Lewis and I agreed that four would be a good number to travel in as we could occupy an entire compartment on trains. Wee was the first to express his interest in the trip and since we were still short of one person, he managed to incite Jaslin to join as well. I wasn’t too sure about her involvement initially; I thought that she would much prefer Paris to Irkutsk or Milan to Ulaan Baatar. Nevertheless we coordinated our schedule and took leave to go on the trip in June 2012.
Three months before the trip, two additional brave souls signed up for it. One was Chiang, my secondary school friend and the other was Ling Rong, Lewis’ colleague. Like the Sri Lanka trip two years earlier, the overwhelming responses were rather surprising for me.
The first decision confronting us was the direction of travel. After deliberating, we chose to travel eastward (from Moscow to Beijing) which enabled us to avoid the issue of jet lag on our return to Singapore.
As the non-stop rail trip across Russia (between Moscow and Ulan Ude) would take more than four days, I (by default the planner for Russian part of the trip) got to propose where we would break the journey. The stops after (A) Moscow were (B) Yekaterinburg (located near the Europe-Asia border), (C) Krasnoyarsk (trekking in Stolby Nature Reserve) and (D) Irkutsk (specifically the village Listvyanka on Lake Baikal). The last stop in Russia was (E) Ulan Ude where we would catch a bus to Ulaan Baatar (UB).
Planning for Mongolia was done by Lewis and Ling Rong. Our plan was to hire a van with a guide and driver to ferry us to some of the attractions around Central Mongolia. However Zaya, the travel agent that we contacted, was not very responsive and there were still quite a few loose ends left hanging before we left for Moscow. Not the most ideal preparation but it was eventually resolved after we arrived in UB.
Due to time constraint, eventually we decided to fly from UB to Beijing. Planning for the Chinese capital was left to Jaslin who spent a few weeks there on training last year. She managed to came up with an itinerary which best utilized our limited time in the Chinese capital. We would be visiting Mutianyu Great Wall and Forbidden City and would try the famous Peking Duck before returning home.
As Singaporeans we only needed visa for Russia. Both Mongolia and China grant us visa-free access for visits up to 14 days.
The first step to a Russian visa is to get the tourist invitation, an remnant from the Soviet era. Initially we thought of getting the tourist invitation for free from Mercure Arbat but the hotel advised that they were only able to issue invitation for the duration of our stay. In the end we decided not to take the risk and used Real Russia to issue us the tourist invitation for 15 GBP. The service was prompt and a copy of the tourist invitation was e-mailed to us after payment was confirmed.
With the tourist invitation, a filled visa application form, two passport-sized photographs (no smiling according to the application form) and S$70, Chiang went to submit the applications on our behalf at the Russian Embassy (located near Botanical Gardens). Collection was three working days later and the visa duration corresponded to the dates indicated in the tourist invitation.
Late last year, BMI was running its 50% extra miles sales. One could get 24,000 BMI Diamond Club miles for 207 GBP instead of the usual 303 GBP. We purchased the miles and I went on to construct the itineraries.
Taking advantage of BMI’s generous redemption chart, we would need to depart from Zone 8 (anywhere in East Asia). By routing Zone 2 – Singapore – Moscow, we will save quite a bit on both cash and miles compared to a simple Singapore (Zone 7) to Moscow (Zone 2) redemption.
Jaslin and Lewis chose ICN as their Zone 8 departure point and created a holiday in Korea out of it. Wee and I chose Hong Kong originally but both of us ended up switching to TPE. I had wanted to redeem business class for the original four but there were no flights with availability. In the end we decided that we would redeem on the direct SIN-DME flight on SQ with me taking the only Biz seat available.
When Ling Rong and Chiang signed up, Lewis and I had to scramble and find the air tickets for them. BMI was running a sale albeit at only 20% more miles. We got Ling Rong on the last redemption seat on SQ 62 (as well as a ticket back from HKG to SIN). There wasn’t any more redemption availability for Chiang and the cheapest alternative would be with QR which would require him to travel on his own and transit at DOH.
Somehow Lady Luck smiled on us and I discovered that Transaero, SQ’s codeshare partner on SQ62, was selling tickets on the same flight at a much lower price.. While SQ was asking for 1.6k SGD, Transaero was offering the same seat for 880 SGD. Without much hesitation I bought the ticket for Chiang and all of us would be on the same flight to DME.
