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Life on the Trans-Siberian Railway + Safety






All aboard, the longest Railway in the world crossing 10 time zones, withstanding cold temperatures as low as -50C during winter as it chugs through the forests of Siberia. It was built over a century ago by the hands of prisoners of war, back when tunneling was considered a difficult and new engineering technology. 

All trains in Russia run on Moscow time. What does that mean? Well, your ticket is printed with Moscow time on it, and the train stations will have their clocks and the train arrival/departure board will be adjusted to Moscow time. First you find your train number on the display board, then you will find the beginning and final destination of the train, then you see the arrival time and departure time of the train to this station and lastly the platform number and amount of minutes the train will stop at the platform in the station you are in.

The train can stop anywhere from just 3 minutes to 90 minutes in one station. During the longer stops, they are usually swapping out the train engine where the train driver is and the dining carriage. Maybe they are offloading some dirty laundry and getting new sheets as well. The train driver is assigned to the engine, so they only work the distance till the engine is changed to another one. The longest is from Moscow to Vladivostok, which is 7 days one way, so they will work in shifts at a few days at a time.

If your train doesn’t depart until another 90 minutes, you can wait in one of the waiting halls at the stations. They are well heated and have a lot of stalls selling food, souvenirs, and books (in Russian only). But it’s good to board your train 15 minutes early so you can get settled in. If your train is only stopping for 3 minutes on the track, it’ll be a good idea to arrive 10-15 minutes early as well, to make sure you are on the right platform and that you don’t miss your train.

Each train carriage will have its number displayed on the window. And when it is available for boarding, the Provodnista will be standing outside of the carriage doors. The Provodnista, usually this Russian Lady around her 30-40s, is in charge of your carriage. Her job is to take care of the passengers on board her carriage, from anything like tickets/passport check to changing of the sheets and serving food. They are also in charge of maintaining order and comfort on the trains, so if any passenger is harassing you she’s the one to go to. Unfortunately they don’t usually speak English, so I had to rely on to pointing at things, my Russian to English travel phrase book, and google translate.

Boarding the train


In Moscow Kazansky station, I walked up to platform #2 where my train for Kazan was departing. I was on train #2, which is one of the newer trains. I presented my passport and ticket for the Provodnista to check. She was extra diligent and double checked to make sure I wasn’t boarding the wrong train. She called a colleague of hers who spoke a little English to show me to my compartment. This train was modern with really nice carpet flooring, TVs in every room and charging sockets underneath each berth. The berth number was shown on the door as well as above the window inside the compartment. I found my bottom bunk spot, and lifted the bed to store my backpack underneath. The top bunks were unoccupied, but there was also more luggage storage area on top. You could either jump on top if you have enough upper body strength to support yourself up, or there is an extendable step ladder on the side of the bed for you to climb up.

On the older trains (any train number larger than a single digit from 1-9), there are no TVs, only a speaker with a nob to turn up the volume inside compartments. There are no charging sockets within the compartment, and only in hallways. They never worked for me. On the Chinese trains for the Trans Mongolian line, there are 2 sockets on the bottom berths within the compartments. 


 Moscow Kazansky Station 


 Moscow Kazansky Station - Waiting Hall

  Moscow - Kazan Train, Carriage #2

 Settling in

Soon after the train departed, the Provodnista asked for my “bil-yet” (train ticket). This is for them to keep track of who is on board, who has a meal included in their ticket, and when to call a passenger to get off the train. She also explained to me (in Russian, I had someone else translate) where the toilet was, hot water boiler was. Usually there are toilets on both ends, one end has the hot water boiler and the other has the trash bin.

There is a kit for every passenger. On the newer trains (single digit numbers) they provide slippers whereas the older trains don’t. You will be provided fresh linen, a tower, toiletry, and a wet tissue all in a pack. The main compartment lighting has 2 settings, bright and night light, and your berth also has a reading light in case other passengers want to sleep with the main lights off. And on most trains, there are no windows you can open inside the compartment. You can only open the window in the hallway or the bathroom.

