Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Taking the Trans-Siberian Railway: Tips, Advice, and Stories from the Train

I didn't realize until several thousand kilometers from Moscow that this was the farthest East I'd ever been, and every passing second was carrying me still farther. Siberia is a long way from home, however you dissect the map. And yet by the end, standing over the harbor in Vladivostok, 9,289 kilometers and over six days by train from Moscow, it didn't feel like I'd come nearly so far. Journeys so big should come with a warning: this will make the world feel small.

I suspect that the American romance with trains comes partly from the fact that we don't use them anymore. They recall both a nostalgic sepia image of our own nineteenth century, complete with steam engines and the heady rush of industrialization, and also the quiet efficiency of modern Europe, a mature and civilized journey through vineyards and cobbled towns. Then there's our obsession with the sweeping spaces of the frontier and the freedom of being able to hop in a dirty mustang and drive for thousands of miles in any direction. Well, Russia has enough wide expanses for several Americas, and the unknown mystery of the Far East conveys a enigmatic exoticism that appeals to the Victorian adventurer imperialist in all of us.

For Russians, however, the Moscow-Vladivostok connection is simply the cheapest way to get from points A to B, usually only a short length of the total line. People board and leave the train at every stop, making their trip of anywhere from a few hours to several days. It seems like tourists are mostly the only ones who ride the whole way. And of course, for the tourists, taking the actual train is as much about getting over one's romantic notions as it is about indulging them; the practicalities and mundane indignities of travel go a long way toward keeping reality grounded.

Our adventure really began with buying the tickets. The plan was for me to fly from Germany to Moscow and meet Rachel, my friend from the US, and Ann, a fellow Fulbrighter in Russia. Together, we'd take the train to Irkutsk, almost exactly halfway, stop for two days to see Lake Baikal, and then continue on to Vladivostok. We'd done our scouting and learned that, instead of purchasing tickets through a third-party, it was best (and cheapest) to buy directly through rzd.ru, the Russian Railways' website. We worked our way through the entire shopping cart procedure and summoned the gumption to press that little "complete transaction" button, only to have our hopes dashed on the rocks of Russia. Apparently rzd.ru does not accept American payment cards, whether credit, debit, or matte-finish frequent-flier enabled executive platinum. As so often happens in Russia, I was left holding a wad of cash, unable to find anyone to take my money.

(For fellow travelers, I later learned that if you live in Russia, a solution to this problem is to get a reloadable Кукуруза or Qiwi card, which you can put money on at those little kiosks everywhere and use to buy train tickets or for other online transactions where American cards won't work. If you're not in Russia, I assume you'd just have to suck up the extra price and use a third-party website like trainsrussia.com.)

Fortunately, tickets are also available at any train station, and the only requirement is a conversation in Russian. Well, that and you have to actually show the passports of the traveling parties -- which was a problem, since none of us were in the same city, and one of us wasn't in Russia at all. Whether or not a passport copy will suffice is more or less a function of the mood of the cashier, how long it's been since her last break, and if there was hot tea. Ann was the one making this transaction for all of us, so I thankfully avoided the worst of it, but apparently while the lack of actual passports was not a problem, the lack of patronymics (functionally, Russian middle names, made from the name of your father plus a suffix denoting your gender) was a different story. The lady first wanted to know where our patronymics were, so she could put them on the ticket, and then, when informed that Americans don't have such things, asked why not. Silly lady. "Why" is a question that should not be asked in Russia.

In the end though, we did get our tickets, and we did successfully meet in Moscow, and we did leave with our train promptly at 23:45 to the rousing musical sendoff of a canned symphony playing over the station loudspeakers. Trains are one of the very few things in Russia that are always precisely on time.

There are essentially two classes of Russian train car, and which you choose depends on both your wallet and what kind of journey you want to have. We elected for "kupe," the nicer of the two, in which you get a four-bed compartment with a door and a tiny table. This is better if there are three or four of you and you'd like to be able to have some privacy and a little more relative comfort. However, unless you also buy the remaining berths in your kupe, you could be joined by a fourth person at any point during the trip. (This happened to us at a tiny stop in the middle of the night, and I think our new neighbor was more surprised by us than we were by him. Luckily he was a nice guy and we had a successful conversation.) The other option is "platzkart," essentially an open-dormitory style car in which fifty-odd people are all living, drinking, and snoring in one big room. I would prefer platzkart for traveling alone (so you're not stuck in a small room with who knows who) or if you're really into meeting as many people as possible. Definitely bring earplugs if you want to sleep, though.

