Trans-Siberian Railway: Part I

Despite the fact that I couldn’t read my ticket the helpful people at RealRussia who had booked my trains provided me with a detailed English translation.  That sounds simple but these four pieces of paper covering my four legs of Russian rail travel ended up being some of the most valuable things I possessed on the whole trip because absolutely nothing else was in my own language.   So I knew that I was in Carriage 10 on the Vladivostok to Novosibirsk train but as the huge locomotive stood at the station I just couldn’t figure out how to find that carriage.

I later realised with some embarassment that there are huge signs in each carriage window showing the number that I’d somehow missed that first morning.  In hindsight that made me even more impressed with the first train Provodnik I encountered.  I’d been warned they’d be unlikely to speak English so I showed her the ticket whilst pointing like an idiot at the carriage number.   She was standing right under a huge sign stating her carriage number in a big red font so could easily have looked at me like I had two heads.  Instead she smiled warmly and pointed me to her colleague a few carriages down.  I later wondered how many times that happens to her every day when foreigners board the train but soon found out that not many foreigners do, at least not many English-speaking ones.  I didn’t know it then but I would go almost two weeks before I heard my own language being spoken fluently.

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Easy when you know where to look.

I had booked a first class ticket and once the second Provodnik realised my Russian was non-existent she kindly showed me all the way to my compartment and placed my luggage on my seat-come-bed.  All of the long distance trains in Russia are sleepers.  In first class that means your seat is also your bed.  In second and third class that will be the case on a lower berth, but you might end up having to share the seat during the day with the person occupying the bunk above it, something I would become expert at on the next leg of my trip.  For now I found myself in a small yet comfortable compartment with two berths separated by a fixed table.

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Each carriage is assigned two Provodniks and I’m not aware of a direct English translation.  I think the closest we have is a train conductor but that implies someone who just looks after tickets and naughty people.  The next best English description would be a flight attendant or ship steward but they don’t work on trains.   Provodniks essentially perform all of these roles and are an important and memorable feature of any trans-Siberian journey.  They take care of passengers, ensure the toilets and carriages are clean and generally keep order.  Every morning once everyone is awake they put on an apron and vacuum the whole carriage.  Some diligent Provodniks do that again at night.  They even make you lift up your legs so they can vacuum under them just like your mother used to do in the living room at home.  On some shorter trains there is only one as was the case with my last leg between Yekaterinburg and St Petersburg where an incredibly patient woman took care of us for 35 hours straight yet never stopped smiling and making sure we were taken care of.  That doesn’t mean you can treat your Provodnik like a maid or concierge.  They are more of a housekeeper than a maid and more of a troubleshooter than a concierge.

I’d read in travel forums that these usually female Provodniks were often brusque and to be feared however my experiences with them were completely different.  I found them caring, friendly and helpful despite the language barrier.  They were almost maternal in their treatment of passengers and took pride in keeping their designated carriage clean and orderly.  Whilst they came in all ages, shapes and sizes, they were all well-groomed and wore their Russian Railways uniform with pride.   I certainly wouldn’t have had such a wonderful journey through Russia if it weren’t for my lovely Provodniks, none of which I ever managed to exchange a meaningful sentence with.  They are the sort of people you meet on a trip whose faces you will never forget.

As I started to unpack the things I wanted to have handy and store the other bits of luggage under the seat my roommate appeared.  She was a young woman who as luck would have it was studying English at university.  She was only in her first year so it was still a bit of a struggle but I sort of had my own personal interpreter which was good as not even the signs on this train were written in roman script so I was feeling a little lost.  She was traveling home to the small town of Svobodniy so would be with me for the first 24-hours, I had the carriage to myself for the rest of the 69-hour trip until the last night when a lovely women joined me in Ulan Ude for the last 12-hours to Irkutsk.  We slept for most of that but she spoke a little English and the next morning she insisted on introducing me to her son before personally escorting me to a taxi to make sure he’d take me to my hotel for a fair price.

Contrary to popular belief the Trans-Siberian Railway is not one train journey like the Orient Express or the Blue Train.  It simply refers to a network of trains that use the main Trans-Siberian line between Moscow and Vladivostok, a mere 9,228 kilometres of track (5,734 miles).  And with the addition of branch lines over the years connecting other destinations in Siberia, Asia and Western Russia to the original track, the term ‘trans-Siberian’ can be used to describe all manner of journeys.  It also isn’t a tourist train like the others I mentioned but a means of Russians getting around their country, so a tourist undertaking the trip is essentially joining a long distance train network much like Amtrak or the various networks in Europe.  There is one luxury train that operates especially for tourists but it is extremely expensive and with hindsight I’d much rather use the perfectly comfortable Russian Railways system not just for the price but also for the wonderful cultural experience I was about to have.

