Trans-Siberian Railway your own way – how to guide
A week on the train. 8 time zones. 9288 kilometres – a quarter of the Globe. Endless forests and swamps, wooden villages, train stations alike magnificent palaces surrounded by decaying heritage of the once mighty Soviet Union. Friendly, hospitable, spontaneous and from a foreigner’s point of view – positively crazy people. The richness of Russia, the contrasts between the wealthy and the poor, modern and old, clean and muddy, silver watches and gold teeth. The heart of Eastern Europe with Moscow and other big, modern cities slowly fading away to the endless grasslands, mountains, wilderness. Golden, mosque-like domes of Orthodox churches step-by-step giving way to actual mosques, Buddhist stupas, followed by vast forests visited by nomads. Eventually arriving in Vladivostok at the Pacific, from where it’s just a ferry ride to Japan. Or a 250 kilometre car ride to the North Korean border.
This romantic image must catch anyone’s heart in one way or another. Who has never dreamt of travelling by the Trans-Siberian Railway? But how to do it?
Sure you could go to a travel agent and let them organise the trip. But you’ll soon find that not only will you spend up to 3 thousand dollars on getting it organised but you’ll also spend the whole journey partying with fellow Europeans, Americans or Australians instead of actually getting to experience the reality of the train the way it is.
Wanna do it differently? Let us tell you how to pay USD 160 for getting a Russian visa, buying the ticket and enjoying the magnificent journey the way locals do!
How did I come up with the $160 price? It’s simple – this is the cost you bear if you apply for the visa and buy the ticket on your own! The standard price for a basic train ticket for the 167 hours and 22 minutes journey is 5691 Russian Rubbles which equals about $80. The rest is the visa – which will vary depending on your nationality, but it’s not sky-high (last year, as a EU citizen I paid about $40, Wendy as an Australian paid $90). Add in the price of the tourist voucher (we paid $25) that will get you the visa, a $15 obligatory insurance (if required) and… that’s it, $160, off you go!
1. Get the visa
Universal tip 1 – How to find the official requirements online and avoid all the misleading websites that lead you to paid services: always google “Embassy of [full name of the country you’re going to] in [the capital city of the country you’re applying from]”, for instance “Embassy of the Russian Federation in Canberra”. This will hopefully lead you to the official governmental website.
Universal tip 2 – How to contact the embassy: we were trying to call them for a few weeks – in vain. It appeared thought that they reply emails straight away! Don’t repeat our mistake! If they don’t answer the phone – email them. Or if they don’t reply your emails – call them.
Check visa requirements
Looking at visa requirements on the website of your local Embassy of Russian Federation will give you a headache and make you wanna quit the whole idea. But the truth is – when getting visas to most countries, what’s written on paper doesn’t have to be the way it works in practise.
So this is how it looks on paper:
- You buy a tour from a recognised Russian travel agency
- They give you a voucher and an official confirmation of hotel bookings
- You buy plane tickets to and out of Russia
- Depending on your citizenship you might have to buy a travel insurance recognised by the Russian government
- You collect all the documents, fill in the application form, pay the fee and send it all to the embassy
Recognised Russian travel agency & tours of random people not your style? “Is it not possible at all to go there on your own?” Well… yes it is!
And here’s how it works in practise:
- You buy a travel voucher (with the hotel bookings and insurance) for a small fee
- Instead of plane tickets you can get a reservation (details below) or write a letter explaining why you’re not flying
- You collect all the documents, fill in the application form, pay the fee and send it all to the embassy
Sounds more doable? It is indeed. The next thing is to find a company that will get you the necessary documents, give them a very approximate travel itinerary and they’ll arrange the voucher, hotel bookings (according to the itinerary) and travel insurance (if needed). But how to find one?
Voucher, hotel bookings and insurance
Any visa agency or tourist office that organises the trip for you has to get an official voucher and state-recognised hotel reservations in order to get your visa (plus, in case of EU and a few other countries’ citizens, a state-recognised insurance). So, instead of paying them heaps for getting the whole visa arranged, ask your agent to provide you with the voucher itself so you can apply on your own. And if they don’t agree, saying it’s impossible, illegal (it’s not) or crazy just because they’re not used to people asking for such partial services – hit a visa office in Eastern Europe as we did!
We got our documents from this company in Poland simply by emailing them. We both paid about USD 25 each for the vouchers with reservations plus ~$15 for the recognised insurance for me as an EU citizen. We quickly got scans of the official documents and were ready to apply straight away!
Such documents are fully legitimate – they are the same ones even the most exclusive tour organizers have to get in the process of getting your visa (although I’m not sure how much you can depend on travel assistance from the Russian companies stated at the documents – this is mainly used for the visa application). The sole reason you can get them in Eastern Europe is that, as I mentioned here, people there have a much more Do It Yourself approach, so local visa/travel agents provide their customers services like getting the vouchers only and letting them apply on their own. It appears it’s way cheaper and I absolutely recommend you being the resourceful East European as often as you can!
Note that this applies to a 30-day visa and the visa is issued for specific dates so if you enter Russia 2 days late, you’ve got only 28 days to go. If you want to stay in Russia for up to 3 months, you additionally need an official invitation by a Russian citizen. But even if you have some contacts in Russia, know that is hard to obtain such an invitation as the inviting person needs to submit a lot of paperwork to very bureaucratic offices in person… Another way though is to buy an invitation from a St Petersburg company for €15! We don’t have their contact details though, getting this one will require a bit more research from your side.
