As far as travel lists go, I don’t usually make one (wait, have I told you otherwise elsewhere in the blog? Forgive me, for I must have been inebriated when I said that.) Also, you wouldn’t usually find me in places thronging with people, in stampede-inducing situations. But when I found myself in Beijing, finishing up my Trans Siberian train ride (Oh, I promise never to talk about that trip ever again in these pages), I couldn’t resist a trip to the Great Wall of China.
I had just two-days in Beijing and couldn’t do anything productive and offbeat anyway (other than hunting for cheap street food, of course.) So I embarked on a little trip to the Badaling side of the Great Wall one morning with my travel buddy Lars.
You’d assume, given that the Great Wall of China is a world wonder, it would attract international tourists by busload. On the contrary, the Badaling side of Great Wall – apparently most popular section of the Wall – was buzzing with domestic tourists on that sunny day in September when I visited.
Located in Yanqing, 60km from downtown Beijing, the Badaling Wall has been open to foreign tourists starting 1953. Only 3741 m of the wall is open to tourists.
According to the signboards, while it was included in the world cultural heritage list by UNESCO in 1987, the wall received two Guinness World Records in 2002. One for record number of visitors and the other for ‘highest reception number of head of state’ (go figure.)
The Badaling side of the Great Wall is called the scenic side and that is not without a reason. Between being squeezed dry by the thronging mass of people and taking pictures, if you looked around you will see azure blue skies, green peaks and dense tree cover all around the wall.
At a distance, even Beijing could be seen on a clear day (which is kind of, sort of rare for a city like Beijing whose pollution levels surpass even that of Delhi’s. Or vice versa.)
‘It is a bridge of friendship between the international friends and the Chinese people,’ reads the signboard, along the lines of standard propaganda-speak.
The signboard further announces that this section of the wall was ‘ranked first in the selection activity of China’s Forty Best Tourist Destination in 1991.’
Have you been in Beijing? Have you been to the Great Wall? Leave a comment and let me know.
Travelling with an Indian passport means you obtain visas beforehand, almost always. Visa is a huge part of your travel plan if you are an Indian. ‘Visa on arrival’ is a privilege Indian passport holders can only dream of in effusive terms. An Indian passport doesn’t inspire confidence with the consulate officials and it can be truly daunting to apply for four different visas for a trip.
Which is where I was when I planned my Trans-Siberian train trip. Here’s where, I think, a good visa agent comes in handy. Before I sought out an agent’s services, I read and reread the consulate websites of Russia, Mongolia, China and Japan (Japan is not technically a part of your Trans Siberian trip but I was planning to go there) and came away confused each time. The sheer number of documents (bank statements, hotel and flight bookings, a patronizing covering letter, IT filing proofs, trip schedules..phew) made me believe that I needed help.
Help arrived in the form of a good-natured visa agent called Prem, at the STIC Travels, Bangalore office. He assisted me in arranging for all travel documents, writing trip planners and cover letters for each visa and his visa wisdom was of immense help for me. Oh btw, you can use http://www.booking.com to do dummy booking to show hotel bookings while applying for your visa without losing a penny. If you have an extremely good visa agent, he/she will also help you with dummy flight tickets to help plan your visa because the consulates need your ticket proof to consider your visa application.
Here’s a short brief on the visas.
Unlike countries that have a fixed duration visa, Russia provides visa for the period you request for. My visa was valid starting the day of my trip started and ended two day after it ended. You will need a cover letter, hotel bookings, flight bookings, financial proof (attested bank statement for the past six months) to apply for the visa. You will also need an invitation letter from a Russian tour operator along with your visa application. I got this from Real Russia whose services I used for booking my train tickets. If you want to stay beyond 90 days in Russia, you will need an additional document to prove your HIV test results.
By far, I can say, the least complicated visa of the lot is the Mongolian visa. Mongolia gives you a 30-day visa. The usual documents – cover letter, hotel bookings, flight bookings, financial proof (attested bank statement for the past six months) are required to apply for the visa.
For an Indian, the Chinese visa can be tricky. I have had friends tell me that their visa applications are returned twice over for want of additional documents. Though you will need only the usual documents – cover letter, hotel bookings, flight bookings, trip planner and financial proof for the visa, the ease of you being granted the visa lies in how uncomplicated your trip planner is. In my case, I only visited Beijing and hence I think it was simple. I was granted a 30-day visa. Also, be prepared to go through extra scrutiny at borders if you are an Indian and be asked if you have enough cash / a visa card to survive your time in China. Humiliating yes, but hey aren’t we used to it by now?
