- This article is an itinerary.
The usual overland route from Europe into China is the Trans-Siberian Railway, crossing Russia to Lake Baikal then travelling either via Mongolia or Dongbei (the former Manchuria) to Beijing. However, a less travelled but equally fascinating itinerary runs from Moscow in Russia to Urumqi in China via Kazakhstan. This route is not so well-travelled or documented, so it demands more research and preparation, but gets you further off the tourist beat.
This is not a trip where you can wing it. You need to sort three things in advance: the language (at least three), visas (at least two), and trains.
How much can you organise yourself, and what do you need an agency to help with? It depends on your language & business skills and sheer dogged perseverance, but you'll probably find it straightforward (in English) to book accommodation and trains within Russia and across Kazakhstan. Since the visa process has been outsourced, you probably need the help of a visa-support agency to get your visa (in UK the brand leader is Real Russia), and they can also help with the Kazakh-China trains. Once into China it gets easier again.
- English: it's surprising how far this will get you. Anywhere in Russia or Kazakhstan that's in the habit of seeing tourists will know where their next $ or £ is likely to come from. Other West European languages are much less likely to be understood.
- Russian: your main need is to get safely across Moscow, so you need to be comfortable with reading Cyrillic signage for public transport. Once aboard your train, the steward is familiar with the point-grunt-da-nyet of multiple nationalities.
- Kazakh: no-one expects you to know any, so a few civilities will be appreciated. It resembles Turkish, in the way Romanian resembles Italian: just enough to confuse, not enough to help.
- Chinese: once you get off the train in Urumqi, you need some basic Mandarin for survival, English is seldom understood. Plus a few Uighur civilities.
Accommodation and Trains
Accommodation needs to be booked in advance to support your visa applications. This is the easiest part to plan because there's a wide range available, bookable by internet in your own language and currency in the standard way. See "Sleep" listings for the preferred stopover cities along your route. But you can't book until you've sorted the trains.
Trains likewise must be booked in advance to support your visa applications. Not only are they your accommodation for some six or seven nights, but they are also evidence of how you plan to get in and out of the country, instead of a plane ticket. Booking also avoids you trying to negotiate at a crowded ticket window in your limited Russian or whatever.
The most difficult part to sort out is the final leg from Kazakhstan across the border to Urumqi. There are only two trains a week; one of those two may not run; the booking horizon is short; and you can't book anyway because the English-language version of the Kazakh Railways site only recognises Russian or Kazakh. Also, tickets to Urumqi are only issued if you have a valid Chinese visa; but in order to get that visa you need to show a train booking . . . who said that the Golden Age of grand railway travel was dead? So what this means is that you need to figure out this final leg first, then all the other railway connections and city stopovers fall into place. Then be ready to book everything just ahead of applying for your visas. At this point your passport becomes unavailable for 2-3 weeks, so your other travel plans are compromised.
See under "Trains" below for details, but the one weekly train that is pretty sure to run (#14ts) leaves Almaty shortly after midnight, Saturday gone, Sunday come. It runs north from Almaty overnight to Aktogai, where it's joined by the connection from Astana and Karagandy. It now turns east to Dostyk, crosses the border with long waits either side, and continues east to reach Urumqi by 10:20 on Monday. Coming back, the paired train (#13ts) leaves Urumqi after 23:00 on Monday, to reach Aktogai around 18:00 Tuesday. Change here for Astana and Moscow, while the main train continues south to reach Almaty by 06:00 Wednesday.
So this is the better route from Moscow via Astana, but from Almaty it's a zigzag taking 36 hours. A second, more direct train may run from Almaty via Khorgos, taking only 24 hours. It leaves Almaty-2 at 08:30 Monday, reaching the border that evening and Urumqi by 10:20 Tuesday. No information is currently available on the westbound run.
After that, booking trains in Russia is comparatively easy. See Russian train travel, and much of the general advice on the Trans-Siberian Express page is relevant. (For example, which station in Moscow does your train depart from? There's quite a choice.) Useful websites include poezda and Russian Railways.
