In March – April 2014, I undertook a long overland trip that encompassed crossing Russia – Mongolia – China overland (via the Trans Siberian-Manchurian route), then traveling into China and to Lhasa, Tibet and finally crossing into Nepal overland from there on a week long road trip crossing many high passes and EBC north face. In essence, I crossed Asia diagonally from one end at Gulf of Finland to reaching South China Sea at the other end. A journey totaling close to 20,000 kilometers of over-landing and self-done without any guides, wherever possible.
Through this travelogue I plan to document all the pre-trip planning efforts, visa issues, day-by-day itinerary, pictures, hostel and food recommendations and most importantly costs breakups. Hoping it would be of interest to people as many would want to venture to some of these areas, if not all of them
Before I begin, I would like to tell that I have broken the plan into two legs, the trans Siberian from St. Petersberg till Beijing, and from Beijing till I crossed into Nepal and reached Kathmandu. This is exactly how I planned to maintain my sanity and not lose control of all the plannings
Part 1: Background reading, Planning and visas (trans Siberian)
Inspiration: Firstly the idea, how did I get an idea to do trans-Siberian trip and that too in winters? I had long been fascinated by Russia and reading up on trans-Siberian railways but the major push to do it happened when I wasn’t able to go on a trip to Egypt that sadly fell during the same time as the civil strife causing the Egyptian embassy to deny our visas. The two major articles that inspired me for it are these   The second one specially for making me aware that Siberian winters could be so beautiful. Would also point out this photo story that showed beautiful vistas of frozen Lake Baikal during winters 
Planning: I had started planning for this trip since August 2013, roughly 6 months before the actual trip. Since this was a multi-country trip and all the visas needed to be taken beforehand, it required extensive research so that I get the best prices possible while also getting all the necessary paperwork ready. There were 7 more friends who joined me on the trip (some vegetarians as well ) so total we were a group of 8 people. 1 person accompanied me for the entire trip, 1 more till Guangzhou, while rest 5 joined in Moscow and departed back after Beijing. I was not ready to go for a fixed tour and wanted to keep the entire trip as much self-planned as it can be. So this was the step-by-step approach I took:
- Fixing Stops: Read up on various places for stops along the trans-Siberian route and possible diversions. after breaking head for several late nights, I finally put down the route to Moscow – Kazan – Yekaterinberg – Irkustsk – Ulan Ude – Ulan Bator – Beijing. On top of that I also wanted to visit the UNESCO heritage city of St. Petersberg, so I kept that as a pre-trip plan before the trans-Siberian journey.
- Air tickets: Dates were fixed for each of the stops and return flight tickets (from Delhi-Moscow on AirArabia and Beijing to Bangalore via Kuala Lumpur for those going back) were booked beforehand since they would be required for visa purposes.
- Trains search: It should be understood that trans-Siberia is not one train journey but a route, and it can be done in any way possible. Once my stops were finalized I decided the trains that I wanted to travel on fitting my time requirements (travelling during night, allowing for sightseeing in a city during day). In that sense its similar to like we do in India. Also I decided to go with 3rd class sleeper seats, to keep the budget as low as possible.
- Train booking agent search: Next came was the search for an operator that would book the tickets on my behalf at the best possible rates, one that was trust-able since the transactions would amount to lakhs of rupees which I would need to transfer online to them. After talking to many operators, I finally decided to go with Real Russia. They were very professional and fast in replying back to my queries and also provided visa invite letter and voucher for free, once I booked the tickets with them. Although the train tickets in Russia could only be booked 2 months in advance, the train tickets booking itinerary that they issued to me held legit for visa purposes.
- Accommodations: Before getting the visa invite letter made from Real Russia, I also needed to book the hostels for the accommodation at each of the stops. A 3-4 days long search at Tripadvisor and Hostelworld gave me hostels within my budget and preferences.
- Invite letter: Accommodation booking needed to be done first as that would’ve to be mentioned in the invite letter. Mind you, Russia is very particular in letting you travel to places inside, and all the cities that you want to travel to need to mentioned beforehand in the application, as they would be mentioned in your stamped visa as well. Also they would give the visa for an exact number of days, based on your entry-exit dates.
