Wednesday, June 01, 2011

How to: So, you want to plan a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad... [Part 1: Visas]

Thousands of miles of railroad? Check. Russia? Check. Your mind? You might have lost it somewhere on the way, but this series of posts will help you through the planning process of your own Trans-Siberian journey.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad runs from Moscow to Vladivostok and is over 5,700 miles long. To put that in terms that make sense for people living in the US, that's a little shy of driving from New York to Chicago via San Francisco and Seattle. In European terms, it's like driving from Stockholm to Syria via Lisbon and Valencia. It's a long ways and a lot of time to cover, plus you'll be dealing with Russia and parts of the bureaucracy is still trying to shake off the Soviet era. 

Here's what you need to travel to make your dream a reality. It is deceptively easy: A Russian visa, train tickets, and places to stay along the way. Getting those in order will be your big challenge and this is a guide of how I made my arrangements for the trip and how to save time by learning from my experiences. This is a step-by-step guide to getting your visas and tickets in order.

After the break, we'll get started with the basics of where the railway runs and the visa situation for the three countries you're likely to visit...
Step 1: Planning where to visit
Planning for the Trans-Siberian is just like planning for any other trip. You'll need visas, tickets, and places to stay along your trip. You'll also need to decide where you actually want to go. Virtually everyone will start or end their journey in Moscow (depending on if you're headed east or west), but where you visit east of Moscow is up to you. There are three main rail lines:
  1. The True Trans-Siberian: Moscow to Vladivostok. This is the original and the longest option. If you want the purest experience, Vladivostok would be the place to head to. The #2 train, also known as the "Rossiya", is the famous train for this route and highly sought.
  2. The Trans-Mongolia: Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia. Turning south at Ulan-Ude, the Trans-Mongolia crosses into Mongolia and then China. This is a popular route for the combination of different countries and the clearly delineated cultural contrasts that you move through.
  3. The Trans-Manchurian: Moscow to Beijing. This line enters China after Chita in the far east. With this route, you'll see Harbin and more of Russia, but no Mongolia. 
In addition, there are also alternative tracks, such as the BAM which will take you deep into Siberia and far away from the tourists. In the end, this is one of the most difficult parts of planning the trip. You can get a Russian visa for up to 30 days, so everything you want to see in Russia has to fit in that time frame. You'll likely spend a good deal of time figuring out where you want to head to and which cities you'd like to stop off at. My experience with planning is related only from St. Petersburg to Moscow and then to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian. My trip was in the summer of 2011, which you can read a full report of starting with my first post here.

If you're looking for inspiration, here are my photos and stories from different places across Russia:

This is a great question. Most tourists prefer to ride in second class (Kupe), which has 4 berth cabins, and tend to stick to the better and more comfortable trains (generally trains with small numbers). This is what I choose for my trip and this is a basic cost breakdown for tickets:
  • St. Petersburg to Moscow (Train #1: The Red Arrow): $112
  • Vladimir to Tomsk (Train #38): $337
  • Tomsk to Taiga (Train #609): $7
  • Taiga to Irkutsk (Train #2: The Rossiya): $211
  • Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude (Train #362): $55
  • Bus to Ulaanbaatar (Click here for pictures): $40
  • Tickets to Russia from Sweden and back from Mongolia to Sweden: $700
  • Transportation Total: $1500 (Rounding up for a bus between Moscow and Suzdal and Suzdal to Vladimir that's not counted here)
  • Accommodations vary by where you want to stay. I start at a bed and breakfast for $130 a night and end in a Ger for $25 (double occupancy). Over the trip, the average cost per night was $46 ($23 per person per night). Keep in mind that some of the nights are spent on the train, so the cost of accommodation is rolled into the train ticket too. I organized this is with budget accommodations, but as anywhere else, hotels can be a major cost if you let it. You'll also have difficulty finding hotels because there is no real go-to source on the web for easy hotel bookings. You'll need to rely on your guidebooks and Google to try and sleuth out where you can stay, if you don't have a local contact.
  • Visas for the different countries will add an addition $140-280, depending on where you want to go. 
  • Rough Grand Total: $2300-2440 per person, plus food and activities. 
Where to go and what to see is a really personal decision, but Lake Baikal is well worth a couple of days. If you only stop one place, make it Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. However, the most important thing is to plan where you want to go, how long you want to be there, and to make sure that it's on the same rail line. The exact dates will be figured out later when you start looking at tickets, because the train schedule is what will determine how long you stay in a city and where you can go.

Step 2: Visas
If you are a US citizen you will need a visa for China and Russia, but not Mongolia. Diplomatic relations change frequently, so always double check entry requirements. If you do not have a visa, you will not be allowed to enter the country and will likely face fines for attempting it. There is no visa on arrival program for China or Russia.