The Japanese visa is also mostly fuss free to obtain. After submitting my application, I was called to the consulate because my signature in the cover letter did not match with my passport. Go figure! Otherwise, it took exactly three working days for the Japanese visa to be processed. All usual documents (cover letter, hotel bookings, flight bookings, trip planner and financial proof) apply. Though the Japanese visa is valid for three months, you can only stay for 15 days in the country.
Why not leave a comment and let me know if you have any visa wisdom from your travels? I would love to know. Do read this wonderfully informative post by Shivya Nath on travelling the world on an Indian passport by clicking here. Also, if you need Prem’s contacts, leave a comment and let me know.
Ps: With this, I end the series my Trans-Siberian trip. I will, however, publish stories on the places I visited during the trip. Follow the blog to read stories on the Russian / Siberian towns, Mongolia, China and Japan.
Much like journeys on any long distance train, travelling on the Trans-Siberian express also tends to get tedious and mundane. Sure you can talk to the local travellers to get to know their country and culture better or fellow travelers from Europe and Australia (mostly the former) and swap stories. But the curiosity element soon wears off and the train journey becomes just a mode of transportation to get from one place to the next. Your time, though, will be well spent between engaging with curious trainee train conductors trying to test their English on you and looking for the empty charger outlets to recharge your phone’s dying batteries in the corridor.
However, the vast expanses of Siberian Russia, the steppes of Mongolia and rustic Chinese villages will keep you company outside the train window. Just remember to load up your iPod (or whatever MP3 player it is popular in your part of the world) with your favorite music and pack your Kindle for times when you are bored chatting up and simply want some alone time. Packing a pair of earplugs and eye patches are beneficial too.
Here are some pointers on what to expect on board and life on the train in general.
The conductors (Provodnitsa)
These are the conductors of your train. After checking your tickets before letting you inside the train, they also double up as keepers of the compartment serving you your goody bag as soon as you board. You will also see them sweeping your coupes, cleaning the toilets and helping you with anything related to your travel (if you manage to get across the language barrier that is. It’s not that bad, there is usually an English speaking Russian in your compartment invariably.). The conductors are usually sweet, elderly babushkas (older women) or bald, ageing men with stained yellow teeth from years of smoking. But sometimes you do find young twenty something calling the shots. They are summer interns, as I understood from Alex a 19 year old who was the conductor in my compartment once, who would persistently want to have a conversation with me although we couldn’t understand a single word of what each other was saying.
You are given a brown paper bag filled with plastic cutleries, bottled water, and coffee / tea sachets on Russian trains. One meal is also provided to you for free oftentimes with your train ticket and you can choose to have it according to your wish (lunch or dinner). Just let the conductor know. Food and alcohol in the restaurant cars are slightly steeply priced but not exorbitant altogether. The number of times I visited the restaurant car, I found it mostly empty with the waiters watching Hollywood movies on their mobile devices.
It is considered polite to roll up your blankets, pillow covers and towels and return it to the conductors before your stop arrives.
You are not expected to tip in the restaurant car. In fact, tipping anywhere in Russia is not considered mandatory. You tip if you like the services (usually 10%)
The train compartments are generally populated with locals. Even if they travel with their children, you can see that the Russian children are remarkably well behaved and are not annoying. On the other hand, European backpackers in their twenties (especially when they travel in groups) can be exceptionally loud. Don’t be that gang. Nothing is annoying than your loud laughter piercing above the train’s quite at 10 in the night.
Smoking is not allowed in the train but you are free to smoke in the platforms as soon as the train stops.
Are you planning to take the Trans-Siberian express? Leave a comment and let me know.
Long train journeys have always lured travelers. There is something exhilarating about gazing at the changing landscapes passing by your train window aided by the conversation and companionship of strangers with whom you are thrown together in a train compartment. If you are among those that make a bucket list, you’ve already added the trip on the Trans-Siberian express to your list. It probably ranks high up among your other trips. No less than an epic trip, the Trans-Siberian line chugs along three countries and spans some 6000 miles cutting across the desolate landscape of Siberian Russia, the rolling meadows of Mongolia and wilderness of China before arriving in Beijing.
Recently, I took the Trans-Siberian express from Moscow all the way to Ulan Ude in Siberian Russia and then transferred on to TransMongolian express heading to Beijing. Planning the Trans-Siberian trip can be daunting and confusing more so for an Indian because one needs visas for three countries and at least two of them can be tricky to obtain (a separate post on visas coming up soon). In this post, I break everything down for you – the route to tickets to possible stops to budgeting.
