Written by Sonia Fong
Taking Trans-Siberian Railway has long been on my travel bucket list. For some reasons, I can take a few months off and this idea popped up in my mind again.
Getting started for Trans-siberian
Before you buy the train ticket, you have to decide whether you want a non-stop journey or a journey with several stop overs. For stop overs journey, you need to buy train tickets for each leg which means you have to think about the nights you want to spend in each destination.
I bought all my tickets through their official railway website which has English version. The website is easy to use yet when you are at the payment gateway, it will be changed to Russian but with google translate’s help, the process was hassle-free.
Apply for my Russian Visa
Most people need a visa to Russia. I have two passports with me. HKSAR passport allows me to stay 14 days visa free but that’s not enough. If I use my HK one to apply for Russia visa, I need an actual copy of “invitation” letter from a tour operator licensed in Russia and pay a cheaper fee. I reckon the actual copy will not reach me or it will take ages to arrive. So I turned to my BNO. They only need a soft copy of it so it’s easier but more expensive. Next, you need to fill in a VERY LENGTHY application form which is way more ridiculous than the U.S. tourist visa one. It asked you to list out where you have been to over past 5 or 10 years. It’s just ridiculous but who knows if they check it or not. So I flipped through my HK passport, seriously listed out the places I’ve been to which was a pain.
You have to get your “draft” itinerary ready to fill in the form as well. You need to list out where you are going to, name and address of the accommodation (I don’t think it matters if you change your itinerary in the end). Make sure the information you filled in the form matches the information provided to the tour operator. The form and the invitation letter have to be consistent. The hostel I stayed in Irkutsk, they provide invitation letter services so I went through with them and paid via paypal. Next, just walk in to the Consulate and they will check everything for you. If something is wrong, sorry you have to fill in the form and visit them again. If everything is correct, you pay cash and wait for your visa, it takes around 4 business days and you pick it up in person…That’s how you apply your visa in Hong Kong . I’m not sure about other places, but I did call them many times to ask about the form.
Planning my Itinerary
Bound by the visa requirement, I decided to stay 1 month to fully utilize this expensive Russian visa! Here is my itinerary:
- Hong Kong to Vladivostok
- Vladivostok to Irkutsk to Listvyanka
- Irkutsk to Ekaterinburg
- Ekaterinburg to Saint Petersburg
- Saint Petersburg to Moscow
- Moscow to Mineralrye Vody to Mt. Elbrus
My itinerary is kind of simple as I don’t want to rush to here and there. My new found friends visited more cities than I did as they did not do the Mt. Elbrus tour. For example, in between Yekaterinburg – St. Petersburg: they have been to Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Petrozavodsk, Kizhi. Between Yekaterinburg – Irkutsk, some of them have been to Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk. It really depends on your interests and your travel style.
Nowadays, internet just makes backpackers’ life easier. To ensure I am able to access to internet without hunting WiFi wherever I go, I decided to get a local sim card. I did some research, there are several major telecom providers in Russia which are MTS, MegaFon and Beeline. Sim card plans are really cheap so just pick the one which suits your needs most, such as no. of GB you need, your duration in Russia.
Pricing differs from each city but do get the sim card from the official store. For example, I got a MTS card for 1 month at RUB400 (~US$6.2) with unlimited data. Coverage worked out fine during my Trans-Siberian journey, weak signal did happen in some areas but you will not constantly on internet so it’s okay.
MTS also worked very well on the mountains. I still had internet when I was on 3,800m at the basecamp of Mt. Elbrus!