In August we are travelling overland from Beijing to Moscow, then on to Europe. We have nine days to get to Amsterdam, but here our plan comes unstuck.
I read that if one leaves St Pete's by train to Finland, no visa is needed. Everything else goes via Belarus, which is where things get complicated.
Can you help?

We have been backpacking for the last 24-25 years on Kiwi passports and prefer to use local transport, local accommodation.

A. Woodcock

Thanks to adventurous travellers like yourselves, the Trans Siberian railway has enjoyed a 90-per-cent increase in passengers in recent years, according to Russia specialists Regent Holidays.

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In Europe "flygskam" and popular climate guilt is encouraging travellers to forgo the budget airlines and explore the continent's underused overland routes. However, they are also rediscovering quite how niggly it is to knit together a cross-border rail itinerary.

Eastern Europe is particularly challenging. Land borders are complicated by incompatible rail networks and historically challenging transport links. Outside the Schengen zone (the European Union's area of common travel) things get only more difficult.

Overland from East to West today is almost as difficult as it was 30 years ago.

There is no longer an Iron Curtain, but it seems no one told the train conductors. Rail travel east of Poland or south of Hungary comes with extra headaches for the would-be holidaymaker.

The main rail arteries joining Russia to Europe pass through Belarus. This is in itself a problem. Mfat has advised against any land crossings between the two countries:

Due to lack of passport controls "foreigners aren't permitted to cross the land border between Russia and Belarus (including by train)".

Rail routes from Russia into European countries often cross back through Belarus, so take care when researching your route. Passing further south through Ukraine is also not an option. Mfat advises against all travel through the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. It is a war zone.

You are therefore left with only two options: a coach trip via Estonia and the Baltics, or rail and sail up through Finland.

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Bus is definitely the less glamorous option. After transferring to Tallinn you have 45 hours+ of long-haul coach network to navigate to the Netherlands. That is a hefty amount of driving per day. Then there is the fact that routes have a nasty habit of passing through Belarus. All roads lead to Minsk.

RailBookers.au, a bespoke rail planning company, were equally un-enthusiastic about the prospect putting together a rail itinerary through the Baltics.

"We wouldn't recommend it either, because a Belarus [onward] travel visa is generally quite hard to get.

"Then there is the ticket, which is a physical train ticket and doesn't get released by the operator until about 30 days before travel, which doesn't leave you any time to receive it."

They won't book via the country because there is simply too fine a window for things to go wrong.

A rail journey through Scandinavia might not be as exotic, but it is breathtakingly scenic and visa-free. After all, this is the place that invented "flygskam" and the return-to-rail revolution.

If you really must visit Belarus, New Zealanders are able to get visa-free entry only via arrival to Minsk international airport. Which is a pity.

The train from Moscow to Berlin was once a trip-of-a-life-time for railway enthusiasts.

The "changing of the bogies" at Brest in Belarus is a phrase that summons misty-eyed fondness in true trainspotters - and confusion, possibly revulsion in anyone else.

It is still the point where wide Russian rail gauge meets the smaller European standard. (1520mm to 1435mm, if you must know.) Train carriages, passengers and all, are physically lifted on to a smaller set of wheels to continue their journey.

Russia and Europe rarely meet-eye-to-eye on anything. Rail travel is no different.

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