Planes and trains
Some comments on our experience
As the starting and finishing flights on the trip were long we had opted for Business Class for these. Returning from Bishkek on a BMI flight meant we flew out with them to Moscow Domedodovo. From Moscow to Irtkutsk there were two options: Aeroflot (change of airport) or S7 from Domedovo which made more sense. The BMI Business experience going out was OK but not brilliant. The promised Russian landing cards did not materialise during the flight but fortunately we had some spares from a previous trip so could hurriedly complete them before disembarking. Immigration was empty and quick (last time had taken over two hours).
The S7 Airline check-in clerk had limited English, but a supervisor was called to help and all went smoothly. The S7 lounge was confusing to find as it is on a mezzanine approached by stairs not escalators. The lounge, where we had five hours to wait, was small, very clean but a bit noisy. Nibbles and soft drinks were provided with an adjacent pay bar and cafe for other things. Equipment for the 5h30m overnight flight to Irkutsk was a rather tired Airbus. Seating was more Premium Economy than Business and probably only worth it in view of our total travel that day. However the attendants very pleasant with reasonable English and served a good, substantial dinner and nice sandwichy breakfast. interestingly there was quite a bit of muscle at the front of Cattle Class, probably because we had a VIP in with us.
In China we had a short flight with China Eastern between Xi'an and Lanzhou. There were a series of small lounges at Xi'an, two appeared to be available for China Eastern. The one we used was quiet, clean (no dedicated toilets), with soft drinks and uninspiring cakes beloved of locals. The flight was comfy and the bit of extra space was worthwhile for the small amount paid for the higher class. Attendants were pleasant with fair English and went to great lengths to find us something in English to read. Simple but nice one course meal.
The return flight with BMI from Bishkek passed in a bit of a haze as we were recovering from stomach bugs! Bishkek has security screening both before and after check-in. Michael was frisked twice, both times missing a body belt. Check in was generally chaotic and it appears that our bags got loaded into a transfer container rather than one for claiming at LHR. (Bags arrived at our house 1600 the next day so not bad.) The Bishkek lounge large and presided over by attendant more interested at 0230 in getting her head down than clearing detritus from earlier users. However the room was quiet, but no dedicated toilets. Soft drinks, nibbles and health-hazard sarnies were available. Bar for harder stuff presumably operated by Sleeping Beauty.
Incidentally at Irkutsk and at Lanzhou we had to show our baggage receipts to officials before being allowed out of the baggage claim area.
Our six train journeys went well and, as hoped, proved to be an effective way of saving time by travelling while sleeping. In all cases the trains were not only clean but frequently cleaned (the two international legs were both in Chinese trains). Noise levels were acceptable and ride quality was good, apart from loose couplings which could cause disturbance when braking/accelerating. Only one train was air-conditioned, some of the others might have been unpleasant in warmer weather although compartments did have fans which could be noisy. In each case there was clean bedding provided and a hot water boiler at the end of the coach. In most cases there was a vacuum flask.
Tickets were collected when boarding and a voucher issued which was exchanged for the tickets before alighting (attendants give you advance warning). Compartments can be locked by you but only opened by the attendant. At no time did we have any concerns re personal safety.
The international trains had western toilets at both ends of the coaches. There was space for luggage under the lift-up lower bunk and above the door. On the Chinese internal services there was usually (but not always) a western toilet at one end and a squat toilet at the other. There was a communal (but lockable) washroom at one end. There was very little space for luggage under bunks, space over the door presented problems for heavy items.
On Train 4 betwen Irkutsk and Ulaan Bataar the crew had commandeered our compartment as it was next to theirs and we were put into a compartment that had just been vacated at Irkutsk. This had the advantage of putting us in the middle of the car with better ride and less noise. It was also a two-berth compartment with armchair and a shared washroom with our neighbours. The stock on this leg was fairly modern, that on Train K24 from Ulaan Baatar to Beijing similar but older. The attendants were pleasant and helpful. Level of English was variable.
On internal Chinese services the two Beijing-Pingyao-Xi'an stages had older stock that was well-worn but acceptable. That from Liuyuan to Turpan was newer but generally similar (and also well worn).
Stock between Turpan and Kashgar was more recent and air conditioned. Our car on that run had two decks, a lower deck of four berth compartments slung between the bogies and an upper deck of two berth compartments. Our four berth compartment was over one of the bogies at vestibule level at the opposite end to the crew quarters. Ateendants were pleasant but, unsurprisingly, had little English. On some, but not all, trips our passports were collected by the attendants.
Our sole foray to a restaurant car was on this last train and ended in failure. We decided to go for a meal at about 1830 only to find the restaurant car serving the train crew. Taking seats did not get us any attention then increasing numbers of men came in and started smoking and drinking (this is the only place on the trains where smoking is allowed). Eventually at 1900 a waitress began to take orders (slowly) starting at the far end from us. As it was obviously going to be a slow progress and the menu was only in Chinese we returned to the stuff we had brought with us. There was a regular trolley service through the train.
As we entered each station in China all bags were screened. Once inside there were plenty of stalls selling food to take onto the train. Access to platforms is not allowed until you are called for your train.