Life on board – Classic Trans-Siberian
The trans-siberian railway
… is the longest rail trip in the world. The original Tsarist-era line was built from St Petersburg (which was the capital of Russia at the time) with end-points in either Vladivostok (9265km), or Beijing (via Manchuria – 9001km). In the 1920’s a soviet-era project added a third routing – to Beijing via Mongolia(7865km).
There is no one train called “The Trans-Siberian Express”. There is, though, a Trans-Siberian Railway – the lines along which it goes. The REAL Trans-Siberian Line (as defined by Russian Railways themselves,) is only the CENTRAL PART of the journey – from Ekaterinburg to Ulan-Uday. Anything before then is not the Trans-Sib, and anything further East could be either the Far-Eastern Railway (to Vladivostok), or the Trans-Mongolian Railway (onwards via Ulaanbaatar to Beijing) or the Trans-Manchurian Railway.
So it’s impossible to talk about “The Trans-Sib” as if it is one train – it’s not. There are multiple trains which run along these routes – some part of the way, some all of the way. By combing them it is possible to make-up routes that enable you to stop and see things on route, uncovering history, discovering myths and legends, and immersing yourself in diverse cultures and communities.
Don’t expect silver service, but yes – there really is smoked salmon and champagne with landscape views out of the window no other restaurant in the world can offer. Or there is rissoles and mash if you prefer? For a mix-and-match culinary change, use major-city halts (around 20 to 30 minutes each) to rustle-up a cabin picnic from the range of hot pies, yoghurts, fruit and beer sold by hawkers who await major trains.
Layout of your wagon
4-berth compartments have two upper and two lower berths, and luggage-stowage below the lower berths, and in the large overhead bays. There are reading lights and a table.
2-berth compartments are exactly the same, minus the two upper berths.
There are two WC’s at either end of the wagon, where you will find a WC and a hand-basin with cold water, and usually warm water too.
The Samovar provides a constant supply of free boiling water for making tea, coffee, instant soup, or even pot-noodles.
Berths are full-length with a sprung base. On top of the base is a mattress-pad. There is a large pillow and a blanket. You hire a sealed fresh-laundry pack which includes two sheets (or sometimes a sheet and a duvet-cover – inside which you put the blanket) a pillowcase, a facecloth and a hand-towel. (cost approx $5 per day). There’s a reading light with an individual switch.
There are no electric sockets in compartments. There is one mid-wagon in the corridor which is really for the hoover when they clean – you can try standing there if you want, they don’t usually mind. You can also ask them to do it for you in the Service Wagon (see above) – they have a little room where you can leave it under lock and key, and collect it (for a small fee) once charged. (“Vee MO-zhete zaRYAdit’ etot, pa-ZHALsta?”)
The two lower berths lift-up and there is space for two large suitcases under each one. There is an even larger luggage-bay at ceiling level with enough space for 4-5 large suitcases. Your berth has a small fold-out shelf big enough for small handbags, and some hooks to hang things on. There are hooks for large coats etc too.
F.A.Q’s on board
For something which Russians take so readily in their stride, it seems almost incredible that there can be so many worries about this part of the trip!
Can you lock the door?
Yes, you can even double-lock it. There is an “opens-from-inside-only” lock in the armature of the door-handle, and for extra security there is a drop-bolt at the top of the door that immobilizes it from the inside.
What about calls of nature?
There are two wc’s, one at either end of each wagon. In there you’ll find a flushing wc, a hand basin, To flush the wc, push the pedal (motor-cyclists will find this like a a dose of nostalgia). To operate the water-tap, you have to push the stud under the outlet UP into the tap – and water comes-out whilst held in the “up” position. If you are lucky, there will be toilet-paper in there. But best to go prepared! The wc’s are locked whilst within 15-20 mins range of major halts, since they flush directly out onto the ground below. Remember this if traveling in winter – don’t flush whilst still sitting, or you will catch a 65-mph blast of air chilled to –27C, right up your private parts.
Is smoking permitted on board?
Smoking is not permitted on trains in Russia, and up to 15 meters from any Railway Station entrance. Sometimes it is still tolerated by attendants on some trains in between carriages, but the risk of a large fine is high.
The Restaurant Car?
Yes, there is an all-night Restaurant Car, usually located in the middle of the train. The prices are quite steep, but the food is ok, on a limited menu of Russian food. The bar prices are not very friendly, however. Beware the “wouldn’t you like to treat your waitress to a little drinky? You look like a nice boy…” scam (in which you find that to allow her to sit with you, the Boss has to be bought a drink too to buy him/her off, and mysteriously everyone’s drinking Triple Tequila Sunrises on your tab…) The restaurant-car staff also do a drinks/snacks trolley service down the whole train, several times until it seems that everyone’s asleep.
Does that mean we can bring drinks along?
You are more than welcome to take your own beer, vodka, soft drinks or whatever you want – no-one will try to stop you at all, most Russians would never even consider paying the prices in the bar anyhow.
It’s freezing here on the platform, will it be warm on board?
There is fairly effective heating in winter which keeps the train toasty-warm – perhaps even a touch too warm, one blanket will be as much as you need. In summer, although there is no air-con, there is fairly effective jet-air ventilation, but it only kicks-in once the train is in motion.
Is there a shower on board?
Actually yes, on many of the Russian (not Mongolian or Chinese there is – whilst you are on Russian soil. On main inter-city trains there is a shower cubicle in the Service Wagon, which is adjacent to the restaurant car. There is a small fee (usually around 150R) to use it, and you have to book in advance so that they turn the water-heating on to warm up. The price does not include soap or a towel, and we highly recommend flip flops!