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Q&A With Jeff: What It’s Really Like To Travel The Trans-Siberian Railroad

(Trans-Siberian Railway ticket originating in Moscow.  Large number at the bottom left is the price: ~$700 USD.)

(Trans-Siberian Railway ticket originating in Moscow. Large number at the bottom left is the price: ~$700 USD.)

Jeff’s been a long time travel friend of mine who recently spent a month in Japan for $60.  Prior to arriving in Japan, he actually had the crazy idea to overland from Europe to Asia (flying is so overrated!) and opted to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad to do so. Yes, the Trans-Siberian Railroad… across some of the most ruthless climates and landscapes in Russia.  Being hugely curious, I had to sit down with him again to find out what that whole experience was like.  Read on for his travel experience and tips in case you’ve got this classic railway journey on your travel bucket list, too.

What made you decide to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad?

A friend and I left our jobs in England in mid-2013 to pursue new careers in our respective homes of Australia and the United States.  We decided to make the voyage home into an extended trip and we would do it while avoiding flying for any part of the journey.  Unfortunately, I ended up taking one short flight in Europe and I flew back home to the U.S.  The Trans-Siberian Railway seemed to us the best way to get from Europe to Asia by land.  We would also be able to spend a greater portion of our trip seeing Russia.

Traveling through Russia by rail and on the longest continuous railway in the world always possessed a mysterious allure, so we made the trek across Russia the linchpin of our trip.  It was for practical reasons as well, since the dates for our visas determined the pace of our travel through Europe and when we would have to enter and leave Russia.

Where did you start and end the ride?

Our journey through Russia technically started in St. Petersburg, but we stopped in Moscow for a few days before getting on the Trans-Siberian Railway and taking the train that would take us all the way to Vladivostok along with the same crew.  Altogether from Moscow to Vladivostok, the train ride took seven days.

(The “Rossiya” train numbered 002 at Moscow Yaroslavsky Station headed eastbound for Vladivostok.)

(The “Rossiya” train numbered 002 at Moscow Yaroslavsky Station headed eastbound for Vladivostok.)

Why do you think this train ride exudes such exoticism and mysteriousness to travelers?

I think the appeal stems primarily from the sheer size and vastness of Russia and from contemplating what it would be like to traverse that distance on land.  Also, non-Russians typically perceive Siberia to be a cold and unforgiving place.  Traveling by rail through Siberia allows one to test these notions, adding to the fascination with the Trans-Siberian Railway.

I also don’t believe many Americans get to see Russia apart from the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow – and maybe now, Sochi – so, traveling to the less accessible parts gives a feeling of traveling through the unknown.

What was the train ride actually like?

The train ride was pretty comfortable for me for the amount of days that we were traveling.  But, it all depends on what you’re expecting when you’re stuck on a train for seven days.  Based on advice from other books and websites, we decided to take a second-class train, or kupe.  This class of train car accommodates four people to a cabin and there are about nine cabins in a car and two toilets per car.  There are two foldaway beds that convert into seats on each side of the cabin for when people are not sleeping.  Above those are two more foldaway beds that secure flush to the wall when not in use.

(Inside one of the cabins in a kupe class car.)

(Inside one of the cabins in a kupe class car.)

Sheets and a small towel are given to you by the attendant, or provodnik (male) or more commonly, provodnitsa (female), when you first board the train; however, these are not replaced unless a new passenger takes over a bed.  There are two provodnik/provodnitsa serving each car in kupe class.  There is also a small table attached to the wall by the window and there is a TV in each room that plays two or three channels including a movie channel that repeats.  Our cabin also had a single electrical outlet, although I am not sure if all Trans-Siberian trains have this onboard yet.

We decided on the kupe class since the two-person, first-class cabins were almost double the price of the kupe and the third-class cars were better suited for shorter trips rather than for the entire seven-day voyage.  The third-class cars are all open-bay, meaning no doors or separate cabins, and there are about 50+ beds per car.  So, any noise or odors will probably make it to your bed regardless or where you are situated in the car.  Also, the kupe class provides better storage options for your luggage under the seats or over the TV so that they’re not always visible and out in the open.  The provodnitsa also locks your cabin door if you decide to step out for awhile at one of the longer stops to pick up something at the kiosks.

The cars in our train were climate-controlled, so none of the windows would open during non-emergency situations.  While this did keep the cabins nice and warm at night, it made for a stale environment – especially since no one is showering – and I took almost every opportunity I had to step outside and get some fresh air whenever the train would stop along the way to pick up and drop off passengers.

As for the passengers, they were primarily Russians, either on business or visiting family, and there weren’t so many tourists.  During the entire seven-day trip, I think I only encountered three tourists—two Japanese and one French.  The Japanese tourists got off somewhere in between Moscow and Vladivostok.  The only reason I even knew there was a French tourist was because a friend of the Russian gentleman we were sharing a cabin with asked if he could borrow my Russian phrasebook.  He needed help translating Russian into English in an attempt to communicate with the French tourist who was having flight connection problems.

