wanted to visit Stepanakert (the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh) only to find out that a fresh round of gunfire and conflict had erupted only a week earlier. Much consideration should be made before visiting these areas and maybe visiting them when the conflicts have been resolved should be the way to go.

Hostility

There is a significant amount of hostility among the countries in the region, no thanks to the existence of breakaway states that certain countries recognise while others do not. This level of enmity manifests itself through the discontent of the people as well as draconian policies created by governments. For example some Armenians treat the existence of Azerbaijan, which is contesting the separatist claims of Nagorno-Karabkh, as a joke, claiming that the country that is “younger than Coca-Cola” has no rights to condemn an independence movement. Ridiculing another country like that is quite absurd n my opinion since Singapore too is younger than Cola-Cola (Singapore is actually younger than some of our parents). That said Azerbaijan is not doing any better either. The harsh policies rolled out by the Azerbaijan government sets different prices of the visa-on-arrival applications depending on a country’s support for Armenia and/or Nagorno-Karabakh. Countries like the USA and UK have the most expensive visas costs while Japan is (surprisingly) free. Additionally, if one visits Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh, they will supposedly be denied visa into the state.  While we met a backpacker who managed to travel to Azerbaijan after exploring Armenia (due to him having the visa before going to Armenia), he told us that he was under constant surveillance by the Azerbaijan secret police who followed him everywhere, even going as far to book adjacent beds in the same hostel and adjacent seats onboard buses and trains while constantly bombarding him with questions. Our friend eventually could not take it and cut short his trip in Baku.

Language

As a legacy of the Soviet era, most of the older generations are able to speak and understand Russian so that is the best language to use in the region. The younger generation are making more of an effort to speak English and are more than capable of understanding English. The transport systems signs and menus generally have English and/or Russian versions in addition to the local language so communication is generally not much of an issue.

Romani

The Romani people (or more commonly known as “gypsies” in the English lexicon) are present in the region and many of them do not have citizenship documents which prevent them from receiving healthcare and education services from the states. As such many of them try to make a living by selling trinkets on the roadside or by begging. One common tactic that we experienced in Georgia was that a small child (usually girls) will grab a tourist’s leg and cling on until some money is given. Usually after walking away slowly but firmly the child will let go in order to seek a better target. While nothing important was stolen, do bear in mind to keep your belongings in a safe place. Some will also beg for bottle of water that tourists are carrying around and may even snatch it out of your hands. That said, bottled water is rather cheap in these countries so letting go is usually the most hassle free option available.

IRAN

When one wants to find out information about Iran, there is a lot of conflicting information available. On one hand it receives plenty of bad press, especially in Western media. On the other hand, many tourists and travel websites sing the praises of this country. To better understand and appreciate Iran and her people, a trip there is a definite must.  This post hopes to debunk the myths, affirm the truth and help you make your stay in this amazing country all the more memorable.

Communication

Most signs in Iran are in Farsi and are thus utterly incomprehensible unless one understands the language. Thankfully almost all road signs and signboards in the metro have English translations, which makes commuting using public transportation a rather painless affair. Furthermore, many Iranians can converse in English so asking for directions and prices should be a relatively straightforward affair. That said, Arabic numbers are virtually non-existent and a basic knowledge of the Eastern numeral system is necessary to communicate and understand prices.

Hospitality

Iranians have so far been the friendliest and hospitable people who I have ever met, hands down. Even if they have never met you before, they will treat you, a foreign traveller, as a honoured guests. We have had too many examples where Iranians went out of their way to help us and even make us feel comfortable in their country. We were treated to lunch by a tractor importer and even received an offer to stay at the house of one of the friends of the owner of an ice cream shop that we randomly decided to stop by and eat at. It is entirely possible these behaviours are a result of the Iranian practice of Tarof (Persian: تعارف‎‎), which is an extreme form of courtesy that can be intimidating. Tarof applies both ways so if there is deal that is way too good to be true, reject it a few times to ascertain the intent of the other party. The phrase “tarof nakonid” can be used to indicate that one wishes to dispense with tarof and come straight to the point and most Iranians will comply to this request when made by foreigners. That said, most of the help rendered to us were genuine and really showed the best of the Iranian people and culture. Additionally, many passers-by will stop and want to engage in conversation with tourists. The ones we encountered seemed to be interested in our travels and wanted to make our stay in Iran as pleasant as possible, so engaging with them could create some great opportunities to explore and experience Iran the way Iranians do.

