Travelers often say they want to go on the Trans-Siberian Railway, although usually they know little about it. I'm guessing it's usually said in the confidence that the trip will never take place. Others may be confusing reality with Agatha Christie's luxurious Orient Express. To travel independently by train through Russia can be a great experience. Before you go however, you really need to understand what you're in for.
You begin with the buying of tickets. The first time you get in a ticket line at a Russian railway station, you will do so reluctantly. But the person selling the tickets will not be shy about denying you any services at all as soon as it becomes evident that you don't speak Russian. "TSERVIS TSENTR!", she will bark loudly and point you up some stairs.
In the service center you will find a more or less English-speaking person, who for a small fee, listens to you and writes down a note you can take back to the ticket line. You feel like a seven-year-old sent out by his mother to buy some groceries. The piece of paper says in Cyrillic letters where you're heading and what kind of ticket you want. Triumphantly you hand over the note and some money, and you're ready to go! Gradually you learn how to write these notes on your own.
Choose your style
You're likely to choose second class. It's relatively cheap and comfortable. You share a compartment with three others, most probably Russians. First class costs twice as much, and you share it with only one other person, probably a tourist like yourself. There's a TV in the compartment, and you can pay to watch movies on it. (Don't. There will be a Russian voice-over.) Apart from this, the compartment is just like in second class.
Delicate westerners should probably not travel long distance in third class. In Russian those tickets are called platskartny. I think it means "refugee camp". Instead of lockable compartments with a corridor outside, all walls have been torn down to make room for a number of bunk beds. The whole carriage is one large dormitory. Two toilets are shared by fifty four adults and a near infinite number of children who sleep in the beds with their parents.
You may think it's safer to be surrounded by many people than to share a compartment with three drunk Russians. Keep in mind that in third class there's a real chance you'll be sharing a dormitory with fifty three drunk soldiers.
Third class not only has more people and fewer walls, it also has more stringvests, larger families, bigger grandmothers, louder snoring, children constantly running around and empty faces more than willing to silently stare at a foreigner for hours on end. People continuously eat, sleep and yell at their kids. Often they change clothes, apparently without realizing they're not alone. It's like being a fly on the wall in fifty kitchens and bedrooms at once. Platskartny can be a fascinating experience during the day; at night it's hell.
There's a fourth class as well. Don't ask.
Off we go
I don't remember exactly what I expected, but I was disappointed to discover that even the Trans-Siberian Railway is just another train. The mayor didn't turn up to see us off. An hour before the departure, the carriages were unceremoniously rolled into the platform. Passengers got on and started making themselves at home. Some prepared for a week on the train; others were to travel for just a day or two.
A brusque train host had done this a million times before. He welcomed me and showed me to my compartment. The corridor outside was like on most trains, except it had a carpet on the floor and the windows had real curtains, like in a living room. At one end of the carriage there was a large, old samovar. You could always get boiling hot water from it, for tea, noodles or whatever else you might crave.
On my first leg through Russia, I shared a compartment with Sergey from Khabarovsk. He was grey and featureless. His thick glasses stayed together, thanks to a piece of sticky tape. They were most fashionable – in 1967. He only spoke Russian. I don't. He still asked me a hundred questions. Eventually he gave up and was quiet for the rest of the journey, except at night, when he slept – and snored.
It dawned on me that my journey through Russia might be a more lonely and demanding venture than I had expected. I walked to the restaurant carriage, hoping to find someone to talk to.
Food, mainly as a thought
The restaurant had no guests. I bought a sandwich and sat down at a table. The sandwich tasted of mold and paper, but I battled it down. Immediately the waitress came over and removed my plate. I got out my notebook and wrote some comments regarding the food on Russian trains. The waitress returned. "Thiz iz reztaurant wagon. You muzt eat!", she said. "This is restaurant wagon, you should sell something edible here!", I quipped. Fortunately she didn't really understand much English.
Every now and then the train appeared to stop for no reason – to stay on schedule. The salaries of people working on the trains are calculated based on how well the trains stick to the schedule. They must arrive and depart neither too late nor too early. It may seem a bit stupid, but the logistics on the busy railway demands it. It also means you can trust a Russian train table. I never experienced more than a two-minute delay. On a seven-day long schedule, that's impressive, especially when you consider that most of the carriages complete the whole journey. Russia may be falling apart, but its trains can be relied on.
