I’ve decided this year, I’ll be doing the Trans-Siberian railway journey – one of the longest train journeys in the world. It’s my adventure travel project for the year. I’ll be traveling from Tokyo to Moscow overland. I plan on taking buses, ferries and trains, least of all – no planes – all the way to Eastern Europe, spending some time in Croatia swimming to top it off. It’s going to be one hell of a journey and adventure.
Back in 2008, I was contemplating doing the Trans-Mongolian with a couple of friends. I even have an unused Russian visa to prove it. They went ahead and did the Trans-Mongolian trip. I pulled out at the time due to other circumstances. And it’s plagued me ever since. As they say, you don’t often regret the things you did. You regret the things you didn’t do. So this year I want to do the Trans-Siberian. Correction – I will be doing the Trans-Siberian railway.
I spent a week or so mapping out a rough itinerary, trying to work out how much time I’d need to do this. I also did a lot of reading and research and writing a preparation checklist. This is a major logistical undertaking. I’ll be blogging my progress here leading up to my trip. Consider this my pre-travel notes.
Phase 1: Plan dates.
Timing is everything. You need to figure when you want to go and for how long. Factors that I needed to take into account: seasons (summer v winter), time off work, personal calendar/events, other scheduling. I decided that I want to do this in the northern hemisphere summer. Siberian winters are brutal. I want to enjoy the outdoors so prefer warmer weather. Summer will also allow me to pack lightly. Less need for clothes and less bulky clothes. I also needed to take into account that the summer Olympics are on in London this year from late July. Stuff like that can affect travel prices and availability. I plan on starting the epic train journey in Vladivostok, going Westbound. Most people do it Eastbound starting in Moscow. It just so happens that the APEC Summit is being held in Vladivostok this year. Apparently, the city is in major reconstruction mode in the lead up to it. I have planned my trip to not coincide with the Summit where I could probably expect limited accommodation options and high prices to boot. No thank you. It’s important to take into account these things and not be surprised upon arrival of major international events and/or festivals taking place at your various destinations.
Phase 2: Get leave approval.
With my dates in mind, I needed to get leave approval from work. In the second week of January, I put in my leave application. This was a hurdle that I hadn’t anticipated. I had just assumed that time off would be guaranteed. It was left pending a decision for a week. All my plans could come undone here. As it turned out, I had mistakenly asked for 5 weeks leave. I only want to take four weeks. Even so, four weeks was still a lot to ask for. My department would be down a team member for a month. In the end, my request for leave was approved. Success. However, this is not to be a precedent for future holidays and it is highly unlikely I will be able to get this much time off again in one go (well, at least at my current place of employment). I had been granted a month off work (paid leave). I am super grateful to my work colleagues and manager for allowing me the time off to do this. Project PaV (Potatoes and Vodka) is a go-go.
So now I have the time off, and the dates locked in for my one-month adventure.
January 30, 2012
Phase 3: Ferry booked.
I know it’s ridiculously early but I decided to book the ferry leg from Japan to Russia. In my effort to travel without flying, I will be getting a 2-day long ferry. DBS ferries runs a ferry service once a week from Sakaiminato in Tottori prefecture (Japan) to Vladivostok, Russia. They are the only ferry service to Vladivostok from Japan. An alternative ferry service runs from Wakkanai (Hokkaido) to Sakhalin (Russia). But that’s a huge detour. Vladivostok will be the starting point of my Trans-Siberian train journey. So the ferry from Japan to Russia is now booked. The once-weekly departures for most of the year departs on Saturdays. The ferry goes via South Korea making a stopover in Donghae for several hours before arriving in Vladivostok two days later.
I have a bed booked on the ferry. Cost 26,000yen.
Bookings can’t be made on the website, so I called up and booked over the phone in Japanese (a language which I will confess I am not fluent in). They’ll need your name, nationality, passport number, date you want to depart, and what kind of class cabin you want. You pay on the day when you board. No prior payment required. Only cash is accepted at the Japan port. In addition, I was informed on the phone that you’ll need to pay some sort of departure tax of 1400yen.
Prices range from 22,000yen (for no bed), up to 208,000yen for a presidential suite. I went for the second cheapest option which gives me a bed in a berth that sleeps 8. The price I was quoted on the phone was 500yen more than what the website listed. I don’t think that website gets updated much. Still 26,000yen to get from Japan to Russia (via South Korea) is not bad. Should be an interesting ride. Not to mention long. Me hopes I don’t get seasick.