As we pulled out of Vladivostok station I looked out the window and my heart sank.  The double glazing had left the interior sections of the glass permanently smeared and I realised that my view of Russia for the next 4,000 kilometres was going to be somewhat fuzzy.  In certain lights and at certain temperatures it was possible to see with some clarity, but to get a decent view I was going to have to stand in the hallway and look out the mostly clear windows on the other side.  This wasn’t a tourist train and most Russians I spoke to were perplexed at why I’d want to look out the window at Siberia anyway so it wasn’t something I was going to complain about and besides, there was more to this experience than just the view.    However that is my excuse for the poor quality photos I’ve posted from the train and I apologise for any subsequent smudges or glares you might see.

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On each carriage the timetable for the trip is posted on the wall so that everyone is able to keep track of progress and also work out when stops are long enough to get off the train, stretch your legs and maybe buy something from the many people selling food and drinks to passengers along the way.  It was the only thing posted on this trip in both Cyrillic and Roman script so I could actually read the place names.  I took a photo and copied it down into my notebook so I could keep track of our journey by crossing off each station as we stopped.

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That turned out to be a wise move as regular time seems to disappear, further confused by the fact that everything is on Moscow time (at that point we were 7-hours ahead of Moscow) along with the long summer days and mostly unchanging landscape.  Over the next 10-days I constantly had issues with knowing what the date or time was letalone where I was.  I have to say that wasn’t an altogether bad feeling and offered a certain escape from the rest of the world.  The trains became like little mobile independent republics with their own schedules and customs operating independent of life in the rest of Russia that passed by the window almost like a movie.  We constantly observed life and landscape outside but were not part of it.

The first few thousand kilometres of the journey through the far eastern reaches of Siberia offered a fairly lush landscape.  The forest was thick and seemed sub-tropical with vines and ferns.  Whilst there were some mountains in the distance it was mostly forest covered hills, big rivers and marshland with long reedy grass dotted with wildflowers.  It was definitely an endless expanse of lush green with very few settlements in sight, and those I did see were tiny with wooden houses surrounded by small vegetable plots and accessed only by narrow muddy roads.  Occasionally paved roads appeared along with pretty railway and vehicle bridges that crossed windy rivers, and every now and then a beat up old Lada would be waiting for us to pass so they could cross the tracks.

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Although the trans-Siberian is thought of as an east/west running railway, in this part it runs north/south along the Chinese border.  In some places China is just 10km away and that added another interesting dimension in knowing that the hills you were looking at in the distance belonged to another somewhat mysterious country.  The forests in that area used to be teeming with wildlife like bears, wolves and Siberian tigers, sadly these were almost hunted to extinction in this region but can still be found for those brave enough to venture deep into the woods to look.  Just like in America, I constantly kept my eyes peeled for wildlife but only saw the odd bird or farm animal.

At the first stop and every other after that lasting more than 10-minutes, most of us would disembark onto the platform to take a short walk and enjoy the fresh air.  Most of the stations were in small towns and were often very run down but they all had a small shop to serve the long distance passengers.  I’d often see people running to stock up on noodles, teabags, beer or vodka.  At many stations local women would be selling freshly picked wild berries, dried fish, sausages and bread.  Unfortunately my stomach is a little delicate these days so I was too scared to buy anything I couldn’t wash thoroughly and that is hard to do on the train, so I was left looking longingly at fellow passengers tucking into fresh wild strawberries (the kind I hadn’t seen since my childhood) and delicious looking sausage.

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I never got to the bottom of the reason for this Mordor-esque station design.  If anyone knows please shoot me a message.

I noticed that these platform sellers didn’t harass people to buy their wares and seemed to enjoy chatting to the Provodniks, the passengers and each other.  The arrival of a long distance train seemed like a bit of a social event as well as a way to make money, and the breaks allowed passengers to get to know people traveling in other carriages, something I was unable to partake in due to the language barrier.

The other passengers seemed mildly curious about me and I could sometimes make out that they were trying to find out from the Provodnik where I was from and where I was going and she would tell them what she knew.  After that they would always be very friendly towards me even though we couldn’t communicate very well.  Without fail and without knowing the language I could easily guess that each person who asked wondered what on earth a single woman from New Zealand was doing traversing Siberia and the way the Provodniks shrugged their shoulders showed they were equally perplexed.  At times I was too.

I have to say though that I always felt safe on the trains and people were quick to try to help me out if I seemed confused and to invite me into conversations if they could.  Often people on the platforms would complain to each other about the heat or the bugs and try to include me.  As we were all sweating buckets and getting eaten alive by the same bugs these comments weren’t hard to interpret and I appreciated not being left out of the general moaning.  I’ve found throughout my travels that humans of any culture, race or religion can always find a way to bond over complaints relating to weather, insects, delays and queues.  Russia was no different.

I’m sure many readers will agree that the conversation of others on public transport can easily become a source of irritation because it is impossible to tune out what is being said, sort of like forced eavesdropping.  This is particularly true when having to endure one side of an overly loud phone conversation.   I found that this disappears when you simply can’t understand a word that is being said.  The Russian language doesn’t sound coarse or annoying to my ears and it has a nice rhythm to it, so it became a kind of pleasant background noise that enabled me to fully relax.

