Russia overland travel guide
In high school I had to choose a foreign language to study, and the options were French, German, and Russian; I opted for the latter, not because I thought it might be useful (and I didn’t really have any idea what Russia was like), but just because it seemed the most interesting (perhaps due to the alphabet). Our teacher once treated us to watching a video for the final lesson of term, a Lake Baikal documentary; we watched the footage of cars dancing in formation on the winter ice, and I swore I would go there one day. A decade or so later I did exactly that, visiting Baikal as part of a Trans-Siberian trip (though unfortunately at the wrong time of year to go driving on the ice – should I ever go again, it’ll be in midwinter!), and those GCSE Russian lessons finally came in useful.
While Russia is something of a cold, hard place, it’s also a most interesting one; grand and classic in its art and architecture, with a tragic soul evident in its contributions to literature and music, and plenty of tragic history. Russia has given us such giants as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, and a long list of world chess champions; and on the other hand, Stalin, the Great Terror, and the Gulag Archipelago.
The Trans-Siberian railroad is the ultimate rail journey, surely topping the list of most overlanders, and the sheer scale of the country and its position with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia makes for some epic overland possibilities:
Travel to / from Russia overland
Russia is the largest country on Earth and shares a total of more than 20,000km of land borders with 14 neighbouring countries in two continents; it also has direct naval connections to a few more. This means that Russia offers up a huge range of options for overland adventures, and indeed its railroad provides the main overland routes from Europe to Asia.
International travel around most of Europe these days is pretty straightforward, but Russia is a different prospect as it is not in the EU, is not a member of the Schengen area, and there is little prospect of it joining either. Unless you’re from the CIS (former Soviet states), Latin America, or one of a handful of Asian countries (as shown on this map), you’re going to need a visa to enter Russia. Without getting into it too much here, Russian visas are one hell of a fiddle; you need a ‘Letter of Invitation’, which these days roughly translates as ‘a generic document you need to pay a travel agent to generate for you’, so even if you make the application yourself you’re probably going to need to pay an agency for the LOI (unless you actually have a Russian friend or acquaintance who is genuinely inviting you). When I went to Russia, we used a visa agency in London to deal with the entire paperwork process; they charge a pretty steep markup, of course, but not living in London it would have been very time-consuming to go and apply ourselves at the embassy, and perhaps just as expensive with the transportation. We also had them sort our Mongolian and Chinese visas while they were at it, so it was a significant expense but worth it.
(It is possible to enter Russia without a visa for a maximum of 72 hours if part of an organised tour – this seems mostly to be for the benefit of cruise passengers)
Interrail and Eurail tickets, so useful for travelling around Europe, aren’t valid in Russia (or Belarus) so you just have to pay for each individual train ticket you use.
Another difference with the rest of Europe is that you can’t just cross the border at any point; crossings can only be done at designated points, and some of those are only for citizens of Russia and the neighbouring country.
Russia’s borders with Europe
Russia shares its western borders with eight European countries, including six Schengen members (of which five are full EU members). In the north, it borders Norway, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia; the Russian Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad also borders Poland and Lithuania. These six borders can basically be crossed wherever the roads and railways cross them; if travelling by bus or train, crossing in to or out from Russia and these six countries should be straightforward enough. The short Norwegian border has just a single crossing on the road between Kirkenes and Murmansk – but what a border to be crossing! The northernmost border crossing in the world and the very definition of remote.
The other two European countries bordering Russia are Belarus and Ukraine, with special circumstances existing in each case. Belarus and Russia are actually part of an immigration and customs union, meaning that the border between them is effectively open and invisible, just a line on the map. This means that in theory you could enter Russia here without a Russian visa, but that would be very ill-advised – and in any case, Russian accommodations are required to register your visa with the local police when you check in. You also need a visa for Belarus (unless you arrive by air or you’re from a CIS member nation), so although this is an open border most visitors will actually need to deal with a double-whammy of former Soviet Bloc Red Visa Tape to be in the position of crossing it.
