Over the years, I have been very fortunate in being able to travel to many places in Australia and overseas. I’ve probably forgotten much about some of my past travels (although the blogs in recent years have recorded many details that I can look back on with some accuracy). But I do know that most of my travels have been fairly easy to arrange and to undertake. Until this time…
My mate Garry and I will be going to Russia in April, to travel on the Trans Siberian Railway from Vladivostok in the east, to Moscow, then to Saint Petersburg, returning home via Germany, the Netherlands and Dubai. We will also have short stopovers in Hong Kong at both the start and end of the trip. Garry and I last travelled overseas together in Europe in 2012.
For many years, the former Soviet Union was not a place I particularly wanted to visit. But the world has changed. Now it’s the Russian Federation, still the largest country in area on earth, with 143 million people. It’s a vast land, much of it very sparsely settled. It has some great and historic cities, palaces, cathedrals, squares, forests and open spaces. And for someone such as myself, who likes train travel, there is the lure of the famous Trans Siberian Railway journey.
It will be spring in Siberia and Europe when we are there, but I expect the cold weather will still remain for us. Better to be cold than to have a very warm sticky summer in Russia. And in April, the daylight hours already will be quite long.
We expect there will be some language problems in Russia. English is not a common language there, and we each speak barely two words of Russian (yes and no!). I’m learning their alphabet, with its 33 letters, some of which we use in our alphabet, some are Greek, and others are theirs alone. It’s a tad difficult, but I am getting there.
It’s not like we are heading out on the Burke & Wills expedition, or Burton & Speke setting out to search for the source of the Nile, but it’s the most complex piece of travel planning that I’ve ever done.
We don’t like pre-arranged conducted tours. They are usually so expensive, and much too regimented for us. So we need to arrange all the various individual bits and pieces ourselves, and fit them together into a coherent, viable and enjoyable journey.
Australians need a Tourist Visa to visit Russia, and to get that we need an official Invitation to visit Russia. To gain an Invitation, they want to know when and where we will arrive and depart, where we are going and where we are going to stay (hotel details) – all months in advance of our actual travel. Luckily, the Russian authorities do not require that we actually keep to this original itinerary, and they advise keeping a few days of flexibility in the visa entry and departure dates.
The Invitation can be bought over the internet, and the time between hitting the “Pay” button on the web page and receiving the email with the attached official Invitation was measurable in milliseconds. (And it was the middle of the night in London when and where our Invitation was processed!!)
The Visa Application process is not for the faint-hearted. There are pages and pages of on-line questions; they ask for parental details, education, work records and on and on it went. Then a photo, a long printed form to sign and submit, and a $110 (minimum, per person) fee to pay. I actually hand delivered our applications and passports to the Consulate in Sydney, to ensure they got there and that all details were correct. About ten days later, the passports reappeared, each with the precious Visa attached inside.
How to get to Vladivostok? There is a not-very-practical Korean passenger ferry from Japan, via Korea to Vladivostok, operating just once a week, but there is also an air link direct from Hong Kong to Vladivostok, on a Russian airline called S7. Three flights each week, using Airbus aircraft, and the airline is a OneWorld alliance member. We booked tickets on-line, and hopefully S7 will deliver us safely and on-time to Vladivostok airport.
There are multiple rail options to get across Siberia to Moscow – from Beijing, from Ulan Bator in Mongolia and from Vladivostok, Russia’s Pacific Ocean seaport. And there are multiple train options each day from Vladivostok.
It’s a journey of 9289 km from Vladivostok to Moscow, or about 150 hours of travel if done non-stop. We will be making two-day stopovers along the way in three of the larger cities – Irkutsk, Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk) – before we get to Moscow. We can’t just buy a hop-on-and-hop-off ticket for the train, we need separate tickets for each leg of the journey. (More difficulty!)
I looked at the Russian Railways web site to try to book the tickets myself. I’m sure it can be done, but only in Russian, and I understand there are problems paying with credit cards to contend with also. Through internet research of what other independent travellers had done, we found a helpful and efficient travel agent in London to book the tickets for us. There is a significant additional $ cost for this service, but there was really no other workable option.
The train tickets go on sale only 45 days before the travel date, so that process is only just complete. We chose the Rossiya (Russia) train, the best train on the line, and we are travelling 1st Class, with two-bed compartments If we were much younger and poorer, we might have been tempted to try the 54-bunk open carriage in 3rd Class, but we aren’t. Even 1st Class has its privations, with no shower facility on board. The food on the train may or may not be very good also. All the more reason to break the journey up into segments, and to carry some basic food and snacks with us. We got the train tickets couriered from Moscow to the Gold Coast, and they arrived safely this week.
Booking hotels in Russia also has its problems. I’m not a great believer in the Trip Advisor web site – how can any hotel typically be both so good and so bad? There are hotels belonging to some of the western hotel chains, and there appear to be some reasonable Russian places too. We aren’t going there just for the hotels, they are a part of the bigger experience. I’ve stayed in some real dumps in the past, so I’m probably prepared for whatever eventuates. Future blog posts will update you on this.
From Saint Petersburg, we will fly to Frankfurt, and we plan a leisurely five day cycling trip along the Rhine River valley, from Mainz to Koblenz, then to Amsterdam by train, and by air to Dubai. Neither of us has stopped in Dubai before, so we plan a couple of days stopover there. Then it’s home via Hong Kong.
Stay in touch for more details as they come through in the blog, which I hope to update each day along the journey. I’d love to get your feedback, so please don’t hesitate to make a comment. The blog will get more and better visual content as we get going – I don’t have a stock of Russian images to call on yet, and I don’t like to pirate other people’s pictures.
The real adventure begins when we depart from Brisbane on 6 April.