As it comes to the flight tickets to and out of Russia, if you don’t intend to buy them (for instance because you’re arriving by land), I recommend emailing the embassy. In the email explain your situation and ask what do they recommend to do then – maybe buy cheap train tickets from the neighbouring country? What I do when I can’t fulfill requirements for a certain visa (to any country) – is writing an official letter with the description of my particular situation and some argumentation behind why I’m applying for the visa anyway. I attach such a letter to the visa application – it always works! And even better if you discuss this option in emails with the embassy first and can refer to these emails in your letter.
Another option is something we only read about online – some travel agents allow you to reserve a flight ticket instead of booking it. The difference is – while reserving the ticket, you’re not buying it – you’re just paying for having the reservation to do so. The logic behind is – you want to go somewhere by plane but you’re not sure if you get the visa, but you need to show the plane ticket in order to apply the visa, risking that you’ll lose the money you paid for the ticket in case your visa gets denied. So you instead reserve a ticket to show the consul you made sure there will be a spot for you on the plane and you genuinely wish to fly.
Where you can apply
The only serious obstacle while applying for a Russian visa is that you can only apply from your country of residence. And the only consolation we have (except that our friend somehow managed to get his Russian visa in Seoul) is that from the emails we exchanged with the embassy it seems that any visa issued for more than 90 days can be treated as a residency. If you’re in a doubtful residency situation, we highly recommend asking the embassy first.
Universal tip 3 – It’s always easier to get any visa in a less busy embassy, so if you are lucky enough to have residency in 2 countries, choose the one that has less tourists applying from (or better diplomatic relations with Russia).
Applying for the visa
The next step is easy – fill in an official online application form. Then you print the following documents, put them in an envelope and send them to the embassy:
- Visa application
- Hotel bookings
- Insurance (if applicable)
- Plane booking/reservation or the aforementioned letter
- Passport photos as required
- Your passport
A couple weeks later you check your mailbox and inside you find your passport with a beautiful Russian visa, дейсвтительная без фотографии – valid without a photo.
One specific practical tip here: get all your documents prepared before you start filling in the online visa application. For instance we had to provide phone numbers for each hotel we had a booking for – we had to google them based on the names and addresses (in Russian!) we found in the booking document. Wendy, as an Australian, had to list all the countries she had been to within the previous 10 years, with approximate dates. And there’s only 15 minutes to fill in the application, otherwise you have to start again.
Make sure all the documents are folded nicely, clean and signed where necessary and… Bang! You’ve just saved heaps of money and got +10 points to your visa applying skill!
2. Buy the train tickets
Instead of having a company get the train tickets for you with a (very) high fee, just get on the Russian Railways official website (in English) and buy the tickets online. It’s as simple as that!
Now, as for specific options, in Russia there’s two basic train cars (except 1st – ‘soft’ and luxury classes which I suppose you’re not choosing if you’re reading this blog):
- Плацкарнтый/плацкарта (platskartniy/platskarta), listed at the website as Reserved seat
- Купейный/купе (kupyeyniy, kupe), listed at the website as Compartment
For detailed description of the conditions of train travel in Russian (or, generally, ex-Soviet) trains, with guides on for example how to shower when there is no shower, you can find heaps of info online (for instance here for detailed practical info or here for an interesting story with practicalities). Let me just tell you one thing – platskartas rock!
Coming back to the website:
- Register first – otherwise you’ll have to do the following steps twice!
- When done and logged in, pick your starting point and destination, depending whether you’re going all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok, having a stop-over by the Lake Baikal or maybe detouring to Mongolia or China. Choose the date (the earlier you book the train the more choice you have when it comes to choosing your seat). Now, different trains will have different prices – the more expensive the faster the train and more recently renovated (a bit less of a Soviet Union experience but still a 100% real Russian train). Choose your train and click Continue.
- You’ll see a list of train cars of different types. Choose your preferred type and click “Car plan”. A dialog box where you can choose your seats will appear.
- Choose your seat and click Save, then Continue.
- Fill in your details and Continue further on.
- Check if all the details are correct (be meticulous, any misspelled names, document numbers or dates might result in you being denied boarding the train!). The price might be a bit higher than the initial one – the additional costs might be for instance for the obligatory booking of bed sheets.
- Proceed, make the payment, and…
Kaboom! You’ve got all you need to board the Trans-Syberian!
3. (optional but recommended) Learn some Russian
One, basic truth about Russia – however wonderful Russian nature might be, however interesting the history, impressive the vast size, it is interacting with the wonderful people of Russia that makes your visit unforgettable! There is one problem though – Russia already has countless languages within the country and their speakers, needing to communicate with each other, don’t prioritize learning English as they very rarely do have a chance to practise it. Moreover, in Russian there is a strong culture of speaking correctly and viewing mistakes as shameful and many Russians are convinced it is the same in English and will be shy to speak with you even if they can speak a bit (I know something about it as it is the same in Polish!)
The remedy to this problem is simple – you can learn some Russian! It’s a difficult language but you don’t need to learn a lot of it to conquer the hearts of the people you’re going to meet. And it’s so rewarding you just want to learn more and more!
And please don’t get hesitated by the alphabet – it’s actually so similar to the Latin (or English) script that Wendy has learnt most of it in one go. And how exciting it will be for you to be able to read things like МАКДОНАЛДС!
Luckily these days the laborious process of learning a language can be assisted by the technology and made a much more pleasant and even fun activity. Use online software like Duolingo, Memrise or Anki for 5 minutes a day for some weeks or months before your trip, play around with it, have fun competing with your friends and it will make your visit into a completely different experience!
THAT’S IT! NOW THE ONLY THING YOU NEED TO DO IS PACK YOUR BACKPACK AND GO!
P.S. If you have any further questions or suggestions, feel free to place a comment below! And don’t forget to share the post if you think it might help some of your friends 🙂