In less than two weeks we are off on our trip to Japan. But just hopping on a plane is too boring for us. So guess what: we’re going by train. This is of course a bit of a lie. We’re cheating a bit by flying to Moscow. And Japan being an island makes the thing more difficult, so the last bit must be done by ferry.
Organizing the trip was a bit of a headache, but in the end we were able to do it all via the internet.
For the visa to Russia, we sent our documents (including an invitation issued by the hotel we booked in Moscow) to the Russian embassy in Bern, which seemed the most convenient, since we spend the last month before the trip in Switzerland. Mine came back without problems, while it was decided that Domenico needs so send also a permit of stay for Switzerland and an invitation for the other cities along the transsiberian route.
Flight to Moscow
Since we didn’t want to apply also for a visa to Belorussia, we decided to fly to Moscow. Of course there are a lot of direct flights, but since we were looking foor a one-way ticket, we were forced to fly Air Berlin with stopover in Vienna (218 EUR per person).
Transiberian train tickets
You have to have a reservation for each train, since mostly you need bed places, just buying a ticket and hopping on and off as you please doesn’t work. To get the reservations one wants, it is best to reserve as early as possible, the catch is that train tickets only go on sale 45 days before the departure date.
The cheapest and easiest would be to buy the tickets in Russia. Since we had time constraints (buying the tickets the same day during travel season does not work, since trains tend to be booked) and we did not happen to pass by Russia earlier, this was not an option.
A more expensive method is to contact a Russian travel agency to book the tickets for you. Using a Western travel agency makes prices rocket out of proportion.
We went for the second option, contacting Sveshy Veter via Way to Russia, a very useful website indeed. You can choose your trains from an interactive online train schedule. The problem is that the travel agent never offered us the exact trains we had chosen, which was mostly no problem, apart from the last stretch, which now takes one day longer! We were also not able to get the number 1, 2, and 4 trains which are said to be the best. We bought mostly second class tickets, which means sleeping compartments with 4 berths. Since my former office mate Johannes insisted on us trying at least once Platzkart, which means an entire wagon full of berths (i.e. 3rd class), we adventurously took this for the last stretch of 3 days. The total cost for the train tickets amounts to 1627 EUR for both. Of course this is more expensive than buying there, but we paid for the convenience of organizing everything in advance from home….
Boat to Japan
There is a ferry which leaves every Monday from Vladivostok and arrives two days later in Fushiki, operated by Bisintour. Unfortunately they do not react to their webform, neither do their Vladivostok and Fushiki offices to e-mails. Writing to the Tokyo office finally worked. A two-bed cabin (“semi-deluxe”) costs 410 EUR.
Booking hotels online in Europe and North America has always worked fine for us, and with advantageous prices. In Russia, this is different. Many hotels do not have a website at all. Those that do, do not have an online reservation system, at most a webform or an e-mail address. My remnants of Russian already made themselves useful when trying to decipher web pages written entirely in Russian. Those hotels that do have a website are mostly quite costly. We were forced several times to book hotels at the top end of what we consider our price range here in Europe. Given that price levels in Russia are generally still below European standards, these are probably rip-off prices for foreign tourists as well. About the quality, we will see.
All in all, one can organize everything conveniently from home, but it is quite time-consuming, sometimes a headache (waiting for answers etc.) and the prices are not as good as they could be. Having two months of time to do the journey and organizing everything there would be much cheaper, but time is a luxury, too….