- Visas: Now comes the most trickiest part of them all, the visas for three countries. I had been calling and talking to the consulates for each of them and since they were in different cities and quite far away, I also found a reliable visa agent to get the job done. I went with STIC Travels as their office was quite close to my office so I can go bother them everyday easily. For each of the visas following was the approach:
- Russia:The consulate in Chennai told to send the passport with required docs (complete itinerary, tickets, invite letter and voucher etc) but later seeing that I was travelling to another country (Mongolia) after exiting Russia, asked me to get Mongolian visa first. I pleaded with them over phone but to no avail. So after getting the Mongolian visa done, I sent the documents to them again and visa was given in a week’s time. The visa that they gave was exact number of days from my entry to exit, with all the places I would be visiting mentioned in it.
- Mongolia:Getting this visa first was critical since Russia would only give once I got this. Also I only had a bus tickets confirmation from Real Russia and my hostel stay documents (which worked as invite letter) and they granted the visa. Strangely it was given for only 10 days from the date of entry
- China: This was the toughest visa to get to as they asked for all sort of random documents (also, leave confirmation letter from HR on company letterhead, funds availability in bank account etc). They returned my application twice (thankfully did not have to pay the visa fees again just the VFS charges) before finally accepting once I spoke to a senior official at the consulate.
I knew that I was getting a little higher charged by Real Russia, but having a set-itinerary on paper, free LOI helped overcome lot of visa hassles. And yes for China I had booked Guangzhou to Delhi one way tickets (refundable after 2k deduction) which I cancelled once I got Chinese visa. Time to start the China-Tibet plan
Part 2: Background reading, Planning and Permits (China and Tibet)
Inspiration: You cannot see China like countries in Europe/SE Asia where there are few major attractions and can be pursued like a checklist. There is just too much history and culture infused in every city, if not more it is at least equal to India in terms of cultural extravaganza. After traveling to Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and many Buddhist destinations in SE Asia, my fascination with Tibet was immense. It is after all called the holiest Buddhist place in the world for so many reasons. After reading Seven Years in Tibet my fascination for the place was even more, plus a chance to visit Everest base camp from the north side couldn’t be passed over.
Planning: This being my first trip to China, there were too many places that I had in mind to cover being a history buff, but after several iterations decided on this route Beijing – Xi’an – Guangzhou. There were two reasons to keep Guangzhou, one it would make me complete the entire diagonal and two my sister lives there so I would get to visit her as well.
While applying for Chinese visa in India you cannot tell them that you plan to go to Tibet, otherwise you wont be issued a visa. Create an itinerary, fictional or real depending on your comfort level, get the Chinese visa, cancel the other plans and then plan for Tibet. Once reaching Lhasa all the arrangement were done by tour agent, as taking a tour in Tibet is compulsory for foreigners. More on this below.
- Air tickets: I had booked Guangzhou to Delhi one way tickets (refundable after 2k deduction) which I cancelled once I got Chinese visa. In case I was not able to get the Tibet Autonomous Region permits done, this could be used to get back.
- Trains search: An excellent resource to find train tickets and routes in China is http://www.chinatrainguide.com/ . Since reserving tickets requires one to read Chinese and have a Chinese Bank Account, there are lot of online booking agencies that let you select your tickets and pay for them using your credit card. I was able to get a slightly better offer from the Tibet tour agent I was using, so I asked him to do all my train bookings. Once the booking is done, they give a confirmation code which can be told at the ticket collection window, showing the passport one can get their tickets. Make sure you do this a day or few hours before the train to avoid any delays. I traveled by Hard Sleeper class, 6 bunks in one coupe and found it almost equivalent to our AC2 in terms of comfort. The hi speed train that I took between Xi’an to Guangzhou travelled 2200 kms in under 9 hours, mostly traveling at close to 300kmph speeds.All the internal travel in China was on trains – sleeper and superfast ones, and I also took the Guangzhou to Lhasa train (58 hours, 4900 kms) which is the longest train journey in China, 4th longest in whole world, and the highest in whole world as well. Too many records.
