From Hong Kong to Berlin by train
Via Shenzhen, Urumqi, Almaty, Bishkek, Moscow and Warsaw
In July 2017 I took the train from China to Europe. It was an incredible journey, and I hope my write-up can help others plan their trip and get the most out of it.
I started planning my trip about two months in advance, although most tickets can only be booked four to six weeks in advance, and booking train tickets is a prerequisite to getting visas. I also limited myself to trains that issue electronic tickets, as I needed the tickets for my visas. There might be a way around that, but it will surely increase the complexity of your plans.
As a European Citizen I needed visas for China, Russia and Belarus. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan offer between 15 and 60 days of visa-free stay.
I already had a multiple entry visa for up to 30 day stays in China, easily obtained for US$ 100 at the Consular Affairs Office in Wan Chai, Hong Kong.
As I stayed less than 5 days in Belarus and less than 10 days in Russia, I qualified for a transit visa in each place, which do not require a sponsor or a formal invitation.
To get a Russian transit visa I needed:
- Copy of the train ticket
- Travel insurance
- Belarus Visa
To get the Belarus visa I needed:
- Copy of the train ticket
- Travel insurance
I had to travel to Japan to apply for my Belarus visa. After a one hour wait at the embassy and a short discussion with their staff they offered to process the transit visa within two days. At first they quoted 100 EUR, but after paying the fee via a cash deposit at the local bank branch nearby they realized the transit visa is only ~20 Euros (2'484 JPY). I was refunded the difference in cash.
Alternatively you can also apply for your Belarus transit visa during your stop in Moscow.
The Russian consulate in Wan Chai, Hong Kong only takes up to 7 applications per day. They do not tell you on their website that they require you to make an appointment online at least two days in advance. It is quite clear that the Russian consulate does not want you to apply for a visa through them directly, and they will be rude and dismissive to underline that stance.
Instead, you are encouraged to apply through the private “Russian Visa Application Centre” next door which charges you an extra service charge of around ~25–40 USD to process your visa on top of the regular consular fees. They do provide good and friendly service, however. Make sure to fill out the application form online ahead of time.
Internet in China is relatively unusable, and if you find a Wi-Fi spot it will require registration with a Chinese phone number, even in many hostels.
Once connected it will be slow and your VPN may or may not connect.
A far better alternative is the China Mobile Hong Kong travel SIM card which offers 1.5MB during 10 days for ~US$19. It has excellent LTE coverage throughout China (with exceptions in Xinjiang) and offers uncensored internet at respectable speeds. You can top up the card if it expires or you exceed your data volume at the CMHK website. Another 10 days with 1MB will cost you ~US$13, or you can pay ~US$6 per day for 1GB per day. You can buy the SIM card with Bitcoin here.
I used the 30-day, 3GB SIM of Hong Kong provider Multi-Byte. For ~US$40 I had a single SIM card that would work at 3G/4G speeds across all of Central Asia and Eastern and Western Europe.
The SIM card cannot be topped up, so if you plan to spend more time in the area or need more data, you will have to buy multiple cards.
Hong Kong to Shenzhen by metro
The overnight train across China leaves from Shenzhen Station, which is just around the corner from Lo Wu (Luohu, 羅湖 / 罗湖) border crossing. The East Rail takes you there from Kowloon conveniently.
Across the border, follow the large plaza towards the long distance trains. It will be easiest to go shopping for supplies and get a good breakfast in Hong Kong before you cross, as the choices around the Lo Wu checkpoint are limited and inferior.
Shenzhen to Urumqi by train
Price: ~US$120 in 3rd Class
- Air conditioning
- Two toilets per car
- Water heater in every car
- Restaurant car (hot foods and sort of cold drinks)
- Two electricity plugs per car (highly sought after)
I booked my tickets four weeks in advance at ctrip.com.hk for a ~3.4 USD fee, which included “train delay insurance” (Larry: “Good luck claiming that”). The train sells out within a few days. You will need your passport number for the reservation and will receive a reservation number in your email inbox. With this number and your passport you can pick up the tickets at the station.
