More than two years ago, I wrote a post about my travel bucket list. There were five places in the world that I absolutely had to visit, and #2 on that list was riding the Trans-Mongolian Express. Today, I am so excited to share with you that twenty-one days from now I will be able to cross this item off my list (mostly!).
On July 1st, I will depart my home city at 6:00 pm, and almost exactly twenty-four hours later I will arrive in Moscow, Russia. From there I will be flying across the country to Vladivostok, the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and I will begin to make my way back to Moscow for my flight home in late August. I have a double-entry business visa that allows me to enter and leave the country twice within a ninety-day period, so while I won’t be going to China on this trip there will be the opportunity for me to go to Mongolia, if it piques my interest along the way.
This all came to fruition very quickly. In mid-April I learned that I would not receive the funding I had applied for that would allow me to study Italian in Italy for the summer. I made the quick decision to apply for a Russian visa instead, and after a lot of money, some tears, and another entire month, I had a Russian visa in my hand (I’ve written a post about applying for a Russian visa but think it’s probably better to share it upon my return, in case it causes any problems). The next day I booked flights and bought the Lonely Planet guidebook, and now I spend my days pretending to focus on work when actually I’m dreaming about the pastries I’m going to buy from babushkas at all the railway stations along the route!
So, with three weeks before I head off on the world’s longest train journey (it’s more than 9000 kilometers from Moscow to Vladivostok!), are you wondering how to prepare for a trip to Russia?
The first thing I did was visit the travel doctor. In my country, GPs or family doctors are often not well-equipped to deal with travel-related queries. Instead, for anything out of the ordinary travelers need to pay out-of-pocket to visit a doctor who specializes in travel medicine. Prices are fairly reasonable: I paid $75 to see a specialist here, who advised that I get an updated tetanus shot but skip the more-costly Japanese encephalitis vaccination. He also prescribed two types of antibiotics in case I experience a stomach or chest infection that doesn’t cure itself. The vaccinations and medications were covered by my employer’s health care plan, but would have cost about $200 if I didn’t have that coverage.
Next, I went to my local dollar store and picked up some souvenirs of Canada, including a few pins, some stickers and sparkly pencils. I often give little gifts to children that I meet in my travels, especially after spending 24+ hours in a train carriage with them! I spent $15 on souvenirs, including the bag I’ll keep them in and a Canada bottle opener that I plan to use to open my own bottles along the way.
After that I went to the bank and ordered a small number of euros (for my transfer in Frankfurt) and Russian rubles. Once, I flew into Moldova with no local currency and discovered that because it was Sunday, the currency exchange at the airport was closed and there wasn’t an ATM anywhere around. Fortunately, a kind taxi driver had faith that I wouldn’t scam him, and drove me to an ATM close to my hostel so that I could pay him for the ride. Now, I like to have a small amount of local currency on hand when I arrive, just in case. Although the exchange rate isn’t the best, my bank is willing to order in small denominations for me (each of those 100-ruble bills is only worth about $2 CAD!) which makes it easier to pay for small purchases, like metro tickets and taxi rides. If all you’ve got is 1000 ruble bills, chances are good that your taxi ride will cost exactly 100 ruble!
Finally, I have been attempting to learn some Russian. I already owned the Russian in 10 Minutes a Day book, but I found that I really needed a program that had an audio component as well. Next, I tried Get Started in Russian, which was helpful, but still not quite right for me. I asked the librarian at my local public library for a recommendation, and she suggested that I try Mango Languages. I can log in for free through my public library’s website to access dozens of different language courses, including a great beginner’s guide to Russian that I can go through at my own pace. I like that the Russian components of the course are entirely in Cyrillic, but by mousing over each Russian word you can see it spelled out phonetically in the Latin alphabet as well.
I would love to hear any of your tips for slow travel along the Trans-Siberian, or what you’re planning on doing this summer! Let me know in the comments!