This will be the most vexing part of your preparations. Most western travellers (ie on European, UK, US or Canadian passports) will need at least two visas in advance, for Russia and for China, but it could work out at 3 or 4. It's either impractical or impossible to get these along the way. Consular processing time may be longer than you can stop over. They might be prepared to issue a visa to a resident foreigner - eg the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan would grant a Chinese visa to a US citizen residing there to teach English - but not to someone passing through c/o the flophouse hostel.
- If you initially travel overland from western Europe to start this itinerary in Moscow, the simplest route is via Germany, Poland and Belarus. You'd therefore need a Belarus transit visa - which must be valid for double-transit if you return the same way. This allows 48 hours to pass through the country, adequate for transit but not for stop-over. If you do want a stop-over (and Minsk is fascinating) then get a Belarus tourist visa. Although there are sometimes alarming rumours about barriers at the Russian border, railway travel along this route has for some years been trouble-free (as of July 2018). Routes avoiding Belarus, via Ukraine or Scandinavia, add more bother than they save.
- You need a tourist visa for Russia. Journey times are long across this vast country, and you surely want to see some of the cities along the route, so a transit visa isn't suitable. If you return the same way, it needs to be a double-entry visa: this has the same application form and processing time but higher fee, and much more rigour over supporting documentation. Note that one common train route into Kazakhstan, described below, re-crosses for a few minutes into Russia before trundling on east across Kazakhstan. Border procedures ignore this, so you don't need an extra entry validity.
- Until the end of 2018, you don't need a visa for a tourist visit to Kazakhstan. Long may this continue - the exemption has already been extended, and might become permanent, but there's been no official word on this. So if you intend to visit in 2019 or beyond, then for the time being you have to assume that a visa will be needed. That means double-entry if you return the same way, and multiple-entry if you take a side-trip to one of the other "Stans". (Of these others, currently you don't need a visa for Kyrgyzstan, but you do - and they're a major hassle to obtain - for Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)
- You need a tourist visa for China. Their standard issue is a multi-entry visa valid for two years, so return side-trips eg to Hong Kong don't create extra hassle. The problem of needing a visa to buy a train ticket into China, yet needing a ticket to get a visa, can be resolved by the visa support agency. In effect they hold your passport "in escrow" to sort both.
In all these countries, you may need to register on arrival, and again if your stay exceeds five days. Your accommodation will usually do this for you.
The route from Moscow to Urumqi involves, without any sidetrips, two trains. The first train takes you to either Astana or Almaty in Kazakhstan and the second from there to Urumqi.
Moscow to Kazakhstan
Three direct trains run east from Moscow to Kazakhstan, usually every second day:
- Train 7 "Kazakhstan" leaves Moscow Pavletsky station at 21:33 and arrives in Almaty on the fifth day at 06:27.
- Train 72 "Belgorod" leaves Moscow Kazan station at 22:48 and arrives in Astana on the fourth day at 10:27.
- Train 84 has the same departure time, but is in Astana a few hours earlier, at 07:50.
And three run west from Kazakhstan to Moscow:
- Train 7 "Kazakhstan" (the train number is the same in both directions) departs Almaty at 07:34, and is in Moscow on the fourth day at 10:38.
- Train 71 "Belgorod" leaves Astana at 9:15 and is in Moscow at 15:20 on the third day.
- Train 83 leaves Astana at 11:15, but it too is in Moscow at 15:20 on the third day.
To Almaty, Train 7 heads southeast from 1 Moscow Pavletsky via 2 Tambov and 3 Saratov. Here the train crosses the Volga river, and reaches the Kazakh border at 1 Ozinki, about 24 hours from Moscow. The first stop in Kazakhstan is Uralsk, also known as 4 Oral. The train heads east and, by a quirk of the border, crosses briefly back into Russia - border procedures ignore this. Then back into Kazakhstan and east to 5 Aktobe then (about 48 hours from Moscow) turning southwest passing near the former Aral Sea. You're now on the historic Silk Road across the desert, and notable stops include the ancient city of 6 Turkestan and Kazakhstan's third city 7 Shymkent. (Change at Shymkent for a side-trip to Tashkent, for which you'll need an Uzbek visa). One more night on the train brings you to 8 Almaty in the morning.