Read on and leave a comment to let me know if you find it useful.
Select your route and stops
The TransSiberian express offers numerous interesting destinations along its route. The hardest part always is to decide on where to make a stop and which one to avoid (and to remind yourself that it’s simply not possible to cover everything). Depending on the time you have in hand, decide on the stops. I had three weeks. Typically, travelers start their journey in St. Petersburg (which is where I started my trip). I took pit stops in Moscow, Suzdal, Perm, Omsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Ulan Bataar, terminating the trip in Beijing China. I also flew to Japan taking advantage of the country’s proximity and spent a few days there. I did not stop at the usual suspects Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg and Kazan.
Buy / Reserve your tickets
It is crucial to buy / reserve your tickets in advance. For one, it is a necessary document to be attached with your Russian visa application. I used and liked the services of Real Russia. They offer a letter of invitation (and an itinerary) free of charge after you deposit £50.00 per person as a deposit. The letter of invitation is also a requisite document to be attached with the visa application. Real Russia also keeps tab on the booking window and books your tickets.
I used the second class coupe tickets all throughout. If you want to travel cheap (and not mind groggy passengers disrupting your sleep in the middle of the night to board / disembark at respective stations), you can opt for the Platzkart. Frankly, the Platzkart is not so bad if you are used to travelling in sleeper class reserved compartments in India. Do not expect to have friendly conversations, however, with locals. Russians are a closed lot and it takes some nudging for them to open up and very few speak English so even if the conversation happened it would be limited. The coupe, of course, is shared by four persons and offers you relative privacy. Keep in mind that upper berths are priced cheaper than the lower ones.
Plan your budget
I am yet to make the final tally on my expenses but it is my guess that I had spent about 2 lakhs INR (USD 3000, roughly). This is slightly on the higher side because I flew to Japan from Beijing and extended my trip for another 10 days. The train ticket starting from Moscow to Beijing in 2nd class coupe cost me Rs. 46000 (USD 698 roughly). The most expensive part of this trip is going to be your tickets (count your air tickets in and you are looking at spending at least a lakh rupees (USD 1500, roughly) on tickets alone).
If you are not planning on any side trips, the budget for your accommodation and food should not exceed 50 USD per day. You will mostly spend your nights in trains (which means you save on that day’s budget) and you can get a decent Russian meal of Pelmeni (boiled meat pies) or Posikunchiki (small fried pies with meat, mushrooms and potatoes) for 300 Rubles (about 5 USD). Sometimes I got by with cookies and stiff Russian rye bread.
Book accommodation / side trips
Though it is probably easy to walk around and find a hostel yourself at your destination, I prefer to book my accommodation in advance. That saves me time with which I can explore the town. Essentially, I had booked hotels before I arrived at a place on this trip (it also probably helped that I had a nervous travel partner who wanted everything in place before we started the trip). My side trips included a day hike in the Basegi National Park in the foothills of Ural Mountains, hiking the Great Baikal Trail by the Baikal Lake, the Flaming Cliffs and the sand dunes of Gobi desert in Mongolia. I also visited the Great Wall of China.
What to pack?
In the second class coupe, it didn’t seem to bother anyone that I wore a pair of boxers. In fact, the Russian men were mostly flaunting their flowing bellies, while the women were with tank tops and three-fourths. The moral? Pack a pair of train clothes for comfortable travel. If you have space, I recommend packing a simple cutlery set with your luggage (a mug, spoon and a little knife perhaps). Though the Russian trains offer you a pack of plastic cutleries every time they serve you your obligatory meal along with the goody bag (more on that later), you tend to not save them. You will miss a plastic knife during the long duration trains when you need to apply marmalade on your rye bread or a mug for a hot cup of coffee.
I used the website www.rbth.com extensively for research on Russia. It is a great source of information on travels in Siberia and Russia. For more clarity on booking tickets on the TransSiberian express, do check the www.seat61.com website. I am not hesitant to admit that my travel partner bought the Lonely Planet guidebook after we planned our trip. Turns out, we have had at least 7 of the top 10 destinations covered during our trip, recommended by Lonely Planet. Long live independent research!
Did you find it useful? Leave a comment and let me know. Also, if you are planning your TransSiberian trip and need any help, do ask. I’d be glad to help.
Next post: Life aboard the TransSiberian express. Check back in a week.