29 Trains in 30 Days: The Ultimate Train Challenge Finishes

by Nora on October 15, 2011

Trains, trains, trains

During the month of September, I took 29 trains from Lisbon, Portugal to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh), Vietnam. I’ve approximated it to be about 25,000kms of travel, but the more accurate distance results will be published shortly on the Ultimate Train Challenge website.


I sat on these 29 trains a cumulative amount of 339 hours and 50 minutes. That’s over 14 days – straight.


My top five train rides for time were:

Trans-Manchurian from Moscow to Beijing: 150 hours

Hanoi to Saigon: 35 hours

Prague to Lviv: 23 hours (technically this was two trains, with a one-hour break in between)

Shanghai to Guilin: 22 hours

Barcelona to Zurich: 16.5 hours



Given that I was “only” on trains for 14 days (!), I also had time to check out a few sights in a flurried fashion along the way. Here are some highlights:

LisbonI ate my way around Lisbon Portugal, sampling their heavenly seafood rice and famous pastéis de Belém.




GranadaI stayed with Nellie of Wild Junket and her husband Alberto in Granada, Spain, where we hiked, ate tapas, painted the town, and simply enjoyed each others’ company.



I felt sorry for myself in Barcelona, Spain before finally settling firmly ON the beaten path.




ZurichI stayed with a long-lost family friend and her family in Zurich, Switzerland, and caught up with another friend who treated me to cheesy raclette (yum)!



I reconnected in Prague, Czech Republic with a group of friends who I met on a tv shoot last year, and I found myself caught off-guard and very much “naked”.




LvivI hit rock bottom in Lviv, Ukraine before coming up for air and realizing that it’s a gorgeous place worthy of a future visit.




Carpathian Mountains, Ukraine

I took a few days to hike in the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine (a real highlight of the whole trip), and dug a little bit beneath the surface of the country, experiencing paradoxes like the Very-Fast Train which was One Hour Late.



I reflected on the first half of the trip and braced myself for the second half while in Moscow, Russia.




Trans-Manchurian Train

I got to know Michael and Jeannie a whole lot better (in a good way!) on the epic one-week journey from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Manchurian train.



Great Wall of ChinaI came full-circle in my life and travels by unwittingly revisiting the exact spot on the Great Wall of China that I had been to 18 years prior on my first overseas trip.



Guilin river tourI wandered further down memory lane in Guilin, China on a river tour that was about 100 times more crowded than I remembered it.



random trainsI had a series of random experiences on Asian trains on the long disjointed journey from Beijing, China to southern Vietnam and Saigon – the final Ultimate Train Challenge destination.




Although the trip itself is complete, my writing about it isn’t! In the next few weeks, I’ll be publishing some entertaining videos and video diaries of my Ultimate Train Challenge adventures, as well as a number of posts about Saigon – a place that wended its way very close to my heart in the short 11 days I stayed there.


I feel so blessed to have experienced this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. It was fast, furious, exhausting, exhilarating, and a collection of random experiences – memories and stories – I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

Memories and stories; the best souvenirs a Professional Hobo could ever hope for.





This trip would not have been possible without our generous sponsors; HostelBookers arranged for accommodation in Lisbon (Rossio Patio Hostel), Lviv (Mister Hostel), Moscow (Prosto Hostel), Beijing (Happy Dragon Courtyard Hostel), Guilin (How Hostel), and one glorious week in Saigon at Thien Thao Hotel. (Remember – HostelBookers isn’t just for hostels; you can book all sorts of accommodation through them with no fees, and a guaranteed low price).


Eurail also hooked us up with Global Passes, which gave us the ability to roam at will through up to 22 countries in 15 days.


TEP Wireless gave Jeannie and I Pocket WiFI devices to give us wireless internet access on the go in Europe.


Active Ukraine treated me to my trip into the Carpathian mountains, and Oksana also gave me a quick tour of Lviv, and met Jeannie and I briefly in Kyiv. Ukraine absolutely wouldn’t have been the same otherwise.


Real Russia was responsible for getting us on the Trans-Manchurian train from Moscow to Beijing, and provided us with all kinds of logistical assistance leading up to the challenge.


Lastly, China Odyssey Tours made our trip through China a breeze, with organized private tours, transfers and ticket purchasing services, thus allowing us to simply enjoy all that China had to offer instead of stressing about how to get around in our semi-delerious state.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nancy & Shawn Power... Inspiring YOU to travel! October 16, 2011 at 1:14 am

Oh yeah!… We totally agree …To travel the world as a full time tourist, is the best job in the world!

Nancy & Shawn


2 Baron's October 16, 2011 at 9:24 am

great post…but I’m having trouble with the math here…29 trains???
there’s no way that could have happened ….


3 Erik October 16, 2011 at 11:49 am

It was great following along with your journey! This is a great recap.


4 theprofessionalhobo October 17, 2011 at 2:49 pm

@Nancy & Shawn – I’d prefer to think of myself as “living” around the world as a “full-time local”, but potato/potahto… 🙂 This experience certainly was more along the “tourist” vein.