It was very well heated at anywhere between 22 – 24C on the train, and it can get pretty dry at times. Good thing to bring lotion or extra tissues if you tend to have bloody noses in dry conditions. 

 


(Left) Newer model trains
(Right) Older wooden trains 

  Newer train interior

 Inside the cabin of 2nd class (4 berths) 
I was lucky enough to have it all to myself. 

 On a newer train from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar. 1st class room with 2 berts, but all to myself again.


Food options

1. Restaurant Carriages: there’s a restaurant carriage attached to all the trains. The Russian trains offer cheap options, and you can expect to spend around $5 USD on a meal. On the Chinese trains for the Trans-Mongolian line, the meals are much more expensive and in a set menu where breakfast is $15 USD and lunch/dinner is $20 USD    

The Chinese train dining carriage


2. Meal included tickets: if you’re on an overnight train, usually you will get one meal included on the Russian trains running in between Russian cities. The meals usually include a breakfast bag that has a small bottle of water, a snack bar, one muffin, and a yoghurt. The lunch box has very little food, probably food enough for a kitten. It’s just 2-3 scoops of chicken fried rice with 1 piece of Russian bread. If you are on a 12hr+ train (typically 24hrs), then it will be a good idea to stock up on stations with longer stops or bring your own cup noodles  

 Meal box from the new trains (Moscow - Kazan)


 
 Standard lunch box on older trains, bread and chicken fried rice

 
(Left) along with lunch box is a snack/breakfast brown bag. Includes water, yoghurt, muffin, snack bar, tea and a piece of candy.

(Right) Items available for sale in carriages

3. Platform Vendors: when you stop at stations for a longer period of time 15min+, there will be some stalls or people selling food with shopping karts on the platform. You can quickly hop off the train to buy something quick. Sometimes they are even selling fresh hot food! But you’ll have to hedge your bets on that one because in some stations the food sells out fast.

4. Make your own food: There are hot water dispensers in every carriage so you can easily make instant noodles. The provodnista’s “office” cabin also has a microwave, so if you are extra nice to her she might lend it to you. 




*Russian Food – it’s actually not that bad

Before my trip, a lot of people kept telling me that Russian food is really bad. Maybe that’s just rumors because I actually only know 2 people that have been to Russia, so it’s all hearsay and not firsthand experience. From my perspective, it wasn’t actually that bad. The disappointing part would definitely be the bread; Russians have the most talent in making bread look like bread but taste like nothing (maybe like a squishy sponge but I haven’t had that before so I can’t compare). The food is really inexpensive, so you can’t really expect it to taste like 5-Michelin-star restaurant quality; you get for what you pay.


Because in Moscow and Tomsk, I stayed at cheaper hotels, the food was not that as good as I would like it to be, but it was still decent. I would say it’s slightly more salty than I’m used to. Like I described previously, meals on trains are kitten size, but the chicken fried rice was delicious. Food I got from the train station deli was also very delicious and only $166 rub, which is very little to pay for a full plate of food.


The best food I had was at the Kazan Ramada hotel and Irkutsk Sayan International hotel. These are more high-end hotels that cost starting from $600 HKD per night, but the food was amazing. I distinctively remember the “American Style Chicken Soup” at the Kazan Ramada hotel and the Salmon Pasta. That was probably the best meal out of my entire trip. And if you eat out, Irkutsk has this old town area where the “Trendy Quarter is” near Sedova and Lyulya street. There’s a lot of bar/restaurants with live music, it felt like I was in Soho again, but in Russia. Also you will notice, Sushi is the new trend in Russia! Every sushi restaurant is packed full of people. I dined at the first Sushi restaurant in Siberia which is a part of the Sayan Hotel, I would say the quality is superb.

$166 rub fried rice and beans from Yekaterinburg train station

Meatball soup and creamy chicken from Tomsk hotel


Breakfast from International Sayan Hotel

 Breakfast from Best Western - Gobi's Kelso (Ulaanbaatar)
Interacting with other passengers
Most of the Russian passengers didn’t speak any English. I met people from businessmen traveling alone to families with small children and the elderly, and also met a train full of really nice soldiers going off to training. I actually did not meet any non-Russian travelers on the Russian trains, probably because I was travelling off season. Most of the time I even had the 4 berth 2nd class cabin all to myself. Sometimes people will stand in the hallway and look at the scenery or leave their compartment doors opened, that’s when you can go have a little chat with them. 


