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My wife's father is a Chinese citizen living near Beijing. He has a fear of flying. If he wanted to travel to the EU by train (and then on to London), what visas, tickets and other logistical considerations would need to be considered?

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    How would he like to travel? The Trans Siberian Railway? Dec 23, 2023 at 0:05
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    Rome2Rio show how to get to Moscow by train/bus rome2rio.com/map/Beijing/Moscow#r/Train-drive-bus Dec 23, 2023 at 0:45
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    any alternative would be massively more dangerous. like orders of magnitude. yes, fears can be irrational but at some point you have to be an adult and take adult decisions.
    – eps
    Dec 23, 2023 at 20:53
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    @eps that isn't a kind or helpful comment, at least in my opinion. Dec 24, 2023 at 10:57
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    Given that the alternatives would be far longer and more expensive than flying, you could flip this question and instead invest the extra time and money in helping your FIL overcome his fear. That would also open up opportunities for him for future travel. I don't know about China, but in other parts of the world there are companies that provide special classes for people to help overcome a fear of flying.
    – Peter M
    Dec 26, 2023 at 15:37

4 Answers 4

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Due to the Ukraine-Russia war and the European sanctions, many of the options available before now end at the Russian border. Remaining options are:

  • get through Asia by bus and train to Turkey, and from there through Europe. It's a theoretical option as the fastest way from Beijing-Istanbul is listed as taking 9 days to Istanbul and then another 48 hours to London.
  • get to Moscow as dda describes, then on to St. Petersburg. From St. Petersburg, there are buses going to Tallinn (source: personally know someone who took them recently) and there still might be buses or trains going to Helsinki, though with the recent border closings in Finland these may not exist anymore (they did a few months ago). From Tallinn you can get to London via Warsaw.
  • there is a train option listed on Rio2Rome from Moscow to London, through Belarus and Poland. I'd double-check if it actually exists.
  • another mostly theoretical option is to take a ship. Some cargo ships actually offer a small number of passenger cabins. (source: I used to know a guy working cargo ships on the Asia-Europe routes). I don't know where to book them. These again take forever for the route and with the current Near East war may go around Africa instead of through the Suez Canal and take even longer. But theoretically, the option exists.

All of these options take upwards of a week, and except the ship include a number of trains and buses, cross numerous borders, and have tons of opportunities for missed connections, things going wrong and your father-in-law being stuck in some place nobody can render assistance easily.

Honestly, check flying as an option. Fear of flying is somewhat common and can be overcome. Many airlines do have options to accommodate passengers with a fear of flying.


Update March 2024:

The route through St. Petersburg now involves an additional stop at the Russian border, where buses are not allowed to cross anymore, so passengers disembark on the nearest parking one side, walk across the border and board another bus on the other side.

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    Also take a chinese airline, so that passenger can connunicate better
    – lalala
    Dec 23, 2023 at 11:04
  • A neighbour was a casual journalist, and I believe that at one point he did a fair amount of traveling on cargo ships. From that and comments seen elsewhere about having ones appendix removed as a precautionary measure I feel this might not be a viable choice for somebody elderly. Dec 23, 2023 at 12:30
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    @MarkMorganLloyd I wondered about that, but the OP does not state an age for the father-in-law. For all we know, they could be freshly wed 20-somethings and the father is in his forties or fifties.
    – Tom
    Dec 23, 2023 at 19:16
  • I don't think long-distance freighter travel is available as of 2024.
    – gerrit
    Jan 11 at 14:43
  • Currently the Moscow–London train route on Rome2Rio involves a train to Brest (Belarus), a car hire for a 15-minute drive across the Belarus—Poland border, and another train onward from Terespol. Jan 11 at 19:43
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So I don't fly any more, so I did a lot of research.

The traditional railway routes between China and Europe are centered around the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Russia, and are ALL closed at the western border of Russia. The border crossings on the western borders of Russia are mostly closed even for bus and foot traffic, and what with the war, it's not safe to go anywhere near them anyway.

The one Russia-based route which is open is to go on the traditional Trans-Siberian, but then take the train from Moscow to Vladikavkaz and bus from there to Tblisi, Georgia. This last section is filled with Russian refugees avoiding the draft and heading for Georgia, so may be quite a mess. Then bus from Georgia to Turkey, and from there the trains to the EU are straightforward. For this route you'd need the Russian visa, a Georgian visa, a Turkish visa, and the EU and UK visas.

https://maninseat61.com has the best information about how to get between Turkey or Georgia and London.

There's an alternative route, if you want to stay out of Russia (perhaps a good idea, with pro-Ukrainian partisans blowing up trains and railway equipment in Russia lately) which goes via Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and from there onward into the EU. This is the "Silk Road" route.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of breaks in train service at international borders, where you have to cross by taxi or bus. More about border crossings on the "Silk Road" routes: https://caravanistan.com/border-crossings/

This sort of trip has to be pieced together from an extraordinary number of separate tickets, most of which can only be bought locally. And you have to get bus/taxi to cross the border in several places, including all the borders of Turkmenistan, all the borders of Iran, and the eastern borders of Turkey. Also Turkmenistan will only let in tourists who take package tours (sigh!)

https://rome2rio.com has a lot of the routes, but it's missing the Uzbek train from Tashkent to Buhkara ( https://www.journalofnomads.com/trains-in-uzbekistan-railways/ ), the Turkmenistan passenger railways ( https://tourstoturkmenistan.com/en/transportation/trains.html ), and the entire Iranian railway system ( https://iranrail.net/network.php ).