To make a ferry booking from Japan to either South Korea or Russia – you either call them, fax them, email them, or you can turn up on the day and purchase tickets (subject to availability). You’ll need to be able to communicate in either Japanese, Korean or Russian – depending on which office you call. I don’t know if they have English-speaking staff in any of their offices. I was able to do it in Japanese just fine. The guy on the phone was super patient with me and and didn’t use keigo and all that nonsense. Super easy. Note, that if you call the Japan office – don’t call between 12:30-1:30pm – they’re on lunch break and no one will answer.
Feb 2, 2012
Phase 4: Create an RZD account.
There are heaps of options to go about purchasing train tickets for the Trans-Siberian. Most people pre-book the various train legs using a travel agency. But prices with an agency have up to 30% mark up on the actual ticket prices. The dirt cheapest way of getting tickets is to either buy the tickets in Russia once there in the country, or purchase them online (both the same price). The catch is, is that you’ll at least need to know a bit of Russian. Obviously this is a stretch for most people hence they use agencies which charge a mark up for their services.
Was super proud of my efforts today to wade through pages of Russian on the RZD website. It’s not impossible to buy train tickets on the Russian train website with little or no Russian language. People out there have done it and people have posted up translated instructions on the Internet. In order to buy tickets through the website, you need to register and create a user account (free). Today I was able to successfully create a user account on RZD. It took me two days though to successfully do this. Even though I was using Google translate and other various useful websites, the website system wouldn’t allow me to create an account. I kept getting error codes coming up. I was finally able to create an account. Two major discoveries in this process which allowed me to do this successfully were this:
- user login name needs to be exactly six characters only (use lower case, no numbers).
- login password needs to be exactly six characters only (use lower case, no numbers).
- gmail email worked.
Through a lot of trial and error, the above conditions seemed to work. Maybe other people have gotten away with not conforming to that, but using those three conditions, it seemed to work
For all other fields, you can follow the translated instructions that can be found on the Internet – stuff like your name, DOB etc – these legitimately worked.
So now I have a user account on RZD. I cannot however purchase tickets just yet. Russian train tickets for the Trans-Siberian can only be purchased within 45 days from departure. More than 45 days prior and no prices are shown. Now having a valid account though means that I can search and monitor prices in the meantime and get used to navigating around the site in Russian. Prices fluctuate a lot depending on the day, seasons etc. So I am expecting fares to increase by the time that I want to go, especially because it will be summer too and peak season. But still train tickets on this site are going to be soooo much cheaper than booking through an agency. It also means that my seats will be guaranteed within 45 days of departure. I prefer to avoid purchasing tickets upon arrival in Russia just in case seats are sold out.
February 7, 2012
Booked accommodation in Irkutsk.
Phase 5: Learn Russian – ongoing
I am trying to self-study Russian at the moment. I know about 20 words. I’ve downloaded a couple of free Russian apps onto my iPhone. I listen to them every now and then on my train commute to and from work. I’m also trying to learn the cyrilliac (Russian) alphabet. I don’t expect to be fluent at all, but having lived in Japan and gotten to used to familiarising myself with kanji, I think I can do the same with Russian. I’m learning to at least recognise important useful words, even if I can’t pronounce the actual word. Still got a long ways to go.
Phase 6 – Accommodation bookings: 2 out of 14.
I will be spending 30 days away for this trip, and of that I need to book about 13-14 nights of accommodation. 7 nights will spent on the Trans-Siberian trains, and another week on the Swimtrek (doing open water swimming for a week, swimming about 20km in a week. You might recall I did this in Turkey last year – check October 2011 blog entries) where accommodation is included. Today I booked 2 nights out of that 14. You’d be surprised how far in advance you need to book accommodation. A lot of places are already booked out and prices are at their peak, and it’s only February.
Phase 7: Book return flight.
Getting back is kind of important. Return flight is now booked. So I know I haven’t exactly worked out how and when I will arrive in Russia/Eastern Europe, but I went ahead anyway today and booked my return one-way flight back. I know what date I need to be back. I gotta be back at work at some point. Wanted to buy tickets whilst they were still cheap, especially for a one-way fare. I booked a ticket from Zagreb (Croatia) to Tokyo (via Moscow again) one-way for 500USD. The ticket itself was 300USD and the extra $200 was taxes. 40% of my total airfare is tax! What’s with that?!!! Anyway, still pretty cheap. Considering I am going to be boating it and training it from Japan to Russia…it will be/should be cheaper than what a return flight from Japan to Europe would have cost me. Haven’t bought train tickets yet…so fingers crossed. Did I mention, I will be flying Aeroflot. A somewhat dubious airline.
