The Trans-Siberian railway

Since Tomsk was pretty dead in the beginning of the year a few of us exchange students who weren’t going home for the holidays started talking of traveling somewhere. Some were talking about Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, but many didn’t feel like going there when it can easily be -30 degrees (in hindsight we now currently have had exceptionally warm weather). I suggested to go visit Sochi but for some reason the others weren’t that interested in that, and some were thinking about just going somewhere away from Russia. I don’t remember who said it (might have been me….) but Vladivostok was suggested more jokingly than seriously, and somehow the idea stuck. Not really any other specific reason to visit the city than the legendary “why not” or “what the hell, not like I have anything else to do”. So we started looking things up and the facts were that it takes four (4!) nights to get to Vladivostok with train from Tomsk. After a lot of Facebook messages and convincing people to join, we found ourselves with seven Tomsk-Vladivostok-Tomsk tickets.

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Eddy, Vojta, David, Ha, Chiara and Tomas ready to go!

The Transsiberian

The longest railway in the world with about 9200km from Moscow to Vladivostok. Built during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century to connect European Russia to Siberia and the Russian Far-East, the Trans-Siberian railway is one of the many landmarks one associates with Russia and a popular activity among the more adventurous travelers.

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Still, the railway isn’t exactly a tourist sight. It’s (usually) a fully functional railway, or rather a network of railways, built to move people across the vast distances in the world’s biggest country. The Trans-Siberian is the “classical” Moscow-Vladivostok line, while the Trans-Mongolian deviates towards Ulan Bator and the Trans-Manchurian towards Beijing. Besides the main lines there are several smaller regional networks, and even more different trains running on these lines.

There is a big difference in what train you take. The lower the number of the train, the faster it is. The most important lines also have names, for instance train nr. 1 which is the Moscow-Vladivostok classic is called Rossiya (nr. 2 is the return trip). We took the train 7/8 which I think was called Sibirsky and runs between Novosibirsk and Vladivostok. The service standards of course varies between the trains. The Rossiya is from what I’ve read quite nice and has a good on-board service, also the Moscow-Tomsk connection I briefly rode with between Tajga and Tomsk was very modern with LCD screens and everything. Some private trains even have showers and super fancy restaurant wagons. Our train was of the “very basic” type and built in the Soviet Union. Not much service except a few times a day a small cart with some snacks would pass through the wagon. On the way back there was an actual restaurant wagon where you could get warm food, but it was quite expensive and not really worth it.

If you want to see Russia on a train it’s important to remember that you can’t hop off the train and continue with the same ticket, since each seat is reserved for a particular date on a journey. So if you want to go from X to Y, and stop at A and B, you need tickets for X->A, A->B and B->Y. In that case it’s usually not worth it to take the fancy long distance trains like the Rossiya that are quite expensive, when instead you can just take a more local train between your stops.

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Russian tickets are quite fancy. 

On most trains you have three classes: 1st class which is a private compartment with two beds, 2nd class or kupé which is a compartment with four beds and 3rd class or platskartny where six beds (two against the wall in the isle and four beds in a group) form an open compartment. On some regional lines you have a 4th class which are normal train wagons with just seats and no beds, which can work if you aren’t traveling that far. We of course chose the platskartny, since it was half the price of a kupé and wanted “the real deal”. I read in some Trans-Siberian guide that “ 3rd class on Russian trains might be a bit too much Russia for many travelers, which is why we recommend buying a 2nd class kupé ticket”, so I was quite excited about how this will work out.

Tomsk is actually not on the main railway line. Apparently the ground was not that good for construction work when the line was built, so the Trans-Siberian passes about 50km south of Tomsk. To get there you have to take a local train to the small town of Tajga, so this is where our trip started. Of course the schedule are what they are here and we had a six hour layover at the train station while waiting for the train to Vladivostok. `

When the train finally arrived we immediately had to do a bit of running with the conductors yelling quite aggressively at us to hurry up and get moving (typical Russian customer service), to make it to our wagon during the short two minute stop the train was at the station (the train had about 20 wagons so it was quite long). After finally getting on board and settling in I had the chance to see what I’ve really gotten myself into.

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We were seven travelers, so four of us had one group of beds while the three other were in the neighboring section, with one stranger sharing it with us. When we arrived that guy was drinking beer in my bed with his friend. I had one of the lower beds while he had the one on top of me, and I quickly learned that if you have the lower bed you actually share it as a seat with the person in the top bunk (since you can’t really sit there). So when I woke up after the first night I was immediately greeted by the gold-teeth filled smile of my top-bunk neighbor and his random friend, who were once again drinking beer in my bed. Of course they offered to share some of their beer with me, but I politely declined and said I should probably eat breakfast first, to which they replied with something I think was either an insult or a joke.

