So you wanna take the trip we did? Planning wasn’t nearly as straightforward as we would have hoped. And be prepared for scope creep… what started out as 3 weeks bloomed into 6 and then finally, 7.
To do it the way we are, you’ll need about a month and a half, about CDN$5,000, and about 100,000 airline miles and hotel points. Got that? Good, then you’re ready to go.
Visas and Visa Support
You need visas from the three embassies (if you’re Canadian; only China and Russia if you’re American):
The trick with the visas is that not only do you need support documents for Russia and Mongolia, there are time constraints on everything. For example, your Chinese visa is only valid for entry up to 3 months after the date of issue. Which basically means that you can’t apply too far ahead.
Several places offer Russian visa support by email. We went with a company called City Realty. Exactly how they get to issue these things, we don’t know. Don’t care, either. It worked, and it was fast. We submitted our applications, paid with credit card online, and were emailed pdf invitation letters almost instantly.
For Mongolia, you’ll need documentation from someone inviting you, or a tourist company. While there doesn’t seem to be something generic for Mongolia, if you’re planning to book a trip you can request information through them.
Since flying from Canada to Russia is quite costly, we were lucky to have some of Amy’s Alaska Airlines miles available to cash in for the one ways to St. Petersburg with a stopover in London. Each ticket was a whopping 50,000 miles on British Airways plus a couple of hundred dollars in fees. But it’s better than $2000+ each. The route is kind of crazy. A 6am flight (for Geoff, anyhow) from Calgary to Seattle, then Seattle to San Francisco, then San Francisco to London. Then, a few days later, London to St. Petersburg.
Our itinerary was mostly planned around places of interest, but constrained by transportation options. At least within Russia and Mongolia, trains link various stops only once or twice per week. We found the online train schedules at Your Train: Poezda.net to be the most helpful.
Once we had an idea of where we wanted to go and for how long, we looked into train tickets. Since we have a very tight schedule, we decided to buy everything in advance of arrival in St. Petersburg. On recommendation at the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree message board, we contacted Olesya at Russian Girl Friday for help procuring the tickets. In Russia, you can only buy train tickets 45 days in advance of the departure date. Back when we first emailed her, she couldn’t give us exact prices or schedules.
In early April, she was able to hammer everything out. Unfortunately, Moscow only has 10% of the total ticket inventory for trains across Russia. So, the original Yekaterinburg to Novosibirsk to Krasnoyarsk leg was unavailable. Olesya instead gave us updated prices for Yekaterinburg to Krasnoyarsk direct.
All in all, the six tickets purchased through her worked out to around $430 US each, including her fee. Amy provided her FedEx account number and received the tickets by FedEx the following day. We decided to stick with 2nd class sleepers (4 berth) for all overnight trains. Olesya’s tickets are getting us from St. Petersburg to Moscow to Kazan to Yekaterinburg to Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk to Ulan Ude. Got that?
From Ulan Ude to Ulan Baatur, we purchased an entire compartment from a travel agency in Ulan Ude (more on this in the accomodation section). And from Ulan Baatur to Beijing, we bought a 1st class cabin through Nomadic Journeys, our Mongolian tour operator.
Once in China, we’ll buy tickets either from the Beijing station or from a travel agent in town. And, the same for Japan.
Ah, Accomodation. The fun part, right? Not so much. We’re going with an odd mix of Priceline 4**** hotels, hostels, homestays, and cheaper hotels. Oh, and the ger camp in Mongolia. And a ryokan or three in Japan.
Priceline is probably Amy’s best friend lately. Did you know you can go to Biddingfortravel.com to find information on which hotels are in which zone? And what you should bid? It’s fantastic! We snagged a great deal in London at a Hilton for less than a hostel, and in Hong Kong at the New World Renaissance Kowloon.
Amy’s Hyatt Gold Passport points were enough to redeem for a room in the Hyatt Regency Osaka for our last night in Japan. And everything in between was a toss up.
For Russia, visa registration can be an issue. In addition, prices are very high for what you get. Even the cheapest hotels seem to charge $60US and up per night. since we wanted to fit in a lot of stops without breaking the bank, we’re doing many day visits to cities sandwiched in between night trains. This is a tip Amy picked up years ago from Rick Steves’ great guidebook series, but has never put into practice yet. Whether it’ll be a fun way to see a lot and save money, or merely an exhausting string of sleepless nights remains to be seen.
Other Russia lodgings:
St. Petersburg – NordHostel comes highly recommended by books and friends of friends.
Moscow – Rossiya Hotel is right on the Red Square.
Yekaterinburg – Academy of Geology Hotel, reserved through G&R Hostel Asia agency in Moscow.
Irkutsk – Homestay with Jack Sheremetoff. We’re also doing a tour of Listvyanka with him.
Ulan Ude – The Hotel Geser, reserved through BaikalNaran Tour. Supposedly they have hot water.
In Mongolia, we booked a 6 day tour with Nomadic Journeys, specifically the Karakorum tour. The tour includes all accomodation in gers and a hotel while in the capitol.
For China, we went with Hostels.com for advance booking in Beijing, Xi’An, and Guilin. They charge a teeny tiny booking fee plus an advance deposit on the room. In most cases, this was under $10US.
And finally, in Japan we are decidedly not roughing it. Geoff reserved our ryokan in Nara through Welcome Inn. We found a place in Tokyo convenient to the early-morning Tsukiji market – the Yaesu Ryumeikan.
Guidebooks and Gear
We’re bringing mainly Lonely Planet guidebooks for St. Petersburg (new edition!), Russia, the Trans-Siberian, Mongolia and China. Amy photocopied a few pages of her Rough Guides Japan and Rick Steves’ out of print Russia guidebooks. Amy’s also travelling with Rick Steves’ London book which will be posted back home before heading to Russia. Too much weight!
Amy’s travelling with her Eagle Creek Ultimate Explorer pack, hopefully half full. She wouldn’t leave home without her Canon Eos Rebel XS (13 years and counting!) and a couple of Sigma lenses, her new mini-DV camcorder and her beloved iPod Shuffle. More handy things include a first aid kit, bug lotion, a jar of peanut butter, a Nalgene bag-style canteen, and a down coat that makes a lovely pillow.
Geoff’s lugging around a MEC backpack he’s had for years (bought specifically to do a trip like this). Although huge, he plans on traveling light, saving room for his Minolta X-GM and X-370 cameras (one loaded with 200 ASA colour, and another with 100(ish) black and white), a 50mm lens, a 28-80mm lens, an 80-200mm lens, flash, and about 60 rolls of film. He’s also bringing his little Sony DSCU20 digital camera so we can put up pictures to the site easily. Geoff’s also taking a Nalgene bag (thanks to Amy’s pre-planning), a roll of duct tape, a Leatherman, and a phone card so he can call his wife-to-be when he realizes how much he misses her. That should be by the time he hits London.