So there we were, three of us, snugly ensconced in our tiny compartment with a three and a half day journey to Irkutsk ahead of us. If three point five days sounds like a long time to spend in a moving room the size of a large closet, that's because it is (even if it isn't really, by Russian standards). I did a lot of reading. I did a lot of watching the scenery go by. I did a lot of squishing my head against the window in order to catch the number on the kilometer markers that count how far you are from Moscow. There's a certain knack to just throwing up your feet and enjoying the forced relaxation of doing absolutely nothing.

It's not snow-covered trees for the entire journey, but it is for a good
part of European Russia, at least
Somewhere before entering the Ural Mountains

At the head of every car is a boiler, which provides free hot water for tea or instant coffee whenever you want it. When you get sick of the view out your window, you can trundle down the narrow hallway (train legs are acquired after the first twenty-four hours), check the schedule of stops posted on the wall, enjoy the view out the other side of the train, and refill your mug with more tea. Whether or not you leave the compartment door open is a matter of constant re-evaluation, depending on the relative humidity and stench levels in- and outside your compartment. Four days without a shower is a long time, especially when the train temperature is around 80 degrees F. It can become a Sophie's Choice situation if the cabin is unbearably hot and smells of people, while the hallway is relatively cooler but smells unbearably of whatever antifreeze chemical they pump into the toilets.

Such invaluable traveling companions as priyaniki (tea cookies),
top ramen, and crab chips. Also Rachel.
Train sweet train
This beastly samovar provided much tea

Surprisingly, our train came equipped with a mounted television in every compartment (not standard for Russian trains, but I guess the Trans-Siberian is special), so you can choose between fuzzy Russian cartoons, fuzzy Russian war movies, or fuzzy Soviet comedy classics. We enjoyed a fair bit of Шурик (everyone's favorite Mr. Bean of Soviet comedy) as a distraction from the smell of our own armpits. Our compartment also had a power socket (also not standard), so we were able to plug in a laptop and watch movies off the hard drive when things got really desperate.

The train stops a few times each day, usually for just a couple of minutes, but there is a more substantial twenty to thirty minute stop every six hours or so. This is long enough to get a few minutes of fresh air, stretch your legs on the platform, and do some hurried purchasing of greasy pirozhki or vareniki (dumplings, essentially) from the babushki who are usually wandering up and down the platform with little carts of homemade food. It goes without saying that the train waits for no one, and there's no whistle when it's about to leave, so you have to keep your eye on the clock and make sure that you're back aboard before the conductors haul the stairs in.

Far from being scary, the conductors are actually your best allies, and
are always there to help if you have questions or problems
The Grand Schedule of Stops, listing time of arrival,
number of minutes stopped, and time of departure

My overwhelming impression from the train, though, is the sensation of being in your own little traveling universe. Eventually, the hours stop having meaning, and the landscape just rumbles by outside, winter sun rising in one corner of the southern-facing window, making a low arc across the sky, and setting a few hours later in the other corner. Everything is contained within the train, and even within your own compartment. Even weather patterns become local compartment-size phenomena, as water vapor condenses on the windows, drips down on your faces until the irritation builds up enough to wipe the glass with a towel, from which it evaporates back into the too-humid air, only to condense again.

Time disconnects from everything, existing in two separate streams and also not at all. The train runs on Moscow time, in which all of the stops are notated, but local time keeps progressing as you pass through a new time zone every day. You can't ignore Moscow time, but it bears less and less resemblance to what's happening out the window, and after a few days it's easier to give up and just exist in the wormhole. Neither time has much actual meaning, as you sleep or nap or are awake at will.

Meanwhile, the train slips silently through the pitch black night outside, except for the occasional pool of amber at a crossing that briefly hints at the shape of ghostly trees stretching back into the darkness, or the aural impression of an enormous bridge and river that you might be rumbling over or not, depending on whether any of it is real. Siberia is enormous and empty in the day; at night it is a vacuum of reality, of time, of sanity, of everything -- whatever you glimpse through the window is not of your world, it is like a fairy tale of a journey through an in-between place. You may look, but step not from the train, take no advice from strangers, open not the doors, and invite none inside. Heed these rules and you will pass safely through the darkness and once more into the day. Ask no questions of time, and the spell will hold true.

