How to survive a long-haul Russian train journey

Every summer we welcome at our place couchserfuers from all over the world. 99% of them follow Trans-Siberian Railroad. The other 1% was a cool Chilian guy who wanted to figure out if it is possible to study in Spanish here. Just in case, the answer is no, it took him a month to figure it out. But at least he found Spanish speaking friends here.

As we learnt from our new friends, Trans-Siberian voyage is very fashionable and desired thing. But that journey is only desirable if you have never traveled 3 days to the sea shore as a child on hot train overcrowded with same people and without any chance to have shower. That experience accounts a real childhood trauma.

What else we discovered is that foreigners don’t have any idea what Russian trains and Russian distances are. This summer we met a perfect couple from Spain. Really nice and interesting people! They even read Dostoevsky before traveling to Russia. And they spent 16 hours on train to Ekaterinburg, arrived at night, left next day and spent 48 hours more on train. If you don’t sigh after reading that, it means, you have never traveled on platzkart trains in Russia summer. Please, don’t try to do the same.

A wonderful girl from France is experienced Travellers and spent a year in Asia, so she was better prepared to sudden things. But still, about 0 degrees in September and more then one railway stations (all are Main) in small cities were a little too much even for her. So, we decided to compile a survival guide for those who go Trans-Siberian on train. You are more then welcome to add your points.

Russian trains * The authors of this guide currently live in Ekaterinburg, relatively big city (1,5 million people) in the Urals on the Europe/Asia border. Usually travellers stop here to have rest before exploring huge Siberia. We use trains for going to neighboring cities quite often, so all the points here are based on personal experience and travellers’ frequently asked questions.

1. One of chipest type of Russian railways carriage is platzkart, third-class sleeper. There are no closed departments, you are surrounded by 5 random neighbors. To be precise the whole carriage is your random neighbor.

Also, there is another type of carriages with compartments. They are at least twice more expensive. If there are four of you travelling together, it may be great to stay without extra people. But if you are alone, you’ll be closed in small space with three random people.

2. If you travel together with someone, try to book 1 upper and 2 lower sleeping berth in the compartment, one above another. You will be able to lay and sit whenever you want, to access to underseat luggage storage, to eat without asking permission your neighbors. The lower berths are usually sold first, take care of it beforehand.

3. There are no showers in this type of carriages. So, decide how long you can live without having shower. Actually, you never know about the quality of bathrooms. There are always at least 2 bathrooms in each carriage, equipped with sink (mostly cold water) and toilet. But the quality of these amenities completely depends on the age and type of train. And you never know what kind you get when buying a ticket. Normally, the cheaper is the ticket, the less is the quality of all the amenities.

4. There is a restaurant on board (called “restaurant carriage”). But traditionally people take their own food for the whole trip. Once we met people who traveled from Far East to Moscow and spent a week in platzkart. They had a foodstorage for the whole week. And they were a little bored, to be honest. In any travel guide you’ll find an information that the train tradition is to share food with your fellow travellers. This food can be a reason to start a night long conversation. Well, it sounds reasonable if you take into consideration that food and fellows are the only entertainment for most local travellers.

So, think about your food. There is hot water in every coach, that’s why teas, coffees and dried or instant porridges are welcome. There no (with rare exceptions) microwave ovens and no fridges. Also say yes to canned products, cheeses, cookies. Fruits and vegetables are also fine, but wash them before the trip. Wash everything that needs to be washed before the trip. Choosing food, reread the paragraph on washrooms, and think twice what kind of food is safe for you in terms of bathrooms. We normally take dried porridge, muesli bars, cookies or pastries, dried bread, cheese, some (washed) vegetables.

Alcohol is prohibited in any type of train. But in practice people on trains do drink. It is absolutely ok not to join them if you don’t want. They might laugh or suggest in hard manner, but still, you can reject the offer, no troubles.

4.1 On train, you don’t move a lot. So, you are not that much hungry. But small foods serve for fun and time spending when you are on several days long trip.