- Tibet booking agent search: Taking a tour in Tibet is compulsory for foreigners. On top of Chinese visa, one needs TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region) permits, which can only be arranged by a registered tour agent and also a registered guide needs to be there always with the foreigner when outside of Lhasa, anywhere in Tibet. Breaking this rule is practically impossible, as there are only two ways to reach Lhasa a) by train: a copy of the TAR permit is required to be shown before boarding the train along with the ticket. Many other times during the 2.5 days of train journey other officials will come and check your documents. b) flight : a copy of TAR permit/ original permit is required to board the flight. Forget about hitch-hiking on trucks in China driving to Tibet, if you are caught, penalties and severe imprisonments might follow, being an Indian also worsens the situation I guess.Now if you plan to visit Tibet through Nepal, it is technically different than entering from China mainland because if you enter from Nepal you will not have a Chinese visa in a passport but a group visa (on a separate paper) that would only entitle you travel to certain places mentioned in the paper. You cannot travel beyond Lhasa, and definitely not board the train/flight to China from Lhasa. You can only travel on this overland route in reverse. That also is only advised when you fly Kathmandu – Lhasa and do the drive back, since the height gain is far too much between EBC (close to 5000m) and Zhangmu (1900m). Also according to the agent, permits are mostly given for pilgrims to Kailash but getting for the EBC overland trip is infrequent.Although this is highly subjective depending upon one’s spending capability and comfort, I wanted to do it in as less costs as possible. Weeks of online/offline search gave me lots of agents who were selling the 7 day itinerary (3 days in Lhasa, then Gyantse-Shigatse-EBC-Zhangmu route) at different prices. There were private tours of USD2000-3000 prices with 4 star accomodations and so on. But then I managed to find an operator giving budget join-in group tour for close to USD800 per person. http://greattibettour.com/ was the operator I went with. Turned out there were only 4 people only in one group, and 1 guide and 1 driver for us in a nice AC vehicle. Till last year all the government rule was that all people traveling in a group need to be of same nationality, but this changed for this year thankfully. Be sure to check the current rules with the agent before planning your Tibet trip. The stay they arranged was also brilliant 3 stars. Overall it felt quite worth it, with the extensive knowledge the guide had.
- Accommodations: Hostels for the accommodation at each of the stops in China were booked using 3-4 days long search at Tripadvisor and Hostelworld. The hotels/camps in Tibet were all arranged by the Tibet tour operator.
Part 4: Day-by-Day Itinerary
Before I go into daily plan I think it would make more sense to give a short overview of the entire route as I took:
We flew from New Delhi to Moscow, and took a train to St. Petersberg (A) the first point on the map. Spending few days there we returned back to Moscow (B), spend some days there till more friends joined who were just doing the Moscow – Beijing stretch with me (2 weeks exact). Starting from Moscow we were on trains mostly but took stops at Kazan (C), Yekaterinberg (D) and Irkutsk (E) before finally leaving the trans – Siberian trains at Ulan-Ude (F). Listvyanka is a small town on the shores of Lake Baikal which was a day side trip from Irkustsk. From Ulan-Ude we took a bus that crossed international borders and in close to 12 hours brought us to Ulan-Bator (G), capital of Mongolia. Some more side trips in Mongolia to semi-Gobi desert region and overnight camping in ranches followed. Then instead of taking the Ulan-Bator – Beijing train, we took the Air China flight for Ulan Bator – Beijing as a) the train runs only on 2 days in week and was not matching the days we wanted to leave, b) flight was of the same cost, c) flight was taking lesser time, and d) other friends had to leave back to India sooner and it was almost the end of their two weeks leave from office
After reaching Beijing (H), some friends departed back to India right away, few stayed a day more to see the great wall, while three including myself stayed couple of days more to soak some more sights. Then we took an overnight train to Xi’an (I), stayed there for two days and also climbed up the stairs at Mount Hua Shan which was a day trip from Xi’an. From Xi’an we took a fast bullet train that transported us to Guangzhou(J) in less than 8 hours flat. Stayed there for a two days and then boarded the longest and highest train route in China which took us 2.5 days to reach Lhasa (K).
From Lhasa the fixed tour plan from the tour guide started so we stayed and did local sightseeing in Lhasa for couple of days, then followed the route Lhasa – Gyantse – Shigatse – Everest Base camp (L) – Zhangmu border for another week or so. After crossing into Nepal we took a shared taxi to Kathmandu (M), chilled there for a day and took flight back to New Delhi.
Thus the complete diagonal traverse in 40 days was done!
Here is the Day-by-Day itinerary I planned and followed. Local Sightseeing was left to what we could do on our own in the time we had. The plan was made keeping other friends also in mind so that they were able to complete the Moscow to Beijing part in two weeks exact.
