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20 Things I wish I knew - Trans Siberian Railway



I completed the Trans-Siberian journey from Moscow via Mongolia and China in late March of 2016. I was traveling solo as a female, and had planned everything by myself. I spent a lot of time doing homework, reading up about other people's experiences, watching videos about the individual cities that I was going to and so on. I thought I was super prepared, but there were still some things that surprised me, or stood I to me unexpectedly. I think by now you probably have read that trains run on Moscow time, there's limited amount of power sockets on the trains etc. But I want to share some things that I learned during my trip. 

20 Things I wish I knew before boarding the Trans-Siberian Railway

1. It's really warm indoors! During winter, it’s so warm indoors, just bring more short sleeve t-shirts or tank tops than you think you need. The trains were 20-24C and I even got a bloody nose from the dry air!




2. Bringing a towel is useless. They provide you with towels on the trains. 


3. Pay attention to ticket pick up time! I pre-bought my tickets online with Real Russia, and you can only pick up train tickets from Monday to Friday on certain times. I made the mistake of flying in on Saturday, and got a call late night on Friday saying their office was closing in an hour, while I was boarding my plane in Hong Kong! eek! 

4. iPhone batteries dies quicker in the cold. I was happy snapping photos in Red Square. It was about -10 outside, and before I knew it my battery went from 80% to 30% in just 15 minutes. Good thing I brought spare battery packs. 


5. Your fingers freeze if you don’t wear gloves, and your ears will freeze if you don't wear a hat. I underestimated how cold it would be on the first day since the Subway, hotel, and malls were so warm. I didn't bring my gloves out and my fingers almost fell off from taking my phone out to take photos!

 

6. You push the nozzle up where the water comes out to get water in the toilet sink. No one taught me, and it took me a long time to find out! I felt like an idiot afterwards.

7. Don’t lock your berth door. Why? Because one, it is safe, and no one will steal your stuff. And two, the Provodnista will get mad at you. 

8. Toilets are not in use during station stops. If you are coming to a big stop, or worse a 4 hour boggie change and passport control, go to the toilet first and don't chug a ton of water before hand! Tip: a way to get around that on Chinese trains is to go to the carriage where the handicapped toilet is, there's an automatic button to open the door so the train conductors can't lock it.

9. Russians are very friendly when asked for pictures. They might not speak English, and you might not speak Russian, but people are up for a picture! 


Mongolians are pretty nice too! 

10. Google translate app's photo taking function will save you. There are some stations where they just don't have English train arrival boards. Or there's times when you're trying to buy conditioner at the pharmacy and just can't figure out which one is shampoo which one is conditioner. 

11. I ran out of things to read. I had 3 books, which I finished already by the 3rd leg of my journey in between Yekaterinburg and Tomsk. The next stop there will be an English bookstore was Ulaanbaatar. I didn't bring an electronic reader because charging something is difficult. So I resorted to reading my Russian book slowly, page by page. Still, I only remember 3 words. And then I just started writing about everything I remember on this trip. 




12. I didn’t bring enough food. There's only 1 meal included even on 24hr journeys. That means I either get lunch or dinner. I had 3 cup noodles which ran out quickly. But there's no need to worry, you can easily find small food stores in every Russian town and also in Ulaanbaatar to stock up. It's good to get some juice, cup noodles, a snack bar, and a pack of peanuts. 


13. One spare battery pack isn’t enough for phone if going on train more than 2 days in a row. I tried really hard not to read my phone, but I still had to use it to figure out where I am on the map or to check in on Social Media to let everyone home know I'm safe. On my longest journey between Kazan - Yekaterinburg - Taiga - Tomsk, I had to be extra careful on my usage. Good thing I brought 2 spare battery packs. 





Yekaterinburg station, everyone charging their phones. Yes that pink ice block looking thing is one of my battery packs! 

14. The loudest people on board were the English and Chinese. Surprise surprise. Well, I'm more surprised at how polite the Russian are! I encountered people traveling with kids and they were well behaved. I shared a entire train carriage with soldiers and no they didn't get piss trunk and cause any trouble. 

15. For most of the train ride, there’s no phone signal! That means google translate will no longer be available. I wish it was so I could talk to more Russians on the train! 