Initially we were thinking of overlanding from UB to Beijing (two days of travel) but eventually we decided to fly (1.5 hours) to save time. For the initial four participants, I managed to secure four Y seats on CA between ULN and PEK and four J seats on OZ for PEK-ICN-SIN using BMI miles (bought during the additional 20% promotion in March 2012). For the latter two, I could only redeem PEK-ICN-SIN in Y and they had to purchase ULN-PEK sector on their own (~S$400).
As mentioned non-stop train between Moscow and Ulan Ude took more than four days. We were apprehensive about going without showers for too long and thought that thirty hours was probably the maximum amount of time that we could endure.
Trains that we would be taking:-
Train 60 Moscow Kazanskaia – Yekaterinburg ~25 hours 5625.50 RUB
Train 138 Yekaterinburg – Krasnoyarsk ~30 hours 4438.10 RUB
Train 134 Krasnoyarsk – Irkutsk ~18 hours 3031.80 RUB
Train 44 Irkutsk – Ulan Ude ~7 hours 1790.80 RUB
I bought the train tickets directly from the Russian Railways website with the help of many resources online (such as this and this). Sales start 60 days before departure and we could check real-time availability on the website. We bought our tickets around seven weeks out and there were plenty of availability on the trains that we wanted.
The most difficult part of buying tickets by this method was matching the Cyrillic alphabets. I made a mistake with the name of one of the travelers (mixing up first name and last name) but luckily it wasn’t an issue at boarding. The total cost for the trains was around S$650 per person, quite a steal for more than 5600km of travel and five nights of accommodation.
The alternative to buying from RZD would be using a travel agent. Most travel agents charged at least 20% more as commission but they can save you from the hassle of navigating the Russian Railway website and do delivery for the train tickets.
Bus between Ulan Ude to Ulaan Baatar
Route between A) Ulan Ude and B) Ulaan Baatar
I e-mailed Svetlana of Baikal Naran Tour (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) three weeks before the actual trip. Each ticket cost 1200 RUB in total (ticket 1000 RUB, commission 100 RUB & delivery 100 RUB). We needed to e-mail her photocopies of our passports and would pick up the bus tickets on the day of departure.
Being an Le Club Accor Platinum member, I tried to steer the travel party to Accor properties. There are several to choose from in Moscow and surprisingly Mercure Arbat Moscow was cheaper than ibis Hotel Paveletskaya on the dates that we wanted. We booked the cheapest pre-paid rate (S$176.14 per room per night, a steal considering its location) through Expedia.sg and I easily got the hotel to add my Le Club Accor number to the booking.
Initially we wanted to rent a property through Airbnb but none of the apartments could fit six. There is a Novotel in Yekaterinburg but it was way beyond my budget (S$300+ per room per night). We left it late to settle the accommodation for Yekaterinburg and ended up placing a reservation for two rooms (with extra bed in each) at Hotel Park Vista through Booking.com. It only required my credit card details and payment (8200 RUB in total) would be done at the hotel.
This one was easy. We contacted Titmouse House Hostel and placed a reservation for six in its dorms. Anastasiya replied us promptly and one night would cost 500 RUB per person.
Baikaler Eco-Hostel was where we chose to stay at Listvyanka on Lake Baikal. Booking was done through e-mail and it took some time for the staff to confirm our reservation. For the six of us, we booked four beds in a four-bed dorm (600 RUB each) and a double room (1500 RUB).
We were notified at the very last minute that our first choice Zaya Guesthouse was full. With few days left before leaving for Moscow, we managed to secure enough rooms for the six of us at Edelweiss Hotel, which was not exactly cheap at US$90 per night.
We all agreed that we should go for nicer accommodation in Beijing since it was the final stop of our trip. As much as I wanted to try out Sofitel Wanda Beijing, we pre-booked our accommodation at Novotel Xinqiao (657 CNY per room per night). I used Ctrip for this transaction and just like Mercure Arbat I easily got the hotel to add my Le Club Accor number to the booking through e-mail.
Last but definitely not the least…
Bought this book from NoQ for S$30.35 (Retail price in bookshops ~S$40).