Following last week’s ramble around the classes and carriages of the Trans Siberian Railway, we will proceed to dig a little further into the minutiae of the Trans-Siberian railway experience. We’ve covered the general structure of the travel grades: 1 – 3, plus the option of reserving a carriage for yourself, something akin to 1st class+ perhaps. There’s more to it than that though (otherwise this would be a really short article).
You’ll no doubt become acquainted with the on-duty attendant, or Provodnik – to give him his correct Russian title. That’ll be Provodnitsa though, if the person concerned is a ‘she’. It’s always best to address Russians correctly, according to their gender, especially those in positions of authority. There’s usually two of “them” on board. It’s not that they carry a spare, but on the long Trans-Siberian stretches, working shifts is the only viable option. When not on duty, they may retreat to their own travelling staff room at one end of the carriage.
Their remit encompasses several duties: upholding the rules and safety regulations (smoking is a big NO, on board), quality assurance, carriage cleaning, selling the odd snack, and signalling the train to leave the various stations along the way.
Another (non biological) fixture on the rain is the inevitable Samovar, the source of free boiling water 24 hours a day. Just in case you’ve neglected to bring your own, it’s probably best not to automatically assume that any water is safe to drink – ask someone who is in a position to know for sure.
These devices are not the ornate, intricately finished affairs that we see laid out with the best silverware in polite surroundings. We’re referring, of course, to the configurations of steel barrels, gauges and piping that look like they have been transplanted from a Russian nuclear submarine. That’ll be a 1960s sub for some of the older trains and perhaps a 70s-80s one for the newer.
Then there is the other convenience – quite literally. The WC/washroom/pot-washer (?) catch-all, that’ll be found outside of main Russian territory whereas, those “at home” may even contain their own shower, though you will be expected to pay for it and request enough hot water in advance to ensure that it is heated up in time.
Yes, you may well end up washing your mobile pots in the loo, or in the remotest reaches find that your shower unit is in fact a bucket from which you can wash yourself down after trekking to the samovar for hot water and working up a lather. It’s all about that authentic Gulag experience, naturally (mercifully, I wouldn’t know).
Seriously though: you may be in for a bit of culture shock if you’re accustomed to the Ritz, because frankly, the on-board toilets are renowned for not being the best. They may not even be clean in a worse case scenario. As far as washing kitchenware in such an environment is concerned: ‘not a chance’, frankly, would be my verdict. “Conditions vary” would be the euphemistic assessment, from all accounts.
In order to keep fresh, if not squeaky clean, passengers may fall-back on hygienic, baby-wipes or similar. You may wish to pack some sanitiser of some kind, also.
The Johnsons have one more piece of pertinent advice, as featured on their oneworldoneyear blog: “If you have the urge to use the bathroom, don’t sit and think about it for too long. Many of the trains still have toilets that flush directly onto the track and, if you’re approaching a station, they’ll lock the restrooms for as long as you’re stopped. And you never know how long you’ll be in station and how much they’ll charge for the use of the toilets there.”
I read that Russian trains are considered safer than Russian streets. Is that a good or bad benchmark? Relative, unquantifiable amounts are not a lot of use. The police officer that is (possibly) present on the train, however, could be – even if just being there is only a disincentive for certain wrongdoers.
Russian police, sadly, do have a dreadful reputation: another account informed me that a tourist was actively dissuaded from hailing a Russian officer by a local, when both witnessed an attack in the street. Apparently summoning the law would have, in this instance at least, “only made things worse”.
More next time.
[Photo by Alexas_Fotos]