As for Ukraine, parts of the Russia-Ukraine border are under dispute and have been a live conflict zone for the last couple of years. Other than the Moscow – Kiev train, you should probably not be going anywhere near this border for the foreseeable future.
From St Petersburg, trains run to Helsinki (Finland), Tallinn (Estonia), and Riga (Latvia). From Moscow, trains run to Helsinki, Riga, Tallinn, Minsk (Belarus, and on to Poland and Germany), Vilnius (Lithuania, via Minsk and on to Kaliningrad), and Kiev. Local trains also run between Poland and Kaliningrad.
There’s also a ferry operating between St Petersburg and Helsinki, Stockholm, and Tallinn, which you can book online here
Russia’s borders with Asia
Southern Russia has borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus Mountains, and Russia’s East has borders with Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, and North Korea. The excellent Caravanistan site (a Silk Road travel resource, mostly focused on the Stans) has a nice interactive map of border crossings on the Silk Road; this covers Russia’s borders with Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and some of China (it shows the crossings with China’s Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia regions, but not the easternmost crossings with China’s Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces). So have a play around with that map to see where you can cross – just be aware that the Georgian border includes the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were conflict zones in the early 90s and again in 2008 in the latter’s case. A casual international traveller will likely have a lot of trouble crossing (or even approaching) these two disputed borders, but the main Russia – Georgia crossing lying between Vladikavkaz and Tbilisi is open again. Also the map shows open crossings with western and eastern Mongolia; all reports I can find suggest that the western one is fine, but the eastern one is in a part of Russia that requires special (unobtainable for tourists) permits (a military region of some description), so it might not work out. If anyone has tried this border crossing, please let me know how it went!
There are direct trains from Moscow to Baku (Azerbaijan), and Almaty and Astana (Kazakhstan, and beyond to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan). Between Ulan-Ude and Ulaan Baatar, you can use the Trans-Mongolian train and the road is also an option (I’ve done this road crossing – bit of a pain at the border with everyone off the bus, bag scans and searches etc, but not too bad).
There is apparently also a ferry across the Black Sea from Sochi to the Turkish port of Trabzon (there isn’t a website that I can find; if anyone has experience of this ferry, please leave a comment or send me a message!)
In the Far East, Russia has a long border with China (the other short border section they share in the Altai mountains between Kazakhstan and Mongolia isn’t open). The rail crossing for the Trans-Manchurian at Manzhouli is shown on the Caravanistan map, but it doesn’t show the rest. Basically each pair of Russian & Chinese border cities along the Amur and Ussuri rivers is connected by bridge (only a couple) or by ferry (most), with buses taking over from ferries when the river is frozen over and hovercraft when the ice is in the not-quite-solid-enough stages. The main crossings are at Blagoveshchensk (to Heihe) and Khabarovsk (to Fuyuan) by river, and Hunchun to Vladivostok by road (with a high speed railway in the pipeline). Blagoveshchensk and Khabarovsk are both stops on the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok; Heihe and Fuyuan are both connected by road and rail to Harbin, and Hunchun is the terminus of a high speed railway line with fast trains from Harbin, Shenyang, Jilin, and even all the way from Beijing.
If you’re in Harbin or Shenyang and aiming for Russia, Hunchun to Vladivostok is generally going to be the best option, especially with the high speed line and also Hunchun is a good jumping-off point for visiting Changbaishan mountain if you have time (also known in Korean as the sacred Mt Baekdu); if you want to go from Harbin to Sakhalin (and on to Japan) without detouring through Vladivostok, take an overnight train to Fuyuan, cross over to Khabarovsk, and then continue by road or rail to Vanino from where you can take the ferry to Sakhalin.
From Sakhalin’s Korsakov port there are ferries to Wakkanai on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido (summer only).
Update: the Korsakov – Wakkanai ferry ceased service in 2015. A new passenger catamaran service had a 6-week trial period in summer 2016, with two runs per week in either direction. This was successful enough that a full regular service was announced from 2017, however while the summer of 2017 did indeed see a full schedule, 2018 hasn’t gone so smoothly (see updates below). In short, this route can’t be considered 100% reliable.
