Prologue: pre-departure ramblings
Moscow Travel Blog› entry 1 of 34 › view all entries
The idea for this started shortly after last year's trip to the Middle East, when I... no wait, that is not the real start... ORIGINALLY I was going to do this trip back in 1995 - A friend of mine had gotten the idea of doing the Trans-Siberia Express and spend a couple of weeks with locals in either Russia or Mongolia. Unfortunately my school decided that if I wanted to graduate on time, I had to do my internship during the school holidays and they were going to send me off to a five month internship to Playa del Carmen in Mexico... not half-bad either. Well, to cut a long story short, due to an economical crisis Playa del Camen, Mexico became Reading, UK and for some reason that whole Siberia thing never really happened.
So after my previous trip, to the Middle East (http://www.travbuddy.com/travel-blogs/25502), I was showing my pictures to my sister (http://www.travbuddy.com/robbel) and not entirely surprising the conversation turned to when we would be doing our next trip together. Our last trip together had been in 2005, so obviously it was time for another one.
After seeing my pictures of the desert in Jordan she said "wherever we go, there has to be a desert". Right, countries with deserts, let's see... Saudi Arabia... Africa... ah! Mongolia! An obvious choice, right?
So when the idea arose to go to Mongolia, I said ok, but if we go to Mongolia, there is only one mode of travelling imaginable: by train, from Moscow!
Preparing and booking
Unlike any of my previous trips, this one needed proper preparation. It is not allowed for tourists to travel through Russia independently (or at least it is highly discouraged) and you can only get a Russian visa if you can account for each and every day of your stay in the country. Furthermore we wanted to pre-book the train including a couple of stop-overs since our itinerary didn't really leave much room for missing once-a-week trains and such.
That is how we got to the Tozai travel agency, which not entirely accidentally was the same travel agency as where I had been enquiring about this trip 12 years earlier. Tozai is able to arrange the train trip including as many stop-overs as you like, and they can arrange for the Russian hotels, flight and visa as well. You will also get mandatory hotel transfers to and from the train station. Mandatory, because in the past too many a traveller has been stranded on a train platform because they had missed the announcement in Russian or Mongolian that the train was leaving from a different platform - and with a train that goes once a week that is somewhat of a nuisance. So transfers it is then... And pre-booked hotel accommodation for Russia... Now for someone who feels the searching for accommodation and onward transportation is part of travelling this is a bit hard to swallow.
Another departure from previous travel experiences, only twice before have I had to arrange for a visa before departure. This time we need an advance visa for all three countries... And travelling to the Chinese and Russian embasseys in The Hague three times and back and then to the Mongolian one in Brussels is impossible when you have a full-time job, so here too we enlisted the services of Tozai to arrange this for us.
But there were some issues. My passport expires in November 2008. China requires a valid passport for six more months after departure - my passport exires... you guessed it, 5 months and 23 days after departure from China. So I'd need a new passport. However, I still had a couple of trips planned before my vacation, so I still needed my old one. And arranging for three visas would take 6-8 weeks... 6 to 8 weeks without a passport, that would be impossible! There was no way that I could be six weeks without my passport anywhere in the months preceding my departure... now what?
Sureley I am not the first person to have experienced this. Surely others must have had this problem that they had to travel abroad and apply for visas at the same time, right? My current passport was valid for another 11 months, so surely I could apply for a new passport while keeping my old (still valid) passport to travel until I had all my visas... Well, apparently not. Apparently there is no law in this country that allows for having a temporary passport, or temporarily have two passports to be able to apply for visas for a personal vacation.
Note the word personal vacation... would it be possible for business travel then? I asked the attendant at the town hall "Well duh, of course you can have a separate second passport for business travel you dummy" So that was quickly arranged then. The government doesn't need to know that I will be using my existing passport to go on the two planned business trips, while applying for a business passport to use for a personal trip, right?
The HR of my company sent a letter to the town hall that I would need to keep a second passport in order to travel for my work, and a week later I was able to pick up my shiny secundary passport, which, incidentally, costs more than a normal passport, but is only valid for two years instead of five... :-(
Next came the visa applications. All went good and well until I received an e-mail from the visa agency that my application for China had been declined. With only five more weeks to go before the start of my trip this was a major blow. Turns out too many Westerners are visiting China at the moment to go protesting in Tibet, so the Chinese government has decided that independent travel is no longer allowed in China. The last thing they want is accidentally shoot a tourist so close to the Olympic Games, so they implemented the same rule as Russia: the entire itinerary has to be pre-booked in order to receive a visa. As we will only be in Beijing for four days it is not the end of the world, but having to book a hotel through a travel agency in The Netherlands just isn't my idea of travelling.
But lo and behold, the day after I received the mail from the visa agency, I received another e-mail saying that they had received our passports back and that the Chinese visa had been included after all. Turns out the new rule has been applied since the first of April, and our visa applications had already been processed mid-March. Teehee!
Nothing can stop us form conquering the East now!
Well... almost nothing... a week before departure news came of an earthquake in China - the biggest in 30 years. And while we won't be travelling in the disaster area, it does cast a shadow on our trip. This is pretty similar to our South East Asia trip, which was a week after the Tsunami in 2004. Here too we were travelling well away from the disaster area, but even so we were reminded of the horrible news everywhere we went.
Well, we will just have to wait and see when we get there - at least it will be another three weeks before we get to China.