Arrive at Shenzhen Station early enough to go through multiple checkpoints at which your luggage will be X-Rayed and searched. Knives, flammable liquids and pressurized containers (shaving foam!) will not be allowed into Xinjiang.
The Z230/Z231 train only offers hard seats and hard sleeper (~3rd class). There is a train from Guangzhou to Urumqi offering soft sleeper (~2nd class) as well, but I find hard sleeper relatively comfortable and the extra trip to Guangzhou creates unnecessary complications.
Each compartment is open and has six beds. The lower beds are easily accessible and are comfortable to sit in during the ride, while the middle bed still offers a view through the window, but is difficult to sit in upright. The top bunks offer the most privacy and extra leg as well as storage room, but may be hard to reach for some.
If you are shorter than 180cm you will be comfortable in the lower and middle beds, and the top beds should be comfortable for people much taller than this.
The trains have very few electricity outlets, which may prove difficult for smartphone addicted travelers (e.g. everyone in China). If you bring an extension cord however, you will be everybody’s friend.
The train has a restaurant car between the sleeper cars and the regular cars, selling fruit, noodles, water and other drinks at very reasonable prices. Cup noodles can be bought for ~0.9 USD, beer for ~1.5 USD. Hot water is available in every car.
The bath rooms are basic and you will be expected to bring your own toilet paper, although you may be able to buy some in the restaurant car. Every car has a bathroom and a few extra sinks.
The train is generally kept clean and pleasant, and I had great experiences with my bunk mates and other travelers. Kids mostly wanted to practice their English, while others were genuinely curious about my life in Hong Kong and my travels to Europe.
Lights are turned off every night at 10pm and gates between the cars are regularly locked. If you want to go between your bunk and the restaurant car at night, you might have to wait a while at these doors for an officer to come by to open the door for you.
The train travels at 120–150km/h, with stops every few hours. Major stops with more than 20min waiting time include Wuchang 武昌, Xi’an ⻄安 and Lanzhou 兰州. You will get a chance to walk along the platform and buy products from hawkers.
The drive is mostly spectacular between Xining and Zhangye, which you should pass in the early evening.
Uruqmi to Almaty by bus
Time to cross the border: 7h
Immediately upon arrival in Urumqi I headed for 碾子沟 Nanzigou Bus Station, which you can find at coordinates 43.792557, 87.588449 (don’t use Google Maps in China as it WILL lead you astray. I recommend Maps.me, which is based on Openstreet Maps).
I was able to buy tickets for the same day.
There are two buses with 33 passengers each leaving every evening at 7pm, one with Kazakh, one with Chinese registration. You are expected to arrive at the bus station one hour before departure, when your luggage will be scanned and you will be assigned your bus and your bed.
Tickets cost 420 CNY for a lower bunk bed, slightly more for a top bunk and less for the (slightly less comfortable) area in the back of the bus. There is a double bed at the very front which can be comfortable for couples.
The bus makes frequent stops, the first one right outside of Urumqi. I do not know why the bus was delayed for over 8h, but it might have to do with only one available bus driver, which required repeated stops, including a 5h stop at a rest stop halfway to the Kazakh border.
Leaving Urumqi at 7pm we passed the gorgeous mountain range West of Sayram Lake around dawn and arrived at the Chinese border town of Khorgas 霍尔果斯 at 8am.
The bus will stop at the Khorgas bus station and give you the opportunity to get breakfast at one of the shops nearby. The bus will depart without you for Chinese customs clearance, which took about 3h. It will come back with its cargo bay sealed by Chinese authorities and you will no longer be able to access your checked luggage until you have crossed into Kazakhstan.
At this stop you will also have the opportunity to exchange currency into Kazakh Tenge, though at an unfavorable rate. Change just enough as you would expect to spend on drinks and snacks on the Kazakh side of the trip.
We departed to the border around noon, which had close to no traffic at the time. Going through customs and immigration clearance was quick (they will require you to pass a full body scanner), but on the other side it took one hour for us to be allowed to the final check, where the seals are inspected, the passengers counted and everybody’s exit stamp inspected a final time.
The Kazakh border is far more relaxed, but they will require you to remove all luggage from the cargo bay and take it with you through the border in person. Reloading the luggage will later take a significant amount of time.
Road conditions on the Kazakh side are significantly worse than on the Chinese side, and the past ~300km will easily take you another 5–6h of driving. A highway between Almaty and the border is under construction and partially finished already, but as of 2017 the drive is still overall slow.
The bus will drop you at Sayran bus station in the western part of Almaty. Here you have the opportunity to exchange money at a better rate, grab a taxi into the city, or take a bus or metro to the city center.
Almaty to Bishkek by bus
Time to cross the border: 30min
Minibuses leave from the Sayran bus station, about 5km from the city center. A taxi from the center costs about 1200 KZT (~3.7 USD), but buses might also take you there easily.
The bus station is very orderly and easy to navigate. You enter the main building and look for the booth selling the bus tickets. You can exchange your remaining Kazakh Tenge into Kyrgyz Som at the station.
A minibus seats about 20 people including the driver and has limited space for luggage in the back. It leaves when it is full which shouldn’t take too long.
It will take you around 3.5h to reach the border to Kyrgyzstan including a short rest stop. You will pick up your luggage and walk through both the Kazakh and Kyrgyz borders and wait for the same bus on the other side.
I was lucky, it only took me about 30 minutes to go through the border and wait for the bus to arrive, but I hear it can take up to 2h.
Bishkek is just 20km away from the border, and if you are in a hurry you can take a taxi directly to where you want to go instead of waiting for your bus and other passengers.
The minibus drops you off at the Western Bus Station, from where you can take a taxi, minibus or bus to your final destination. Bus 35 for example stops right outside of the bus terminus and goes in a convenient loop around the city center.
Bishkek to Moscow by train
Price: ~US$230 in 2nd Class
Time to cross the border to Kazakhstan: 3h
Time to cross the border to Russia: 5h
- Two toilets per car
- Coal powered water heater in every car
- Restaurant car (no hot food or cold drinks)
- One electricity plug per car
- No air conditioning, but heating
The longest train on my journey, the Kirgizia, leaves from Bishkek every Monday and Wednesday at 9:06am Moscow time (12:06 local time). I booked my tickets six weeks in advance at tutu.travel but when I checked again the day before departure there were still three 2nd class tickets, and 266 3rd class tickets available.
There are 12 cars for 3rd class (six-bed compartments), and 2 cars for 2nd class (four-bed compartments. The 2nd class cars as well as the restaurant car are located in the middle of the train.
Unlike on Chinese or Russian trains, you will have to make your own bed, which also means that if you get on the training halfway through, you will get fresh bedding.
The train comes of as charming but visibly worn. It does not have air conditioning, which was not discomforting at all during my trip. In winter the train has heating.
There is only one electricity plug per car, but somehow it gets used very sparingly. Unlike in Chinese trains, fellow passengers will not exclusively stare at their phones and juggle with multiple extension cords and power banks to keep themselves connected.
It probably helps that there is little mobile internet along the tracks, though you will find LTE connectivity at every stop.
Within a two hours you will arrive at the border to Kazakhstan, where Kyrgyz officials will check and stamp your passports, before the train moves to the Kazakh side of the border, whose customs and immigration officials are more thorough in their checks. All together we spend 3h crossing the border.
For the first 24h until about Baikonur the train was relatively empty and calm. The restaurant car is a nice place to hang out, but stays empty throughout the entire trip. They do not serve food or cold drinks, instead only have crackers and warm bottles.
There are a few stops along the way where the train stops for 20 minutes or more. You can use the time to buy cold drinks or rice dishes and bread that local merchants are selling on the platform. During the trip you might also be able to buy local delicacies like dried fish or handmade garments from merchants who hop on the train.
The view from the train is not spectacular, but it is very pleasant to look out through the endless steppe. You will see some cows, plenty of goats and the occasional camel grazing by the side of the tracks.