Phase 8: Order Russian Invitation (visa support)
To get a Russian visa, you need to get an Russian Invitation, also known as a visa support documentation, beforehand. A Russian Invitation needs to either be arranged through a travel agency or a Russian travel support agency online. There are various companies that provide this service online. Because I am making independent travel arrangements, I need to order an Invitation online. Tonight, I ordered it online through Trans Siberian Express. Filled out all the details online – personal details, passport travels and Russian travel plans. Oh, and pay the 18USD for it. I ordered the Tourist visa (double entry). A tourist visa allows you to stay in Russia for 30 days. Beyond that, you’ll need a Business visa. I needed a double entry because, believe or not, my return flight from Croatia back to Japan goes through Russia. I have to transfer/change flights again in Moscow. Rather than get a separate transit visa (which you need, even if you’re just flying through Russia), I figured, it would be easier to just get the double entry, which will allow me to re-enter back in Russia. I’ve already got an onward ticket, so everything should be good. I’ve ordered the Russian visa invitation, so hopefully should receive it during the week. Once you have the Invitation, you can then apply for the actual Russian visa.
Phase 9: Book flight out of Russia
A productive night, having just done the prior phase, I have also now just booked my flight out of Moscow. After what will be about 2 weeks in Russia doing the Trans-Siberian railway, I will end up in Moscow. From there, I will be bound for my next Eastern European destination. Now, ideally I would have loved to have travelled onwards from Moscow by train. Yes, it’s crazy, because I will probably be sick of trains by then. But I thought it would be cool to do the entire trip across only by train. However, time and expense has won over and I will be getting on a plane. Ultimately my trip needs to end in Croatia. Russia to Croatia by train will take a few days – anywhere between 3-4 days. Time, which I don’t have. It’s way faster (a matter of hours) and cheaper to fly Moscow to Zagreb. Also, the trains have the added cost and hassle of extra visas to obtain as most trains out of Russia need to go through Belarus, Poland, Slavakia etc. So I have succumbed to booking a flight from Moscow to Zagreb. I’ve had my eyes on airfares for the last month, monitoring prices. The main two flight routes are Moscow to Zagreb direct on Aeroflot – a one hour flight. But will cost me 600USD. I’m not prepared to spend that much for one leg of my trip. Especially considering my whole entire return flight from Croatia to Japan (via Russia) was that much. So the next option whilst cheaper, will take a little longer. I’ve just booked my flight from Russia to Croatia on Turkish Airlines, which means a detour transit in Istanbul which will add to my time. Not a huge deal though and the layover is only an hour. However, the ticket was half the price of the direct Aeroflot flight, so can’t complain. I love Turkey having since gone there last year, so I’m happy to have a brief stopover there. All my flights are now booked. Which means the only thing I need to do now is book accommodation and the train tickets for the actual Trans Siberian trains. I just need to get myself from Vladivostok to Moscow and get a visa to be allowed into the country! The credit card has been getting a workout, but it’s nice to know that I’ll pay it all off over the next month or so, which means come trip time, I won’t be racking up much debt.
So after applying online for the Russian Invitation, I received it via email within 12 hours. Amazing service. Especially considering I thought it would take 3 days. Delivered to my inbox 12 hours. Ordered online on a Saturday night and was there on Sunday morning. Cheap. Fast. Highly recommend Trans Siberian Express. Hopefully, it will all be ok when I eventually submit this at the Russian Consulate. Won’t be doing that just yet, as it is too early. The Russian Invitation can be obtained at any time (in my case, a few months in advance), but the visa can only be applied for 1-2 months before departing for Russia.
March 16, 2012
Paid deposit for the Swimtrek. Things are coming together for my trip. I’ve booked the ferry from Japan to Russia. I have flight booked from Russia to Croatia. I have a return flight from Croatia back to Japan. The only things that are missing are the actual tickets for the Trans-Siberian trains which make up 3 weeks of my trip. Also need to get Russian visa. Have the Russian invitation though, so that helps. The visa and tickets though can’t be booked until a lot closer to my departure, so things have come to a standstill a bit. In the meantime, I should be learning some Russian. And doing swimming training, which I have slowly started to do. I clocked 12.5km in the pool in the last two weeks. Hope to double that in April.
Phase 11 APPLY FOR RUSSIAN VISA
May 18, 2012
It all boils down to the visa. Without a visa, no entry into Russia. Today I went to the Russian Embassy to apply for the Russian Tourist visa.
