A triumphant day
The booking of my travel insurance today marked the final pre-trip purchase before departure. Yes, I left it pretty late. I am picking up my tickets and VISAs on Friday 4th for a 5th A.M departure so had I gone to book my VISAs a day later I would have been in a bit of a pickle. However, it would seem fate is on my side for once, and with any luck my lack of organisation will be more that compensated for by enthusiasm and luck. Here is a quick breakdown of what I been doing for the last 2 weeks:
After consulting my Lonely Planet guide to the T-S Railway it became clear there are a few ways you can get hold of ticket for this mother of all train journeys from booking through a local agency to pitching up in Moscow station and asking nicely. Though I tried to meet cost and risk half way I wound up paying slightly more than I could have in order to insure all of my tickets are in the right places at the right time. In other words, I booked my ticket through a London based agency. Regardless, after all was said and done I had not spent a horrendous amount (I don’t think) which I will weigh up in a bit.
When I talk about a trans-siberian ‘ticket’, I am really referring to several tickets. The trans-siberian railway is not simply a single train line from A to B but a combination of several trains which travelled on in different orders can take you to one of a many places with dozens of potential stops in between. Now I am not going to present a list of every train combo available (that is available here) but my particular itinerary looks like this:
#10 Train : Moscow – Irkutsk (‘The Baikal Express’)
This will be the longest train journey I will probably ever do, lasting the best part of 3 days and 4 nights. It will drop me off in Irkutsk, not far from Lake Baikal. I am going to spend 4 days here, and spend my time visiting the lake which astounds me. Aside from holding 1/5th of the worlds fresh water (more than all the great lakes combined) and having a frozen surface alot of the time it is pretty damn epic (see above) and has big piles of cool wildlife.
#364 Train: Irkutsk – Ulaan Baatur
This overnight hop saves on a nights accomodation and of course takes me to Mongolia. I have heard mixed opinions about the charm of Mongolia and whilst some people love it, others have described it as the ugliest place they have ever been. I am going to go with an open mind and spend 2 days getting the most I can out of it!
#24 Train: Ulaan Baatur – Beijing
Another sleeper and I am in Beijing! From here it is single tickets all the way back to Hong Kong so my plans can be as flexible as I want (or as my funds can take me).
Of course there are a whole host of other routes I could take. For example I could have skipped Mongolia all together to save money on another VISA, but it turns out my Hong Kong Identity card has more than one use!
Again there are two ways your can sort these out, through an agency or independently. To do it yourself you simply need to get yourself along to the relevant consulate or embassy, fill out the right forms, pay, then wait. I have provided some useful links for UK residents to the relevant embassies in my links section. On the other hand, you can have an agency do it for you and save the queuing up and other hassle associated…at a cost. In my case I decided the cost was a worth while one to endure and booked through the same agency that did my tickets, essentially allowing me to pay all in one lump for everything and not have to worry. Now this was not entirely laziness; the price of travelcards to make two seperate trips to the consulate/embassy in the centre of London paired with the inevitable extra costs of these trips (lunch in town etc) basically accounted for the extra £25 or so I am being charged for the service. Plus, I don’t have to queue up in the Russian consulate from 6AM only to find myself turned away at the last minute (I have been told this isn’t an uncommon occurence and I was shrot on time).
The full price I paid for all of my VISAs and tickets was £720.
Yes, I know, its a huge amount of money on travel, but breaking it down takes the hurt away a bit. Besides, this price includes 7 nights accomodation I won’t have to pay for as I will be sleeping on the train (the same also goes for Inter-rail). Also, a ticket from St. Petersburg to Moscow is included in this price as it worked out easier to book that way, and of course there was the VISA charges in there too.
Okay, if you know your stuff you will see that this is still over the odds and the reason lies behind a big mistake I made. I simply left booking my VISAs too late. As a result I was forced to pay for express VISAs instead of the standard price and this is a significant increase in price. So in reality if you were not as daft as me, your price could be as much as £100 or so cheaper than this, but then of course there is the fact I didn’t have to buy my Mongolian VISA as a Hong Kong identity allows 14 days of travel in the country at no cost (British passport holders must pay a fee). All in all, it hurt, but it was a neccessary pain.
So after a quick tally:
Again, it looks like a huge sum (and it is) but in the end, all things considered, for 2 months of constant travelling and the sheer distance I will be covering its actually a fairly reasonable price to pay. Or at least I will keep telling myself that…