This is the entire plan as I traveled :
Day 0 – 14th March 2014 : Left from Bangalore to Delhi evening flight
Day 1 – 15th March 2014 : Delhi to Moscow flight, AirArabia. Reached Moscow and collected all the train tickets from Real Russia office. left for St. Petersberg in overnight train
Day 2 – 16th March 2014 : reached St. Petersberg by morning, sightseeing in St. Petersberg
Day 3 – 17th March 2014 : sightseeing in St Petersberg
Day 4 – 18th March 2014 : sightseeing in St Petersberg, leave for Moscow overnight
Day 5 – 19th March 2014 : Moscow sightseeing
Day 6 – 20th March 2014 : Moscow sightseeing
Day 7 – 21st March 2014 : Moscow sightseeing
Day 8 – 22nd March 2014 : Moscow sightseeing, late evening departure from Moscow to Kazan
Day 9 – 23rd March 2014 : reach Kazan and full day sightseeing, leave for Yekaterinburg late night
Day 10 – 24th March 2014 : reach Yekaterinburg in afternoon, sightseeing and stay overnight
Day 11 – 25th March 2014 : morning sightseeing and afternoon train to Irkutsk
Day 12 – 26th March 2014 : in train
Day 13 – 27th March 2014 : in train
Day 14 – 28th March 2014 : early morning reach Irkutsk, sightseeing in Irkutsk, stay at Irkutsk.
Day 15 – 29th March 2014 : Listvyanka daytrip, lake Baikal tour
Day 16 – 30th March 2014 : Listvyanka daytrip,night leave for Ulan-Ude by train
Day 17 – 31st March 2014 : reach Ulan-Ude early morning, full day sightseeing, night stay
Day 18 – 1st April 2014 : early morning depart for Ulan-Bator by bus, reach in evening
Day 19 – 2nd April 2014 : Ulan-Bator local, leave for Yurt stay and camping in Semi-Gobi desert
Day 20 – 3rd April 2014 : morning more activities in semi-Gobi desert, return back to Ulan-Bator by evening
Day 21 – 4th April 2014 : Ulan-Bator – Beijing flight (Air China), arrive in Beijing in the afternoon. check into Hostel and some sightseeing. Wanfujiyang food street.
Day 22 – 5th April 2014 : sightseeing in Beijing, Great wall Mutiyanu
Day 23 – 6th April 2014 : sightseeing in Beijing, temple of heaven, forbidden city
Day 24 – 7th April 2014 : sightseeing in Beijing, evening train to Xi-an. Z19 train.
Day 25 – 8th April 2014 : sightseeing in Xi-an, terracotta warriors
Day 26 – 9th April 2014 : day trip to Mount Hua Shan from Xi’an
Day 27 – 10th April 2014 : early morning fast bullet train to Guangzhou, G24 train, reach GZ by evening
Day 28 – 11th April 2014 : sightseeing in Guangzhou
Day 29 – 12th April 2014 : board T264 train to Lhasa
Day 30 – 13th April 2014 : on train to Lhasa
Day 31 – 14th April 2014 : reach Lhasa, Tibet in the evening, check into hotel and rest
Day 32 – 15th April 2014 : Lhasa sightseeing
Day 33 – 16th April 2014 : Lhasa sightseeing
Day 34 – 17th April 2014 : Lhasa sightseeing
Day 35 – 18th April 2014 : on road, Gyantse and Shigatse
Day 36 – 19th April 2014 : on road, night at camp close to EBC
Day 37 – 20th April 2014 : on road, night at Zhangmu
Day 38 – 21st April 2014 : morning cross China – Nepal friendship border, take shared taxi and reach Kathmandu, relax
Day 39 – 22nd April 2014 : in Kathmandu half day sightseeing, evening flight to New Delhi, back to India
as if the trip was not enough, I immediately left from New Delhi -> Dehradun -> Uttarkashi -> NIM, as my month long BMC course was starting!
Part 5: cost break-downs
Moving onto money matters, here is the break down of costs incurred by me as a person for the entire trip:Flights:
Bangalore – Delhi – 5100 INR
Delhi – Moscow – 19500 INR
Ulan Bator – Beijing – 11915 INR
Kathmandu – Delhi – 4900 INR
Delhi – Bangalore – 4900 INR
Total flights cost : 46k INR roughly
Train/Bus tickets : 56k INR roughly (this includes Russia, Mongolia, China)
Visas : 13k INR roughly
Tibet tour booking : 56k INR roughlyrunning expenses in Russia and Mongolia : 48k INR
running expenses in China and Tibet : 20k INR
Grand Total : 240k INR roughly (2 lakh 40 thousands INR)
Part 6: albums