Foreigners are allowed to apply for a Russian visa in Japan if they are a resident in Japan. That means you need a valid work visa, student visa, spouse visa etc. A foreigner in Japan on a tourist visa is not a resident. You are basically a resident if you have a gaijin card and a valid long-term visa (1 year or more).
Here are the documents you will need to have prepared:
- original passport (with 6 months validity)
– Application form (print from website or get one on arrival. Best to print in advance, because to get the form you have to line up, and you don’t want to have to get stuck in the line just to get the form)
– 1 passport photo (4.5cm x 3.5cm), to attach to the application form
– re-entry permit. If you’re a foreigner resident in Japan, and if you plan on coming back to Japan, you will need the Japanese re-entry permit. May not be applicable to everyone.
– Russian letter of invitation/voucher (see Phase 8). A copy is fine. No need for original. I ordered mine online and it was emailed to me and I printed it off. Use the information on this to fill in your application form. I used one of those online companies. They basically make up a list of accommodation and itinerary. Purely for visa purposes only. I’m not actually staying at any of those hotels listed. This is the practice for Russian visa invitations. I went with the cheapest company I could find.
If you’re a citizen of the Schengen countries, you also need proof of foreign medical insurance/copy of insurance policy/card.
As an Australian citizen, I did not need proof of any kind of insurance (medical or travel).
You don’t need a copy of your gaijin card. Your passport with your Japan work/student/spouse visa suffices. At any rate, all foreigners need to have the gaijin card in one’s possession at all times, so you should have it in your wallet/purse anyway.
I took in all the documents to the Russian embassy in Tokyo located at Azabudai (near Roppongi and the Tokyo Tower).
Visa applications can only be applied for in the morning between 9:30am and 12:30pm.
Staff at the embassy speak Russian, English and Japanese.
Take a ticket number from the machine and wait.
On the wednesday morning I went, there was barely a line at all. And I was served immediately.
You need to submit all the documents. They will peruse them and make sure it’s all in order.
If the documents are ok, they let you pay. They will keep all your documents and passport.
You pay for the visa at the time of application.
Payments are made at Window 3.
For Japanese nationals, a Russian tourist visa is free (2 weeks processing). Urgent and faster processing, fees apply.
All other foreigners/non-Japanese will need to pay for a tourist visa.
How much you pay for the visa depends on your nationality. (I recall that for EU citizens it costs 11,000yen for 48 hour processing, or 5500yen if you’re willing to wait a week – single tourist visa).
As an Australian, I thought I would have to pay the equivalent of whatever I would pay if I were applying in Australia. Australian citizens back home pay 150AUD upwards for a visa.
In Japan, I only paid 8400yen (double-entry tourist visa). It’s about 4400yen for a single tourist visa. Considerably cheaper to get the visa in Japan than Australia anyway. Bonus!
It takes 5 working days.
You can pay extra to have your visa processed in 48 hours. It was going to cost me 15,000yen for express processing – no thank you.
Once you pay, you will be given a yellow receipt.
Keep the receipt, and come back on the day that is printed on it.
From that date, you can pick up your visa, again at Window 3. Show receipt and they will give you back your passport.
I had no idea how much the visa was going to cost. I had thought it might be free, considering I was a “resident” of Japan. Unfortunately, not. And you need to pay at the time of application. Across the road from the embassy is a Japan Post which has ATMs and International ATMs, so you can go across the road to get cash. I had to go and get money out.
They only accept Japanese yen. No credit cards. No foreign currencies.
Visa was available to pick up 5 days later. I didn’t end up going back there until 2 weeks later.
They will hold your passport and visa until you can get there.
To pick up your visa and passport, go directly to Window 3 (no need to take a number) and hand over your yellow receipt – don’t forget to take that with you. You’ll need it to pick up your visa!
Passport returned with visa glued inside, and you’ll get a pink receipt back.
When I went back 2 weeks later to pick up the visa, the embassy was busy!! Mostly people wanting to apply for visas.
The lady who mans Window 3 speaks very little if at all English or Japanese. Window 3 is the cash payment and visa pick up window. No conversation needed. She was practically mute. No pleasantries at all. A taste of Russian customer service. The other 2 windows are the customer service/visa application windows and the staff are helpful and speak the three languages quite fluently. Wouldn’t say they were bursting with joy, but at least helpful and informative.
I thought it rather ironic that the right behind the Russian Embassy was the Tokyo American Club – a lavish ex-pat millionaire compound, where entry membership will set your back approx 31,000AUD!
