Train life on the Trans Mongolian/Siberian
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
Show trip route
It's not intended to be a replacement for a guidebook, but might be handy as a little one page reference sheet for those contemplating doing the journey.
We have travelled Kupe class (short for something longer and unpronounceable) which basically means 4 berths (beds) in a small compartment, and where a carriage holds nine compartments. Most foreigners on tours travel Kupe. You can go for a more up-market two berth compartment on some services, or downgrade to 54 berth dorm style bedding (with absolutely no privacy whatsoever) on most Russian trains.
Kupe compartments are cramped but are reasonably comfortable all told. Top bunks are hotter (as heat rises, especially on coal-fired heating systems) and bottom bunks have to be packed up each day so you can sit on them during daylight hours. You never go cold on these things regardless of the weather outside so a pair of jeans and a long sleeved shirt is all you will need clothing-wise. Just be prepared for the stops. All bunks have little racks for holding miscellaneous travel paraphernalia and a bunch of coat hooks and wire hangers for jackets.
Linen is purchased for your bunk and is around 60-75 roubles (about $3) for a two sheets, a pillow case, pillow, blanket, hand towel and the mattress. You can politely decline but the Provs will strip the bed completely leaving you with a bare padded berth. It's worth the investment.
Lighting consists of reading lamps for each bunk and a two level main light for the cabin itself. Power is controlled on a macro level for the carriage too, with lights switched off when coming into stations (although doesn't seem too consistent).
I hear it's pretty busy in peak summer travelling season but in winter we ended up with our own compartment (three sharing) almost every leg. Three is a lot more comfortable than four let me tell you. Also, the trains seem to get better as you get closer to Moscow - our three day odyssey was in a brand new carriage which was basically the same design as the others but much cleaner and more pleasant.
Storage space for backpacks and bags can be found under the lower bunks and in an alcove above the entry door. This should be substantial enough for most requirements, except maybe the Chinese traders who try to squeeze everything inside the compartment bar the kitchen sink (pray you don't get one in your compartment). There is no lockable storage facilities so bring a padlock and bike chain if you need one.
The Provodnitsa is the (usually) female cabin attendant that oversees the carriage from one end of the service to the other. I think they are issued one carriage and it is theirs to manage in all its travels. They dole out linen for the beds, tell you when you can and cannot get off, usually run side enterprises selling all manner of travel necessities (beer, water, munchies etc), can help chill drinks, manage climate control and generally keep the carriage, its toilets and other facilities clean and operational. They may have some basic English and will appreciate any purchases you put through them as opposed to station stalls, babushkas or trolley ladies that ply all carriages on certain routes. Don't get on the Prov's bad side, especially on long trips.
There are one or two toilets per carriage, with more cleanliness and accessories available on higher class services. There are no showers on any service that I know of, so things can get pretty stinky unless you break the trip up. Toilets are locked 20 or 30 minutes before and after major stations so you need to time your pit-stops in some situations, particularly border crossings.
Power points are available for charging electronic devices, or at least have been in every carriage I've travelled in. They are 220V, European (two round) pin style. One is usually in the middle of the carriage (for vacuuming) and sometimes others are at each end. The Prov apparently has some in their compartment too (which you can offer to pay to use if you want some security when charging an item). The Prov may ask you to pay for using the points in communal areas and it's likely that the powerpoints are on one circuit controlled by the Prov so if they haven't switched it on, you're getting no juice mid carriage if you don't ask.
There are dining cars on most services (except Ulaan Baatar to Irkutsk for some reason) but most of the food is overpriced and and not that great so make use of supermarkets before undertaking a leg, or buy stuff from stalls or babushkas at significant stops where you can get off for 20 minutes. That said, a few dining cars make a real effort and I believe the standard of fare has improved even in the past few years as the system has focused more on passenger comfort and less on bureaucratic convenience.
If you bring your own tea or noodles or are planning to deliver a baby there is boiling water available in every carriage. Try not to make too much mess in the slop tray below it or the Prov will be peeved. Cold running water is also available from a nearby water fountain although I'm not sure of the quality of this stuff.
Trains stop a lot but there are only a few stations where they stop long enough to get out and stretch you legs (usually about 20 minutes). Use these opportunities wisely as you might get one every 6 hours and you're asleep for a couple of them. Usually you can have a look at the funkily-designed station (many nicely lit art deco examples), buy stuff and gawk at other interesting sights. Take your passport and money just in case something bad happens (like the train leaves without you) as there is no whistle or announcement to say its about to leave.
There are timetables posted in most carriages to let you know when and how long these stops occur. Unfortunately they are all in cyrillic, use Moscow time even in Vladivostock, and may or may not account for timezone changes. Also, trains don't usually run to timetable anyway. Just try and work out an approximate time and ask the Prov how long you have when you stop.
Photography is usually ok but there have been arrests by security forces believing they've thwarted a spy. This is less likely these days (not good PR for state rail when they detained a Lonely Planet writer a few year back) but is probably still possible. If it looks sensitive (military etc), turn the lens away!
For photos whilst in the train, you're at the mercy of the cleanliness of the windows. In winter this is exacerbated by the heavy coating of ice or condensation on or in between the double glazing. Some you can clean (with vodka as it doesn't freeze) if you can reach the window, otherwise it's hard luck so try and find a clear one somewhere else on your carriage and hope there's some good stuff on that side of the train.
Finally, the people on board generally seem to be a good bunch. Despite a cool first impression some Russians will try to talk to you if they can and most are more than happy to share their (food/vodka/whatever) with you, even if it's all they have. I've left beers cooling in the cold area between carriages for hours and haven't had them stolen, and there has never been a hint of anger or trouble I've witnessed. A phrase book or preferably a pocket electronic translator can help facilitate basic conversation, and it's damn interesting talking to the 20 year old veteran of six months fighting in Chechnya or the Mongolian trader in the dining car as opposed to just relying on other westerners for entertainment.
Anyway, it's now only a few hours from midnight on New Years Eve so I have to ask the Prov nicely to get our drinks out of the locked chill area (yep - it's the middle of winter but the balmy 20C carriage temperature necessitates some refrigeration). We'll be drinking some top quality vodka and trying caviar for the first time so wish me well, and I hope by the time you read this that you have had a very happy new year too.
ps: Hoboville is derived from the cyrillic name for Novosibirisk on the train timetable we had access to, if any explanation is required.