The Chinese Visa (Difficulty: Easy)

You'll need:
  • Passport valid for at least 6 months, one free page.
  • A copy of the passport information page
  • A completed application form (Direct Link, or see the download page on the Chinese Embassy)
  • Optional: A completed application form for a Hong Kong visa (Direct Link). Add $30.
  • A passport-sized photo of yourself, using the standard rules for passport photos
  • That's it, unless you're a previous/current Chinese citizen or the child of one.
  • Optional: A cover letter and other supporting documentation. The clearer your trip is to them, the less likely you'll run into trouble.
  • $140. It costs the same amount of money to request a multiple entry visa as it does to request a single entry visa, which means that you should request whatever visa best fits your intended travel. Be warned that visiting Hong Kong counts as leaving China, which means that if you start in mainland China and then visit Hong Kong with a single entry visa you will not be allowed to return to the mainland without a new passport. I recommend requesting at least a double entry or even a multi-entry. 
You can see the official guidelines for a visa here on the Chinese Embassy website.

After you have your documents in order, you can apply in person (easiest) or via a visa company proxy (not needed if you can avoid it). To find out the nearest consulate that can process visas, click here. When I did it, they just took my money and told me to come back in three days with no problems. If you do not have a consulate in your area you'll have to fork over extra cash for a service to take care of the visa. You cannot apply by mail. The plus side with using a service is that they will work to make sure that your visa goes through and that any issues are resolved.

The Russian Visa (Difficulty: Medium)

  • Passport valid for at least 6 months, at least two free pages.
  • A tourist invitation letter and proof of payment voucher (There are services to obtain these, such as this one. You do not need the registration part of the service, only the vouchers. Technically, you are not supposed to use these services, but everyone does. This is a relic of the Soviet system.)
  • After you have these, you'll need to fill out your application here: You will need to both register ahead of time online and print this out for when you go to the Russian embassy! Also, regardless of what you can enter online, the maximum is 30 days for a tourist visa.
  • A passport-sized photo of yourself, using the standard rules for passport photos
  • A cover letter, telling them exactly where and where you're going with information that matches the invitation letter.
  • $170 (for US citizens. Other nationalities should check their local embassy).
Again, you'll need to apply in person or use a service. The process works like this: 1) Obtain your visa support. If you use a company, they make dummy bookings for you with organizations they have agreements with, which you're not actually obligated to stay at. 2) Look up the hotels you're "staying" at and write this information down. This will be asked on the visa application (question 34). 3) Fill out the visa form online, print out the form and gather any supporting documents you might have. The Russians are not obligated to give you a visa on the invite alone, but usually do not ask questions. 4) The Russian Embassy in the US is now using another company called ILS to actually process the visa application. You can read more about it here, but you'll need to specify the ILS office nearest to you. You will then need to set up an appointment on their website to go in (alternatively, you can use a service to do this for you if you need to do this by mail). The visa fee is $140 and the fee for ILS is $30, making it a total of $170.

Does the invite thing sound shady to you? It is, but that's the way it's done. Your alternative is to book and pay for everything in advance through a tourist agency, which is very expensive. This way you can book and plan whatever you want and stay in any city you want too. When you enter Russia, they will check the visa but they do not check to ensure that you stay with the places that are associated with the visa. When you pick the visa up, be sure to check that all of the information printed there is correct. I saw one person in St. Petersburg get pulled aside when there was a typo in the printed visa, although I met up with them later and they said that it had been resolved after a rather intimidating encounter with customs.

Mongolian Visa (Difficulty: Very Easy)
You do not need a visa if you are a US citizen, for visits up to three months. Citizens of the following countries can also get visas at the border: Kazakhstan (3 months), Malaysia & Israel (1 month), Philippines (3 weeks), Singapore (2 weeks), Hong Kong (14 days), and Cuba (1 month). Some nationalities with an official or diplomatic passport also have exceptions. However, the best thing to do is to check with your local embassy to check. This information was pulled from Discover Mongolia, who also have a great list of Mongolian embassies abroad. If you're not in the list here, it is best to check with your local embassy for specifics

What's next?
While you're planning for your visas, the next big thing to learn is how to buy tickets for the train. Having train tickets can also help with the Russian visa process and I advise buying your tickets before you apply for the visa so you can include them in your application. Buying a ticket on the Trans-Siberian is about as easy as buying a plane ticket with the new system that they're rolling out, but a primer is always helpful and that's you'll find in my next Tran-Siberian post: How to buy train tickets in Russia from

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