After three days on a train, I can't be held 
responsible for any melted spoon/Dali-inspired 
surrealist photographs that may have transpired

We did, of course, eventually make it to Irkutsk at 7:32 (local) on the morning of the fourth day. Two fantastic friends of a friend met us at the station, led us to our hostel, and then so generously showed us around the city all day. Irkutsk is much more beautiful than I was expecting, with a plethora of eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings. Plus there was a beautiful ice sculpture park in the main square, with ice taken from Baikal and illuminated at night with colored lights from the inside.

If you ever get the chance to go down a giant ice slide, do it 
The river was eerily steaming, presumably because it was so much
warmer than the air?

The next day, we took a hour long marshrutka (minibus) ride to the tiny town of Listvyanka, on the shore of Lake Baikal. It's the most touristy access point to the lake, but since it was the middle of January, things weren't too bad. Everyone says Baikal is nicer in summer, but it was absolutely stunning in winter, as long as you can handle the cold and wind. Baikal has some of the clearest water in the world, and when it's frozen you can see straight down to the rocks on the bottom twenty feet below. It's clear enough that the feeling is quite unsettling. The wind, however, was brutal, and we had to keep going into cafes to warm up before going out on the lake again. Still, finally seeing Baikal after having it on my bucket list for so long was surreal and fantastic and absolutely lived up to my expectations. My biggest regret was that we didn't have more time to travel up to the north of the lake as well. Just reasons to come back!

Lake Baikal -- sadly devoid of penguins, although the native nerpa
seals will give enough of a cute fix to last the rest of the journey
It was probably -30 degrees C plus a heavy wind chill, which is nothing
to laugh at unless you live in Siberia

Then it was back on the train again at 7:32 am the next morning. The fast Trans-Siberian train (number 002 from Moscow, or 001 in the opposite direction) only makes its eastward journey from Moscow every two days on the odd numbered dates, and its westward journey from Vladivostok on the even. This means that if you want to make a stop along the way, you must be there for a multiple of two days before catching the next train. Also, unlike the European system, your ticket is valid only for a specific train leaving on a specific day -- no mixing and matching as you like -- so having a stopover means actually buying two tickets, one Moscow-Irkutsk and one Irkutsk-Vladivostok, for example.

This time we had a better idea of what to expect, and were freshly showered and had re-provisioned the chocolate supplies accordingly. Bizarrely, on this train our car was attached to the engine the other direction, meaning our window now looked to the north instead of south, which was at first disorienting, but actually for the best, since it afforded us spectacular views of Baikal from the comfort of our beds as the train traveled through the mountains along the southern half of the lake for the next several hours. This was probably the most visually stunning day of the whole train journey.

Taking a curve while the sun rises over Baikal

Somewhat surprisingly, the entire length of the railway is electric, and so we were accompanied by power lines all the way to the Pacific. No romantic steam engines today! Half my photographs are of blurry fields of snow, or blurry sunsets over snowy trees, or tiny blurry frozen villages -- and the other half are exactly the same, but with a blurry power pole in the middle. I was irritated for a while, but then I realized that there also weren't any fences like you'd see every hundred yards in the American West, and so the landscape really was as wide and unbroken as you can imagine. That's not to say it was pristine for the whole duration -- we passed our share of oily smokestacks and coal mines -- but eventually I accepted the power lines as part of the experience.

After Baikal, the landscape stays mountainous for quite a while
Ulan-Ude looks pretty industrial from the tracks, but sounds like
a fascinating hub of Buryat culture
The farther reaches of Siberia are gorgeously empty for mile after mile

All too soon, we were gliding to a halt in Vladivostok, the very end of the line. Again, I had no idea what to expect from the city, and was pleasantly surprised. Vladivostok is built on the mountains above the harbor, and everything is very hilly, strangely à la San Francisco. The skyline is dominated by the massive Golden Horn and Russky Island bridges, the latter being the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world. If you do nothing else while there, take the funicular railway up the hill to the lookout at the very top for the most spectacular view over Vladivostok and the bay.

The funicular railway is well worth all eight rubles for a ticket to the top
Golden Horn Bridge, with a couple spires of Russky Island Bridge
visible in the far back left
There's also a cool submarine museum, if you're into such things

Aside from so many left-side-driving Japanese cars on the streets, I wouldn't have guessed we were as far east as we were. Vladivostok feels very much like every other classical Russian city, from the European architecture to the ubiquitous Orthodox church domes. Even the people are overwhelmingly white and ethnic Russian looking, a function, I assume, of the relative affluence of the city. The overall feeling is one of bustling maritime modernity, even with hints of nineteenth century imperialism still lingering in the air. It is also an unusually convenient city for Russia, as evidenced by the presence of a brand new aeroexpress train that goes straight from downtown to the airport!

