One more glance down the tracks and that will do for for now. We’ve been looking at some of the procedures and facilities that you will encounter on a Trans-Siberian trip. There’s always more to tell, naturally, but we’ve got to move on. I’ve managed to avoid any obvious rail related analogies/puns within the first few lines, so we’re off to a good start.
What about actually living on the rails? What do the passengers do on trips lasting several days? Well it seems that an enforced camaraderie prevails amongst those who are all in this together – this long, cross country haul. If you are averse to sharing personal space or being overly familiar with complete strangers, then chances are you are one of my fellow Brits who have booked their own fortified 2nd/1st class compartment because “you never know what might happen”. Yes, as a nation we are not yet ready for the hospitality onslaught that welcoming Russians may assail us with, bless ‘em. Once, that is, you are “in”. The icy, grim Russian stereotype is often a myth; we just don’t understand why they don’t smile at strangers in the street, or pass out meaningless superficialities all the time. That’s all.
I’m digressing, but I only have to drop by a Russian acquaintance’s house and out comes the coffee, honey, biscuits and a plate of chocolates to boot. “Eat” she says; “EAT”. I’ve usually brought a small ‘something’ too – my unstated part of the bargain. Similarly within 30 minutes of speaking to my latest Russian contact I was introduced to his children and offered a place to stay, should I visit St. Petersburg. Expect over-familiarity (by our standards) and blunt verbal probing.
It can be a little overwhelming for us, especially combined with our icy British politeness that arm-twists us into a doom of drinking games, all innocently starting with “ok, just one”, lest we offend our beaming hosts. So you may well be pulled into some of that, and be expected to bring something to the party yourself.
You do have to retain your street smarts. If you don’t have any: get some. Sooner or later, somebody somewhere is bound to be a crook, and very good one too. Good enough to pick your pockets, slip something into your drink, sneak into your compartment and whisk an obviously placed bag or phone away whilst you sleep. You do have to take precautions. I’ve even read about folks chaining their luggage down under the bed or in overhead storage and jamming the internal compartment handle shut with a cork so that even if the lock is picked from outside – it won’t turn. Does this work? I’ve no idea. At any rate, “travel light, travel smart” may be a good maxim.
There’s plenty of gazing out of the window to be done. Watching the scenery morph over several thousands kilometres. Then there’s sleeping through time zones, snacking, lounging, chatting with your new chums, playing games, tracking your progress on a map and via the rail itinerary. Internet connectivity is patchy at best so you may have to interact with others (sorry) or lose yourself in a book and/or a digitised audio playlist.
You may find yourself hanging on for the next stop – there may be 3-5 a day. These can range from 5 to 20 minutes (approx. find out!) and present the opportunity to leave the train and stretch your legs. The station may resemble a mini market, with local traders/Babushkas offering you their wares (food, souvenirs), plus the goods dealers that travel with you, setting out their own version of the ‘pop-up (and down) shop’. I tend to only eat food that’s been surgically prepared by sterilised robots, and I certainly don’t need anymore clutter, but if you are feeling lucky, tread carefully. Oh, the train won’t wait for you when departure time comes around. I Just thought you should know.
The air of casual boundary transgression and the hospitable invasion of personal space evaporates when national boundaries are crossed. The toilets are locked down just prior to arrival at checkpoints and remain so until “all clear”. Any use of them will deposit the contents of your innards directly onto the station’s tracks, leaving “it” to saute in its own juice under the hot sun. Not nice.
The border guards (particularly the Russian crew) are renowned for having no sense of humour whatsoever and are really not interested in being your friends. Any nonsense will be treated like an airport queue bomb joke. Any transgression from their absolute line of correctness, a slightly different spelling on your documents for instance, or an attempt to “pull one over” them could see you ejected from the train (or worse); in any weather conditions, day or night. They will not mess around. You need to have everything straight, present and correct. There are limits on the amount of local currency that can be taken across borders. Do you have too much? Right, they’ll be walking away with the surplus. It’s that simple.
If your train crosses the Chinese/Mongolian border, then it will have to switch gauges: the Chinese tracks being narrower. This 3 hour process involves plucking the carriages off their wheeled frames (bogies) and dropping them onto wheels of the required gauge (dependent upon on which way you are travelling). At last count there were two choices for passengers: either stay locked in the compartments as they are manoeuvred (yes, you read that right) with closed windows, no air conditioning or toilet, or go for a wander around the station (no further) and get some exercise/refreshments. On their ASocialNomad blog, Sarah and Nigel describe the former, alien-abduction-like scenario:
“Before long there are clunks and our carriage starts to rise. At first the windowed door at either end of the carriage is open and we grin at the workmen below. Before too long someone realizes and the doors are locked. Its airless, just a choking breath of coal smoke”.
Incidentally it’s also officially forbidden to photograph or film the process.
[Photo by vuralyavas]