A Journey from Europe to Japan on the Trans-Siberian Railroad

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Sonia Hamer is a reader from Houston, Texas who embarked on the adventure of a lifetime last summer. Starting in Lithuania, she traveled all the way to Tokyo by train and boat. Today, she’s sharing her adventure on the Trans-Siberian Railroad with us.

Last summer, I traveled by rail and boat from Vilnius, Lithuania to Tokyo, Japan. Before I went, I have to admit, I was very nervous. (My parents, I think, had it even worse.) It was my first trip and my first time as a solo traveler (and a young female one at that!). I don’t speak Lithuanian, Russian, or Japanese.

Many people told me that the idea was crazy, but just as many encouraged me. Now that I have done it, I realize how important the journey was for me, and not just because of the things I saw or the people I met. My solo trip allowed me to build confidence, to become more aware of this big, wide world. This journey – and the fact that I am able to travel at all – is an incredible privilege.

Getting to Lithuania

My trip began with a flight from Houston to Atatürk International Airport. As it turns out, getting to Lithuania from the U.S. isn’t always simple, even via aircraft. There are options that take you across Northern Europe, into Russia, and back to Vilnius. Other routes cut across the Atlantic and Southwestern Europe, straight to the heart of the continent. But the route I chose was the one provided by Turkish Air, from Houston to Istanbul, then onto Vilnius after a 15 hour layover. At the time I was booking, this was by far the cheapest and simplest flight. And, as a bonus, Turkish Air has a policy of putting customers up in a hotel room for the night if their next available connection is more than ten hours after arrival. Why say no to a free night in Istanbul?

A prelude, of sorts, my night in Istanbul was where I met Musa, a friendly bus driver, and had döner on İstiklal Avenue. I also spent a free night in Istanbul’s Hyatt Regency—by far the nicest digs I would be seeing for a while. The next day, I shuffled back through passport control and boarded the flight to Vilnius, Lithuania’s current capital.

The Journey Begins in Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius was a lovely city with lots of beautiful and historical architecture. Even in the center of the city, however, the feeling is still very rural—much like a small town. I don’t think I saw a single building over three stories tall. Though Lithuania’s economic situation has improved since its admission into the EU, it is still a very poor country, particularly in comparison with the rest of Europe. It was impossible to miss this as I travelled through the city (both on foot and by bus—the bus system is very extensive and easy to use, just make sure you really know the Lithuanian name of your stop!). The situation in Kaunas was very similar. I travelled from one city to the other by train, which was very cheap and easy to do. Buying tickets more than one hour to 30 minutes in advance really isn’t necessary, and overall the timetables in the train stations are very easy to use.

Onwards to Russia

After returning from Kaunas, I boarded my first Russian overnight train—eight hours from Vilnius to Moscow via the Republic of Belarus. All of my overnight tickets I booked in advance via an agency called RealRussia. This wasn’t necessary. The booking offices for international trains are relatively easy to find and navigate—had I known this, I would have saved myself a lot of money. I also obtained a Belarusian transit visa back in the states, which meant mailing my passport to the Belarusian embassy in D.C. This was definitely necessary. My passport was heavily scrutinized several times during the trip. Keep in mind that Belarus has an open border with Russia. This means that in travelling from Vilnius to Moscow, your passport gets stamped once by the Belarusian authorities.

In addition, you will receive one migration card. DON’T LOSE IT. You need it to exit either country. In Moscow, I met my contact, Veronika, who had agreed to travel on the Trans-Siberian with me and translate along the way. We spent several days in Moscow before we embarked on our longer journey. I stayed at a place called Friday Hostel, which I would highly recommend for any sojourn in Muscovy.

Again, I had purchased train tickets in advance, but this probably wasn’t necessary. Our six days on the train were like a dream ripped from time, speeding over the taiga, chasing the sun. Russian trains are very comfortable, though as always exercise due vigilance. Don’t leave your things unattended, do talk to your fellow passengers (if they want to talk to you, of course).

Vladivostok, when we finally got there, was gorgeous. We arrived during the height of their very short summer and spent our time there exploring the beaches and the unique, beautiful natural landforms of the city.

The Home Stretch to Japan

Getting a ferry ticket on the DBS Cruise Ferry, which goes from Vladivostok to Donghae, South Korea to Sakaiminato, Japan, was easy in some ways, hard in others. The ticket office is in the ferry port, right next to the train station. Make sure to go at least one day early to pay for your ticket, though. The line the day of is quite insane. Keep in mind that even if you have reserved a berth, you must pay at the office in person, in rubles. It’s going to be a lot of rubles, so make sure you have enough currency exchanged (in Russia, you can only do this at banks—but you probably didn’t make it all the way to Vladivostok without figuring that out).

Once I had made it on the ferry I said goodbye to Veronika and sailed to Japan. I went in the ferry’s economy class, which was very pleasant. Though the room was filled with about 50 people, everyone got their own bunk bed, curtain, and reading lamp. What more do you really need? After two days, I arrived in Sakaiminato. Several local trains later, I was in Okayama, a large city on the Pacific coast. From there, getting to Tokyo is a snap.

Quite the trip, all in all. I don’t have enough words for it here. Mostly, I’ve tried to include practical information for anyone trying to do the same.

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Thanks to Sonia for sharing her story with us on Jetfarer! All photos featured in today’s post were taken by her. If you want to read more about the particulars of her trip, or find out why she did this crazy thing in the first place, visit Sonia’s blog.

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