We had three Russian men rotate into our cabin, two of which only stayed for about 8 hours apiece.  The other one was the gentleman with the friend who helped the French tourist.  He stayed with us for about four days until he had to switch trains to get to his job by the Russia-Mongolia border.  Everyone was pretty friendly and we all offered each other some food and drinks, and we made the best of our limited language skills in each other’s native tongue.  They all looked at us like we were insane, though, when we explained we were going from Moscow to Vladivostok straight without stopping for a few days in any of the intermediate cities.

Also, I think the ticket agents and the provodnitsa do their best to keep the cabins either all-male or all-female and they also try to keep those traveling with children together.

So it sounds like most people don’t hop on the train and make that trek in one swoop like you did.. which begs the question: What about showering and using the bathroom?!

Good luck with showering.  The only showers are in the first-class cars.  So, you’ll have to manage with the washbasin that’s with the toilet.  Most passengers don’t take the entire voyage from Moscow to Vladivostok/Ulaanbaatar/Beijing without getting off at an intermediate city, so showering for them isn’t too much of a problem.  But, if you’re stuck the whole way, there are really only two options:

1.  Use disposable wipes or do the best you can with a washcloth/loofah and some body soap at the washbasin.

2.  Don’t wash at all.

After a while, you tend to give up and just go with number 2.

The two toilets in the kupe class are very well-maintained by the provodnitsa, so there shouldn’t be a problem with the trash piling up or the area being dirty in general.  They may occasionally run out of paper towels, but there was always a good supply of toilet paper.  Just don’t dump any paper in the toilets lest you clog it up and ruin the provodnitsa’s day—or week, rather.

(One of the toilets in the kupe class car.)

(One of the toilets in the kupe class car.)

What views do you see along the way?

Unfortunately, I can’t say much for the views along the way.  There isn’t anything like what you see driving through the Sierra Nevada or the Rockies in the United States.  You can see some forested areas and the towns that you stop at along the way.  But for the most part, it was pretty flat with an occasional river here and there.

(Road and forested area between Magdagachi and Tygda.)

(Road and forested area between Magdagachi and Tygda.)

A caveat to this, though, is that we traveled through the Baikal region in the middle of the night.  So, I would assume that the views in this area would have been spectacular if we had passed by it during the day.

Aww, I’ve always been curious about Baikal.  The lake there looks amazing!  Were there any stops along the way?  

There are roughly 57 stops between Moscow and Vladivostok. The train goes through the major cities in Siberia such as Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk.  Each stop occurs after about 5-6 hours of travel on the train.  Depending on the size of the city, the stop can last from anywhere between two minutes to up to half an hour.

(Church at Karymskaya)

(Church at Karymskaya)

What was the best part about the train ride?

The best part of the train ride was personal for me, so it’s a little difficult to speak about the best part in general.  I reached out to a friend of mine who I hadn’t contacted in eight years.  We had met nine years ago during another part of my life when I had the chance to visit Vladivostok.  I told her that I would be traveling through Russia and wanted to see if she would be interested in meeting up in Vladivostok.  Fortunately, she received my message, but she now lived in Krasnoyarsk.  The railway ran through Krasnoyarsk, but the train would only be stopping there for 22 minutes at 2 a.m. local time on a weekday.  I asked if she wouldn’t be too turned off at the idea of meeting at that absurd hour, and she thankfully agreed to meet.  Not only that, but she also brought some food, fresh fruit, and drinks for me to take for the rest of my trip, which was great because I was starting to run low on food.  So, it was a nice little reunion and I’m fortunate to have reconnected with her.

Other than that, I’d say just the entire experience of taking the railway from Moscow to Vladivostok and seeing Russia from a different perspective was the best part of the whole trip.

What was the worst part?

Not being able to take a proper shower.  Also, the accumulated smells of a train that hasn’t been ventilated for seven days.

Ugh, I can only imagine what the stench must have been like after not showering for seven days!  You are a brave man.  What advice do you have for others who are looking to do the same thing?

If you do not intend on stopping at any city in-between Moscow and Vladivostok for more than the scheduled stop, I highly recommend buying food at a supermarket in advance in Moscow.  The provodnitsa only sells a limited amount of snacks and drinks and the stops may or may not have a kiosk open selling some food items.  These kiosks are also limited in what they sell to items that you’d typically find at a mini-mart—potato chips, instant ramen, candy, soda, water, and sliced bread.  At some stops, you’ll find vendors selling ready-to-go meals, although I found them to be fairly expensive for their size and quality.  I also didn’t encounter them as frequently as I thought I would in late summer and I didn’t see my first vendor at a stop until about four days into the trip.