Laws

As the legal system in Iran is mainly based on Sharia law (it is after all an Islamic Republic), it is quite strict with many restrictions. One example is that due to the ban on alcoholic products there is no longer any Shirazi wine in Shiraz anymore. However the extent of the law is largely restricted to the public sphere and many Iranians have their ways to enjoy the pleasures that their countries have denounced as Western pleasures. Many young Iranians use VPNs to access otherwise restricted websites. Should you somehow be invited to a private gathering, be prepared to experience a party like no other where everyone can literally let their hair down and dance. Alcohol may be present but do not expect it to be of very high quality. Similarly, while playing cards are banned in public, do not be surprised to find out that Iranians do know how to play card games such as Poker. As always do err on the side of caution and seek advice from the ever friendly Iranians on what is permissible at any point during your travels.

Street Food

Oddly enough, one of the highlights of our stay in Iran was the street food. Street food here are essentially Iranian versions of the fast food that most of us are already accustomed to, such as cup corn and pizza. Cup corn is made with corn kernels in a cup mixed with mushrooms, spices and mayonnaise. Almost every stall gives way too much mayo in my opinion so you might want to ask them to hold back a bit when you order. Pizzas are made to order (usually to go as well!) and can take some time to bake. Interestingly, Iranians heap ketchup onto their pizza and when asked, will claim that that is the right way to eat the pizza. Surprisingly the street foods that are especially good are the hotdogs and ice cream. The hotdogs throughout Iran are rather inexpensive and are massive. As a gauge, take a standard IKEA hotdog and multiply the length by three to achieve the length of a hotdog in Iran. Additionally the hotdog is stuffed with pickle mayo, mushrooms and even potato chips, resulting in a very filling meal! That said, the absolute best of street food in Iran is the ice cream to the point where we ate at least one ice cream each every day. The local ice cream is called Bastani which is made with rose water and pistachios. The flavour is very rich but the ice cream does not feel heavy. There are other desserts such as Shirazi Faloodeh (vermicelli frozen in syrup, technically not an ice cream but a great dessert nonetheless) but the best in my opinion is the Ab Havij Bastani (carrot juice ice cream) from Tehran. The refreshing but slightly underwhelming taste of the carrot juice is sweetened and enriched by the Bastani to create the ultimate dessert drink to beat the heat. It is surprisingly addictive and I cannot help but to wonder how one can survive the heat in Iran without it.

Money

Due to sanctions, foreigners are not able to withdrawal money from Iranian banks because one would require an Iranian cash card  (Iranian citizenship is required to get the card in the first place). This means that travellers have to be very certain of their budgeting and carry all cash (most importantly US Dollars and Euros) on hand and change and money changers located through tourist destinations in Iran. Additionally the current currency used, the Rial, was only implemented as part of the decimalisation policy in 1932. Prior to this the currency used was the Toman that is still used unofficially throughout Iran today. For reference one toman = ten rial. As a general guide all listed prices are in Rial and all verbal prices are in Toman although it would do no harm to always clarify. One trick is to have a rough idea of how much basic items such as water and food costs and work out whether Rial or Toman is the more realistic price.

Country Pages

It seems very few people have noticed, but the country pages are actually filled with information on the country including Visa Requirements, Currency, Language and a brief history of the place.

I have found while travelling that without understanding the history of the place, it’s very difficult to appreciate the architecture or the attractions, so do take a look!

At present, we have included write ups on Laos, China, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Turkey. Check it out!

