Riding the Trans-Siberian railway: 8 days across Russia by train

In total we spent 7 days and 7 nights on the Trans-Siberian railway.  Most of this time was spent staring out the window.

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As we rolled out of Moscow at ten to two on a Tuesday afternoon the city began to thin out, and the landscape became softer. Concrete housing blocks became less and less frequent, and eventually more or less disappeared. They were replaced by little wooden houses with brightly painted windows, packed in close together between wooden fences enclosing modest vegetable patches. Then these thinned out too, spaced wider and wider between the late autumn trees, which clung onto their last golden leaves. For the first day and a half we were still in Europe, and it still felt like it. Perhaps a poorer, simpler Europe than most of it is now, but familiar.

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Sometimes a hunk of smoke spewing industry would jut out of the horizon, looking huge and hulking alongside the trees and simple homes.  Prone to romanticising simplicity, I found the precarious little wooden homes marooned in the forest idyllic. I wondered if the people living in these places appreciated a life with land and space, but little else, or hankered for warm dry concrete flats in the city. Some of the plots looked like dachas (weekend cottages where city dwellers grow their veg, and escape the city heat in high summer), but others looked lived in permanently, though there were almost no people to be seen.

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As night fell we reached our first long stop, and our first Russian snow. I went and stood in it in my sandals, much to the interest/disgust of the Russians standing smoking next to the carriage, as far from the snow as they could get. I couldn’t put my shoes on because I’d stubbed my toe on the floor level flush lever in the train loo, and it was wrapped up well to staunch the bleeding.

On the platform hawkers hawked snacks, drinks, and life size cuddly crocodiles. We didn’t buy one, because he wouldn’t have fitted in our bunks. We had the cheapest beds on the train — just over £100 each for the 9288 kilometre journey. These are the lateral bunks in third class, which are about half an inch longer than me, and an inch wider.  I could just lie flat, but Arthur had to fold himself up.

The third class carriages sleep 56 people dormitory style. The lateral bunks are lined up head to toe along the length of the carriage. They’re the smallest, but we went for them anyway because if you have the top and bottom you get your own window and table (which folds down to complete the bottom bunk at night). Also, they were really cheap.

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Above the top bunk is a shelf which just about fitted both of our backpacks on. There’s also luggage space under each of the two seats, where we kept our shoes, and any food that wouldn’t be too damaged by the heater blasting out superheated air between the seats.

Each bed comes with a pillow rolled up in a mattress. You pay a couple of pounds to have sheets and a pillow case for your bed, which is money well spent as the mattresses clearly pre-date the fall of the Berlin wall. There are also blankets, which we occasionally needed when the temperature plummeted briefly in the early hours of the morning.

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We were able to select the exact bunks we wanted by booking online using the English version of the Russian railways website.  This was really difficult to find, but very easy to use once we found it. (If you click on the English icon on the Russian website it takes you to a corporate website instead.)

We went for bunks in the middle of the carriage where possible, to minimise the chance of being woken up by people going to the loo in the night. I’m not sure this made much difference really though, and perhaps being near the provodnitsa’s end of the carriage would have meant a bit more fresh air, as the door at this end is opened at every stop.

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The provodnitsa is responsible for the carriage, and guards it fiercely every time the train stops.  She checks the tickets of passengers getting on, wakes you up when your stop is approaching, doles out bed sheets, keeps the carriage clean and the tea urn topped up, and sells snacks and drinks from her compartment at the end of the carriage. Each carriage has two of these attendants, who work 12 hours each. Usually the more senior provodnitsa would get the day shift, from about 7 am to 7pm.

On our first train the day time provodnitsa was a stern middle aged lady with tightly curled, iron grey hair. The night time attendant was young, and more inclined to smile, but still no-nonsense. My favourite provodnitsa was the night time one on our last train. She was probably in her late forties, but had spurned the rollered dyed hair beloved of older Russian women, and sported trousers rather than the above the knee skirt which I’d previously assumed was compulsory uniform. She was instantly welcoming, and always smiling, except when she repeatedly expelled drunks from our carriage. This she did without, as seemed to be standard method, enlisting the help of the security guards and armed police who sporadically patrol the train.

On the long distance trains the carriage attendants were almost all women, though on the train from St Petersburg to Moscow they were almost all men (provodnik). I suspect this is to do with Russia’s less than egalitarian culture, though I don’t know. Perhaps this is the most popular route, and the few men who do the job get to pick and choose — it’s only 9 or ten hours, so doesn’t necessitate long stretches away from home. The Moscow to Vladivostok train, in contrast, takes 12 to 16 days for a round trip.  Or perhaps the men doing this job are more likely to be supporting families, so can’t be away for so long.

It’s still not uncommon in Russia for women to stop working once they have children. Though it’s getting less common as Russia moves away from agriculture and manufacturing and towards a service sector based economy. There’s still a widely held view that service sector jobs are women’s work, so as these jobs fill more of the market women are more likely to work, and to be the breadwinner.