5. People in Russia don’t speak English. Well, now more and more people do, but in general they don’t. Also, employers of Russian railways don’t speak English. There are two special conductors (or assistants) in each carriage. But you never know if they would understand you or not, if they want to help you or not. At the same time, Russians are fond of foreigners, and they would be happy to help you. Among your neighbors you’ll definitely find someone (mostly among young people or, sorry for this, middle aged women) who would do their best to help you. They will try to remember all English words they learnt in school, use gestures, suggest food etc. They are bored with long journey, and you are like a present of universe and television substitution, all in one, for them.

5.1 As not a lot of Russians speak English, try to reach those who do beforehand. Use couchsurfing, ask you host on airbnb or use Facebook. In every more or less big city there are a lot of young people who study English. They will be happy not only to meet you, but to guide you during trip. Once I sent to that French girl messages in Russian through WhatsApp, and she shown them to people who didn’t speak English. In the end she manage to get local sim-card. Magic!

5.2 In every city there are people who study other languages, more exotic then English. Try to google for the language clubs where locals gather to practice foreign language. For you it may be a chance to meet people. That Chilean guy was happy to find those who study Spanish (me)!

6. Train is the best place if you would like to meet ordinary Russians. The train is a place for communications. We have this fellow passenger syndrome, when you share all the secrets of your life to someone whom you have never met before and never meet again in huge Russia. Probably. And don’t forget to offer your cookies.

7. If you are going to sleep on a train, you’ll be given linens. Famous Russian joke: if your linen is wet, it means they luckily washed it! The linen set consists of two bedshits, one towel and one pillow case. Before arriving you should give them this set back completely, all four pieces. The most often thing is when towel escapes from you to the unknown direction. If you don’t want to have troubles before arrival, keep your eye on it. Or pretend that you totally don’t understand :)

8. Be careful with time zones. There are 11 time zones in Russia. But you ticket contains only Moscow time zone. Also, railway stations everywhere also operate according to Moscow time zone. For example, you departure time according to your ticket is 9.00 pm. It is Moscow time. And it is 11.00 pm in Ekaterinburg, 1 am of the next day in Novosibirsk, 3 am in Irkutsk, 5 am in Vladivostok. So, what time is it now in Russia? ;)

9. Think about your leisure time during trip. If takes 24 hours to get from Ekaterinburg to Novosibirsk, what are going to do besides sleeping? 10. There are no sockets on most ordinary trains. If you need your mobile devices alive on arrival, it’s better to turn them off during the voyage. Well, you can ask the carriage assistant, and as you are foreigner they might allow you to charge your device in their compartment. But also, they possibly will ask you to pay for this.

Also, mobile networks don’t cover all the country. Sometimes there is no coverage between the cities and settlements. Don’t forget to switch your cell phone off so that you don’t need charging too often.

11. Prepare clothes for train voyage. It is generally hot on trains. In summer some of them don’t have air conditioning, just so called air inlet. In winter the windows are caulked up, and the central heating is on, so it gets stuffy, especially during nights. Sometimes it gets cold and stuffy at the same time, it is the most uncomfortable situation, but it happens rarely. The most popular clothing style here is comfortable sporty trousers and t-shirt or longsleeve.

12. Plan carefully. If you would like to enjoy your trip, try to alternate train riding and sightseeing. After 24-30 hours on train stay for couple of days on the ground. Luckily, it is possible to find interesting places every 24 hours, think of St Peterburg, Moscow, Kazan, Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, etc. Stay at least for 2 nights in the city to have rest, wash your clothes, go sightseeing and meet people.

13. Think about weather carefully. Cold in Russia is more or less stereotypic in terms of its scale. It can be +16 in Sochi and -10 somewhere in Siberia. Pay special attention to weather if you travel in autumn. Early autumn is beautiful season in Russia, but the temperatures may vary from +20 to 0 and lower. Layers are new sexy.

13.1 Good news is that we have mostly same mass market brands here. Redressing can be not that expensive if you spend several months in Russia.

Here are basic survival rules for travelling on Russian trains. It will definitely be interesting. You will find new experience and meet interesting and nice people. Just keep your heart and mind open. Have a save trip!

And you are very welcome to add your points to our list!

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