The planning

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March 2nd 2013
Published: March 2nd 2013EDIT THIS ENTRY

So, I thought I would share with you how one goes about planning and putting together an overland trip from England to China. Contrary to what many people might imagine it is actually not too difficult. Thanks largely to a couple of excellent websites.

The first of these is the outstanding The Man In Seat 61. This incomparable site is a treasure trove of information for train travel across the world and set me off on my way to planning my first extensive overland trip in 2011. It has virtually step by step instructions for putting together a global train journey and it is simply a case of clicking on the relevant pages to gather together the relevant information. So, naturally, it was my first port of call once again for determining the logistics of this trip.

The second fantastic website is the travel and visa service known as Real Russia. These guys simplify the visa application process so that one doesn't have to jump through all the hoops of the individual embassies. For example, the Russian tourist visa requires a letter of invitation from a licensed organisation in Russia. The Real Russia service includes this within their service. Of course, the service costs a little more than doing each visa one by one and if you want to do more leg work and save a bit of money than you can certainly research the requirements and process for each embassy. However, I feel that the convenience and peace of mind of Real Russia is definitely worth it. I also feel like a testimonial. I hope they appreciate this publicity.

So, with the aid of my two helpers, this is how I put my trip together:

1. Booking the Trans-Mongolian train from Moscow to Beijing

I used Real Russia to buy this ticket as they were the cheapest option, coming in at £525 for a berth in a 2nd class 4 person compartment. By booking through Real Russia it also meant that I wouldn't have to send in booking details from elsewhere for when they did my visas.

The ticket is exactly that. A ticket. Nothing more. There are a number of tour operators that offer more expensive all-inclusive style packages with stop overs along the way if that is what you are looking for. However, you are comfortably sailing well into 4 figures for such a journey.

At the other end of the scale, there is the option of putting your Russian skills to the test and buying tickets as you travel across Russia and Mongolia. This would certainly be a cheaper option but it would have to be a journey in several parts as I believe that it is nigh on impossible to buy a ticket straight from Moscow to Beijing in person at the ticket office since the agencies buy up these types of ticket in bulk as soon as they go on sale. There is also the no-small-challenge of being able to communicate in Russian. Based on my previous experience of taking an hour to buy a metro ticket in Moscow (I'm still baffled as to how one gets through the ticket barriers to gain entry to the metro station when the ticket machines are located inside the station – a guard let me in eventually) I'm probably not really an ideal candidate for this approach.

Finally, if, like most people, you are booking from the UK, it's advisable to book your ticket at least 2 months in advance of your travelling date to give yourself enough time to get all your visas processed. I did it 1 month in advance because I'm reckless. Oh yes, that's the kind of stuff you can get used to. I may even turn up to a railway station less than an hour before my connection at some point. Outrageous stuff.

2. Visas

For this trip I needed to get myself 4 visas. The obvious ones being a China and Russia visa, but I also required transit visas for Mongolia and Belarus, both of which I will be travelling through on the train at some point. This unfortunately is what makes the whole trip so costly.

If it were just purely tickets and hotels then the overall trip would be comparable to the cost of flying. However, the visa authorities chorus a resounding 'No' to making it a reasonably priced trip. Belarus in particular is a little scoundrel, charging what can only be described as a retaliatory fee in response to the UK charging high visa fees to Belarus citizens. As a result I ended up paying them £133 for what will be a few hours spent crossing their country, at which time there is a good chance I will be asleep. Well, I’m actually not being entirely up front. it would have been £77 but I chose the express service as my visa applications were getting a bit tight on the time front. Actually, I had to do that with the Russian visa as well, adding on
around an extra £80 to the normal service. See where recklessness will get you.

So, the breakdown of my visa prices, all done through Real Russia were: Russian tourist visa, express next day service £240 (normally £117), Chinese tourist visa £93, Mongolian transit visa
£89, Belarusian transit visa, express next day service £133 (normally £77). Grand total: £555. Ouch, I really wish I hadn't added that up now.

