Transsiberian Part 1 - Planning
For the last few years, my partner Katie and I have been planning a trip on the Trans-Siberian railway; yes we've seen the film Transsiberian and no, we don't plan on meeting Ben Kingsley on the way ;) It's a part of the world I've never seen and it'll soon be happening; within the next few weeks.
Technically, the route we are traveling is not the Trans-Siberian proper, but rather the Trans-Mongolian with extra bits added! The typical route is Moscow to Vladivostok, but we are heading from St Petersburg to Hong Kong, via Mongolia. It covers the majority of the same route but takes a right turn just after Lake Baikal and then down towards Mongolia and out the other side and into Beijing.
Planning such a trip is not trivial, especially if you are like me, and utterly crap at booking train tickets. Like most trips, we need to think about accommodation, transport, activities, food and what to take with us. All of these are somewhat more difficult due to language barriers, differing state regulations, religion etc. It's certainly not easy, but I think we've managed it. Lets start with visas.
Sadly, we don't really live in a free world where we can travel around easily. Shame really. Mongolia has relaxed it's visa policy recently but China and Russia certainly haven't. Hong Kong is a bit of an odd one in this (and that's why I love it so) but the two major players are somewhat picky about their processes. Starting with Russia, you need a few things first. A letter of introduction is required from a hotel or some other company who can do this (such as the Russian National Tourist Office) in London) before you can apply for the visa. It's basically Russia scalping tourists wherever it can (this will be a common theme I think). The visa process itself can be done online. They ask many questions, including all the countries you've been to in the last 10 years (Katie actually ran out of space after the first 5). I'm told this is not as bad as it sounds, given other visa applications.
Once this is filled out and printed, you have to go, in person, to the Russian Visa Office in London. Here you hand over all your paperwork and your fingerprints. Hopefully your papers are in order and you feel happy that you no longer need an agent (like you used to). However, there was a mistake on my letter of introduction and I had to call the National Tourist Office again to send me a copy with my name on it. This of course cost me five pounds in internet and printing fees! Fortunately, the whole process for the two of us took less than an hour. They take your passport and in a week's time, you can go back to the office and pick it up, making sure you have the receipt they gave you. Worth noting that one person can pickup two passports if they have the receipts. There was a point where I had to check the visa against the application very carefully. It was a moment straight out of Papers Please!
The Chinese visa has a simpler process in that you just have a big online form to fill in. You don't need to hand over bio-metrics but you do need to take all the papers and passports to the Chinese Visa Office. Katie took these for and she tells me you need to check over all the forms very carefully and figure out exactly what you need otherwise they charge you for printing and internet services just like the Russians. Apparently they got a little confused with how we were getting to Hong Kong (since you actually just walk across the border and take the MTR).
Once you have the visa for Russia you can start booking train tickets (you can book accommodation earlier). Train tickets used to be a faff or expensive for the Trans-Siberian; you needed to go through an agency. We were told that Russian Railways would accept foreign credit cards, but when push came to shove, this simply isn't the case. Agents charge quite stiff rates, but fortunately Katie found tutu.ru who charge a very modest fee. However, after booking a couple of the longer routes, we found we couldn't book anymore. After further investigation, they told us that there is a limit for first time users, but they were nice enough to lift that for us. Google Translate comes in very handy for deciphering the Russian language.
Chinese trains were booked through ChinaDIY Travel who, again, charge a flat, modest fee. Mongolian trains are somewhat more tricky because they cross borders. This needed to be booked through Real Russia, who turned out to be quite a good agency. Katie and I decided to travel first class for 24hr+ legs in order to have a good chance of sleeping and a little comfort for these long trips through the steppe, but the shorter routes are somewhat more modest. It's worth noting I don't sleep on trains so I'll be investigating various pharmacological solutions (hints welcome! I hear the vodka price has just dropped).
Accommodation is linked to this because of the sleeper trains. It's more efficient to sleep whilst moving but then you might miss the scenery or some interesting cities. A basic rule of thumb is more stops equals higher cost so picking where you want to go and what you want to do is quite important. We decided that the longest stop would probably be around Lake Baikal. It's quite lovely and about half-way along the trip. Probably a good time to start washing our clothes and taking a breather. Booking accommodation in the three countries was done via Agoda and actually contacting the hotels directly. They've all been quite welcoming thus far.
Timing is also crucial. We wanted to see snow, but also for it not to be too cold or expensive. March and April is a good time because snow is still around but parts of the route are beginning to thaw so the temperature isn't as low as it could be. Interesting things happen to the ice on Lake Baikal at this time, and it's also Orthodox Lent, which means the availability of vegetarian food goes up.
The gear we'll be taking with us has been subject to much scrutiny and planning; I'll save that for another post! :)