 Russian Soldier, reporting to duty


What are Russians like? And Safety in Russia

Overall, Russia is really safe. People are really nice to tourist and foreigners, and men are very respectful of women. I probably stood out a lot because after Moscow there were only blonde haired, fair skinned Russians. I didn’t feel any racism at all, and people were really curious about why I’m travelling in Russia, where I’m from, and where I’m going. There was even one mall security staff that tried to greet me in 3 different languages (Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean). And even if you don’t speak any English, they will try to help you. I was struggling to figure out where my berth was on my second train ride and the dad from a family of 3 came up to me to point out everything I needed, like the light, towels, linen, and luggage storage.

 

I don’t speak any Russian, and in fact the only 3 words I knew off the top of my head was Thank you, Ticket, and Dinner. Most of the time I just pointed, or used google translate. But learning to read the Cyrillic letters (Russian alphabet) really helps you decode certain signs and station names quicker.

Because I had been to Paris and Barcelona the previous Summer and had a pretty bad impression of Europe’s subway systems, I was quite weary of everything in Moscow. Someone tried to pickpocket my mother in the Paris subway and I was sexually harassed in Barcelona. It’s a pity because they were lovely cities. Moscow however was extremely safe. There were kids on the train, young adults with their iPhone 6S out, and elderly people riding as well. There’s also wifi in the subway trains. Police often petrol the stations with police dogs and there’s security camera everywhere, so Moscow is super safe. I had my DSLR camera out and phone out walking around the cities and never found a problem or felt unsafe. Really well done on that part, Russia, I’m impressed.

To break down on what to expect for the different people you’d encounter on the trip:


  • Hotel staff: very friendly, speaks good English, are the most helpful when it comes to asking questions
  • Provodnista: no English, usually strict attitude so they can maintain order in the carriages
  • Taxi drivers: it varies. To be safe, call one from the hotel. Use the meter or negotiate the price before getting in. In Russia it’s mostly fine, but in Mongolia there are a lot of scams.
  • Tour drivers: really nice, speaks good English, good knowledge of area
  • Police: avoid, don’t try to take photos with them
  • Soldiers on board the train: super friendly, like the average citizen, though they don’t speak much English, they are pretty interested in interacting with other passengers
  • Restaurant staff: limited English but very friendly, polite and have really high service standards.
  • Souvenir shop staff: of course they speak English! They are trying to do business. 

Read the Trans Siberian series here (vlogs included), please click on the links below:

Trans Siberian Railway - Moscow (0km)
Trans Siberian Railway - Kazan (820km)
Trans Siberian Railway - Yekaterinburg (1,814km)
Trans Siberian Railway - Tomsk (3,644km)
Trans Siberian Railway - Irkutsk (5,185km) Dog Sledding
Trans Siberian Railway - Irkutsk (5,185km) Lake Baikal
Trans Siberian Railway - Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar (6,464km)
Trans Siberian Railway - Ulaanbaatar (6,464km)
Trans Siberian Railway - Ulaanbaatar (6,464km) Terelj National Park
Trans Siberian Railway - Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (8,015km)
Trans Siberian Railway - Beijing (8,015km)
Trans Siberian Railway - Great Wall of China & Back to Hong Kong (10,265km)



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More photos from Russia

Kazan Station

Irkutsk Station

Departure Hall, Kazan Station

Kazan Station, English & Russian train arrival/departures board

Yekaterinburg Waiting hall

Yekaterinburg Train display (No English, Russian Only)
Train #, Train Origin - Destination, Train Scheduled Arrival on platform, Train Actual arrival time on platform , Train Platform number, Minutes train will be at the station, Train departure on platform

(Left) Charging stations at Yekaterinburg.
(Right) Irkutsk platform, train from Moscow to UlaanBaatar 


Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (Chinese Train)


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