When Tim and I discovered that each other had always dreamt of taking the Trans-Siberian we were both super excited, none of my friends at the time were that keen, opting for gap years in Australia which didn’t interest me in the slightest, Russia interested me, for a million different reasons which I’m not going to list because thats not the title of this post!
Anyway. At the time, I had just moved to Switzerland and was working with Tim, the job was seasonal which meant that we had the whole winter off, from November until March, we realised that we might not be in this position again with so much free time at our disposal and that this would be the perfect time to travel.
So I have decided to create a little guide for you based on our experience, what we learnt and what we would recommend, this will span across 3 parts, the first being how to book the Trans-Siberian train journey, the second being the planning and packing and the third will be some of our photos and details of our trip! I hope you enjoy it!
We were glued to our laptops every break time and evening, researching the route, visas, how we would get there, how we would get out, did we want to go anywhere else? how do you book train tickets if you want to get off at stops? It was quite complicated, and the thought of getting off at the wrong train station with a ticket departing from a station 1000km away was not appealing! This is when we started researching into tours. We didn’t want to be herded around like sheep with a group of strangers, but we wanted the security of having an experts organisational skills as well as a contact in case it all went to shit! After even more research, beers and stressing, we decided to use STA Travel to book our trip with, I was familiar with the company, they have offices all over the world and they mostly cater for students and young people. It wasn’t possible to book the trip on their website but as we were going back to England for a quick visit we decided to book an appointment at the branch in Exeter.
At our appointment it was explained to us that the trip was something that was new to STA Travel and that they were selling it through another company called ‘Vodkatrain’. Which was okay for us really, we were confident that they wouldn’t be dealing with anyone that would take our money and abandon us in Siberia! They gave us a brochure listing all the different journeys that the company provided.
(image source here)
The routes really are endless! You can view the list provided on the STA Travel website . In the end, the route we chose was called, ‘The Ruski Huski’, I’m not going say it was the name that made me choose it, but it definitely helped! The price was £2850 for the both of us, a price I will happily shell out for a once in a lifetime experience! (Please note that now the route names, details and prices have changed slightly since we booked).
This journey started in Moscow (29/11) and ended in Beijing (15/12) and included stops in Lake Baikal, Siberia and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. During these stops we were assigned a ‘honcho’ (city guide) who arranged activities we were interested in doing and showed us around. The accommodation was also arranged for these stops and the Honcho would have our tickets for the next train which was a weight off our minds!
Our STA agent (a lovely guy called Andy!) liaised with us throughout the booking process, supplying us with the documentation and answering any questions we had.
Transport Before & After
This is something you can book with STA Travel or you can arrange it yourself to see if you can get a better deal. You need to arrange this before you apply for your Visas as they embassy will need to know the date of your entry and exit and also if you exit later than your tour ends you will have to supply additional information on your whereabouts (I’ll get to that in a bit!)
I opted to book our own flights after lisasing with STA Travel as I found a cheaper deal by using the website skyscanner.net
I use sky scanner all the time to book our flights as it finds the cheapest or most direct flight based on your requirements. I did an example search above to show you, to fly from Geneva to Moscow on 17/11/2015 it will be cheaper to stop in Ukraine or Athens than to fly directly. When we booked our flights it offered me a stopover in London which was perfect for us as our trip had to begin in the UK for our travel insurance to be valid.
I also used Budget Air which turned out to be super cheap to fly from Shanghai to Tokyo and was only £147.20 per person.
This goes under the same umbrella as the flights, you will need to have proof of your reservations when you’re applying for your visa, if you’re staying somewhere in Russia before the tour begins, the hotel/hostel etc can supply you with an additional visa support letter.
To find great hotels and hostels I used:
Booking.com – The website is extremely easy to use and you can customise all the settings to your specific needs, this is my go to website for hotels, it will also send you discounts based on your recent travels and habits which is very useful!
HostelWorld – When travelling abroad for more than a couple of days or with a larger group of friends I will always look on Hostelworld, I’ll admit it, I’m not a big fan of hostels unless I can get a private room or share a room only with my friends, when we were planning our trip to Japan I used Hostel world a lot and found some great places which is something I will be writing about very soon!
TripAdvisor – TripAdvisor seems to be the most popular website at the moment, it does have a great database but Booking.com is my favourite for now!
Laterooms – Is probably one of the less popular websites but I will always check it out when comparing prices from the other sites, we used late rooms in Tokyo and the experience was really good.
