You’re probably all wondering what 24 or more hours or more on a train looks like. No? Look away now.
The journey starts, naturally, with the booking. This is remarkably well organised in Russia. You can book online up to 45 days before your train on the slick, simple website. Except for the fact that it’s entirely in Russian, but that can be overcome by using the Man in Seat 61’s step-by-step guide. It even lets you choose your carriage and bunk. I always plump for Platzkart, the open-plan bunks in third class arranged in clusters of six. My official reasoning for choosing them over the slightly more comfortable koupe is that the koupe’s are four enclosed berths – you have no control over your carriage mates and winding up in there on my own with three drunk blokes would be undesirable. At least in 3rd I’ve got the no-nonsense aunties to defend my honour with rolling pins and feed me sweets.
But really I would choose this anyway cos the tickets are the cheapest.
On average, a 12-hour journey will cost you a ballpark 1,000 roubles (£20) but it can be much more or much less depending on your luck and the quality of the train. The tired old ones with offensive toilets tend to be cheaper. I find these charming but have twice been prepared to pay more for a newer train with bearable bogs and the odd bit of soap.
You could set your watch by the trains in Russia, so efficient are they. I don’t know what British Rail’s excuse for not being able to run punctual trains or second-guess whether or not you’ll get a seat when Russia’s runs so flawlessly over thousands of kilometres. When it arrives at the station, a gang of blokes goes around tapping the bogeys (the official term for the wheely bit, dontcha know) with hammers. It’s vaguely reassuring and I presume this has a safety function but I have no idea what.
In the station they have super-organised luggage rooms that operate 24-hours for 90roubles (£2) a bag. The bogs are clean and if you show them your ticket and are travelling or have travelled imminently, they don’t charge you the 15 roubles to pee. The stations themselves are wonders of architecture that the Victorians would have been proud of. All have 24-hour waiting rooms, cafes, showers, restaurants and facilities. Most of them have some Soviet mosaics of friezes to remind you where you are.
Your ticket shows you your carriage and bunk number. On boarding the train, you find your seat, get your essentials for the day ahead, strip off your unnecessary outer layers (they’re always super-warm, even in winter) and stow your bag. Linen, included in the ticket price and comprising two sheets, a pillow case and a neatly-starched washcloth, is dished out by your stern-faced but efficient attendants. There is at least one on duty in every carriage at all times. No fare-dodging here.
Each person takes their turn to unfurl their bed roll and prepare their bed. You have to take turns cos there’s no room to swing a cat. Be prepared at some stage to have someone else’s arse near your face.
A poster is displayed in each carriage showing you the names of the stops (in Cyrillic so brush up), the time of arrival and time of departure. During the course of a full journey – often several days – there will be a few long stops of up to an hour, giving you enough time to nip in for a proper feed. At one stop near Lake Baikal in the East, the 15 minute is said to be enough to sprint to the lake for a dip and then sprint back to the train.
You’ll spend a fair amount of time in your bunk; many people sleep out of boredom. If you’re in the top bunk you’ll likely be reluctant to get in and out too often since it’s such an exercise of contortion. I think one lady on one of my trains slept for 22 out of the 28 hours. Champion! Me, I like to listen to tunes and podcasts on the iPod (largely to drown out those noises that I find so unsavoury; many people snore…), attempt bad conversation with people, read, write letters and gaze pensively out of the window. Travel scrabble would be a winner. Sudoku on the phone has once again come in useful. Other people like to drink steadily but passively, play cards, chat to their neighbours or stare at the foreigners. These same drinkers are often heavy smokers and will leave the train at every opportunity for a fag or neatly disappear to the smoking cave for a cig. They bring back with them a strong whiff of harsh Russian fags but many are considerate and bring a bottle of aftershave to douse themselves in afterwards.
If you choose to look out the window, here’s what you’ll see. It really doesn’t photograph well cos it’s majestic in reality.
When you’re not staring moonily out of the window or lying on your bunk, you will often find yourself eating. Food is frequently shared around in the convivial third-class carriages and I’ve often found sweets, fruit and tea forced upon me as a way of communicating in the absence of language. It’s lovely.
Each wagon has a samovar supplying endless hot water to the masses.
This heavily influences the choice of supplies. You can borrow a cup and teaspoon for the duration of your trip or bring your own if you’re finicky about germs (Ed Poultney). Many prefer to run with the pot noodles and Smash (dehydrated mash potato, allegedly). Me, I turn my nose up at the molten noodles and instead refuse to board without apples, yoghurt, cheese, bread, tomatoes and a fistful of 3-in-1 coffees. Trying very hard to resist the omni-present Twixes for which I have a long-standing weakness.
People have devised ways to keep themselves comfortable on long distances. In China passengers often change into pyjamas for the duration of the journey. In Russia the tracksuit is preferred, leggings and a t-shirt for the ladies. Or sometimes just underpants for the macho boys with something to prove (or not, a is sometimes the case). You’ll find me in jeans and flipflops.
If you arrive at your destination at some unholy hour of the morning, the attendants will come around half an hour before to wake you with a ‘dobre ootra’ and shake of the ankle and give you time to clear your rubbish into the bins (found by the bogs), strip your bed and return your linen. Some of the attendants seem to think that you will develop an unbearable attachment and want to take the clinical sheets with you so will hold your ticket ransom until they are returned safe and well.
Welcome to the Trans-Siberian!