Ask Lonely Planet: Tricky transit worth it for great rail ride

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It would be a shame not to get off the train and do some exploring in Mongolia. Photo / Jim Eagles
It would be a shame not to get off the train and do some exploring in Mongolia. Photo / Jim Eagles

I would love to go to my home city, Krasnoyarsk in Russia, by the Trans-Siberian Railway. I have looked on the Seat 61 website but it is not easy to find the information I need. If I travel from New Zealand to China and then on to Mongolia, do I need to obtain a Chinese visa and Mongolian visa?

- Tanya

Lonely Planet's Sarah Bennett & Lee Slater write:

You will need a visa in China, unless you are travelling in a group organised by an authorised travel agency.

If you're a dual New Zealand-Russian national, you will need to apply for this visa under your New Zealand passport. If you're not a New Zealand citizen, you'll need to show evidence of your permission to be in New Zealand and your current immigration status, and this could be a residence permit or valid visa. The Chinese Embassy is in Thorndon, Wellington.

You will also need a visa for Mongolia: if you want to get off the train you'll need a tourist visa (valid for 30 days) or a transit visa if you're just going to pass through. Contact the Mongolian Consulate in Lower Hutt, Wellington, for more details on how to apply.

The weekly Trans-Mongolian train leaves Beijing early morning on a Wednesday, arriving at Krasnoyarsk almost four days later. There are four main ways to purchase tickets, by far the cheapest being in person at one of the reservation offices in Beijing. Trains do get booked up, though, so if you choose this option you will need to spend some time in Beijing before departure. The busiest time is peak summer, between May and September.

Reasonably cheap tickets can also be purchased through the China Travel Service (CITS). This can be done via email (info@cits.com.cn) or by phone (+86 10 6522 2911). A more expensive but relatively hassle-free option is to use a travel agency, such as ChinaTripadvisor or Monkey Shrine.

Finally, you can plan your trip and also buy tickets through the Real Russia website that has a search function for train times and ticket prices.

Travelling non-stop to the Russian border will take about two days, although it would be a shame not to get off in Mongolia to do some exploring.

Highlights along this route include browsing through the weird and wonderful collection of stuffed animals and curious artefacts in Ulaanbataar's Winter Palace of Bogd Khaan, and spotting rare wild Przewalski horses in Khustain National Park.

The latest edition of Lonely Planet's Trans-Siberian Railway guide is due out in April. It's an excellent resource for planning your trip and is packed with information on what to see and do, on and off the tracks.

The Thorn Tree forum also has a plethora of tips and tricks provided by keen travellers who have already embarked on this great train journey.

Service in Tonga

I want to go to Tonga and do volunteer work there. I am really struggling to find any information and organisations that do this. Do you have any advice or links for me to check out?

- Nataly

You might like to start by investigating Wwoofing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms).

On this website we found three hosts offering work in exchange for lodging and food, and this could well open up other opportunities as you settle into the community and meet people.

The New Zealand Volunteer Service Abroad and Australian Volunteers International run worthy volunteer programmes in Tonga and throughout the Pacific. Their websites provide more details, including eligibility criteria.

Lonely Planet's website has a volunteering section with information on getting started.

For further reading, pick up a copy of Volunteer: A Traveller's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World.

It provides invaluable advice on the practicalities and ethics of volunteering, how to choose your volunteer experience, and even how to set up your own charitable project.

- NZ Herald

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