Travelling +10,000 km by train from Moscow to Beijing while earning money

I spoke to a lot of people while taking the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Moscow to Beijing. 

Most of them had quit their jobs and taken a year off for travel. 

Other than this one guy. 

He was Irish and wearing an Irish rugby top because he was on his way to Tokyo to watch the Rugby World Cup. He was going to Tokyo by train to watch rugby. Who the hell was this guy?

Like me, he’d set up a consulting business and was working with a few recurring clients remotely. Also, like me, he knew he could be based anywhere and scale his work up and down accordingly. So getting the train to Tokyo made perfect sense for him, really.

I had decided to do something similar, heading off with my boyfriend on an adventure we’d long dreamed about before he started post-doc research in Japan in late November.

We spent three weeks in Russia (Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Lake Baikal), a week in Mongolia (Ulanbaataar and on a rural tour), five weeks in China (Beijing, Xi’an, Huangshan Mountain, Shanghai, Guangzhou). 

After the train part of the trip, I spent another three weeks on Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island and in Malaysia on my own.

I was away for 75 days and earned 2–3X what I spent, which is more than I could say for much of my last four years living in Switzerland.

Tuvkhun Monastery in Central Mongolia.

What work was I doing?

I was doing far less work than at the start of the year, but I was working with higher value clients. I didn’t have any big important projects running, though.

During my trip, my work mostly consisted of writing assignments I already knew the requirements for, which kept things simple. 

I also had a small website project for a long-term client and some calls with potential clients. 

My work commitments were about 20–50% of a full-time schedule, depending on how well I could focus.

Here’s how I kept my work going during my trip across continents and time zones.

1. I was careful of the work I took on

When planning out the part of the year I was travelling, I intentionally kept big projects and work that required regular meetings to a minimum.

2. I planned when I didn’t want to work

Early on in my trip planning, I decided I didn’t want to work when I was on the train. I wanted to stare out the window, write in my notebooks, and read long books. 

That’s what I felt the Trans-Mongolian Express (close relative of the Trans-Siberian Express) should be about.

But this meant needing to be very strategic about when I would work.

On the Trans-Mongolian Railway from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia. Second class gets you a cabin with snoozing strangers. Third class gets you a lot more of them.

3. I got as much done as I could before we left

I was lucky to be able to hit deadlines ahead of time, so I could technically free up much of my workload for the next weeks. That’s not to say I did as much as I planned to. 

I was in Scotland and wanted to spend time with my boyfriend and his family… not be stuck in front of my laptop. So when we left for Moscow, I was already a bit behind where I wanted to be.

4. I planned my work days and non-work days

In Moscow, I sat down with my boyfriend and we looked at our travel plans in a Google doc, essentially just a list of days and what we thought we’d be doing on each one.

We blocked off the days when I knew I wouldn’t want to work — including when we’d be on the train or doing something fun. There was no way I’d be working while in rural Mongolia on horseback, for instance. I have work boundaries, and they absolutely apply to rural adventures.

After blocking off the no-work-time, I looked at my deadlines and worked out how to fit them in the time that was left.

The Great Wall of China (the quiet part, near Gubeiko)

5. I found the places most conducive to getting work done

During my trip, I did most of my work:

  • In cities with cool cafes with quiet spaces and decent wifi. This included most of the places we stopped on the train, fortunately. Ulaanbataar, the capital of Mongolia, was the biggest surprise — you could absolutely live there as a digital nomad.
  • During multi-day stays in one place, where I wouldn’t mind taking a day off from my holiday (oh, the irony) to get some work done.
  • When my boyfriend went off on day trips that I wasn’t too fussed about.

6. I adjusted my plans when things weren’t working

Not everything was sunshine and butterflies, of course. A lot of the stuff you see on Instagram about remote work is bullshit. There’s a whole lot more searching for damn wifi and wanting to do anything other than work than most people share.

My biggest challenge was calculating the time I needed for a piece of work (it always, always takes longer than I think). I also found it hard to focus in the specific time I allocated to getting work done. Just because I told myself I should work didn’t mean I wanted to do it.

Many times during our trip, I adjusted our schedule so I could meet work deadlines — or take time off when I couldn’t focus.

But on the whole, everything worked out beautifully.

Hongcun in China, a town that artists flock to.

Yes, it was a different kind of holiday. 

I’m all for detoxes from work — and I like scheduling time where I don’t go near my laptop. Most of our time in Mongolia and my solo trip to Phu Quoc was spent outside my virtual office. But on the whole, this was a working holiday for me.

Will I take time off on future trips? Yes, of course. (Spoiler alert: I don’t work that much and I’ve tried to engineer my life to make it feel like I’m always on holiday).

But the thing is, on the whole, I like having work to do. I wanted to live my life while seeing incredible parts of the world — and for this trip, my life involved work.

I kept up my relationships with clients and most of them didn’t notice the difference in my availability. I delivered everything on time, responded to messages, and helped clients out as I usually did. I told them when I’d be on a horse in Mongolia and unavailable. No one had any issues.

So if this is what my work-life balance looks like — and if it can open up other crazy adventures like this one — I’m absolutely cool with it.

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