Life on board the train?

Utter the name "Siberia", and it immediately conjures up images of winter. And given a good hard frost, nothing is more beautiful than chugging across the flat snowy wastes of Russia, the firs and birches glistening white. Or, strolling along streets of huge cities or provincial towns in deep snow and experience iney - when the air sparkles like tinsel as it freezes. Of course, Russia and the Trans-Siberian route offer a host of delights at all times of the year. Summer is lush green forests, sunbathing and boating in lakes and rivers, homegrown produce being sold on the streets. Autumn and spring reveal a kaleidoscope of colour, with birches changing foliage and wild flowers. Whatever your season preference, a rail journey throughout this vast continent cannot fail to delight travellers who want that elusive "something different".

When you spend more than two days in the train, it becomes a second home. You start to know the conductors and are spending more time with other passengers. 

Getting to your train: Your ticket will indicate the train (poezd) number, wagon (vagon) and compartment (kupe). People meeting you will often ask for your compartment and wagon number. Russian trains are long, so it is handy to have someone there where you step off the train. The lower the wagon number, the closer to the front of the train, and the further down the departure platform.

Porters (nosilshchik) expect no less than EUR4.00 in rubles from foreigners for one or two bags. Indulge yourself, because "Wagon Number 1" is a long way down the platform. Agree on a per bag price before they start helping you.

Note: Russian trains leave on time!

The carriage (wagon) and its attendants: Whatever class of travel you choose will result in you having a pair of attendants ('provodnik' (male) or 'provodnitsa' (female)) working in shifts. Shortly after departure, he/she will take your ticket and ask for the small bedding fee - about US$1. Bedding, which consists of two sheets a pillowcase and a towel, is handed out in sealed packs. Blankets and mattresses will already be in your compartment. the attendants small room is at the front end of each carriage, next to the toilets and the hot water boiler (coal fire powered ). Part of their job is to walk along the corridor and make sure everything's in order. They also prepare cups of tea (chai) for 4 Roubles. In addition, they get off at every station and remind passengers (in Russian and hand signals for the tourists) not to stay too long on the platform. For good service, a small tip (EUR1.00 in rubles) at the end of the trip is appropriate.

A boiler with unlimited free hot water is available at the end of the corridor. A good idea is to bring your own tea (if you don't think you will like the local brew) or coffee (not supplied on the train), sugar, cuppa soups, drinking chocolates etc. If you do this it is best to have your own cup/mug.  Most long distance trains have a restaurant car serving drinks, snacks, and full meals. Budget on US$12 to US$15 for two courses and a drink or two.

Most Russian trains do not have retention-toilets as on aircraft. Therefore, the toilets discharge onto the track, which results in the toilets being locked about 30 min. before arriving at stations until about 30 min. after departure.

What do passengers do?

Passing the day

Life on the train drifts from stupor to frenetic activity, from relaxing to bursts of platform shopping or dashing around the station. You sleep when you want to but gradually you drift into a routine centred on stops, eating or bone-idling.

Scrabble or Chess
Books books and more books
Cabin Picnics

Things to do:

The Trans Siberian is the big-book trip, attempt War and Peace or devour the Lord of the Rings.

Window gazing is meditative, good for daydreaming and problem solving. Compartment windows don't open but some in the corridor will. For private space there's the restaurant car where a good relationship with the staff (encouraged by a small gift from home) will leave you undisturbed.

Make friends and don't be daunted by not knowing the lingo. Most communication is non-verbal, a warm smile is a good start and a phrase book will supply the basics. Other English-speaking foreigners will probably be travelling as well. Play games, learn or improve your chess and consider packing backgammon or cards.

Follow the journey, a map and guidebook helps make sense of this momentous transcontinental journey. A schedule is posted in every carriage so if the train is running on time you should know where you are.

Films. A laptop or video player plus DVDs will endear you with your fellow passengers and the provodnik (carriage conductor, and usually a woman). Good relations with the provodnik is essential for that morning cup of tea in bed or her not minding you recharging your gear from the only plug in the carriage that's for her vacuum cleaner.

Stops

Stops vary from two to 40 minutes. Always confirm the stopping time with the provodnik and make sure you 'go' well before you pull into the station as toilet doors are locked when passing through towns and cities.

Forty minutes is too short for a city tour so keep within the station and return with time to spare. The horror of seeing the train leave without you is the opener for too many train travel stories so always carry your passport, ticket and money with you.

There'll always be plenty of characters and maybe a Lenin statue or similar Soviet relic to photograph. Don't, photograph anything military or involving the police without asking, or you will be missing the train.

At the longer stops, you'll see the ‘houseproud’ conductors polishing doorway handrails and the train nameplate on the carriage but never the dirty windows. Meanwhile a railway worker, swinging a long handled hammer taps the wheels and wheel bearing boxes with a musical ‘ping – pingpingping’ meaning a healthy wheel.

 

People watching at stations
Shopping at station stops. Local Russians hawking to passengers
What it was like. Chinese traders hawking to local Russians

Travelling Protocol

Life on the Trans Siberian is free and easy but they're a few protocols.

All carriages are non-smoking and smokers have to use the connecting passageways between the carriages.

Dressing down is standard; most locals travel in daggy tracksuits and ones with stripes down the legs being the most favoured. But, they are the most practical clothes to travel in along with a pair of slip-into shoes.

In mixed compartments, the men wait  in the corridor while women prepare for bed; men change into their nightclothes in the toilets, or the women turn to face the cabin wall.

While you can go to bed and get up anytime, the bottom berth in a four-berth kupe is also seating for two so bear that in mind when you decide to lie in; alternatively ask for a top bunk.

Compartment picnics are shared affairs. Everyone lays out the food they've bought, the vodka does the rounds, toasts are made to international friendships and everyone tucks in.