Don't jump off at Almaty-1 station on the north edge of the city. Stay aboard to the downtown terminus of Almaty-2, near accommodation and sights. From Almaty you can take a side-trip to Kyrgyzstan, for instance to the capital Bishkek or the large mountain lake Issyk Kul.
To Astana, trains from 1 Moscow Kazan take a more easterly route, and pass more large Russian cities. The most notable ones are 2 Ryazan, 3 Samara, 4 Ufa and 5 Chelyabinsk. You reach the Kazakh border at 2 Petukhovo / Mamlyutka, around 40 hours from Moscow. The first city in Kazakhstan is 6 Petropavlovsk, and the train then heads south across the steppes to the capital 7 Astana.
The Trans-Siberian Railway used to run via Petropavlovsk, but has been diverted north to avoid exiting and re-entering Russia. This means that you can explore a long stretch of it without straying too far from your route towards Astana. See main Trans-sib article, but excellent destinations along the way are Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan and Yekaterinburg. Omsk is the most easterly you can sensibly venture, with a six hour back-track to Petropavlovsk. Further east, no passenger trains run across the Russian border till the route to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia; there is a bus from Novosibirsk to Astana.
Kazakhstan to Urumqi
Eastbound: From 1 Almaty-2 station, Train #14ts leaves shortly after midnight, Saturday gone, Sunday come, and runs north overnight to Aktogai for 11:30. Here it's joined by Train #54ts from Astana Nurly Zhol station, having left on Saturday at 16:45 and running via Karagandy to Aktogai. The trains may now be coupled together, or passengers from Astana change. The combined train turns east to Dostyk, and sits there for 3-4 hours for Kazakh border exit procedures. Then it crosses the 3 Chinese border late in the evening to Alashankou, with a time-zone switch and another lengthy wait. Finally around midnight it continues east to reach 2 Urumqi by 10:20 on Monday.
So this is the better route from Moscow via Astana, but from Almaty it's a zigzag taking 36 hours. There's a more direct train from Almaty via Khorgos, taking only 24 hours, if it runs. This route opened in summer 2017 to great fanfare, then was ever-so-quietly axed a few weeks later. In summer 2018 it appears to be running again. This train (#103ts) starts from Almaty-2 at 08:30 on Monday, reaching the border at Khorgos that evening and Urumqi by 10:20 on Tuesday.
Westbound: Train #13ts leaves Urumqi shortly after 23:00 on Monday. It reaches the border next morning and Aktogai around 18:00. Here it divides, or you change, to reach Astana around 12:30 on Wednesday. Or stay aboard to go south, arriving at Almaty for 06:00 on Wednesday.
If two trains run east per week then two trains must run west, unless someone in China is amassing an enormous train-set. However, no information can currently be gleaned on the second westbound train, which is presumably #102ts via Khorgos. Otherwise-helpful travel specialists become strangely evasive when asked about its days of running: they thereby avoid "losing face", and you miss the train. For the time being, you'll have to plan on using the Monday train via Dostyk. There's probably also a bus.
Since you've gone to all the bother of getting a Chinese visa and getting in to Urumqi, you probably want to explore more of the country. And you pretty much have all of China ahead of you - but not entirely, because there's a lot of it already behind you. The western tip of China is actually further west than Lahore in Pakistan! So one option is to backtrack west to Kashgar on the old Silk Road, by train or bus. Seek advice before planning to go even further west into Kyrgyzstan or south down the Karakoram Highway into Pakistan: the mountain passes are difficult in summer and snowbound in winter.
Most itineraries go east to Lanzhou: frequent high speed trains take 11 hours from Urumqi. Here the options fan out: to Xian with its famous Terracotta Army (3 hours from Lanzhou, an easy day-trip), and to Beijing with connections to Shanghai or Guangzhou (for Hong Kong and Macau).