The travel plan
The entire trip was constructed around some of my favorite activities- sitting in a long distance train with a book, a notebook, a camera, and days to think and read. As a little bit of a transportation nerd, I'm excited to experience some of these classic trains in countries that are new to me. On this journey, I'm crossing 12 countries over 30 days, 7 of which I'm visiting for the first time.
In order from East to West, here are the trains, ferries, and buses I am taking. I will link to my posts about each of these trains as I take them.
The Eurostar from London to Brussels (via the Chunnel)
Deutschbahn from Brussels to Köln
Deutschbahn from Köln to Berlin
Berlin-Warszawa Express train operated by Polish Railways from Berlin to Warsaw
Luxexpress Bus from Warsaw to Riga (Why isn't this a train?)
Moscow Express operated by Russian Railways from Riga to Moscow
Trans-mongolian railway from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia
High speed train from Beijing to Shanghai
I was very excited to take the Polonez train from Warsaw to Moscow, a classic overnight train route that has been operating in various forms since the 1800's and is now a relatively fast train that crosses 4 countries and runs from Warsaw to Moscow. Unfortunately, this train goes through Belarus, which has long been known for its relatively restrictive and costly visa regime. I was prepared to pay $260 for a visa simply to pass through the state of Belarus, but upon booking my ticket on this overnight train, I received an email from the travel booking agency:
Please be informed that since Russia and Belarus are members of the Union state, there is no boundary between them. It is illegitimate for third-country nationals to cross Belarus - Russia border either by car or by train. The only way is a plane.
Till recently the passengers didn’t experience any problems – there are no checkpoints on the border, the documents were never checked. But just a couple of days ago our customer reported that the Russian military police entered the train once it crossed the border, checked the documents and our customer had to get off the train, paid the fine of 2000 RUB (approx. 30 EUR) and had to book a flight to enter Russia."
Initially, I thought to risk it. I corresponded with Mark Smith who runs my favorite train travel planning website, Seat 61. He said that essentially, it was probably not too risky to chance the Belarusian border, and that he had recently had a reader report they safely made it to Moscow on the same train. However, in the end, my concerned family members combined with the increasing diplomacy tensions between Russia and the United States contributed to visions of being hauled off to Russian prison. I decided that maybe avoiding confrontation with a totalitarian state's military police might be best.
So instead, I'm going wildly out of the way, taking an overnight bus through Latvia & Lithunia in order to catch the train to Moscow out of Riga instead of direct from Warsaw.