Like all good adventures, it started with blue sky dreaming. We were finishing up our travels around Australia and were planning on heading back to Japan for another winter in Niseko. We were planning on moving to London after the winter was finished, and I thought it would be an excellent way to catch the train, rather than fly direct. Co-incidentally, my parents travelled a very similar journey back in the late 70s after they too finished a lap around Australia.
And so began The Planning. The first thing we looked at was the cost, whether it was even feasible compared to the cost of flying direct. We had spent a considerable sum more on our journey around Australia than we had planned, so money was quite tight. Luckily, train tickets weren’t that much more expensive than flying direct, however it would be the stops and the activities and the exploration that would make this trip expensive for us.
We looked at routes to London from Japan. There were surprisingly a few options, and it seemed to be too lucky that one of those routes travelled through Mongolia, where a good friend of ours was currently living and working. So, it was decided that we’d catch the Trans Mongolian from Beijing through to Moscow.
The next (and by far the biggest) step for us was working out where we wanted to break and do some exploration. There were almost too many options, and having no real constraints, it became a real challenge to research.
We’d come up with a rough plan to spend a week in Beijing, followed by a week in Mongolia, a day in Ulan-Ude, two days in Irkutsk, a day in Krasnoyarsk, two days in Novosibirsk, a major detour in to Kazakhstan to visit a friend living in Almaty, up to Astana, back to the Trans Siberian Express at Petropavlovsk, a small detour to Kazan, a few days in Moscow, a few more in St. Petersburg and then a flight to London (as it was cheaper than the rail). It was getting larger and larger the more we explored what was possible.
I started with the China visa, which I applied for at the consulate in Sapporo. They required proof of transport in/out of the country, as well as accommodation reservations. It was ¥4000 and took up to five working days to be issued. Fortunately for Risa, being Japanese she didn’t require a visa to visit China as a tourist.
We booked the cheapest flight we could find from Sapporo to Beijing (Air Korea via a short stopover in Seoul). Sadly, because we were travelling at the end of the Japanese Golden Week, prices were significantly more expensive than normal… ¥46,000 each.
I had heard that the train between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia could be quite difficult to book, as it is quite infrequent (twice a week). So, we booked (with CITS) two berths on a hard-sleeper on the K23 train – $255USD each.
The Mongolia visa required much the same as the China visa – evidence of our travel in/out of the country, as well as information about where we were planning on staying. Again, fortunately for Risa, she didn’t need a visa with a Japanese passport.
However… it all went wrong at this point… By the time we’d finally nailed down our itinerary, we’d realised that we hadn’t left enough time to apply for the Russian visa… There were a series of Japanese and Russian public holidays in April/May that I hadn’t considered, as well as some other constraints with Risa applying for her UK visa that I hadn’t taken in to account.
The tourist visa required us to have pre-booked our entire journey, with accommodation for each night that we were planning on being in the country, as well as a ticket out of the country. It was truly a mammoth task for us, and something we really underestimated. I later learnt about the Business visa, which seems like it allows a more flexible itinerary…
So, our dream of riding the Trans Siberian Express had just vanished. We were at a loss of what to do. However, since we’d already booked non-refundable tickets as far as Ulaanbaatar, we looked at options of continuing the journey to UK from there. A frantic search of cheap flights on Skyscanner showed a route via Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, to Istanbul in Turkey and finally to London. It turned out that we didn’t need to apply for any visas in advance for Kyrgyzstan or Turkey, so we decided we’d visit those two countries. And then the blue sky dreaming started again… what if we were to catch the train through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran to Turkey? It would be an epic journey, and something very different? And then the practicality of visas killed that idea dead in the water…
Still, we were going to get to visit two very amazing countries – Kyrgyzstan and Turkey – before settling down in London.
And, just when we thought that our visa woes couldn’t get any worse… Risa encountered problems when applying for her ‘spouse’ visa for UK – she’d only partially completed the examination to prove English language requirement (she’d only sat the reading/listening TOEIC, and also required the speaking/writing exam, too). So, just like that, again our plans had to change. We were no longer emigrating to London in June. We were going to have to return to Australia and re-apply for the visa. A silver lining from this was the opportunity to try again for the Trans Siberia trip later in the year!