The Rat & Dragon crew has now clocked up around 500 hours travelling and filming both the Trans-Siberian and the Trans-Mongolian rail routes, so we’d like to think we’ve picked up some practical knowledge along the way. If you’re thinking of parking your butt on a train for days on end across either of these incredible routes and want to know what to expect, here’s some useful stuff we’d like to tell you about life aboard the Russian railways.
The R&D crew chose Kupe – 2nd class tickets, which are in shared, 4-berth cabins. There are 2 bunk beds on either side of a cozy cabin that are comfy enough. There’s a little space for storing luggage (if you’re on the bottom bunk it’s more secure in a bin under the bed) and there’s tiny table by the window, which is just big enough for a game of cards, a few glasses and a bottle of vodka.
There are other classes – 1st puts you in a 2-berth private cabin at about double the price, and Platskartny, or open carriage, is sociable and great for short (overnight) journeys. It’s cheap too, but has no privacy and we wouldn’t recommend it for longer journeys.
Russians take their heating seriously. We travelled in mid-winter and, while the atmosphere outside was busy snap-freezing the landscape into bride-white with it’s minus 24 degree breeze, the heating inside maintained the inside of the carriages to a Saharan sweat box standard.
All times displayed on timetables, tickets and in stations across Russia are expressed in Moscow time – despite the 7 time zones traversed in a single Trans-Siberian journey. Make sure you know what Moscow time equates to in local time and never confuse the two.
If you’re travelling with less than 3 mates, be prepared to make some new ones, as randoms will be popping in and out as you travel. Shareable snacks and drinks will help break the ice with your new bunkmates. It’s a bit of a roll of the dice as to who you end up with – we went from English speaking tech-geek students to sullen, surly worker-types to lovely hockey mum and daughter combos.
Most people are conscientious and willing to help. It’s so worth it to try your darndest to communicate across language differences – fellow passengers can make your trip, or make for one hell of a travel story. Russians are notoriously grumpy at first, but even the most serious frowner can turn out to be absolutely lovely after 20 mins of simple chatting.
Each carriage is attended by a team of 2 Provodniks (more likely Provodnitsas – female attendants). They’re famously stern and highly unlikely to speak English, but can be very helpful to you, and fiercely protective of the peace and stability of your carriage so don’t make her angry. Ask them for water, for the local time, where to plug in your electric razor (they need to turn certain sockets on), and tea glasses. They also sell snacks after hours.
Toilets can be a little on the grotty side, but totally passable if you’ve ever backpacked before. They empty straight out onto the tracks so they’re locked about 30 minutes before and after each major stop – unless you have a bladder of steel, make sure you refer to the timetable in the hallway. For a unique thrill, try flushing while seated and -30 degrees outside (we weren’t game enough, but if you try it, tell us what it’s like).
Showers are a little like the four-leaf clover. You will hear rumors of them, a ‘friend of a friend’s hairdresser’ saw one once, but you might never find one. Rat & Dragon, however, can confirm a sighting – one bathroom about 6 carriages down from ours was converted into a ‘shower’ – really only a hose & showerhead attached to glorious hot water in the sink. While far from a luxurious experience, a makeshift shower was heaven by day 3 of 4.
Eating and drinking
There’s a restaurant car, which must be explored. Pictures in the menu are no indication of what your meal will actually look like, but the rough English translations are helpful and entertaining. While overpriced, you are watching glorious Russia unfold in parallax as you dine, making the occasional meal or drink there totally worth it. There’s also the bonus of meeting locals and fellow travellers for mostly rewarding but sometimes awkward encounters.
Probably the best way we found was to bring loads of food and water. Each carriage has unlimited access to hot water so instant noodles and mashed potato pots are awesome. There are also Russian delicacies almost custom-made for long train journeys – we loved finely crafted salami-like sausage and dark breads, smoked strings of cheese, canned caviar and sweet snacks. Washed down with vodka, of course. A lot of these are available at small kiosks on the platforms at major stops, but to be certain, hit a supermarket before your journey. Note also that sale of alcohol is now forbidden after 11pm.
Things to Bring
As well as food and drink mentioned above, we found these things almost essential:
Slippers, comfy shorts (even in mid-winter), pocketknife with corkscrew, small plastic plates, hand sanitiser, wet tissues, a fork or chopsticks, a 3m electric extension cable, playing cards. You’ll receive fresh linen and a small hand towel on arrival, and can ask your Provodnitsa for an elegant Russian coffee mug for use on your trip. Resist the temptation to steal it.
Most people stop along the way in several places, not just to break the journey, but to experience life and culture across Russia. We stopped at Irkutsk and Lake Baikal (a must in our opinion – to read about it, see our blog post) and of course there are as many other places of interest along the 9,288 km as there are things to be interested by so do a little research and pick somewhere that appeals to you for stay.
There are also about 3 or 4 stops of 20+ minutes each day. These are great for snatching some fresh air, stretching your legs and stocking up on snacks and drinks. Check the timetable in the corridor and be ready to leap out of the train (remember – it’s in Moscow time, and the stop will be shorter if the train arrived slightly delayed!) You’ll get really cool photo and filming opportunities too, with some stations displaying old steam train engines, while the stations themselves are sometimes pretty amazing.
You’ve probably had jetlag, but a directly East-West (or vice versa) journey on a train for days on end will mess with your body clock too. Our journey crossed 7 time zones. Essentially, every night on a train saw us staying up – and waking up – in local time an hour later each day, until eventually we were shattered unless we slept until early afternoon. Basically we reverted to a student lifestyle, and discovered that trainlag happens too.
We’d love to hear from you! If you’re thinking of going and you’ve got specific questions for the Rat & Dragon team, please drop us a line in the comments box below and we’ll do our best to get you some answers. If you’ve already been, please tell us about your experience, and if you have tips to share, don’t keep them to yourself – slap them in the comments box below.