On the first night squashed into my bottom bunk I lay awake for quite some time. Initially I was kept alert by trying to decide if the man in the next bunk had been silently murdered, or was just sleeping. All I could see of him was his lifeless hand dangling off the edge of his bed, being gently jiggled by the motion of the train. I’d almost begun to drift off regardless, when the symphony of gentle snoring that filled the carriage rose to an entirely un-melodic crescendo.  On the other side of me to probably-not-murdered-in-his-bed man was a gentleman who definitely didn’t fit into the narrow bunk, and had begun to emit a cacophony of grunts, groans, snorts, splutters, and heavy breathing that suggested he was either being laboriously suffocated by a particularly vindictive walrus, or was having an especially good dream.

The next day we woke to blankets of soft pillowy looking snow. Perhaps the lack of sleep had something to do with this perception.

We thought that this meant snow and cold from then on, but actually the climate seemed to waver wildly along the way.  The snow melted throughout the day, but in some places it seemed it had never been there, while others looked like they’d had weeks of snow already.

After the clean white early morning, all that day and the next the view was grubby.  Mud and slush abounded where there were people, and we wondered if it had been foolish to ignore the advice that late October was the worst time to do this journey.  Perhaps though, it was the filthy train windows that gave everything a brownish, unhealthy tinge.  Endless freight trains trundled past us all day, full of oil, military vehicles, and Korean cars.

There was some brief excitement when late on the second evening we reached Ekaterinburg, and so, finally, the Ural mountains, and a break in the flatness. Unfortunately, it was dark, so they passed us by unseen. Somewhere past Ekaterinburg, while we slept, we crossed from Europe into Asia.

Inside the train we read, stared at the scrubby land rolling by, and drunk tea. Lots and lots of tea. In between drinking tea, we ate. I think it’s fair to say that we over-catered for our first three day stint on the train.

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  • 1 packet of crisps
  • 1 bag of peanuts
  • 1 bag of cashews
  • 1 bag of bread rings
  • 1 bag of chocolate cake ball things
  • 6 sugar puff sticks
  • 2 bars of chocolate
  • 1 packet of boiled sweets
  • 2 bags of dates
  • 1 bag of dried apricots
  • 4 apples
  • 4 tangerines
  • 6 bananas
  • 6 carrots
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 2 peppers
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 lettuce
  • 1 jar of cornichons
  • 6 boiled eggs
  • 1 block of cheese
  • 1 packet of cheese triangles
  • 1 packet of crackers
  • 2 loaves of bread (1 fresh, 1 dark that lasted a week)
  • 2 breakfast pastries
  • 1 box of porridge oats
  • 4 yoghurts (that can somehow be stored unrefridgerated)
  • 1 pack of coffee creamers
  • 3 boxes of tea
  • 1 litre of juice
  • 1 litre of vodka
  • 2 litres of water
  • 12 cuppa soups
  • 6 packs of instant noodles
  • 1 pack of napkins
  • 1 pack of wet wipes

We probably used two thirds of this stuff, but only because we were really trying…

We weren’t sure how much we’d be able to get along the way, but it turned out that there were plenty of opportunities to provision. The train made lots of stops, and three or four times a day would stop for 20 or 30 minutes, giving you plenty of time to do some shopping from the kiosks selling snacks and instant noodles, or the ladies walking the platform selling pastries, cooked chicken and boiled eggs. It might be a bit more expensive, but you could probably turn up with nothing and just buy food when you can.

My favourite platform food was pirozhki, which is sort of like a Cornish pasty made of bread dough instead of pastry, and then deep fried. The filling is often meaty, but sometimes it’s just vegetables, and one lady was selling mashed potato filled ones.

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Russia’s answer to the chip butty.

One thing we didn’t use at all was the vodka.

It turns out that the vodka fuelled party train of Trans-Siberian rumour is no more. Putin has been cracking down on Russia’s drinking culture, and the train was a sober and quiet affair generally speaking. In 2005 train station kiosks were banned from selling alcohol, and in 2012 beer was classified as alcohol for the first time (previously it was considered a soft drink).  So you can’t even buy a beer at the station kiosks. Except of course you can, you just ask for beer (“Pivo pazhalsta!”), and they whip one out from under the counter, and monstrously overcharge you for it.

One exception to this staid atmosphere was a memorable evening on our last train, where a very merry Uzbek miner got Arthur in to a mildly competitive bout of vodka drinking, much to the consternation of the rest of the carriage. I sat there accepting the snacks that were handed round to all on every shot, and mercifully avoiding the vodka. But I decided to retire back to our seats once I’d been asked for the thirteenth or fourteenth time why we didn’t have any children, while being nudged suggestively and winked at by our Uzbek friend, who had little other German (and no English).  It was probably a good decision, because after that things turned to arm wrestling, and then to Arthur being berated for having a wedding ring which was much too small.