Unfortunately the China-Kazakhstan train has been suspended since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. This can be worked around with a China-Mongolia-Kazakhstan train route, still operating -- or with a bus or taxi to cross the border at Urumqi.

More unfortunately, the Iran-Turkey train has also been suspended since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Obviously, any of the Silk Road routes would require a huge number of visas and a very adventurous spirit. It's not fast at all. It would be more of a world tour than a simple trip.

The most plausible way to do it is to work with a specialist travel agency for each country, a travel agency which is focused on "railfan" tourists who don't fly (I know of such specialist agencies for Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia; they all seem to be mom+pop operations) in order to put all the pieces together, and make sure you have a local with you in each country.

With the right agency, it's possible to arrange things like crossing the Caspian by ferry from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan.

Finding a cruise ship from China to Europe would likely be simpler, but even slower. Due to recent attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, probably the only routes would be around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa!

The even slower but safe way is to take a Transpacfic cruise ship (or a freighter berth) to the US, take a train across the US, and then take a Transatlantic cruise ship (or freighter berth) to Europe. This would probably take over a year! But it would be fun, certainly.

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  • I doubt that going via the USA would be over a year. Theoretically I think you could do it in around 3 months on cargo vessels (assuming you can get a berth): 1 month China to USA, 4 days across the US on Amtrak, and 1 month USA to Europe. But it would be expensive.
    – Peter M
    Dec 26, 2023 at 15:31
  • I was engaging in slight hyperbole. The "assuming you can get a berth" is the problem with the eastern route: it would only take 2 months if the schedule worked, but if you end up sitting around waiting for ship schedules which don't match up...
    – neroden
    Dec 30, 2023 at 22:32
  • Are there any trains or buses between China/Mongolia and Russia as of 2024? The Man in seat61 says there are not, which would make the route via Russia difficult. And from Moscow to the EU; could one take a train to Brest, walk te Terespol, then on by train from there?
    – gerrit
    Jan 11 at 14:38
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There are 3 branches to the Beijing-Moscow line: Trans-Siberian K23, Trans-Manchurian K19, and Trans-Mongolian K3.

It would require a Russian visa of course, and possibly a cross-border (3-day) K3 Mongolian visa [or not, see lambshaanxy's comment below].

The issue will be after Moscow. With the war, I'm not sure there are any trains going to western Europe, though.

And it would require visas to cross countries up to Schengen, then a Schengen visa (in that case probably Germany), and ultimately a UK visit visa.

And rinse and repeat for the return trip. A couple of Xanax pills and a plane ticket would be much easier...

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    +1, but no Mongolian visa needed for the Trans-Manchurian. Dec 23, 2023 at 4:54
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    The Schengen entry would be in a member other than Germany. But the situation regarding these crossings is changing rapidly; as the EU sees it, Russia is facilitating the transfer of illegal immigrants to destabilize the EU, and e.g. Finland closed crossings.
    – o.m.
    Dec 23, 2023 at 7:23
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    Every now and then, the russian belarus border is closed for foreigners. This was the case for a couple of years, might be now as well.
    – lalala
    Dec 23, 2023 at 11:04
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    (+1) Why Germany? Going to London, there is no main destination in the Schengen area and the visa should theoretically be obtained from the first country the person will enter. Or you just ignore the rules and make up a story and then it doesn't matter.
    – Relaxed
    Dec 23, 2023 at 11:39
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    There was a lot of hubbub about Russia not liking not be able to go across land to Kaliningrad. There might be passenger trains and then you have reached the Baltic. Dec 24, 2023 at 5:23
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I believe it's possible to take train + a couple hours of car from Beijing to St. Petersburg Russia via Urumqi through Kazakhstan (5 days- see Rome2Rio), Lux bus to Riga via Tartu (11h €65-68), and then bus or train to Paris and thence London (~40h ~€200 to Paris). So not much more than a week total if all goes well.

I've only been on the Riga-Tartu portion of the bus trip, but it was comfortable enough and there were many crossing the RF border.

It does not appear that Chinese citizens need a visa for up to 14 days in Kazakhstan, however Russian e-visas for eligible nationalities such as China require exit and entry at the same point so another less convenient kind of visa would be required. The Baltics are in Schengen, of course.

Alternatively, train to Moscow, crossing the border into Georgia and taking a bus to Istanbul is also possible (32h from Tbilisi). Georgia is visa-free for Chinese citizens, but Turkey would require an e-visa.

I don't think any of those journeys solo would be easy or stress-free, even for a seasoned traveler, and there would be plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong, especially with potential language issues, so this is more of a theoretical exercise in this particular situation. It's not like you can just get on a train at Beijing West and get off in London. It would be an epic trip though.

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