16. You can board your train as early as 45-30 min prior. Some trains arrive really early so they can change the first car, the engine or locomotive (the driver and engine) and also just get rid of some dirty linen, trash, and restock up on things. As long as the Provodnistas are standing on the platform in front of the carriages, you can board early and get settled in!


17. Be at the platform early. The train can arrive at the platform with only with 3 min to spare till departure. I was hurried onto a train in Taiga going to Irkutsk in the middle of the night. They didn't even check my ticket to see if I was on the right train and just closed the door! I was pretty sure I was because I read the exact arrival time and went to the platform 20 minutes early. But boy, I could've ended up in North Korea if I gotten onto the wrong train! 

18. The long train rides aren't exhausting, it's walking around in the cities and towns that's exhausting. People subconsciously compare a 12 or 24hr train ride to a 12hr or 24hr plane ride. That sounds exhausting. But the fact is on the train you can sleep properly because you have a bed. You can walk up and down the hallway or go to the dining car to mingle. Or you can watch the scenery go by. I'm usually more refreshed and charged up after long train rides. But it's the time I spend in the towns touring around and walking around all day that just tires me out. 

19. Nothing is for free. This sounds like a dumb one, but what I mean is that on board the train the Provodnistas will come all smiley and friendly and present you a box full of stuff like slippers, stickers, pins, and sometimes chocolate bars of one tea bag. Everything costs money, and at a ridiculous amount. You are better off restocking in the towns and cities before boarding the brain. But Provodnistas have sales targets, that's why they try to offer you nice things. 



20. First class tickets are only worth it on Chinese trains. I bought first class only on one leg of my journey, honestly it wasn't that different. 2nd class is 4 berths and 1st class is 2 berths, so you just have less people per cabin. I was alone in my cabin anyway 80% of my trip since it's off season. But the 1st class on the Chinese train, wow, it is amazing. It's a shame I didn't take any photos since those weren't my rooms and I didn't want to be rude. But they have a huge room with 2 berths in the rooms, there's also 2 arm chairs and a nice coffee table and a big window of their own. I should've booked first class on the Chinese train! 



Dressing for March (cold) weather in Russia

A warm hat and leather gloves with inner lining are 2 very important items, essential!

It sounds like it’s really cold, March in Russia is anywhere from -15C to 0C. But you have to realize that -15 is only in the middle of the night up to early morning around 9am. During the day time, it was a bit warmer, usually -10 to -5, however Russia is winter proof! Indoor heating is amazing, both on trains and in buildings, so it’s usually around 20-24C and there are coat rooms everywhere. On the trains I basically wore a thin long sleeves heat-tech undershirt from Uniqlo plus a vest, and sometimes even that is too warm.

Bottom line is, dress like an onion, with layers and peel it away as you go to warmer places whether it’s indoors or into other countries. For my upper body I had a tank top, heat-tech long sleeve undergarment, cashmere sweater, down vest, a 2 in 1 zip wind breaking OMNI heat fleece / waterproof jacket from Columbia + North Face. For my lower body I had thin heat tech leggings, and depending on how cold sometimes just long thick yoga pants or this water repellent winter pants from Columbia with soft fleece lining. If it will be snowing and you’ll be hiking outside, it’s very important to bring water repellent if not, waterproof items.

What’s in my bag? (Trans-Siberian edition)

       Band-aid (large) for hiking
       Tissue, wet tissue
       Small bottled water
      Camera
       Go pro
      Emergency charger
      Russian phrase book
           Separate bag: phone/wallet/passport/train tickets/documents
      Lonely planet guide book
       Columbia omni heat + ski pants
      Towel -> totally unnecessary
      Heat tech shirts
      Under garment/short sleeves
       Thermal hot water bottle, super useful
       International adapter and spare batteries
      Spare memory cards
       At least 3 books to read
      Lotion -> super useful
      Cash: only in USD, withdraw RUB at ATM, MNT exchange on train, exchange rates ready or exchange rate app     
      3 cup noodles
     Utensils - super useful
     Slippers - super useful
     Ear plugs - super useful
      Small toiletry kit (shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, face wash, tooth brush, tooth paste, mouth wash-useful)


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