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I stayed out of it. Though I did make Arthur a cup of tea after our bunk neighbour, who was on his way to Vladivostok to go into the Navy, began repeatedly shaking his head and looking in Arthur’s direction with deep concern.

Drinking is allowed in the buffet car, where the beer costs the same or fractionally more as at the station kiosks (or at least as the foreigner price at the kiosks). It’s also usually cold, so is the superior option. Though on one occasion the electricity had failed in the buffet car, so the beer was at room temperature, while the room was at fridge temperature.

You can’t buy vodka in the buffet car, except that you can.

All of this under the counter alcohol selling suggests that cracking down on drinking hasn’t reduced alcohol consumption slightly, as the statistics suggest, but has just driven some drinking out of taxation and under the counter. Possibly literally, given that you can’t regulate what’s being sold if it’s not legal, so the drinker’s ability to stand up is even more likely to be curtailed.

Heating malfunctions notwithstanding, the buffet car is a nice place to hang out and have a bit of a break from your carriage. It was a welcome escape when the lady opposite us accidentally kicked her 5 or 6 year old son’s full potty over the floor and our feet, then went out for a cigarette anyway.

Even without wee to flee, we went there at least once a day to drink beer and play bananagrams (which is like speed scrabble without a board, if you haven’t had the pleasure).

Generally there was nobody else in there, or a couple of Russians also having a quiet beer. On one occasion we bumped into 6 other foreigners having their dinner, which was a nice opportunity to have a conversation, as we met no other English speakers. They were all on organised tours, four of them were on one called ‘vodka train’, so they were a bit miffed at the lack of vodka. This is when we found out that the buffet car does indeed do vodka.

The three trains we took all had very different buffet cars, despite ostensibly being the same type of train.  The first one was a modern plastic canteen style establishment, with tasteful lime green chairs. The second was a bit more old fashioned, with curtains and slightly more comfy chairs.  The third had table cloths, elaborate drapes, round tables, and a bar. In the fancy one they didn’t stock our preferred 150 ruble (£1.55) cans of beer, so we had to stump up 200 rubles for something a bit swankier. They all served more or less the same food, which we didn’t try because it didn’t look especially appealing, though it wasn’t too expensive (£4-£8 for things ranging from soups and salads to a meat based meal).

We did sample the buffet car coffee once, but it was tiny, instant, and not even cheap. After the first train we brought our own sachets of ‘3 in 1’ instant coffee for 15 rubles a pop. They were impossibly sweet, which disguised the instant coffee taste nicely. I expected that not showering for three days would be the most uncomfortable part of the Trans-Siberian, but despite it averaging 30 degrees in our carriage, the lack of real coffee was the worst bit. Tough life, I know.

The heat was pretty uncomfortable. Russians have a fear of the cold which drives them to heat buildings to roughly the temperature you cook meringues at. Once our carriage reached a blissfully cool 26 degrees, but usually the cheery digital sign at the end of the carriage read 31, even as it tumbled below -20 outside. At one point it was so cold outside that you couldn’t touch the doors between the carriages with your bare hands, or they’d stick. Inside it remained 31 degrees.

The air between the blind and the window wasn’t 31 degrees though, judging by the ice that formed on the window overnight.

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Once we were in Siberia proper the snow was almost a constant feature.  After Krasnoyarsk the landscape got more interesting, with rolling hills to wind between.  The cottages nestled there looked more cheerful than the ones on the endless flat planes of the first few days.  Perhaps it was the sunshine.

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After Irkutsk there was even less to see, just mesmerising birch trees sliding by. Houses were few and far between, and often in ruins. The stations got stranger, and more Soviet. This is land that was barely inhabited before the Soviet push to do so (through propaganda, coercion and force). Those who lived there before the turn of the 20th century were mostly nomadic. Now the population density of Siberia is three people per square kilometre. Really most of those people are in a few cities, so the true figure dwindles to zero.

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This last station, called Yerofey Pavlovich, was full of stray dogs (like all Trans-Siberian stations), and adorned with bizarre metallic dog heads. Arthur wondered if the station was named after Pavlov, but alas, no.

In these places that really feel like nowhere the train is an important event. When the train draws in at Yerofey Pavlovich there is chaos for a moment as a crowd rushes to meet the train. People disembark, laboriously passing boxes down from hand to hand. But within moments everything is still. The only sound is a nearby train creaking slowly on its way, and the crunch and groan of the last battered Jeep taking its passengers home. There are only small knots of people left on the platform, finishing cigarettes. Then the train moves on and the gleaming canine guards are left to look out over stillness.

From Irkustsk to Vladivostok we only saw two passenger trains going the other way. And then, finally, after 8 days, very many cups of tea and more than 9,000 kilometres, we were there.

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And, at 4 am, completely unable to use a camera.

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