9,000km – Trans-Siberian Railway Insights

After completing the likely longest trip on a train I will ever do, I just had to write a little “how-to” article about it… 

Highlights:
  • Discovering Russia, Mongolia, and China by train
  • Realizing how vast distances to Asia are
  • Experience great hospitality on the trains
  • Discovering the different classes of the trains
  • Sitting by the window, watching millions of beautiful birch trees, small Russian villages, Mongolian gers and Chinese mountain valleys
  • Communicating with hand and feet and google translator
  • finding out which stories about the Trans-Siberian are true – and which are not
  • Hopping off at all the cities one is interested in and discover them – just to hopp on again whenever you choose to
  • Experience all kinds of food, from instant noodles to restaurant car food to what you buy off old babushkas at the stations

In some of the previous blog posts I already mentioned a little about the trains of the Trans-Siberian Railway (TSR). In this kind of manual post I want to recollect my experiences: What was interesting, fascinating, suspicious, weird, and challenging to me while researching, booking, and travelling.

Research
I won’t start with many details about the railways history. Just this pieces of information: At the end of the 19th century, the railways construction was an equivalent task to the landing of the moon. All but one engineers told the tsar that  this undertaking would not be possible. Simply by exchanged a few men he was finally told it would be possible! So works started. As one may imagine, very many people worked on the railway and it cost countless lives in its making. So, although to us it is nothing but a long railway, it was, with all it’s bridges, stations, tracks over swamps, etc. a masterpiece of technology. More can be found on Wikipedia and Wikitravel. Also, I watched some documentaries on youtube, also quite interesting.

Besides those, I bought two books: The Trans-Siberia Handbook by Bryn Thomas as well as the Lonely Planet: Trans-Siberian Railway. I found both pretty good, their information mostly overlappsed. Because I don’t need info about places to stay or eat (I go to the others anyway), I guess I would vote for the LP because it is lighter. It is also available as eBook.

Also there are very good internet resources are available, foremost www.seat61.com.

Booking

Many tour agencies nowadays take care about booking you on the TSR. However, that can be quite expensive (additional 20 to 80%). The advantage besides a tour agency in general is however, you mostly stay close to other foreigners that booked via the same agency (that may also be a disadvantage however…) and the agencies have the chance to buy tickets off the Russian Railway earlier than private individuals – meaning you might select better berths.

However, I found the official Russians Railway’s site to be quite good (also in English). You select your point of departure and your destination. The results show all trains that are still bookable (so full trains are no displayed). If you then view them in detail, you are displayed every single coach, including the information, how many lower and upper berths (beds) are still available. If you click on car plan, you are able to select the very bed you want to choose. The bars you see indicate the position of the berth (lower and upper). Theoretically, the site works also with colors: Male and female only compartments as well as mixed. I never could see any color however, so one has to guess. Most are mixed anyways.

Be aware that if you book on the internet, this is just a reservation! On your eticket, it shows until when you can get a full refund (mostly up to one day before). So in case you have internet access, you may book several trains and finally choose one and cancel the others (although I never cancelled, so do not sue me if somethings goes wrong). Once you are in Russia and you are sure which connection to take, you need the reference number of your eticket and your passport number in order to get your paper ticket (I heard boarding is also possible with an eticket but I always made sure I have paper). In all big stations, there are computer terminals (in English) where you just enter those details (mind you, choose foreign passport or document, not international passport, that is for Russians) and you get your paper ticket. Where it is not possible, you can go to a service box, preferrably with a “@”-sign on it (I only read that, I never saw one…).

Concerning the quality of trains, one might say: the lower the train number, the newer and more comfortable the train. This is mostly also indicated by the price. If you only go short distances, avoid international trains (meaning crossing different time zones), they are more expensive.

There are several classes to choose from. 1st class is one compartment with only two berths. Roughly half the price is 2nd class (kupé), it is the same compartment, only with four berths. Then there is 3rd class (Platskart, about half the price of kupé; in the English version of the website offten referred to as reserved seat, which is a translation mistake), which indicates an open coach with 54 berths – so that’s where Russian common life really starts! I found, that 3rd class berths tend to be smaller and shorter than 2nd class berths and the ventolation was not always very good – sometimes too cold, sometimes very hot. On some trains, there is also a 4th class, but I never went on any of them – I think it’s mostly the very cheap and slow regional trains.