@Baron’s – Yes, well, the 29 trains also included a number of local trains. A train is a train on the Ultimate Train Challenge, and I didn’t distinguish between the two! 🙂

@Erik – Glad you enjoyed the recap. It was a nice way for me to relive and encapsulate the depth of the experience myself. Glad it came through.


5 Darren October 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm

That is a crazy train journey, especially the 150 hour ‘jaunt’. The longest I’ve done is about 3 days (72 hours)…though I’ve got to say I enjoyed it. The most important thing is food – as long as there’s a good supply of food on the train, I’m happy 🙂

Out of curiosity, how did the entire journey cost? I’ve looked into the pricing in the past and remember being quoted quite a high rate. It’ll be interested to know what sort of deal you can get.


6 theprofessionalhobo October 18, 2011 at 5:53 pm

@Darren – What was your 3-day journey? Sadly, the food was not one of the finer points of the Trans-Manchurian journey, but I’ve had some incredible food on the trains in Australia.

The entire journey involved a combination of sponsored rail passes, hostel stays, home stays, and tours, so my own cost of the trip wouldn’t be entirely accurate or duplicatable. (And besides, nobody in their right mind would tackle a train trip like this in 30 days! Ha ha!).

As for the cost of the Trans-Manchurian (which is maybe what you’re referring to), Check the prices over at Seat 61 (www.seat61.com), or Real Russia (www.realrussia.co.uk). You’ll get the best rates through them. I can’t recall the price off the top of my head, but I seem to remember it being pretty reasonable for what you get.


7 Darren October 18, 2011 at 6:17 pm

The 3-day rail journey was in India. It was meant to be around two days (from South to North), but unfortunately a train derailed further up the line. This meant the train remained stagnant for a day or so. The good thing about Indian trains is there is no shortage of food-sellers, tea-sellers, sweet-sellers, and all are ridiculously cheap and tasty 🙂

However, the rings of coffee-woffee-woffee, sounding in your ears, every 10 minutes (throughout the night as well), begin to wear away at the advantages of ‘convenience food’ on a train (in truth, I can’t complain at all – I was probably their biggest customers on that trip).

Haha 30 days of rail is pretty extreme. It could go one of two ways – very relaxing and enjoyable, or a nightmare, depending on your mindset, typically. Depends if you’re a reader or not – you can obviously occupy your time and learn something new that takes your mind off the chugga-chugga-chugga. A great opportunity to write though – you should have tasked yourself with writing a book about that 30 day journey, while on the train. A short, intense, series of anecdotes about the people you met on the train – spanning many countries and two continents…I’d read a short book like that (maybe an idea).

Thanks for the links. I’ll have a browse about and see what the score is.



8 theprofessionalhobo October 19, 2011 at 12:15 pm

@Darren – You’d have read a short book with anecdotes about people you meet on a long train trip? Well, this one doesn’t span 30 days or numerous countries, but I’m pretty sure you’ll get a kick out of my 6-part series on the Indian Pacific – 11,000kms on trains in 11 days!
Here’s a link to Part One to whet your appetite…the rest of the links are at the bottom of that post. Enjoy!



9 Cailin November 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm

My first question is “Didn’t your butt get hurt from all of that sitting on the train?!?!” hahaha I assume you had a sleeper car for parts of it?
Congrats on finishing this epic journey, sounds like you guys truly had a blast 🙂


10 theprofessionalhobo November 3, 2011 at 12:06 pm

@Cailin – Ha ha! A strict regiment of sitting, lying down, and pacing the train was in order to save my butt from too much of a horizontal spread!
And yes, every time there was an overnight ride, I had a sleeper – either a cabin, or at least a bunk with a chance to get horizontal. It isn’t always exactly restful, but it does the trick. (Jeannie decided one night to save her money and endure an overnight in a seat in Europe….it was her first – and last – time sleeping upright!)


11 Alisha August 9, 2012 at 10:47 am

It’s amazing how many sponsors you have!! How can I get a free Eurail pass and pocket wifi? 😉

I’d love to see a post about the process you went through to book your visas and train ticket. Also, what is your advice/tips for a female traveling solo Russia to China via train?


12 theprofessionalhobo August 10, 2012 at 6:10 am

@Alisha – Because the Ultimate Train Challenge was a combined blogger effort, we were able to get some great sponsors. Check out the http://www.ultimatetrainchallenge.com website, they’re doing another one this year, open to the public! (And Yes, Eurail is on-board)….

To book my visas, I used a visa service (visacenter.ca), due in part to the fact I had a very short time frame and needed visas for Russia, China, Mongolia, and Vietnam. The service was fabulous, easy to use, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, to avoid standing in line in consulates!

As for traveling solo via the Trans-Siberian, I think it’s pretty safe. I wouldn’t have any special recommendations over and above standard female solo travel tips – which are really just about being smart and using street sense.

Here’s a video daily diary of my Trans-Manchurian train adventures:


13 Alisha August 10, 2012 at 9:47 am

Thank you so much for the reply Nora! Appreciate the info and I subscribed to your Youtube, but haven’t watched all your videos yet. I’ll definitely check it out.


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