The Big Trip East: Itinerary

China & Mongolia

On the 5th April we flew from Manchester to Hong Kong (£270 one way with Lufthansa).

Hong Kong – 9 nights
Wang Fat Hostel – HK$320 per night (booked on the internet).
Chinese visas (90 days) from the New East Ocean Centre on Science Museum Road in Kowloon - HK$600 for me (British) and HK$250 for my partner (German) for next day service.
Russian visas (30 days) from the Russian Consulate (HK$400 for 5 working days service).

Hong Kong to Yangshuo
Metro to Lo Wu station. Walk through immigration into Shenzhen. Head to New Century Plaza Hotel to buy tickets for sleeper bus (230 RMB). Bus left around 1930, arrived Yanghsuo the next morning.

Yangshuo – 4 nights
Fawlty Towers Hotel – 60 RMB per night (think this was cheap as it was slightly off-season and pouring with rain every day).

Yangshuo to Kunming
Bought train tickets for Guiling-Kunming train from one of the many booking agents in Yangshuo. Tickets were 246 RMB each with 50 RMB booking fee per ticket. Demand was pretty high and we couldn’t get one for the next day. Bus from Yangshuo to Guilin, train from Guilin at 2000 arriving in Kunming at around 1600 the next day.

Kunming – 7 nights
Camelia Hostel (basically the older rooms in the Camelia hotel) – 120 RMB per night (inc. breakfast buffet).

Kunming to Dali
Bought bus tickets from booking agent round the corner from the Camelia. 90 RMB per ticket. Bus took 5 hours but only dropped us at Dali City, from which we had to catch another short bus to Dali itself. The ticket seller declined to tell us this beforehand. I believe some buses go directly from Kunming to Dali.

Dali – 6 nights
Tibetan Lodge Hostel (or some similar name) – 80 RMB per night until May 1st, then 100 RMB per night (Chinese holiday week).
Recommendation: there are two cable car rides in Dali. The first is a short bus-ride from Dali, to a rock-pool. The second is close to Dali. I wanted to go up one, walk round the mountain, then go down the other. The person in the hostel who sold us the tickets said this wasn’t possible, but we found after going up one that it clearly was – there is a proper path (called Cloud Way or something) that connects the two.

Lijiang – 3 nights
Cozy Jade Palace Hotel – 160 RMB per night with Chinese bathroom. It was holiday week and Lijiang was heaving with Chinese tourists. Finding a bed for a reasonable price was difficult. As was walking anywhere without fear of being elbowed into a canal.

Lijiang to Qiaotou (Tiger Leaping Gorge)
Bus from Lijiang south bus station. Bus takes 2-3 hours (on the way to Zhongdian).

Tiger Leaping Gorge – 3 nights
Spent the night before the trek in a hotel (I forget the name) in Qiaotou (50 RMB). The next morning we went to Gorged Tiger Café (Margo’s) for breakfast, to leave our backpacks, and to pick up a map, before setting off. We were extra slow doing the trek (due to partner’s vertigo) and spent the first night at the Tea Horse Guesthouse (30 RMB). The second day, after lunch at the Halfway guesthouse, the vertigo got too much and we dropped down from the high trail to the low road. Spent the second night at Sean’s guesthouse, and then caught the bus the next morning back to Qiaotou.

Qiaotou to Zhongdian.
Bus, about 2-3 hours (same bus as from Lijiang to Qiaotou).

Zhongdian – 3 nights
Kevin’s Trekker Inn – 50 RMB with shared bathroom. Highly recommend this place.

Zhongdian to Lijiang
Bus, about 5 hours.

Lijiang – 1 night
Small family-run courtyard hotel – 50 RMB (prices in Lijiang were dramatically lower than during holiday week).

Lijiang to Chengdu
We had originally intended to get the bus to Panzhihua, then the sleeper train to Chengdu. But the thought of an 11 hour bus ride followed by a night on the train led us to investigate flights. We paid 600 RMB each from a booking agent near the hotel.  The flight took about an hour.

Chengdu – 6 nights
Mix & Backpackers Guesthouse – 70 RMB (shared bathroom). Recommended.

Chengdu to Zigong
Bus from a bus station out of town. 2-3 hour journey.

Zigong – 2 nights
Stayed in the hostel recommended by LP SW China – 50 RMB. Not what you’d call plush but alright for a couple of nights.
Went to the dinosaur museum. Hardly a soul there but very interesting.

Zigong to Bamboo Sea
Bus from Zigong to Yibin (2 hours). Bus from an out-of-town bus station in Yibin to a small town (2-3  hours). Another bus from there to the Bamboo Sea. Bus passes through park entrance, have to get out, pay 90 RMB entrance fee, then get back on.

Bamboo Sea – 2 nights
Bamboo Sea hotel – 140 RMB (about half the advertised rate). Fairly smart hotel aimed at Chinese tourists. The whole park was seemingly deserted (but it was Sunday night in mid-May).

Bamboo Sea to Chengdu
Bus from Bamboo Sea to the small town, from there to Yibin, from Yibin to Chengdu. Altogether 7 hours.