Telephone enquiries/consultation at the Embassy about visas can be made from 2:30pm – 6pm. Phone usually not answered in the mornings.
Official website for the Russian Embassy in Tokyo is here
(not available in English, but I have translated all the essential above).
The application form can be downloaded as a PDF. The application form is in English.
Print off and fill out.
On the above webpage search the following text (cut and paste into Search)
Click on the blue link to download application form.
Also, Americans, British and Greek nationals, also need to fill out an additional form plus the above application form. Search for this 専用のアンケート and click on the text hyperlink.
Citizens from the Schengen countries will need to fill out the insurance form as well
保険カード。(search and click on hyperlink)
Embassy address and map
May 2, 2012
After having applied for the visa on April 18, I was finally able to go and pick it up today. Although it was ready to pick up April 25th. Visa sorted. What a relief. Everything is falling into place. All I need to do now is book the Trans Siberian train tickets. That’ll be a challenge, as I plan on doing it online in Russian. And I don’t know a lick of Russian. Once I have train tickets, I’ll need to book some accommodation for the stops along the way. Not long to go now.
May 13, 2012
So tonight I tried to buy Trans Siberian rail tickets for the first leg of my journey. I used the Russian rzd website, which is THE cheapest method of buying tickets for the trans siberian. You can buy tickets up to 45 days prior to departure. I got through the whole process using Google translate and was so close to booking until I got to payment section. I had selected trains, date, seat number, everything. But then it wouldn’t accept my credit card. They only accept Visa and Mastercard but the Russian website is very selective about which bank has issued your credit card. I have a Mastercard and it kept rejecting it. I tried booking about 8 times. I then called up my issuing bank to have them help me out. But alas, no go. I have read numerous accounts on the Internet about people having trouble purchasing online. It seems rather random that it works for some and not for others. And it just really varies. Aargh, bummer. So purchasing tickets on the rzd website. Fail. So I used another rail agency website instead and had to pay a little more. But at least my seats are guaranteed for at least the first leg of my trip. The price difference between the Russian rzd website and an agency website was 3000 rubles for the identical train. So I ended up booking the first train from Vladivostok to Irkutsk with russiantrain.com website (They are also identical to russianrailways.com (exact same prices). Other train booking agencies were more expensive. I had to book and pay online and then they emailed me within 24 hours with the electronic ticket. I now have the e-ticket, delivered by email. Will need to book a few train legs, but the first leg was the major concern. It’s the longest of my train journeys. It’s 4 straight days on the one train. I booked a second class berth (share with 4). From Vladivostok, I will arrive Irkutsk – the Lake Baikal area. I have also booked accommodation for my first pit stop. 1 night in Irkutsk and 2 nights at Listvyanka. Everything seems to be working out! Fingers crossed, it stays that way.
May 15, 2012
Booked accommodation in Listvyanka.
May 17, 2012
Booked trans sib train ticket – Vladivostok to Irkutsk
May 23, 2012
Booked accommodation in Krasnoyarsk
May 24, 2012
Book flight London to Split.
May 26, 2012
Slight detour in my travel plans. Now flying Moscow to London and not to Zagreb. Booked Moscow to London flight.
May 31, 2012
Booked trans sib train ticket from Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk.
Also had a Russian lesson today (my one and only Russian lesson, just to learn some basics).
June 6, 2012
Booked Moscow accommodation.
Complete Trans-Siberian diary (day-by-day account):
Day 1: Bus from Tokyo to Tottori
Day 2: Sightseeing in Tottori – sand dunes
Day 2: Boat from Japan to South Korea
Day 3: Boat from South Korea to Vladivostok (Arrival into Russia)
Day 4: Sightseeing Vladivostok and first train on the Trans-Siberian
Day 5: On the Trans-Siberian train
Day 6: Still on the same train
Day 7: Yep, still on the same train
Day 8: Arrival to Irkutsk
Day 9: Sightseeing Irkutsk
Day 10: Listvyanka/Lake Baikal Day 1
Day 11: Listvyanka sightseeing
Day 12: Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk
Day 12: Stolby Park, Krasnoyarsk
Day 13: Krasnoyarsk sightseeing
Day 14: Still in Krasnoyarsk
Day 14: On the train – Krasnoyarsk to Yekaterinburg
Day 15: Yekaterinburg (to come)
Day 16: To come – Lots of Moscow entries yet to be written up.
Day 17: Moscow by night
Day 17: Afternoon Tea, The Ritz hotel, Moscow
Day 18: Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow