WHY THIS ROUTE?
We ended up picking this itinerary when stuck in Central Asia without the Chinese Visa, previously denied in all the – Stan countries (nowadays it turned out almost impossible to get the approval in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan).
Hence, we had to modify our original plan to cross from Kyrgyzstan to China into a new daring trajectory bypassing the obstacle
The purpose was going as far as Mongolia to be able to apply for the Chinese Visa there. According to our sources, at that moment Ulaanbaatar was a reliable city to resolve the standstill. We still did not know that we would find hard life even there…as described in this post.
THE PREPARATION :
This is why from Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) we pointed to Kazakhstan (visa free for most nationalities up to 15 days) and specifically Almaty. From Almaty, then, you have a “draining” 20 hours bus to Astana.
BUYING THE TICKETS :
In order to avoid surprises, we bought the tickets as fast as we could (around 9 days before departure date) at Astana bus station (Saparzhay). The ticket costs 9050 Kazakh Tenge (around 23 €). To purchase it, you will also need your passport.
It is also necessary to buy it quite in advance for two main reasons:
1. The bus only runs every 7-10 days. So if you miss one, you will probably need to wait quite a long, with the risk of having your 15 days stay expired.
It is totally unpredictable to know when the bus leaves. There is no regular schedule or website to find this info. It should be at least 3 times a month, but without any guarantee
The best you can do is trying to have somebody phoning the bus station in Kazakh or Russian. Departure dates should be available at the beginning of each month. You can look up for the bus station phone number here;
2. To apply for the Russian Transit Visa you are asked to show the entry and exit tickets (plane, train, bus, etc.). Therefore, you obligatorily need a receipt beforehand.
APPLYING FOR MONGOLIAN & RUSSIAN VISA :
a) Before departure you will have to ensure your documents are ok. Apart from the following nationalities, all the rest need a Mongolian Visa. For us, it was simple enough to get it in Bishkek (KZG), where the embassy is notoriously user friendly.
We just showed up with our passports, filled in a form in the office and handed one picture. That’s it. Visa ready in 48 hours
The embassy in Bishkek opens at 10 am from Monday to Friday.
Although they normally recommend the pick up in 3 days, you can easily insist to get it in two, or even earlier. Price for us was 58 dollars to be paid at a specific bank, Rossiya bank.
b) The Russian Transit Visa required instead a more thorny process, which included, besides the tickets, the onward visa (Mongolian) and a health insurance for the whole period of the transit. All the requirements are well outlined here: http://consular.rfembassy.ru/eng/tm/vizovye_voprosy/
The duration of the visa depends on your tickets and travel insurance. It should match the dates in which you will enter and exit the country
It goes without saying that your insurance must follow at least the same timeframe (or beyond). On a general basis, for this type of crossing, you will only need 2 days of insurance coverage. Add maybe a third one to be sure.
In our case, the bus was supposed to leave on the 31st August to officially enter Russia on the 1st September. The bus was then due to arrive in Mongolia on the 2nd September. To be on the safe side and prevent possible delays during the way, we signed up for 3 days insurance as to have 3 days transit time.
After much scouring the main insurance companies’ websites, we found the following option at the cheapest rate: http://alfa.russiatravelinsurance.com/en
We are honestly unsure if they are totally reliable in case something really happens and you have to claim medical expenses back.
However, just for visa purposes, they perfectly fulfil their task: you pay 1.30 € per each insured day and receive straight away an email with the digital contract to print out for the embassy. Quick and cheap!
According to your urgency, you will pay 35 € (standard processing) or 70 € (express), as described here: http://consular.rfembassy.ru/eng/lm/konsulskie_voprosy/tarify/. No need for banks or to pay in a third-party currency. All is done at the embassy cashier desk and in local Tenge.
The embassy contacts and location may be found below: http://consular.rfembassy.ru/eng/tm/kontakty/
Supposedly, applications are only accepted on Tuesday and Friday, from 15.30 to 17.30
When we went there, we found a few people in front of the door. The diplomatic police took our passports and names and just asked to wait. First come, first served. Once inside, you will be redirected to the counter n. 4, where a disciplined official will inquire you. He will thoroughly review your papers to check that nothing compulsory is missing.
Unfortunately, as specified on the embassy’s website, “Transit visa becomes valid only after 3 working days following the date it has been issued on”
This is often an underestimated catch which unavoidably puts travellers in the unwanted situation of being obliged to go for the Express procedure. As a matter of fact, if you sum the minimum 4 days processing to the 3 working days before validity is triggered, you will hardly make it to stay within the 15 visa-free days in Kazakhstan.
We even tried to take responsibility for crossing the Russian border on the 3rd day after the visa release day, but no way: the visa rigorously starts its validity only from the 4th day on
So this is the big trap you should beware. It might cost you exactly the double. A rip off for just 24 hours transit! In the end, we were forced to go for the Express, which at least we got on the spot after 30 minutes wait in the embassy. So at least no need to return a second time.
THE TRIP :
Equipped with our two visas, we reached Astana bus station one hour before departure time, scheduled for 19 30 h.
Expected trip duration: between 40 and 48 hours
There is no much information about the bus and the platform. Around 15 minutes before the bus arrives, you will glean the speaker muttering something about “Mongolia”. The bus arrived just on time. So no worries. You will notice that most of the people boarding inside have a clear Mongolian appearance.
With just 30 minutes delay, we started moving quite sluggishly towards to Kazakh-Russian border. The first stop (approx. 1 hour duration) for eating is at around midnight in the middle of nowhere.
Afterwards, in the early morning the bus phlegmatically passes through Pavlodar (stop at the city station) before reaching the border at around 9 am. There is indeed a last pause within the Kazakh territory for breakfast and set up.
The border procedures are fairly lengthy and annoying, taking around 2 hours to go through both sides
In particular, on the Russian one, you will be asked to unload your luggage for the dog and metal detector.
The second day is entirely spent in Russia then. After the border, there is a short break at a store and restaurant’s parking lot. After a couple of more pauses for quick needs, the bus eventually reaches the beautiful Barnaul, briefly after which a dinner stop ensues (about 8 pm). Another halt followed at around 10 pm, before the second night sleep in the packed bus.
The subsequent morning the bus does not even stop before the Mongolian border. It goes straight to the military barrier. Again two burdensome hours before the move on. Same procedures as at the previous crossing.
Unfortunately, then, you won’t find any place to change back your Russian Rubles
Nevertheless, you will be possibly able to use them to pay for your accommodation once arrived in Ölgii (as we did).
Actually, between the Russian and Mongolian border there are about 20 Km of no man’s land. The Mongolian border is more straightforward than the Russian. Nonetheless, as usual, procedures get delayed because of the many passengers on board.
After the crossing, it’s only 100 km left to get to Ölgii. The road becomes paved after a few kilometres. In two hours you are right in Ölgii, exhausted but happy after 42 hours (we arrived at around 3.30 pm local time) spent in the longest bus of our life…so far at least!
♦ CONCLUSION :
Although tiresome, the trip is nonetheless affordable and allows you to cover almost 2000 Km in less than 2 days, with a great progress in your itinerary towards China. Just be mindful to call the bus station in Astana quite in advance to know the exact departure dates as well as buy the tickets a few days before that moment. You do not need to bring many supplies with you as the bus stops with regular frequency along the way, for lunch, dinner and minor needs.
The total travel time is around 42 hours, of which approximately 24 are spent in Russian territory. You enter Russia the morning of the second day and leave it the morning of the third day. Hence, you only need a Russian transit visa for 2 days
A final note regarding the purpose of the trip: at the time of writing, applications for the Chinese Visas in Mongolia are closed for foreign tourists (non-resident). If like us you are going after that, better to check the situation in advance, so as to avoid getting stuck there or having to apply for another Russian Visa or even catching a flight out.