Update (May 2018): the new Sakhalin – Wakkanai catamaran has also ceased service, announcement here (Japanese) Update (August 2018): a belated 2018 schedule has been confirmed after all, for 3 sailings per week each way in August & September as per here. Update (2019): passenger service discontinued. The same company still operates a ship on the Hokkaido-Sakhalin route, but it’s a freight only operation from 2019 onwards.
Finally, at the eastern end of Russia’s long border, is the short Russia – North Korea border along the middle of the Tumen river. There’s just a single rail bridge here, and only Russians and North Koreans are permitted to cross. You can visit the China / Russia / North Korea tripoint from the Chinese side near Hunchun and there’s a lookout tower there which is open to tourists; you can also look across from the Russian side near Khasan, but without such a good vantage point.
In addition to the Sakhalin – Hokkaido ferry,
there’s also a ferry from Vladivostok to Donghae, South Korea (east coast), and Sakaiminato, Japan (Tottori prefecture, north coast of western Japan). This ferry is operated by DBS Ferry, and you can search and book it here; also here’s their (not very useful) official website (this Japanese tourist info site is more informative). update: the Vladivostok-Korea-Japan ferry ceased operations in 2019.
You may read here and there on the internet or in old guide books about ferries from Vladivostok to Niigata and Toyama; these are a thing of the past.
Overland travel within Russia
The Russian railway reaches every major city in the country, and many of the minor ones. If you’re going somewhere that can’t be reached by rail, it means you’re going somewhere pretty damn remote! The Trans-Siberian railway (along with its Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian branches) is a major tourist attraction in its own right, and Moscow to Beijing by rail is one of the world’s classic overland trips. Most of Russia’s rail lines are fairly old, meaning travel speeds are on the slower side by 21st century standards, but the trains are well-equipped and comfortable; high speed rail did recently make its debut in Russia with the new sapsan trains from Moscow to St Petersburg (and on to Helsinki). For comparison, when we did St Petersburg to Moscow on the old service it was an 8-hour overnight train; sapsan trains do it in under 4 hours, which is a pretty big improvement. There is also a high speed service from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod, which is being extended to Kazan; plans exist for a future high speed line from Kazan to Kazakhstan, eventually connecting to the Chinese high speed rail system. A Moscow – Kazakhstan – Xinjiang – Beijing high speed Silk Road rail trip may soon be a reality, and one I look forward to experiencing.
Travel by road is also an option, with buses and marshrutkas running between cities; the trains are faster and more comfortable, but road transport is cheaper and sometimes the train isn’t an option. Marshrutkas are basically minibuses which do runs from A to B, departing from train and bus stations usually on a leave-when-full basis; these serve as public transport for cross-town routes in the big cities, but in more remote areas they serve as intercity transportation to destinations many hours away. When I travelled across Russia we mostly went by train, but we did do one leg of the Trans-Siberian route by marshrutka after our Lake Baikal plans didn’t work out due to our tight schedule (my travel companions had a return flight booked from Shanghai!) and we wanted to leave Irkutsk a day earlier than planned but couldn’t get onto a train that day; we went to the bus station where someone pointed us to a marshrutka bound for Ulan-Ude, a 10-hour drive. There was a long wait until the driver was happy he had enough passengers, during which we were evidently of great amusement to three elderly Buryat ladies who were to be our co-passengers and babushkas for that day; we communicated through a little of my broken Russian, and a lot of their raucous laughter.
A word of caution about marshrutkas though… the word marshrutka is pretty similar to the word matryoshka (I initially thought it was the same word, employed humorously) which are those Russian dolls that open up to reveal a smaller one inside, which opens to reveal another, and another inside that, and another and another… and that’s pretty much how you feel when you’re crammed into a marshrutka! The driver’s idea of enough passengers was my idea of sardines in a tin can, I literally couldn’t shift my weight or move my legs (and had my luggage in my lap), and it was a mighty uncomfortable backside-numbing 10-hour test of physical endurance… but we had some nice views of the southern end of Lake Baikal and the mountains we passed by, we were able to appreciate our driver’s skill (and luck) in not killing us all while driving without chains on a mountain road in a blizzard, we watched some ridiculous action movies about a Russian Rambo-type hero who lived with his dog in a cabin in the woods shooting bears and washing himself with handfuls of snow, and our cheery babushkas gave an impressive display of non-stop talking when they weren’t snoozing. I certainly wouldn’t want to travel the whole way across Russia like that, but am glad we did so for a single leg of the journey even if it did take a full day for my backside and legs to recover!
