[While I will be slowly bringing my posts from my old Blogger travel blog onto this one, I started to write this summary post for my Trans-MongolAsian Trek at the beginning of my trip… and there it sat in limbo. Now, my trek is over and I’m back home for a bit – and I’m playing catch up on these unfinished posts. As I transition these posts over here, the timeline might get a bit wonky so please bear with me as it should all line up in the end!]
THIS is the reason I moved my old blog from Blogger to its own site – to document and share my new extended travel adventures.
As I note in my About page, this trip grew from a couple of things: my job closing on us the year before while on vacation, an even more burning yearn to travel more, and a lack of desire to remain “home.” In addition, I planned this trip to coincided with my 31st birthday.
Why Russia – and more importantly, why would a gay American want to travel not just into but across Russia? Well, why not! Initially, I was thinking of planning a year-long, round-the world trip however I realized that there were some issues with doing an entire year with such a short time span before my birthday. I initially chose to start in Russia because traveling the Trans-Siberian Railroad was not only on my bucket list of things to do, but it is also a great way to travel across much of the world. I also wasn’t sure I’d be able to go later on given the current state of things between our two governments.
Once I started looking into the details, I noted that I was not actually wanting the Trans-Siberian but the Trans-Mongolian route – which adds Mongolia and ends in Beijing. Once I decided that route was my best bet, I began looking into the other important issue in trip planning – visas! I realized that I need a visa for Russia and China, however I do not need one for Mongolia so long my time in the country is under 90 days.
A Russian visa is a bit challenging to obtain but mostly because they require an invitation still, in addition to requiring every destination and housing accommodations noted in advance. While I could have applied for a 3 year multi-entry visa, which would permit up to 60 days per visit, the cost of that was more than double the price of a single entry for a 30 day max period. Thus, I went through the hassle and obtained an invitation letter after establishing which cities along the train route I planned to visit. During this planning process, I also booked most of the train tickets and made hostel reservations in each city. This felt like an extra hurdle but it actually was helpful as it forced me to get everything lined up in advance.
The visa to China was a similar process in that they require you to document where you’ll be visiting and staying while in China, but they do not require an invitation letter. They do need a flight itinerary though. However, China offers a 10 year multi-entry visa with a 60 day stay per visit – at the same price as the single entry visa! After searching online for some guidance, I was advised to create a trial trip and itinerary solely for the visa application. They did not require actually bookings, so I printed a sample flight itinerary for me as if I were visiting three cities and submitted the visa application. Once I had everything I needed, I sent both my Russian visa application and the Chinese visa application to a visa service who then processed them both.
Naturally, as I would be ending the train route in China, I figured why not take some time and visit China too. And oh yeah, Tibet is still a part of China – hmmm! Before long, and after much research online, I decided that I would add a 15 day excursion into Tibet during my time in China – if I’m paying more for a group tour, then I wanted to take full advantage of the time! And since I have up to 60 days per stay, that means I can easily take a whole month to explore the rest of China!
A month in Russia, a month in China – except I had not yet decided how long I’d spend in Mongolia. Initially, I though perhaps 2-3 weeks. I could do a trek or two and spend some time visiting the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Then I discovered Stepperiders… a horse trekking company where I could volunteer with – and go on treks! The price was not too bad for a volunteer either, but their website also mentions volunteer assistants – who help run the camp, and their volunteer fee is waived! So I emailed them and started taking with Nathalie, who helps coordinate all of their client/volunteer communications and plans with the Mongolian staff who own and run the company. Before long, I was being offered a spot to come volunteer with them for almost two months as a trek photographer! (Note: I had to create and establish a photography portfolio and was kinda flying by the seat of my pants on that!)
At this point, my trip was roughly planned out and many things were already booked or in the process. My flight to Saint Petersburg, Russia was already booked for me to land there on my 31st birthday. I had train tickets purchased and hostel reservations for my month crossing Russia. I had arranged the beginning of my stay in Mongolia before I joined with Stepperiders. And my train ticket into China was booked. Other than that though, I had only rough plans and hadn’t even begun to plot of my time in China (which was handy because it changed a couple of times before I actually settled on a plan and started booking things.
While there was plenty to still do I was anxious for the trip to begin!