There’s something about being trapped in a crowded cabin for several days with a dozen burly Russian guys who all smell suspiciously like smoked fish and vodka which has made the Trans-Siberian Railway the dream of backpackers, romantics and adventurers for hundreds of years. If you are one of these people, you will find a conspicuous absence of available information online regarding this most legendary of journeys, and if you come unprepared for the Russian train experience, you will have a bad time.
I completed the journey from St Petersburg to Beijing in 15 days, stopping at 9 cities for the combined price of S$490. For reference, according to Transsib, a well-used travel company, this is supposed to cost you 769EUR or S$1150, and you this is entirely on 2nd Class without stopovers! If you’re considering embarking on the journey of a lifetime, or you’re just curious how one overcomes insanity, let me introduce you to the weird and wonderful world of the Trans-Siberian with these 10 tips:
TIP #1: Plan Your Journey
The first step to planning your journey is to find out where you want to start and where you want to end. There are three choices for this – Beijing, Vladivostok or Moscow. Depending on your visa requirements (only Russia for Singaporeans), you also have to choice between the Trans-Mongolian and the Trans-Manchurian (which doesn’t go through Mongolia).
The Moscow to Beijing train is a crazy monster of a journey taking several days and affording you precious few stops along the way. The train stops for maybe 30 minutes for you to get a short smoke break at each city, but hardly enough to do anything in the city. This is a bad decision because many of the cities along the Trans-Siberian are actually pretty gorgeous. Why spend all day on a train when you can see the majestic sky-blue and cloud-white Qolsarif Mosque in Kazan, or the sparkling and iridiscent Lake Baikal in Irkutsk, or even go horse-riding along the grand steppes of Mongolia?
TIP #2: Don’t Book In Advance (and Don’t Buy Online)
Now if you read online you’ll quickly find several websites offering to help you trawl through the bureaucratic mess of purchasing tickets for trains on the Trans-Siberian. Most will tell you that tickets are difficult to come by or that the trains are fully booked for months on end. This is an evil ploy to get you to use their services, which are often double or even triple the original price.
In mid-June, I was able to secure tickets two hours before the departure of the train with no issues at the counter. If by any chance you’re not able to secure tickets to the destination you want, trains usually leave to the major Siberian cities every few hours so you can just hop on the next one. And if by some extreme stroke of misfortune there are no trains to your intended destination, all you need to do is find a train heading east (or west) and you’ll already be moving in the correct direction! If there really is nothing at all, sleeper buses run very commonly between the cities as well. You will get there.
For reference, the trip cost me: St Petersburg – 1300RUB (S$27) Platzkart – Moscow -3748RUB (S$77.90) Kupe – Kazan – 1778RUB (S$27.40) Platzkart – Yekaterinberg – 2738RUB (S$57.60) Platzkart – Novosibirsk – 5288RUB (S$111.20) Kupe – Irkutsk – 5944RUB (S$124.90) Kupe – Ulan Bator – 24,000MNT (S$16.60) Platzkart – Zamyn Ood -200CNY (S$40.60) Sleeper Bus – Beijing
So just show up at the ticketing counter or the kassa, smile your sweetest smile at the grouchy lady behind the counter and hope your Russian pronunciation doesn’t suck too much!
TIP #3: Understand Your Ticket
If you’ve done everything right, you know have your ticket in hand. Which is completely in Russian. Unless you have complied with Tip #5, you will realise to your complete shock and horror that you have no idea what your ticket says and you also have nobody to help you. Never fear, save this photo and I will explain what the ticket says.
1: Origin; 2: Destination; 3: Seat Number; 4: Passport Number; 5: Name; 6: Birthdate; 7: Nationality; 8: Train Timing
TIP #4: Buy Platzkart
Train tickets come in two varieties: Platzkart or Kupe class. Platzkart gets you a bunk in a 6 man cubby hole with no doors or anything that gives you even some semblance of privacy. Kupe gets you a bed in a 4-man cabin with a door and a table. Even Russians will tell you to take Kupe, but honestly, Platzkart is the way to go.
The reasons are threefold: 1) It’s literally half the price. 2) The beds are actually exactly the same, and you won’t be able to tell anyway once you’re asleep. 3) It’s not actually possible to make friends in Kupe since you’re stuck between the Walls of Antisociality and the Door of Mindyourownbusiness. People sitting in Kupe want their privacy, which is why they paid for it, and you won’t get the random spontaneity of Platzkart. I’m talking about wild drinking parties, babushkas offering you food, and conversations on the philosophical meaning of art and its purpose in relation to the human condition.
Naturally, if you’re doing long 24 hours or more stretches, you might want to consider getting Kupe so you can rest in peace and comfort.
TIP #5: Learn Russian
We live in the age of dictionaries freely available on mobile phones, and I can personally attest to the power of Duolingo for picking up Russian vocabulary. Basically you have no excuse not to know enough Russian to have a conversation, and if you really don’t, there’s not much meaning in taking the Trans-Siberian. Russian is also the lingua franca in Mongolia, so with Russian and Chinese you don’t need to know any other languages. Getting arrested by police who think you’re a spy is not a particularly enjoyable experience if you have no idea why they’re shouting ‘GUN! GUN! BANG! BANG!’ in your face. You don’t have to spew Dostoevsky and Pushkin, but learn enough to introduce yourself and your country and you’ll have a pleasant time!
TIP #6: Bring Multiple Portable Chargers
Our phones are basically appendages of our mortal existence, and nowhere is this more true than on the endless Trans-Siberian, where time is truly relative. Unfortunately, there really is nowhere to charge your phone, which means you should bring several portable chargers. Charging your phone at the train station is also banned, but if you ever come across any open charging ports you should rush for them like a Japanese housewife with coupons at a department store.
If you’re lucky enough to be staying at the ends of the train, you should rush to use it too. They’re meant for people to shave with, but you can probably charge your portable charger without too much trouble.
TIP #7: Buy Food
On the Trans-Siberian, the man with half a sausage is king. Sure, you can buy food at the restaurant car, or wait until the train pulls into a station and buy some at the platform, or even buy from the roving food cart. That would cost you easily triple of what you would pay if you just stopped being so lazy and just bought food at the supermarket before you boarded the train. Did your mother give birth to you to waste money? I’m going to go with no. A good meal on the train would be a small loaf of bread, some sausages or smoked fish, a bit of cheese will cost you just 300 rubles (S$6.30) for three meals.
Siberia is also famous for its fresh fruits, particularly strawberries, kiwis, cherries and peaches. Think strawberries the size of your nose, cherries the size of your eyes and kiwis larger than your fist! Hanging around too long in the dank, unhygienic conditions of Platzkart life is bound to give you an illness eventually, so get yourself some gorgeous Russian fruits for that extra boost of Vitamin C. Make sure you try the Omul or apple-wood smoked fish at Irkutsk!
TIP #8: Read Some Russian Literature
Russians are really crazy about their literature, and for good reason. Russian literature is at once evocative, rich, and filled with tragedy and drama. In fact, some have suggested that Russia’s chief export, apart from vodka, petroleum and smokey ladies, is in fact – suicidal authors. All Russians large and small will have some idea of the basic Russian works of literature, and if you want to be invited to the fun side of the train, you’d best at least appear as if you know what you’re talking about. Russian books are notoriously long, so don’t try to read War and Peace (though you will have time), but Dostoevsky has the rather short and very charming White Nights, and if all else fails, the movie version of Anna Karenina starring Jude Law and Kiera Knightley will definitely win you some new friends.