My favourite place we stayed was one that I actually booked myself using HostelWorld and that was 365 Inn in Beijing. It was so great that the rest of our friends checked out early of their hostels and moved over to ours! The Hostel is in a really colourful and busy part of Beijing, it has a great bar that serves yummy food, the rooms are super clean and the facilities are good and the staff are really friendly and speak English, what more can you want?! I even wrote a reminder to myself in my journal:
We were arranging the visas ourselves as we needed them on us for trips to France and didn’t want to use a Visa handling service because the thought of handing my passport over to somebody that doesn’t work in an embassy or border control is makes me shake my head and say ‘nope’ a lot. Anyway, it wasn’t an entirely daunting task but, the rules were a little different and we had to pay slightly more as we were applying in a different country that our passports were issued in. Always check the website of the embassy you are visiting before you go!
1. Mongolia – The Mongolia Embassy experience was a truly bazaar experience! We had emailed beforehand and explained we were coming down to get a visa (we had gone a couple of days before and they were closed despite their website stating they’d be open everyday)
We thought the Mongolian system would be pretty simple and it was the only one in Geneva (the other two were closer to us in Bern) so we decided to get it over and done with. They required a form with had to be printed and filled in, a passport photo, an invitation from our travel operator and a valid passport with space for the Visa. It cost 80 swiss francs for the visa and then an additional 10 francs as a service charge.
When we located the embassy it was all gated off so we rang a bell for ages, not willing to be turned away again. They buzzed us in, and we made our way through the garden, complete with massive Ger and found our way into the building, there was no one around, so we had to look for someone, we walked into an office and about 10 guys were all crowded around a document on the table, when they heard us they all jumped up and shooed us out of the office and questioned us on why we were there, we were like.. “you buzzed us in, we just want visas..” which seemed to confuse them even more.. But after they went through our documentation (in the hallway) they told us to come back in a couple of hours and it would be done – and we didn’t even have to pay the express charge, result!
2. Russia – They demand quite a lot of documentation and information before issuing a visa, I heard they can be a little strict and pretty expensive but so I wasn’t excited to visit them. First thing they required was an ‘invitation’ (visa support letter which confirms you are being hosted as a tourist by a Russian tour operator) This was supplied to us from STA via Vodkatrain so that was no problem.
The second document they required a visa questionnaire completed on the website, printed and signed. On this questionnaire we also had to write in where we were staying and where we would be at all times.
Third was a passport (duh!) A foreign passport, which must contain at least 2 blank pages for visas and migration cards, and it must be valid for a period of 6 months after the visa expires.
Fourth, a colour passport photograph.
Fifth, A medical travel insurance policy, valid in Russia and covering the entire duration of the visa, I actually fucked up on this, I already had travel insurance with my bank so I put Tim on the policy and then called them up to extend it to cover us for our entire trip. During the phone call I told the guy exactly where we were going and what we were doing (dog sledding in Siberia) and everything was fine so we sealed the deal and I continued planning our trip, the embassy took our insurance policy and we got our visas and everything was fine, until we were on the train and somebody mentioned that we had passed the ‘Ural Mountains’, I remembered that I skim read something about the Ural mountains in the insurance documents so I dug them out and it turned out we had no cover in Russia if we travelled East of those bloody Ural mountains!! The Ural mountains are 2000km to the east of Moscow, and we were headed to Irkutsk which is over 5000km to the east of Moscow! Needless to say, we were pretty careful walking around on the ice!! So whats the lesson here? Learn a little more geography about the places you visit? Or don’t trust embassy’s and Travel insurance sellers to tell you that you won’t be covered in Siberia!
And lastly, as we were applying in Switzerland with a British passport, we had to supply a valid Swiss residence permit.
The visa took about 3/4 days and cost about 90 swiss francs so it was actually pretty easy and pretty cheap!
3. China – The Chinese visa was the one that pissed me off the most! The Chinese embassy in Bern is seriously sketchy, it has 15 foot high barbed wire fences all around it, metal bars on the windows and the biggest satellites I’ve ever seen in my life! After locating the visa centre around the back of the building we were greeted with a massive queue which took forever to get through and when we finally made it to the front they told us that the online form we had filled in (which we got from THEIR website) was last years and we had to fill in a new one, which meant getting out of the queue, filling in a new form and queueing up again. I was ready to just not go to China by the time we reached the front, and then they proceeded to ask us the strangest questions. Be prepared.
The documents they required were the same as Russia (not surprisingly) and the visa fee was 80 swiss francs. I think it took a couple of days, and they weren’t so great at contact so basically they were just super annoying!
With all of the logistical details booked and the headache over; it was time to plan, shop and pack! Come back tomorrow to read part 2 and find out what you need to survive this trip!
Thanks for reading, Yasmin x
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