Another word of caution about Russian roads generally; the roads we travelled on were of high quality, but the same cannot be said for the driving. We still reminisce about the ‘Death Taxi’ we hired for the day to take us from Perm city to the Perm-36 prison camp and Kungur ice caves; long story short, this guy drove like he had a death wish for himself and his three passengers, and was clocking well over 100mph on some of the straight stretches of road… as if his driving wasn’t terrifying enough, the one time he actually slowed down on a straight was to go around (and through the river of blood flowing from) a body we passed, just lying there in the middle of the road. My friend Mike and I (our other friend Ross didn’t get a good view from his side) have been unable to work out what exactly we saw, or even agree on some of the details – eye witness accounts are known to be very unreliable, and he swears we saw a decapitated body whereas I thought the head was still very much attached. We both saw the car at the roadside but are unsure if it had crashed or had been parked, and the body was lying some distance behind the car; perhaps it was a motorcyclist who had crashed, and the car had stopped to report it; perhaps it was the scene of a mafia execution; we really don’t know. But it definitely seemed very strange indeed, and our driver showed no other reaction than slowing down a little – but not too slow – and then boosting back to 100mph as soon as we were round the body. You see some weird shit when you travel for years, and that was right up there with the weirdest I’ve seen.
Anyway, if the roads sound a bit too mental, river and lake transport is available (in summer) in parts of the country, notably on the Volga river and Lake Baikal; some of these water routes also operate as ‘ice roads’ when frozen solid in winter, Lake Baikal again being notable for this.
Things to do in Russia
The Trans-Siberian railway; riding this train to travel overland between Europe and Asia is, in and of itself, one of the main reasons that many travellers visit Russia. Riding the Trans-Siberian you will:
Lake Baikal; the world’s deepest lake, the world’s largest freshwater body, the Jewel of Siberia, and definitely the one to choose if you’re only making a single stop on the Trans-Siberian. When I was studying Russian in high school, our teacher once treated us to watching a video for the final lesson of term, and that video was a BBC Lake Baikal documentary; we watched the footage of cars dancing in formation on the winter ice, and I swore I would go there one day. A decade or so later I did exactly that, though unfortunately at the wrong time of year to go driving on the ice – should I go again, it will be in midwinter!
Moscow. Although not the most welcoming of places, Moscow is as grand as it gets. Grand theatres, grand architecture, grand boulevards, grand churches, grand stations, grand statues, grand (red) squares, grand old cafes.
St Petersburg. This was my favourite Russian city, with a classical European look and a friendlier, more creative atmosphere than rat-race Moscow.
Perm-36. This is one of the only surviving remnants of the Gulag system (the old Soviet prison camps) and has been preserved as a museum. Unfortunately the exhibits are only in Russian, but you can still get a feel for the grim and forlorn hopelessness of the place; the middle-of-nowhere location alone would have made escape difficult, being over 100km from the extremely unglamorous (and, at the time, secret) city of Perm. To be honest, I’d only recommend this one if (like me) one of your travel interests is visiting those places that remind us of the darker chapters of human history.
(Update: the Perm-36 museum has apparently been through a forcible change of management to remove criticism of Soviet-era political repression; you can read about that here and here. It shouldn’t make too much difference to the experience of non-Russian speaking visitors, but following this change of focus some potential visitors may not wish to support it)
Vodka – a bottle makes a valuable companion for those 50-hour train rides:
Resources and Useful Links for Visiting Russia
World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance you can buy even if already overseas. This can be a key point, as most travel insurance policies are not valid if you’ve already left your country when you purchase them (I found this out the hard way when my camera was stolen in Bangkok).
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