Every carriage has two deities; two train hosts/hostesses, provodniks and provodnitsas in Russian. One is always awake; their powers are unlimited. They know the schedule. They have more toilet paper. For a few roubles, they will let you borrow a garden hose that fits the faucet inside the restroom, enabling you to enjoy a basic, efficient shower.
They serve breakfast in the morning and a hot meal for lunch. Every day they vacuum the carriage, clean the windows and bring new sheets for your bed if they reckon it's called for. Towards the end of every stop the train makes, they run all over the station and gather those of "their" passengers who have gone out for some air and beer. They can easily control a batallion of soldiers about to become too loud and drunk. Nowhere have I seen passengers and trains better taken care of.
My co-passengers treated me as a friend, although to them I was clearly a lunatic, having chosen to spend my vacation in Siberia. We couldn't communicate efficiently, but they were generous and indicated that they wanted to share what they had with me. Unfortunately, what they had was mainly raw fish, gutted inside the compartment. And vodka. Lots and lots of vodka.
I found a way to handle the fish. I had an upper bunk, where I hid the fish they gave me inside a plastic bag. When we made stops, I discretely disposed of the bag. Only the smell remained. I had more trouble with the vodka. I don't drink alcohol. My Russian dictionary seemed to lack a word for "teetotaller". I suppose that for a word to exist, it must be of practical use. I tried to explain my choice to my new friends, but they couldn't seem to understand the concept. My rescue became simply to say "Ya alkogolic", I'm an alcoholic. They accepted this, and allowed me to drink only water and Pepsi for the rest of the trip.
Forest, woods, trees…
Little went on inside the train; outside there was less than nothing exciting to see. Sometimes four or five hours passed between the stations. Hours of dozing, grey birch forest outside. There seemed to be no end to the wilderness. Every fifth tree in the world grows in Siberia. Mother Earth has protected the forest well so far. The trees are so remote from civilization that no lumberjack bothers to go there. So the forest is dense and the landscape monotonous. The land just lies there, flat and dead as in a painting. The enormous, silent rivers of Siberia is a result of the even terrain. Unfortunately, it doesn't make for great views from the train.
Gradually I started noticing other things than the never-ending forest. Despite the low population density, all the way along the railroad tracks were major power lines, and everywhere, the railway was at least double-tracked. I saw long train sets heading east much more often than I saw houses. The railway is the vein that keeps Siberia alive.
A gravel road, sort of, tried to keep up with the train. Often it disappeared into swamps, was stopped by rivers that had dug themselves a new bed for the year, or into forests of grass grown tall in the lack of any traffic. Any roads of acceptable standards disappeared from Siberia when the gulag camps with all their hard-working prisoners closed down. Crossing Siberia today is best done by train or by plane.
Summer in the pity
The villages we made stops in were decrepit, but beautiful in their own way. Most of the houses were wooden, and once upon a time they had clearly been built by skilled carpenters. Corners, roofs, doors and windows were covered in wood carvings; you have to go to a museum to see where I come from. While people couldn't afford to paint their houses, at least the doors and window frames carried a coat of paint, usually the light green of hope or a melancholic shade of blue.
Open fields and small gardens surrounded the villages. It was hay making season, and it was hot. Like in a farmer version of casual Friday, the fields were full of men wearing just underpants. They skillfully operated scythes and hay forks, manually building real-life haystacks, this in a country that neighbours my own, modern homeland.
The stops were short and intense. Everyone rushed quickly off the train, seeking out small stalls strategically placed outside every carriage. Young and old women loudly declared what was on the menu. From these stalls you could buy anything you liked, as long as your desires weren't too sophisticated. They had beer, soft drinks, fresh water, fish straight from the river, ice cream, dried meat, fried pastries and sunflower seeds. Everything was homemade or gathered from the surrounding wilderness and delicious! Business was good. People bargained, smiled and laughed.
If you just travel the length of the Trans-Siberian in one go, the stops at the stations are all you see of Russia. Unless you're exceptionally fond of forests, this is why you need to break up your journey and leave the world of trains every now and then. There's a wide selection of culturally and visually stunning and/or surprising experiences to be had, just outside the reach of the train passengers. I promise.
This article describes the actual Trans-Siberian Railway, the one that connects the Russian cities of Vladivostok and Moscow; not the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Manchurian railways between Russia and China.