Welcome to the second post in an ongoing series about a journey on the Tran-Siberian Railway my father I took in August/September 2013. Following the first post about the intent of the trip, general overview of how it went and some surprises learned about one another along the way, I’ll get in to country and journey-specific items in future posts. For this one the focus is route and trip planning. So how did we choose the itinerary, was it what we hoped for and did it go smoothly? Great questions – lets tackle them!
The Trans-Siberian Railway most travelers take and refer to is only part of the entire line. A majority of tourists journey from Beijing to Moscow or in the reverse direction as my father and I did, which comes in at 8,861km. The Trans-Siberian itself runs a total of 9,289km from Moscow to Vladivostok in Russia’s far east, on the northern edge of the Sea of Japan or Peter the Great Gulf, as Russians know it. It’s the longest single railway line in the world, takes eight days to complete, passes through seven time zones, was inaugurated in 1890 and completed in 1916. A number of other lines connect to it at various points along the way.
The Trans-Mongolian forks south near Ulan-Ude and crosses Mongolia from north-to-south, stopping at the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar (UB) before continuing south to China and terminates at Beijing. The route was completed in 1955, linking three capitals: Moscow, UB and Beijing. A quirky part of the journey is changing bogies (train wheel set) at the Mongolian-Chinese border as the rail gauge size differs. In Russia and Mongolia it’s 1,520mm and in China 1,435mm. The process takes about two-and-a-half hours and entails an impressive set of mechanical arms lifting the carriage (with passengers in it) off the bogie, then a new set being rolled in to place and attached.
A third line, the Trans-Manchurian runs from Beijing through China’s northeastern provinces and connects with the Trans-Siberian in southeastern Russia, yet another option for travelers. There are countless other lines which one can take to extend their journey if you’re fancying even more time in a close quarters including heading further east from Moscow in to Europe, north to St. Petersburg, in to northeastern Siberia and even journey from Russia’s far southeastern reaches to North Korea.
My father and I decided to start in Moscow and end in Beijing, as there are more flights back to Vancouver (for him) and Kuala Lumper (for me) from the Chinese capital. After a couple weeks looking at maps we decided it would be neat to cross China as well. Then we pondered whether we should push even further south through Vietnam all the way to Ho Chi Minh City? This option was considered briefly then we had the good sense to realize we’d likely pick up a literal case of cabin fever if we spent that long cooped-up in trains.
Some more research turned-up the world’s longest high-speed railway line running 2,372km from Beijing to Shenzen which borders Hong Kong. The journey takes just over 10 hours, a walk in the park after crossing Russia, and we agreed to make this the last leg of the journey. But the final push in to Hong Kong from Shenzen would require four trains in two different subway systems (Shenzen and Hong Kong) at rush hour, with a foot crossing at the border. No problem: we dialed it in and all went very smoothly.
Getting information for all pieces of the trip-puzzle was quite a bit of work. Online there are conflicting accounts and various recommendations but a consistently good site is The Man in Seat 61, which has just about everything you could ever want to know about train travel. Natalia at RussianTrain.com was a great help arranging all things for Russia, Turuu at Shuren Travel Services put together a wonderful one-week itinerary for us in Mongolia and arranged tickets onwards to Beijing. Finally Bobby at Templeside House Hostel reserved rooms at his very cool traditional Hutong House in Beijing and organized high-speed train tickets for the final leg to Shenzen. I highly recommend the abovementioned if you make the journey yourself.
Visas are an item, which can be extremely tricky and took a good deal of time to prepare. Getting them in your home country is easiest, yet at the same time can be tough if you live in a physically large country like Canada. My father resides on Vancouver Island, about 5,000km from the capital Ottawa, where most embassies are located, so he enlisted the services of a visa service. This took two months and cost a couple hundred dollars but is of course much less expensive than flying across Canada. I got all three visas (Russia, Mongolia and China) in Bangkok where I was living at the time, but this can be tough as many countries only issue visas to foreigners working in the country where they’re applying and you must provide supporting documentation. For instance, if you’re a foreign tourist in Bangkok seeking a Chinese visa it’s almost impossible. You must show documents proving you’re employed in Thailand. Be prepared for this if seeking visas outside your home country.
Countless newspaper articles, stories online, Trip Advisor recommendations and hotel booking websites helped us figure out other requisite bits and pieces and put the final touches on the hard details. Visas in-hand, all bits, pieces and parts arranged, booked, stamped and printed out; we hit the road for this epic journey on August 23, meeting in Moscow and flew home from Hong Kong on September 23, 2012. And what an adventure it was! In the next blog post I’ll share our experience in Moscow.