In the early morning of the third day you will approach the border to Russia, which took us a whole five hours to cross.
The last 24h of the train ride are through forests and meadows, with the occasional field and village. Quite a change from Kazakhstan. You will pass the Volga shortly after the one-hour stop in Samara, from where the tracks are electrified.
The train approaches Kazanskaya Station north of central Moscow after three days and two hours and 3714km.
Moscow to Warsaw by train
Price: ~US$150 in 1st Class
Time to cross the border to Belarus: No stop
Time to cross the border to Poland: 4h
- Two toilets per car
- One shower per car with hot water
- Water heater
- No restaurant car (cold drinks and snacks available)
- Two electricity plugs per compartment
- One sink per compartment
- Air conditioning
I booked this train on tutu.travel. On other days there are direct trains to Berlin from Moscow, which offer a restaurant car and even have a class above the 1st class I traveled in, which offers a single-person cabin with toilet and shower at an exorbitant price.
The train leaves from Belorusskaya station and in my case only had four cars (with a fifth older, unused one). The older Minsk -> Warsaw sleeper train is joined at Minsk station.
It’s modern and feels luxurious. There is no difference between 1st and 2nd class other than the number of occupants (2 vs 4 people per compartment). Even in first class, both beds are made for you, meaning you will have the choice whether you want to sleep in the bottom bunk (the bed can be folded out from the wall onto the bench) or the top.
The lights can be either dimmed or completely turned off and the door can be closed. You will be provided with a NFC card that you need to open your compartment door from the outside, providing a high sense of security and privacy. In fact the corridors are largely empty, unlike in the Chinese and Kyrgyz trains, and you will not have as much chance to get in touch with your fellow travelers.
The train does not stop at the border to Belarus, and you will not receive a Russian exit stamp or Belarus entry stamp. This does not mean you do not need a visa to transit through Belarus. If you are spending a few days in Moscow anyway, and like me have trouble finding a Belarussian embassy nearby you, you can get your Belarus transit visa there within a day.
The train arrives at the border to Warsaw in the early morning. Your passports will be collected and are processed while the gauges of your trains are being exchanged.
This is quite an exciting procedure in which the train enters the hall where cars get decoupled and individually lifted up with hydraulic lifts. The Russian wheels are removed from underneath and replaced with European wheels with their narrower axis. The train exits on the other side of the hall where your stamped passports will be returned together with some optional questions about how much money (does Bitcoin count?) you are taking with you.
Shortly after leaving the station of Brest you’ll approach the Polish side of the border. Passports are once again checked and potentially stamped. European customs officers are more concerned with the alcohol and cigarettes you might be bringing in from Russia than currency.
The train arrives in Warsaw at close to 8am.
Warsaw to Berlin by train
Price: ~US$60 in 2nd Class
Time to cross the border to Germany: lol ❤ EU
- One toilet per car
- One electricity plug per seat
- Air conditioning
- Free Wi-Fi (requires registration with a phone number)
- Restaurant car
The train is operated by PKP, the Polish railways until Frankfurt (Oder) and by Deutsche Bahn from there. I booked the train through PKP, though Deutsche Bahn had the same ticket about US$15 cheaper with delivery though postal services only, like it’s 1985 or something.
The train has fast Wi-Fi that unfortunately requires silly registration through a phone number. It has a fantastic amount of leg space and relatively comfortable seats.
From Berlin I continued my trip by train to Munich, Vienna, Bozen, Milan and Zurich. As European trains are fairly easy to arrange I do not mention them here in detail.
In total I spent about 230h in 13 trains (excluding local transportation like the fabulous Moscow subway) and two buses, traveled through 10 countries and rode ~12'900km on roads and rail. I spent about US$800 for all trains and buses combined, about double as much as on the plane ticket back to Hong Kong from Zurich with Emirates.
Seat61 for great guidances
Ben and Dominic for a great hike up to 3'500m altitude in the Kazakh mountains
The wonderful crew of the Almaty Backpackers Hostel for the breakfast with fresh berries, milk rice and pancakes