There is a dining car, but I found that it was also a little expensive for what you get in return and that you could probably stretch your rubles a little further at the supermarket.  They also don’t have everything shown at the menu available all the time, so you may end up with just what they have on hand.  I’d probably go with maybe one or two meals in the restaurant just to try it out.  Also, from the guidebooks and other websites, if you decide to continue on to Mongolia or China, the dining car will change when you enter those countries and it will serve the host nation’s cuisine, so you may decide to opt for that once the occasion arises.

(Inside the dining car.)

(Inside the dining car.)

Plan for your visa ahead of time.  While it only took me about 2½ weeks to receive my visa from the Russian embassy, you may not have the same experience and you need to ensure you follow the dates of your visa closely.  Make sure you have enough days in the event of unforeseen circumstances that may delay your train or cause an interruption to your travel plans such as what happened with the French tourist.  Don’t forget to register your stay in every city you find lodging in, but this likely isn’t going to be a major issue if you take the train the whole way without stopping.

If you don’t feel too comfortable navigating through Russia on your own or dealing with ticket sales in Russian and don’t have as much flexibility with your travel dates, I would suggest booking your ticket through a tour agency.  It’ll give you some peace of mind and you don’t have to try and decipher the Cyrillic alphabet when reading your ticket and trying to make sure you’re on the right train leaving at the right time.  But, if you do decide on booking it on your own, it is definitely less expensive than going with a tour.

Other Trans-Siberian Railroad tips:

  • Don’t stay out too long on the platform during stops.  The train doesn’t sound a whistle when it’s about to leave again and if the provodnitsa misses you, the train will leave without you.
  • Bring a mug and plenty of tea or whatever beverages you enjoy with hot water.  Also, bring some instant ramen.  There is a hot water urn, or samovar, in each car, providing an unlimited supply of hot water.  It’s great for when you run out of regular drinking water or don’t want to shell out $4 for a soda.
  • Smokers can only light up in the designated areas in-between the cars.
  • Alcohol.  I purchased what I thought was beer at a kiosk at one of the stops only to discover it was non-alcoholic beer.  So, technically, I don’t think you are supposed to bring alcohol inside the cabins, but you may see this occurring otherwise.  If you really need a drink, the restaurant does serve beer at higher-than-normal prices.
  • Bring a book, iPad, Kindle, anything to entertain you.  You can only sleep and look outside the window for so long.  After a while the language barrier will limit the length of your conversations with others.
  • Bring enough cash.  Especially if you’re not getting off at any of the intermediate cities.  If you run out of food and need to shop at the kiosks or you tend to frequent the dining car, you may find yourself running short on money in no time.  The stops aren’t long enough to make a dash into town to find an ATM and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an ATM at the stations themselves.
  • Mobile phone service can be spotty, but you can expect a good signal about 70% of the time throughout the trip and an excellent signal at the major stops.  You can also find free Wi-Fi at some of the major stations, although they may be limited in terms of time and amount of data that you’re allowed to send/receive.  I didn’t attempt to use any cellular data while in Russia.

Those are great tips – thanks!  Assuming you’ve peaked someone’s interest, how would they book this?

As I mentioned above, going through a tour agency is one way to book your ticket.  You can also book online at http://rzd.ru/, although you’ll have to get the Russian version of the website translated for ticket and timetable information.  Or, you can try your chances at the main ticket offices for the Russian railways in St. Petersburg or Moscow or other train stops.  Good luck finding someone who is fluent in English, though.  However, if you’re really determined, it is possible to get by with some basic Russian phrases and rail travel terminology.

The best thing to do is check out seat61.com and the Lonely Planet guidebook for the Trans-Siberian Railway and make your decision based on their recommendations and your intended itinerary.  Seat61.com is quite possibly the best railway guide out there and provides step-by-step instructions for obtaining your visa and booking your ticket.  It’s a thorough resource for everything about taking the Trans-Siberian railway and has great photos also.

Finally, now that you’ve done this, what other ultimate travel experiences are you looking to do next?

I will have to do the Trans-Siberian Railway again—this time with stops to see places like Lake Baikal and Krasnoyarsk, and possibly either go westward from Vladivostok to Moscow or maybe break from the Trans-Siberian Railway and head into Mongolia and China.

I recently attended the Travel and Adventure Expo in Santa Clara, California, to get some ideas on where to go to next and see where the industry is headed.  I found cruises to the Falkland Islands and Antarctica appealing, as well as Zambia, and month-long tours of India.  But, what I think was really great about the expo were the amount of local businesses promoting travel.  So, I’m actually looking forward to exploring more of my own backyard and seeing some sights that I took for granted growing up in California.

I can’t believe that after all that, once on the railway wasn’t enough, but I don’t blame you for wanting to go back to stop in some of the cities you missed out on.  Thanks for sharing your journey with us and for all your Trans-Siberian tips!

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Tiffany - April 12, 2014 - 9:14 pm

Great post! I have always wanted to travel the Trans-Siberian Railroad..it’s actually on my list of travel goals. I thought there would be more sights to see along the way though

Rhea Marie - January 31, 2015 - 9:50 pm

Website correction: http://rzd.ru/

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