Tips for the Trans-Siberian Railway
There are two main points about the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian Railways. The first is that the Trans-Siberian proper runs from Moscow to Vladivostok and the second is that the railway branches out from Ulan-Ude to form the Trans-Mongolian route to Mongolia and China. This post is a review on Russian trains along the Trans-Siberian route.
Here’s a map to make it all clear from Mark Smith, who runs the excellent website The Man in Seat Sixty-One:
Which class should I travel?
The most expensive and comfortable is spalny vagon, or First class, which has two berths in each compartment. I didn’t travel first class, so I can’t really say anything about it, but there’s plenty of information and photos online and of course, on Mark Smith’s website.
I took kupeyny, or Second class most of the time. Compartments are divided into four sleeping berths and each passenger gets a pillow, sheets, a bedspread and a small facecloth. Note that while the sheets and facecloths are changed every time a new passenger gets on, the bedspreads aren’t. If you don’t have a problem with sharing skin cells and DNA with the person(s) before you, you can use the bedspread as a blanket because it’s quite warm. Kupeyny compartments can be locked from the inside at night when you sleep and are actually rather comfortable.
If you’re travelling kupeyny, I would suggest you take the bottom bunk if you intend to take lots of photos because the view won’t be as nice from the top. Bottom bunks are also better if you’re a little on the heavy side.
Platskartny is the Third class. I travelled platskartny from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude (seven hours) to try it out. Some people liken Russian platskartny carriages to Chinese hard sleepers, but I’ve travelled on Chinese trains before and they’re not the same. Chinese hard sleepers are divided into sets of six berths on one side of the carriage, with the aisle on the other side.
Russian third class carriages are also open-view carriages but the design is a little different. There are 54 berths in one carriage- 18 of these are arranged in a row on one side, while the remaining berths are arranged in sets of four. If you’re a solo female travelling platskartny, I would suggest one of the berths among the four- you’ll get a little more privacy that way. My berth was along the aisle (probably given to me because I was alone) and anyone who stuck his head out from his berth would be able to see what I was doing. Think of platskartny as a 54-bed dorm on wheels. It was fine, but I would have preferred one of the inner berths.
Lonely Planet suggests that third class may be safer for solo female travellers because there’s no risk of you being stuck with three unsavoury characters in second class for four nights, but the reverse argument is that there are no lockable doors and therefore less privacy in platskartny. Besides, there are now women-only compartments in second class and even if you feel uncomfortable with a man in your compartment, you can always request to move into another one. Because of the nature of third class carriages, I have a feeling that travelling in them will be more bearable if you have company.
What are the toilets like?
In one word: small. The size is similar to that of airplane toilets but of course planes don’t sway from left to right (well, they’d better not!) and toilets on trains don’t have things like hand lotion, cologne and other such frivolities.
Can you bathe on the train? Of course you can, but you’ll need a small bottle of mineral water to fill up and throw water on yourself- a 1.5 litre bottle won’t fit under the tap. Bring your own shower gel and one of those quick-dry travel towels.
Are the toilets clean? That depends on who used it before you. I simply fill up my bottle and rinse the seat and surrounding areas.
So, like, what do I wear on the trains?
If you’re travelling for more than 12 hours, I would recommend you change into something comfortable like track pants or loose trousers and a loose top. The trains are pretty well-heated, so the trick is to layer. Slippers are provided on board the train (except in third class) but you may want to bring your own pair of flip flops.
What about food?
There’s a restaurant car on board and an option to include meals when you buy your ticket (only for kupeyny and above) but everyone brings food on the train. I brought lots of bread, cheese, tuna and noodles with me. Things like powdered soups, tea/coffee, chocolate bars, cereal drinks and utensils like an insulated mug and cutlery would also be useful.
At certain major stops along the route, vendors will come onto the platforms to sell food. It’s quite fun getting down from the train and seeing what’s available even if you don’t buy anything. You’ll see locals selling bread, drinks, sausages, fruits and smoked fish, even wool scarves and small toys. In short, you’ll rarely go hungry. Just remember to stock up on long rides.
Get down from the train only when it stops for more than 15 minutes because you do not want to be stuck in Siberia in your flip flops when your train leaves the station. Note that not all Russian trains whistle before they depart-some leave without warning. Remember what your carriage attendant and carriage mates look like and make sure they’re still hanging around on the platform. There’s a timetable in every carriage so you can check how long the stops are but the Lonely Planet and Trailblazer guidebooks also have detailed schedules.
Where can I store my precious luggage?
If you’ve got a bottom berth, you can store your bags under it- all bottom berths, even those in platskartny, have storage areas. The ones in kupeyny are quite roomy, with enough space for one large rucksack and a smaller daypack. Someone would have to lift the entire bed to get at your bags, so there’s no way anyone would be able to steal your stuff when you’re lying down. If you’re worried that your things might go missing if you leave your compartment, lock your bag and bring your essentials with you.
If you’ve got a top berth, there will be a storage area at your feet, above the door of the compartment. This is also very secure as someone would have to climb onto your berth to steal your things. Once again, if you’re worried, lock your bags and take your essentials with you.
Is the train safe?
Yes it is, but of course don’t flash your valuables and money around. I took out my DSLR and netbook only when I was in kupeyny, and only when I was sure it was safe to do so.
I had my kupeyny compartment all to myself for two whole days and I’ll have to admit that I didn’t bring my passport, money or cameras with me everywhere I went. There were times when I went to the restaurant car or platform only with my phone and some coins, but obviously do this after shutting the compartment door firmly so that no-one can see that it’s empty. For the record, none of my belongings went missing on the train, both when I had compartment mates and when I was alone.
As for my personal security, there were no untoward incidents and no-one tried anything, even when it was obvious that I was alone in my compartment.
Are there any plug points on the train?
Chances are you’ll be bringing at least a mobile phone. I have two phones with me (my iPhone for wifi and a simple one for text messages and calls back home), two cameras (one DSLR and one compact, for occasions when using the larger one isn’t convenient or practical) and if that weren’t enough, a netbook for writing. Other people on the train had iPods and various tablet computers. Going back to plug points- yes, there are indeed power points in the corridor for public use, particularly on spalny vagon and kupeyny carriages. If the plug points happen to be located right in front of your kupeyny compartment, good for you, but if they aren’t, just plug your device in as usual but keep an eye on it just to be safe.
How much do the tickets cost?
A simple guide would be this: first class tickets cost about double that of second class tickets, which in turn cost double that of third class tickets. A great website which I’ll always be indebted to is Real Russia, which not only has ticket prices and schedules, but also provides assistance for visa invitation letters. As regards prices, note that there is no single train for the Trans-Siberian (or Trans-Mongolian route, for that matter), so there are numerous options for trains, and therefore, prices.
Should I go?
In one word: Yes. Go here to find out how to apply for your Russian visa.
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