Tip: This whole trip out of Chengdu was the first (and almost only time in China) time we felt off the beaten track. We saw no other white faces and nobody spoke any English at all. We could not have survived without our phrasebook.

Chengdu – 1 night
Mix & Backpackers Guesthouse again.

Chengdu to Xi’an
Bought train tickets from the guesthouse for 30 RMB booking fee, although we probably could have got them ourselves from the station. Tickets were 188 RMB each.

Xi’an – 4 nights
Bell Tower Hostel – 140 RMB. Expensive but nice (basically like a hotel) and right in the centre.
Tip: go to the Big Goose Pagoda in the evening – at various times there are stunning light shows at the fountains (free).

Xi’an to Shanghai
Overnight train – 333 RMB each. Bought tickets from the hostel for 60 RMB booking fee. Tickets for this journey are apparently particularly hard to come by. I don’t know why.

Shanghai – 6 nights
Conservatory of Music Foreign Students Dormitory – 100 RMB (shared bathroom). Rooms are basic and the staff were breathtakingly unhelpful but location is lovely.

Shanghai to Xitang
Train to a nearby town (1 hour), then short bus ride to Xitang.

Xitang – 1 night
We caught a cycle taxi from where the bus dropped us into the old town, and ended up staying at a hotel he took us to – 120 RMB.
Tip: arrive in Xitang in the evening and leave the next day. All the Chinese tourists come for the day so in the evening it is really peaceful. Also, there is an entrance fee to the old town but the ticket office shuts at 5-6 pm so arrive after that and you can avoid paying it.

Xitang to Hangzhou
Bus back to the nearby town then another bus (3 hours) to Hangzhou.

Hangzhou – 2 nights
Art College Foreign Students Dormitory – 200 RMB. Expensive but rooms are stunning and it is right by the lake. Found out later that there is a newish (newer than the LP China 2000 which we had) Youth Hostel nearby, which is a bit cheaper and has more facilities.

Hangzhou to Beijing
Bought the train tickets in Shanghai before going to Xitang. 351 RMB each. Train left at 2200, overnight to Beijing.

Beijing – 10 nights
City Central hostel – 160 RMB (shared bathroom).
Tip: If you want to experience the ‘genuine’ Great Wall but don’t fancy the full Jinshanling-Simatai trek, just go to Simatai. We went on a coach trip where it dropped some people off at Jinshanling and some off at Simatai. Simatai was almost totally deserted and you can walk as far as you like without worrying about holding everyone up.

Beijing to Ulaan Baatar
Bought tickets from CITS office (inside hotel). Advisable as they are not available from the station and other ticket sellers will charge an additional booking fee. CITS are relatively easy (if rude) to deal with. Tickets were 607 RMB each. Train left early morning and arrived mid-afternoon the next day.

Ulaan Baatar – 3 nights
In China getting a room was never a problem. Everything got more difficult from here on in. In Ulaan Baatar we visited a few full places before finding Bolod’s Guesthouse. Bolod has two rooms with about 5 beds in each. We paid $5 each for the first night, then $4 each for the next two, and were lucky that nobody else came so we had the room to ourselves. There was a shared kitchen and bathroom.

Mongolian jeep trip – 10 nights
We arranged an 11 day jeep trip through Nassan’s guesthouse. At the last minute we found another couple to share the costs. The price was $210 each and a night in a ger, including basic dinner, was $4 extra per night. He loaned us a tent and sleeping bags too. The trip was a loop through Karakorum, the White Lake, Khovsgul lake and back. We changed the itinerary quite a bit as we went along. This trip was the highlight of the whole holiday.

Ulaan Baatar – 2 nights
We’d booked beds at Nassan’s for when we got back from the trip. Most of their beds are dorm-style but they put us in a double in an old lady’s apartment for $12 – presumably because a couple of things had gone wrong on the trip (basically our jeep broke down).

Ulaan Baatar to Irkutsk
Bought tickets in advance from the International Booking Office near to the station. 33000 Togrog each. Without realising, ended up on the slow train which takes 2 nights (including interminable delays at the borders). I think the faster one-night trains are more expensive.
Tip: If you buy your tickets well in advance like us, it’s worth checking the timetables don’t change in the meantime. We turned up what we thought was an hour early and the train was about to pull away – they said the timetable had just been changed.

Russia & Eastern Europe

We bought our visas from the Russian consulate in Hong Kong. There was a potential problem in that my partner is German and officially Germans are only allowed to get Russian visas from Germany. The Russian embassy in the UK said she could get one from them, as she is resident in the UK, but they only issue 30 day tourist visas 90 days in advance, or 90 day business visas 45 days in advance. This was a problem as we intended to spend over 3 months in China & Mongolia before entering Russia.

So we emailed the consulates in Shanghai and Hong Kong – Shanghai never replied but HK said she could apply there, so that’s what we did. We got our visa invitations from before we left (about $30 if memory serves me right). There were no problems in HK, and we paid HK$400 for a 5 day service.