I have to admit that about the first half of the trip to Vladivostok I was quite miserable. I had gotten a bit of a flue from sleeping under the drafty window, and that combined with not sleeping well in the hard bunk and noisy environment and the added extra dose of “Russian culture” like described before didn’t exactly mean a smooth ride.  After the second night I was starting to get used to the train and didn’t feel like shit. On the return trip I was already used to living on the train and could actually enjoy the ride.

A normal day on the train went something like this: Wake up at some point in the morning, if it seems to be too early keep sleeping (on the trip to Vladivostok you go through four time zones, so your internal clock is never synced with the actual time of the day). When you finally wake up, eat some breakfast, usually some bread and kolbasa, maybe even some cheese if it’s still edible. Take a post-breakfast nap and afterwards it’s already lunch time, so get some hot water from the train’s samovar and mix some instant noodles. Read a book or play some cards. See if your fellow travelers are in the mood of having a conversation, if not take another nap. Listen to music. Eat dinner (more instant noodles). Play more cards. If you happen to have beer, drink it. If not, try to buy some on the longer stops. Go to sleep when you run out of beer. Repeat for four days.

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Most stops were only for a couple of minutes, but a few times per day there was a longer stop of 20-30 minutes and during
this time you can do some resupplying if you are quick. If you are lucky there is a supermarket next to the station, but usually it’s just a small produkty or kiosk with the basic stuff, which for most passengers seemed to involve buying more beer. You see, technically alcohol is not allowed on the train, but that didn’t stop most of the men in our wagon to be drunk from morning to night. As long as you didn’t disturb the other passengers the provodnitsa doesn’t care. (Each wagon has a conductor or provodnitsa who checks your ticket, cleans the wagon and makes sure everything is okay, and their word is the law!) Just make sure you hide the beer bottles when the cops arrive, they seemed to do a round through the train at every major station. Since alcohol is not allowed on the train, the kiosks at the stations are also not allowed to openly sell beer, but you just had to ask “Piva jest? Kakoi? Skolka stoit?” (Do you have beer? Which beer? How much?) and they will bring it in a black bag from the back room. Finding the place that sells illegal beer was easy, just look for the kiosk with the longest queue!

Interacting with strangers is something you won’t be able to avoid on the train, and our group of four Czechs and an Italian, Vietnamese and a Finn with big backpacks was bound to draw attention. The weird paradox is that while Russians can (like Finnish people) be quite rude or cold to strangers, they still love to small talk (and very few topics are taboo, don’t be surprised if someone asks for your salary or gives you their whole medical history). My Russian is still on a beginner’s level, so for me it was quite hard to have any meaningful conversations. The Czech guys on the other hand are more or less fluent in Russian and functioned as our spokespersons, while i chose to observe and listen. Most travelers were not going the whole way to Vladivostok (flying is nowadays quite cheap so there really isn’t any point to take the train for four days) so the people in the wagon changed after every night or so. Most were just ordinary Russians going back to work after the holidays or visiting relatives. Perhaps the most interesting passengers were the group of four or five North-Koreans. They didn’t speak much and when they were not sleeping they were chain-smoking (smoking is also not technically allowed but you can do it in the small compartment between the wagons). The guys were on their way from Pyongyang back to their work at some Siberian factory, and apparently it wasn’t that rare for North-Koreans to work in Russia.

Now afterwards I can say that the train ride was definitely worth it as an experience. Traveling this way is slow and inconvenient, and spending four nights in a very warm train wagon with 50 other people can be an intimidating idea.  Still, once you get used to the heat and the smell (which is a mix of instant-noodles, sweat and old alcohol) and adapt to sleeping in a hard bunk bed and being without a shower for four days, it can be a lot of fun even when you are basically not doing anything. But as they say “it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey that counts”. It’s also a relatively cheap way of traveling so if you have the time it can be worth it. The only thing that I was really annoyed at was the lack of power plugs, there’s only two in the whole wagon, which is not much when every babushka has an iPad these days. So for now you should make sure you have some analog entertainment with you since most of the trains have been built long before the smart phone era (I managed to finish two books on during the trip). The electrification of the Trans-Siberian line took 73 years (the project started in 1929 and was completed in 2002) so it might be a while until they can serve the needs of the modern passenger….

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Typical breakfast/lunch/dinner on the train.

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The short stops are a good for getting some fresh air (or having a smoke). Notice the provodnitsa clearing ice from the train, they did this at every longer stop and it was quite loud and will wake you up if you are sleeping!

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The stations on the Trans-Siberian main line are quite impressive, even the small towns have a fancy vokzal. Top: Khabarovsk, Chita, Belogorsk  (Eddy and Tomas didn’t feel like changing from their shorts and were running around quite lightly dressed when it was -30 degrees, which got some strange looks from the locals), Vladivostok

Here’s finally a tour of the train, starting from the restaurant vagon and ending in our compartment. Directly after the restaurant is the 1st class, followed by 2nd class and then several 3rd class vagons.

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