Later in the trip a roommate (using Google Translate) asked me how I found traveling through Russia without speaking any of the language.  I typed ‘challenging yet peaceful’ into his phone and that probably does truly sum up the situation.  When I finally heard English speakers at the end of my trip I found it incredibly instrusive at first.  I just couldn’t tune it out and despite my best efforts I found myself eavedropping on their conversation.  For that reason most of my Russian railway trip was incredibly peaceful and within a day or two it just didn’t bother me that I had no idea what was going on.  Instead I grew to value that and it was hard adjusting to Helsinki a few weeks later where everyone spoke English so that I couldn’t tune out.

The scenery remained largely unchanged through most of the trip to my first stop in Irkutsk and whilst writing this I found a scribble in my notebook from the first day: “Wondering what I got myself into – 69 hours of this?  63’ish to go now.”  But as I disembarked the train at the busy station in Irkutsk I realised that I had come to enjoy train life.  I found it extremely peaceful and I loved seeing the Siberian landscape unfold outside my blurry window.  I’ll write more about the Trans-Siberian Railway and my stay in Irkutsk over my next few posts but for now I’ll try to answer a few burning questions I had before I took this trip that I assume others may have too…

Is First Class worth it?  Most online travel blogs and forums disagree with me (which is nothing new) but I think it definitely is if you are traveling alone.  If there are two of you it will be cheaper to buy out a second class compartment by paying for four tickets but this is prohibitive if you are going solo, in fact I don’t even think one person is allowed to buy more than two tickets.    Even if you bought two second class tickets (as a solo traveller) you will probably end up sharing with two other people whereas you’ll only have to share with one in first.  It is personal preference as to which situation makes you feel less awkward!

First class carriages are also significantly less crowded than second or third class (meaning the toilets stay in better shape for starters), any meals you take are of a much better quality and you get a few extra conveniences like an extra pillow, better sheets etc. That said, if you are on a budget you can easily make second class work quite comfortably and might even want to try out third class.  I’ll talk about second class in my next post about the train as I also got to experience that for two nights.

The final bug bear the online bloggers seem to have is that you don’t meet other Russians in First Class and therefore miss an ‘authentic experience’.  That is probably true if you are traveling as a couple but solo travelers will have probably the most intimate engagements with Russians in First Class because it is just the two of you so one way or another you’ll end up communicating and getting to know each other in a way that would just never happen in a group situation.

Was it awkward to share with a stranger?  A little but the Russians seem used to it so most of the awkwardness came from me and I soon got over it so that it seemed very natural.  It would probably be less awkward if you spoke the language.  On my first train I only shared with women, on the next with a family and on the last with a man.  The most awkward was sharing with the family and I’ll discuss that in a later post.

In terms of getting changed, you can either do that in the toilets or ask the person to leave the room for a few minutes, a favour you should be quick to return.  I just used the toilets for changing but made sure I offered to leave if it looked like someone wanted to get changed and usually they took me up on the offer.  You also need to be considerate about things like smells (e.g. not spraying hairspray or cologne everywhere) and trying to be quiet when using computers, phones etc.  I noticed that all of my Russian roommates took great care with things like that so you need to do the same in return.  One gentleman even asked permission to eat when I wasn’t.

Was it difficult to book?  No but it could have been.  I used RealRussia who were fantastic and significantly cheaper than using foreign agents, yet probably a little more than doing it yourself direct with Russian Railways but you’d only want to attempt that if you knew the language and were able to sort out any subsequent problems like mistakes and cancellations yourself.  You can either use RealRussia’s automated system to book it online just like you’d book a flight or you can speak to a person via e-mail.  I chose the latter and would highly recommend it.  My agent was fluent in English and an expert on the Russian railway system.

They also helped with my visa in terms of providing the documentation required by the Russian Embassy.   They knew all of the intricacies of taking trains in Russia so either had the answers to most of my questions on their website or were quick to answer them on e-mail.   You can also use them as a back-up whilst traveling.  For example, in my Vladivostok post I mentioned an issue with getting a ticket at the train station there.  I was worried they hadn’t done it right so took a picture of the ticket, e-mailed it to my agent who responded within a few hours assuring me it was ok.

They have offices in Moscow and London but you can use them from anywhere.  For example, I booked with them from New Zealand using an American credit card with no problems.  Click here to visit the RealRussia website and click here to visit The Man in Seat Sixty-One, an incredibly accurate and comprehensive informational website about train travel throughout the world including Russia.

I’ll answer some more common questions on my next few Russian posts and once they’ve all been posted I’ll work on a general post dedicated to Russian Travel Tips as I have many I couldn’t find in the guidebooks or online travel forums.    If you have any questions in the meantime shoot me an e-mail or ask me in the comments.

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