Visa Registration
Before we left I read so many message board posts about the problems of registration, particularly in Moscow and St Petersburg. It seemed like a bureaucratic nightmare. Much to my surprise then, to find no problem whatsoever. Everywhere we stayed registered our visas free of charge except in Irkutsk, where we paid a nominal fee (and where we could state how long we wanted to be registered for). By the end our passports were teeming with stamps.

Customs Declaration
I also read many warnings about the customs declaration form, and getting it stamped correctly. When we filled out our forms on arrival from Mongolia, to be honest I found it a mite confusing and I wasn’t sure if we’d done it correctly. However, when we left Russia (on the bus from St Petersburg to Tallinn) they didn’t even check. I think things might be different if you leave Russia in the east, though.

Train tickets
We always bought our train tickets directly from the stations. This was easier in some stations than others, but nowhere was it a real problem, just a case of figuring out which counter to go to and waiting in line. Generally we were buying tickets a day or two before departure and we didn’t have a problem getting the right train (and it was July). We did have a problem though in buying tickets for onward journeys, e.g. buying a ticket for Krasnoyarsk to Yekaterinburg in Irkutsk . They could sell tickets, but only for a few more local trains. For the main trains (1-2, 9-10 etc) you could only buy from the station of departure.

It seemed to me that prices were higher for the main trains (1-2, 9-10 etc). We seemed to pay a lot more per km from Krasnoyarsk to Vladimir than Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk. If I could speak Russian I would have asked the ticket office whether this was the case, but as the simple act of buying a ticket was difficult enough I decided to leave alone.

Irkutsk – 1 night
Baikalhostel – 30 EURO with shared bathroom. Booked over the internet. A bit out of town but helpful staff.

Irkutsk to Olkhon Island (Lake Baikal)
Bus (7 hours). Bought tickets from bus station the day before departure. There were about 6 buses per day.

Olkhon Island – 7 nights
Nikita’s Guesthouse – 1100 Roubles per night including all meals. Double room in 2-roomed wooden house. Outside toilet (there was no electricity or running water on the island when we were there, although I believe they now have electricity).
Tip: Nikita’s is fun, but 7 nights is too long to spend there. Especially if your time in Russia is limited. 

Olkhon Island to Irkutsk
Bus (7 hours). Bought tickets from tourist office about 3 days before departure.

Irkutsk – 2 nights
Irkutsk Downtown Backpacker’s Hostel – 500 Roubles per bed in a 4-bed dorm. Tried the Baikal Hostel but it was full. They rang round and we were lucky to get the last 2 beds at the Downtown Backpackers.

Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk
Overnight train. Bought tickets from Irkutsk station (there is an international ticket office upstairs) before we went to Olkhon. 1200 Roubles each.

Krasnoyarsk -1 night
Hotel Krasnoyarsk – 2000 Roubles. Expensive but nice, and central.

Krasnoyarsk to Yekaterinburg.
Overnight train. Bought tickets from the station when we arrived the day before. 3000 Roubles each.

Yekaterinburg – 1 night
Bolshoi Ural Hotel – 1700 Roubles. The room wasn’t great.

Yekaterinburg to Vladimir
Overnight train. Bought tickets from the station when we arrived the day before. 2550 Roubles each.

Vladimir – 2 nights
Hotel Vladimir – 800 Roubles with shared bathroom.

Vladimir to Moscow
Train (4 hours). Bought ticket the day before at station. 185 Roubles each.

Moscow – 5 nights
Hostel Snail – 1500 Roubles with shared bathroom (each bathroom shared between 2 rooms).

Moscow to St Petersburg
Overnight train (8 hours). Bought tickets from station a couple of days in advance. 1520 Roubles each.

St Petersburg – 5 nights
Zimmer Freie – 1500 Roubles. They have a hostel in the main building and also an apartment elsewhere. We were in the apartment (4 or 5 rooms sharing kitchen and bathroom facilities).

St Petersburg to Tallinn
Eurolines bus (7 hours). Bought tickets (460 R) from the bus station a couple of days in advance. Demand was quite high.

Tallinn – 2 nights
Rex Bed & Breakfast (near the bus station) – 550 EEK

Tallinn to Parnu
Eurolines bus (3 hours). Many buses and tickets easy to obtain. 90 EEK each.

Parnu – 4 nights
Hommiku Hostel – 700 EEK for a room with kitchenette. Recommended.

Parnu to Riga
Eurolines bus (3 hours). 120 EEK each.

Riga – 2 nights
Hotel Jurnieks – 22L. Bit out of town.

Jurmala – 4 nights
Kursi – 40L for an apartment.

Riga – 1 night
Amber Hostel – 20L with shared bathroom (basic room with bunkbeds).

Riga to Vilnius
Eurolines bus (6 hours). 7.50L each.

Vilnius – 5 nights
Comfort Vilnius Hotel. 180 Lats with breakfast.

Vilnius to Warsaw
Train. 9 hours in total, had to change somewhere near the border. Bought tickets a couple of days in advance. They also sold us a ticket from Warsaw to Berlin, and apparently it was cheaper to buy it in Vilnius than in Warsaw. 77 Lats each.

Warsaw – 2 nights
Dizzy Daisy Hostel - £25 equivalent.

Warsaw to Berlin
Early morning fast train (6 hours). 120 Lats each.