Sunset over Golden Horn bay in Vladivostok -- it's almost the Pacific

If anyone is reading this in preparation for their own Trans-Siberian journey, I recommend you bring the following with you on the train:

-- Your own mug, which can ideally also double as a ramen/instant mashed potato bowl, for when you really just need some MSG immediately. If you pay ten rubles you can buy a cup of tea and retain the use of the awesome looking glass for the remainder of the trip, but you're going to want something a bit bigger for anything more than tea. (If you want a cool souvenir, you can buy one of these glasses of your very own for the extravagant price of around 1000 rubles, which is just over $30.)
-- Foods that won't go bad or that are preparable with hot water, ie chocolate, halvah, fruits, instant oatmeal, crackers, hard salami, trail mix, easy-open cans of beans/fruits, etc. I am also a fan of this zucchini puree called икра из кабачков (no relation to caviar), which is really good on bread and lasts about three days unrefrigerated, which is about how long it took to eat the whole jar.
-- Tea or instant coffee, as well as sugar or small creamers if such things are necessary to you.
-- Utensils, be they plastic or real.
-- Wet wipes, preferably not grape-scented ones. We learned from experience that compartments are just insulated smell-boxes.
-- Small ruble bills (fifties and hundreds work well) to buy food from the babushki along the way. Break those thousands in Moscow, because I guarantee you the babushki will not have change.
-- A book. A really long book. Perhaps two books. I read about 700 pages of Infinite Jest, and could've read more if I was really determined. A week is a long time.
-- Specifically, this book: Bryn Thomas' Trans-Siberian Handbook. It gives you a kilometer-by-kilometer summary of exactly what's going past your window, which otherwise looks like a lot of snow and identical towns. Plus there's a short history of the railway itself, tons of maps, and short guides to many of the cities you might stop in along the way. Absolutely invaluable.
-- Toilet paper, because this is Russia and you never know. Also, it doubles as napkins.
-- Plenty of flashcard space on your camera, because there's nothing much to do but take blurry pictures. If you're not taking the nice fast Trans-Siberian train (numbers 001 or 002), keep in mind there won't be power sockets easily available for recharging batteries.

Choose your snacks wisely and with a mind to their relative messiness

While I'm impressed that everything went as smoothly for us as it did, if I had the journey to do over again, I'd do a few things differently:

-- Try harder to get a fourth friend to travel with us, or alternatively split the cost of the last berth between the three of us, because it was awkward not being able to just lay around in your underwear when a fourth person could arrive at any time.
-- Stop more than just in Irkutsk. Yes, this is more of a hassle when getting the tickets because you have to plan it all out. Also yes, you miss out on spending three or four day stretches on the train at a time, which I admit is part of the experience. But part of the point of the journey for me was to see more of Russia, which you really can't do in twenty minute stops in all the cities where you'd love to go explore. If you have the time, draw the adventure out and see more along the way.
-- Consider taking the train in summer. I took it mid-January both because that's when I had time to do it, and because what better time to see Siberia than winter! Also January is not peak tourist season, which is a major benefit. The main drawback (aside from the cold, which is manageable with the right precautions) was that more of the trip happened at night than in day, and you really can't see anything out the window when it's dark. I missed a lot that I could've seen in summer, which is something to think about.
-- Also consider taking the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian routes, which split off from the Trans-Siberian and go to different destinations. Mongolia doesn't require a visa for U.S. citizens, but China of course does. Going to Vladivostok was amazing, and exactly what I was looking for from this trip, but the other options sound equally interesting if you don't have to stay in Russia!
-- Make it a longer eastern journey. If I had the time, I'd take the ferry to Japan or a train onward to Beijing. It's all so close, considering the distance you've just traveled.

Happy journeys!


  1. Nice. For a week on a train,I'm not sure I'd have thought to bring along zucchini puree and crab crackers, but thanks for the suggestion.

  2. Hi Ella, my name's Nick and I'm a Fulbright ETA applicant for 2013-14 and I have an interview with a program officer (Oksana) in a couple days over Skype. I was curious as to how the interview goes and what I should prepare for or talk about. I have a general assumption of what will be discussed, but I would like to hear about it from someone who's been through the process.


Hi there! Leave me a message after the beep.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.