Stuck in Tbilisi

For everyone who wants to get a Russian visa outside of your home country, we can confirm that the only place to do it is in Tbilisi in Georgia. You can check out our Tbilisi Page on the bars above, but as a cruel result, we’re now trapped without a passport for the next 14 days in Tbilisi…

CENTRAL ASIA

This article is mainly focused on the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan which we visited. It is unfortunate that we could not visit some of the places that we intended to (that’s right Turkmenistan I’m talking about you) in order to provide a more comprehensive review of the region. I hope that this piece of writing will be helpful for those intending to visit Central Asia. And if you weren’t thinking of travelling here, perhaps this could encourage you to go (maybe?)

Language

Although the native languages used in the Central Asian countries are all different, the working language is generally Russian and one can get by with it. English proficiency amongst Central Asians are not very high across all the countries although anyone that works in the service industry (cafes, hostels and even some taxi drivers) should be able to converse in English, or at the very least understand it. The Russian alphabet, along with that of Central Asian languages are based off the Cyrillic, which after some simple substitution is readable in English. For example, салон is salon and ресторан (restoran) is restaurant. General rule: learn Russian or bring a Russian-speaking friend.

안녕하요 (annyeonghaseyo)

There is a surprising number of Koreans in Central Asia (or perhaps not if you have done your research) and you can fell their presence in every major city. Korean restaurants are easy to find and if you come from Asia, be prepared to be mistaken as a Korean (although given the positive residual impression of the Hallyu wave that may even be a good thing!).

Nationalism

Although not very widely reported in the news, the Central Asian countries have plenty of tension and hostilities between them. The entire area is a political game board with many factions vying for influence over the region (Game of Thrones much?). For instance the Uzbeks are on bad terms with the Kyrgyz and the Tajiks while maintaining cordial relations with the Turkmens and the Kazakhs. Basic knowledge of regional affairs is crucial if you want to cross the borders by land. While we were in Kyrgyzstan, they had a border standoff with Uzbekistan, resulting in the deployment of Armoured Personnel Carriers and Special Forces troops. This meant that the border was temporarily closed (and too dangerous for us to cross). While we later learned that is ban did not apply to people with passports outside of the region, it must be mentioned that the situation can be volatile and unpredictable so utmost caution is key should you encounter such an event during your trip. One should constantly look out for travel advisories about the region by your country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Indeed, when asking ordinary citizens of each of these countries about the ongoing hostilities, some of the replies ranged from tame name calling (“I don’t know what’s wrong with them, they’re crazy”) to casually simplifying the matter (“relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan…are not good”). It could be that this us-versus-them mentality has been perpetuated into the Central Asian societies in the form of nationalistic pride but as long as does not develop to the extent of jingoism it is for now a topic that should be understood but not mentioned by tourists in the region.

Hospitality

The hospitality of Central Asians were surprising high and totally unexpected. Despite getting to know some people for literally only a few hours , we have been treated as if we have been good friends for years. In Kyrgyzstan we were invited by newly made friends to chill at their houses and even stay the night there. In Uzbekistan we were treated to kebabs because we had a conversation over martial arts. It just goes to show how much these people respect their guests and how far interacting with the locals can go.

Registration

Many of the countries require visitors to register themselves with the local authorities, although the requirements differ greatly between the countries. In Kazakhstan we found out that we had been cleared at the border and did not have to register personally to the authorities as our immigration slip had two stamps (one to verify entry, one to verify registration). On the other hand in Uzbekistan we had to make an extra effort to check if each of our hostels had registered us to the relevant authorities. We stayed we had to collect a slip of paper with an official chop that recorded the duration of our stay. When we were at the border exiting Uzbekistan, we had to display all our slips to the border guards. Uzbekistan allows for a gap of up to three days without official registration (to account for night travelling on trains etc.) but it would be advisable to keep all evidence such as train or bus tickets with you to submit when departing. It is also very important to know the requirements of the registration policy in the country that you are visiting, especially since the local authorities may not be as up to date as you are. When we were in Kyrgyzstan, our Singaporean passports allowed us to have visa-free entry and as a result no registration was required. However we were stopped and even interrogated by the police who doubted this fact. To prevent this situation from happening, one should contact the registration authorities and take down their number to redirect any unwanted police and border guard harassment.