The locals mostly opt for lower berths. That is because you can comfortably store your gear right under the seat. Also, you always have a place to sit and cannot be ordered off if the owner wants to sleep or take a nap. And of course, it is more comfortable than swinging onto the upper berth, especially at night. In 3rd class, it also has way more headspace than the upper berth because this one has additional storage room for luggage, mattresses and blankets above it. Mind you, it might be very little space up there (in 3rd class), I could barely raise my ipad over my head. My bottom line: 2nd class for rides longer than one night, 3rd class for single nightrides. 1st class is interesting for couples only I would imagine. Here you have the fewest contact with locals and solely depend who your neighbour is (it is very likely not a drunk though because he affords four times the price of 3rd class).

Finally, there is also the art of which compartments to book. On the left side of a coach (on the website at least, so starting with low numbers) is the compartment of the stewardess as well as the samovar (you always get free hot water there – and no, nobody got sick of it). One wants to book close to there but not too close, because it can get a little louder, when the sturdy Russian stewardesses want to make themselves clear. On the right side of the coach are the toilets, that’s the last thing you want to stay close to. On cheaper trains there is often a queue because the stewards lock the toilets 10-20 minutes before and after arrival in a station (the newer trains have a closed wastewater system). Thus, booking from the 2nd compartment from the left until the third compartment to the right is advisable.

Travelling
First time I entered a train, it was 3rd class and I was putting my bags on my berth and sat down to watch the other passengers. Everybody changes at once into comfy clothes (mostly loose pants or shorts with flipflops). In the evening, most also prepare their bed right away. During the day, Russians enter conversation veeeery quickly, telling about themselves, what they do, why they travel and ask you just the same. I spoke about 10 words of Russian and either somebody spoke a little English or in worst case the ipad translator kicked in, showing the other just the keywords of my phrase. Mostly, I was understood and it helps a lot to break the ice.

On some trains you can book your class including food. I did that for the ride from Ekaterienburg to Irkutsk and would – contrary to one of the books advise – not repeat it. I got not three but only one meal (lunch) per day which also tasted not really interesting. So bring plenty of food and maybe a newspaper to put on the table before you put all your food on top of it. Very good is porridge, instant soups and meals you prepare with the hot water of the samovar, fruit and veggies, bread, instant coffee, hot chocolate, tea and milk powder (I put the latter also in many of the previous food in order to upgrade it a little). Chocolate, cookies, etc. are also always a great thing to kill time and to offer to your fellow travellers. Many Russians also bring juices. Basically, you can buy everything also at the stations when the train makes a stop. Either from kiosks or from mostly young or elderly ladies that also sell you the good stuf: home cooked food, fish, etc. (one should only take hot food, you never know how long the cold food has been cold) – and maybe smoked fish and fruit. Also, the stewards sell some snacks and drinks. And of course, there is the famous restaurant car. I have to admitt, I only went there three. The Russian one was empty, only the owner and his employees were there, wanting you to buy a six-course-meail for very high prices. That would be alright (like in a restaurant) but I did not find the quality justifying the price. The Mongolian one was way better in terms of reasonable prices. And the Chinese had fairly good lunch. I guess if the car is full, that would be a good sign, if it is empty, stay away. All my local fellow travellers ate their own food and all did not recommend me to go the the restaurant car.

I heard all kind of stories about drunk Russians on the train. I am sure that happens often. But I did not encounter it once.

In all trains, but also in and on all Russian railway stations (also on the outside), time is displayed in Moscow time! That is to prevent confusion crossing six (!) different time zones with one train. I thought it difficult at first, but actually I think it is the best thing to do. I had a watch with two time zones at one glance, that prooved to be very good. You may also put your mobile on Moscow time, your watch on the local time.

What else to bring: A pot is handy, also to wash yourself a bit better in the bathroom. Toilett paper (it might be missing). Some wet tissue for your face or body. Your own cuttlery. Light clothes in summer, very, very many warm clothes in winter (mainly if you want to go for a walk) – and something in between in between. Earpluggs. A sleepmask. Music, movies (if needed), books, camera. One or two batterie packs are good (in most trains, there is only a plug outside the compartments and better I loose my battery pack than my ipad or music player). I also took a triangular key (as for English heaters) as I read it works with the doors and windows in the train (yes, it does! I just never had to use it…).

I personally did only rides up to 48 hours. I am quite happy about that, I never felt bored and was happy about some time off travelling for reading, writing posts and diary, etc. But this way or that, the Trans-Siberian Railway is a special experience and highly recommended.

 

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