It’s 20C in Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) today as Aotearoa New Zealand eases into autumn. My Airbnb view (the Skandi House) is Taputeranga in Island Bay, part of a marine reserve along the southern coast of Wellington. Dolphins have been almost a daily sight since December in the area, and orcas were messing about in nearby Lyall Bay earlier this week. It’s heavenly. However, northern hemisphere adventures are calling!
On Sunday, I fly with my good mate and photographer buddy Jenny to Shanghai for a few days before we start our tran-siberian railway adventure – Beijing, China to St Petersburg, Russia.
Organising the tour
We’ve used On The Go Tours through their Australian offices to arrange our hotels, side trips, and train tickets for their 18-days Big Rail Tripper trans-siberian tour. It’s an unaccompanied tour but representatives will meet us in Beijing and en-route when we stop off for short stays (‘bolt-ons’) in Mongolia and Russia. We added a couple of days to see St Petersburg using their Baltic Express option. OTGT arranged ‘letters of invitation’ from their agents in China, Mongolia and Russia for our visa applications. The tour was organised through emails with our OTGT contact and paid for through a private log-in section of their website. We first connected with OTGT about five months before our trip start date. The embassies don’t issue tourist visas much in advance of three months of the trip starting so the timeframe worked for us.
All three embassies gave a prompt turnaround ranging from three to 10 days for the visa applications. We paid extra for express service from the Russian embassy. The consulate websites give all the information about what they need – proof of our travel itinerary, accommodation bookings, passports, photos, and the letters of invitation. We started with Russia and then China to get their visas approved in Wellington. NZ Post couriered our passports to the Mongolian embassy in Canberra which covers New Zealand applications. We booked DHL through their New Zealand office to courier our passports home. Our timeframe of eight weeks to sort out the visas gave us room to breathe.
It’s a mixed bag of temperatures where we’re heading over April so we’ve packed thermals, padded jackets and boots as well as layers for warmer weather. We don’t expect too much snow but the nights are currently getting down to -7C in some of the villages we’re staying at on the way. The trains apparently stay very warm.
For the trains
We’ll take several trains over the course of the trip and have upgraded to two-berth cabins rather than take our chances in a tight four-berth. Our essentials are soft tramping packs without wheels, lots of wet wipes for washing and travel mugs for drinking from the onboard samovars. The Wellingtonian in me wants to bring a coffee plunger. One friend suggested taking an eco-straw for filtering muddy puddle water but I’m guessing we won’t get that extreme. I’ve packed Bananagrams and I’m brushing up on the rules of a popular post-Soviet card game called Durak for some social time on the train and at the villages. An English name for the game is ‘Fool’.
Also packed are a two-point plug to suit the sockets in the three countries and a backup battery charger for my devices. I’ve moved to a pre-pay account with Vodafone for my six months in Europe. It’ll be local Sim cards on the way. A non-Gmail email and the WeChat app for contact with friends and family have been set up if China doesn’t allow Google or Facebook in the week we’re there.
My next post will be from China. I’m looking forward to the sci-fi skyline and seeing what remains of the old town in Shanghai, the bullet train to Beijing, and taking a short hike along the Great Wall of China before we start the trans-siberian trip.
I’ve also registered for the 24 Hour Project on April 7 where people document their city (which will be Beijing for me on the day) through photos to raise awareness of global issues. This year’s theme focuses on women. How about you register too?