Like any other planning, first thing we did was to try to find out more information about the trip to help us plan for this trip. So that means lots of research and reading.
As we do not know anyone who have tried doing this, the information were mainly obtained from
- www.seat61.com, and
- Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas (an alternative to this guidebook will be ‘The Lonely Planet Guide to the Trans-Siberian Railway’).
Here’s a look at how we plan for this trip and things to consider when making decision on each of the following items.
1. Trip duration, dates and itineraries.
Depending on how many days of annual leave you have, where you want to stop and for how long, we would recommend a minimum of 2 weeks if you want to go on the Trans-Siberian Train.
We decided on 3 weeks because that’s the longest time off we can afford to take from work. Also we made a conscious decision to start the train journey from London (versus flying into Moscow and start from there) and to end the journey in Hong Kong. So that does not give us much time to spent outside of the train in Russia or China.
When picking the dates/month, bear in mind the season (e.g. summer = peak = more tourist = expensive) and the average weather temperature especially for Russia. We picked October mainly because it is AFTER Dav’s dissertation submission. So this trip is a mini celebration for him. Also we found out October is a low season for the train therefore most train tickets and accommodation is slightly cheaper as well. Definitely a PLUS point!!! But we did find out the lowest temperature recorded for Russia in October is -15 degrees Celsius! I guess we just have to wrap up under more clothes… luckily the train has heating. 🙂
One very important point I would like to make here is that it is critical that you build in some buffer into the itineraries to allow some flexibility in the trip timetable. Based on our experience, due to inaccurate train timetable and me not being careful while booking train tickets, we had to change our itineraries twice. Luckily it didn’t have a big impact on the overall trip.
2. Train tickets.
Thanks to seat61 website and the guide book, we managed to organise our train journeys relatively easy. The information sources even have train timetables and estimated costs. So, we managed identify the train we want to take pretty easily. However the challenge was to book the tickets!
Booking was done in the following stages:
- London to Paris – We purchased the Eurostar tickets online.
- Paris to Berlin – City Night Line. Same as Eurostar, we got our tickets online.
- Berlin to Moscow – Moscow Express. We had to call the German Rail company to purchase the tickets.
- Moscow to Beijing – This is the hardest bit. The Russian train tickets are only on sale 60 or 30 days in advance. We can risks not getting the tickets by turning up at the train station and buy it ourselves. We took the alternative route, that is to get a specialist agent to buy the tickets and sent it to us. This is slightly more expensive but it is almost guaranteed we’ll get the ticket.
- Beijing to Hong Kong via Shanghai – Chinese train tickets are only on sale 10 days in advance of the departure date. Quite an inconvenience… Again, we can get an agent in China to get the tickets for us, BUT we’ve to pay a premium of almost £100! Luckily my dad can assists in getting the tickets for us… so we’ll have to wait and see if there will be any issues.
To minimise the costs of this trip, we decided to stay in hostel when we’re transiting or if possible bunk at family’s or friend’s place. To ensure that the hostels we have choosen is ‘OK’, we read reviews posted in travel websites like Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor and Hostel World. Hopefully the reviews are reliable. We will let you know after we’re back.
This is by far the most tedious thing to do!! Luckily as Malaysian, we do not need visa for majority of the European Countries. In total we had to apply for 2 tourist visas (Russia and China) and 1 transit visa (Belarus).
Chinese visa is by far the easiest and fastest to get among the 3 visas. Russian visa is the most challenging. The Russian requires lots of documentation and something called a ‘Tourist Voucher’. Basically you have to booked and paid for all the accomodation and the hotels will give you this ‘Tourist Voucher’ to support your visa application. The problem is not all hostels can provide you this voucher. In the end, we decided to get an agent to submit our application to ensure that we can get the visa. Once you get the Russian visa, then it’s pretty easy to apply for the Belarus transit visa.
Initially we thought we’ll only need the Russian and Chinese visas. Luckily I was doing more research and found a note saying that we should check whether we need visa for the country the train will go through to get to the destination. After checking the detailed train itineraries, we realised we needed a Belarus transit visa even though we’re not getting out of the train. Luckily we still had time to get the visa. *phew!* Can’t imagine what we’ll do if we arrived at the border crossing without a visa….
5. Flight back to London.
Initially we thought we would take the train all the way to KL via Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. However that would take us waaaayyyy tooo long to reach. So the next option is to end our trip in China.
I really wanted to visit Shanghai because I’ve never been. So the second option was to fly back to London from Shanghai. But there wasn’t many flight options to choose from … thus, we thought, since we’re already in Shanghai, we might as well stop-over in HK since it has more flights to London.
HK has always been one of our fav place to visit. Both Dav and I went there for work on several occasions. We mainly love the food in HK! Anyhow we managed to get a pretty decent priced one way ticket with Cathay Pacific after comparing prices with other airlines.
So that’s the end of the planning stage. It’s 2 weeks to our departure trip. The next entry about this trip will be after we have come back and share our experiences. Wish us luck!
Click to read on: What We Pack – The Essentials