Thankfully all the other countries that I will be passing through – France, Belgium, Germany and Poland - are all members of the EU, so no visas were required. Although unlikely, here's hoping that Belarus will join the EU in time for my trip back.

3. Hotels

Next on the agenda was hotels. I will be spending one night in Moscow as well as one night in London before leaving England.

Now, I have 2 favourite websites for booking accommodation outside of the UK – Hostelbookers and Hostelworld - both of which are essentially for travellers/backpackers. You won’t find any fancy hotels here but you will find quality hostels and budget hotels with choices of shared dorms and private rooms, with extensive traveller reviews which can help making a decision about where to stay all the more reliable.

I plumped for Godzillas Hostel in Moscow as I had stayed there before and it is close to the train stations. I also plumped for a private room because I figured that I want to ensure that I get a decent night's sleep before spending 6 nights on the Trans-Mongolian (the trouble with dorm rooms is that a good night's sleep is not a guarantee, especially if you have an incredible snorer). There is also a pretty decent supermarket near the hostel which I will need for stocking up on food before I get on the Trans-Mongolian train.

Extreme escalators are a stand out feature of the Russian metro system (a quick YouTube search brings up plenty of videos) and the metro station serving the hostel, Tsvetnoi Bulvar, is no exception. I wasn't really prepared for it last time and after a few minutes of going UP I made the mistake of looking back and DOWN. Not being great with heights I actually went to great lengths to avoid the metro station the next day by walking across Moscow to the train station. If you didn’t already know, that kind of sums up the main reason why I do these kind of trips. Not through a real sense of adventure, but to avoid something I really really don't like doing - flying. I will cover this in a further entry.

Anyway, as I am attempting to keep a blog this time around I solemny swear to not only ride it up and down, but also to video the event for posterity. I'll add it to the YouTube collection with that description for the video. No doubt there will be a lot of disappointed viewers.

As mentioned, I'll be spending a night in London at the beginning of my trip. This is because I will be catching a morning Eurostar to Brussels and I'll also be picking up my passport and train ticket from the Real Russia offices the day before. The hotel I will be staying in is the Euro Hotel which is ideally located just a few minutes away from the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras International. It was £60 for one night through Expedia which is not too bad going by London standards.

4. Trains from London to Moscow

Finally, I needed to book my trains from London to Moscow. There are a few choices here as to which route you wish to take. This time around I have gone for the most direct route: London-Brussels-Frankfurt-Moscow. That's 3 trains and about 40 odd hours worth of travelling. This route also requires the aforementioned Belarus transit visa.

Alternative routes can include going via Warsaw or Berlin. There is also a regular service from Paris to Moscow which I did consider but decided against taking as it arrives in Moscow at getting on for midnight and I didn't fancy making my way to the hostel at that time. There is also a route via the Ukraine which negates the need for the Belarus visa, as well as a Denmark-Sweden-Latvia route that I did in the reverse direction in 2011, and many more alternatives. As always, The Man In Seat 61 is the number 1 resource for deciding which route is best for you. All the information is listed on the London to Russia page.

So, back to my route and there are 2 main websites that you can compare prices on: Deustch Bahn and TGV. However, the best bet is to use eRail . You will need to email them at for a price but it will nearly always be cheaper than the prices quoted on Deustch Bahn and TGV. This is because eRail buys a number of separate tickets to make up the Frankfurt to Moscow part of the journey instead of just paying a fixed overall price. This doesn't mean any train changing, just a few tickets instead of one. I ended up paying £235 with them for a ticket in a 3-berth compartment on the 2 night Frankfurt to Moscow sleeper. I bought the London-Frankfurt part of the journey, consisting of the Eurostar to Brussels and a high-speed ICE train to Frankfurt through Duestch Bahn for £94.

So, adding everything up, the total cost of my trip came in at £1,519. This can be slashed quite a bit if one takes out the London hotel which isn't strictly necessary and doesn't pay higher fees for getting visas rushed through. The cost is always going to be higher than flying because of the visas but if you want to take a 10 day adventure or if, like me, you really really don't like flying, than hopefully you can take some guidance/inspiration from the info here.


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