29 Trains in 30 Days: The Ultimate Train Challenge Finishes

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During the month of September 2011, I took 29 trains from Lisbon, Portugal to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh), Vietnam. I’ve approximated it to be about 25,000kms of travel.

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 length of riding time were:

  • Trans-Manchurian (also called the Trans-Siberian) 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:

Lisbon Portugal, where the Ultimate Train Challenge started, 29 trains in 30 days

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

Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo, in Granada Spain, with Al Hambra in the background

I 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.

Nora Dunn in Zurich Switzerland eating raclette

I 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”.

A man in Lviv Ukraine with a pigeon on his arm.

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

The Professional Hobo in the 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, from Moscow to Beijing

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 China

I 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 tour

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

random train Vietnam

I 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.

If you’d rather watch than read, then check out my Ultimate Train Challenge playlist on YouTube, with videos of my European adventures, a Trans-Manchurian train diary, a tearful moment on the Great Wall of China, adventures in Guilin, and random train adventures through the rest of China and Vietnam.

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 – that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

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

Check out my Travel Lifestyle Guides for more ways to earn money remotely, spend it wisely, and balance the two so you can travel as long as you wish, in a financially sustainable way. 

This trip would not have been possible without our generous sponsors; HostelBookers arranged for accommodation in Lisbon (Lisbon Destination 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!

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18 thoughts on “29 Trains in 30 Days: The Ultimate Train Challenge Finishes”

  1. @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.

  2. 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.

  3. @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.

  4. 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.


  5. @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!


  6. 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 🙂

  7. @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!)

  8. 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?

  9. @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:

  10. 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.

    • I think it’s safe to say “been there, done that” for this particular journey! There are still a few other train journeys in the world that intrigue me; I’ll do those first. 🙂

    • Hi Ruby,
      That is a great question! I think it would depend on the pet (size etc), and on the train/route. You would need to check with each individual train company to ascertain the rules.
      Also, it would be important to know what the requirements and restrictions are for crossing the various country borders along the way. Some might require the dog to be quarantined, and others might require certain medical records and vaccinations.
      Travel with a pet is FAR from impossible! I just found this website, which might help you: http://www.dogjaunt.com/

    • Hi Ruby! Wondering if you completed this journey successfully with your dog? I’m looking to do the same next year 🙂


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