I’ve taken a few overnight trains in my time, but never over consecutive days like on the Trans-Siberian railway. The idea of overnight train travel doesn’t thrill me – cabin fever and the like – not my thing. Flashbacks to those overnighters in China or India, hot humid days, minimal ventilation, third class carriages (shoestring budgets), people lighting up cigarettes despite non-smoking regulations, squat toilets that people seemed to miss entirely… Now, in hindsight, I can have a laugh but boy, at the time I am not sure I was ever in a happy place. But it was all part of the experience, you know?
These days I am happy to admit I need to be a little more comfortable on the road. Now, I am not talking luxury travel, far from it. But perhaps a single room at a hostel in lieu of a 16 bed dorm, a soft (rather than hard) sleeper for those overnight train journeys or even an internal flight instead of a 22 hour bus ride – nothing major, just a few alterations here and there.
The Trans-Siberian Railroad, without question, is one of the world’s most epic railway journeys. I have thought about it for years, however always feared the cost of such a trip. Surprisingly, once you start looking into it – provided you’re not travelling in first class with private dining – it’s really not that bad. And let me say, we certainly didn’t rough it, booking second-class cabins which were comfortable and simply picking up street food at the various stops along the way. Word of warning however, there are no showers, so get familiar with ‘wet ones’ because they’re like water in the desert.
Now admittedly, I found planning the journey painful. I am more of a play-it-by-ear kinda guy, so the idea of having to map out stops and purchase tickets ahead of time, was not my favourite thing. I wanted that freedom of rolling into a town and if I liked it, stay – if I didn’t, go. But in Russia, in order to obtain a visa, they need a confirmed itinerary. And in addition to this, trains book up quickly, so obtaining seats for a group of people the day before you want to travel, well, there are no guarantees. So we relied heavily on guidebooks to paint an accurate picture of where we wanted to visit, the only problem here is – many publications are financed by local tourism bodies. So you would always read about the glamorous aspects, whilst the negatives, well they were conveniently omitted.
You will find that most travellers slog out the entire journey in one hit, making stops only in Lake Baikal and Ulaan Baatar before wrapping in Beijing, China. Or alternatively they bypass the Trans-Mongolian leg completely, continuing onward to Vladivostok (the last stop in the Trans-Siberian).
We did things a little differently for our Trans-Siberian Railway route, boarding the train in Moscow, stopping off in Suzdal, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and Ulan Ude (located at the Trans-Mongolian line junction) before travelling overland to Mongolia toward the nations capital, Ulaan Baatar. So rather than doing the trip over one week, we took five (excluding our time in Mongolia).
Getting Social Aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway
Talk to me about social engagements. Be prepared to trade your morning coffee with a shot of Vodka, your lunchtime Panini with instant noodles and that afternoon stroll with a round of cards. Second class cabins were closed berths, containing four bunk beds and a small coffee table – although you end up strolling the carriages and making friends with people from all over the globe, so you’re barely chilling at ‘home’, unless of course you’re the host. It’s unreal the people you meet, by the end of it we had mates from all over. Slovenia, Holland, South Africa, Russia – as you can imagine, the days were spent with smart phone translators, stockpiles of food and plenty of social beverages.
Alright, now lets get to the important stuff. What the heck do you eat on this train?
One word. Babushka. Or Bab’s as we would so endearingly refer to them as. Russian for “grandmother” these gorgeous old dears always had our back. It didn’t matter whether it was pouring rain or three o’clock in the morning – they were there – waiting patiently on each platform the train would stop at, ready to feed us carb upon carb. Now this all sounds great, right? Well yeah it was, except for when there were more than a dozen Babushka’s! As you always felt obliged to buy something from each of them…particularly when it was some ungodly hour of the morning and they had made the effort to get up, cook and travel out to the station.
Waistline, forgive me now.
Word of advice. Bab’s don’t like no skinny boys – so come prepared to eat – track pants only please. Baked sausage in dough (a Babushka favorite), waffle cones filled with dulce de leche, dumplings, pies, doughnuts – you name it, they baked it.
But in addition to the goods supplied by our Bab’s, we also had a basic stockpile aboard the train, which we could turn to at times of despair (a.k.a. when the next stop was a good 45 minutes away). This was made up of all the essentials; water, instant noodles, tea bags, instant cappuccino sachets, CHOCOLATE, fruit, chips, more chocolate, bread, pâté, cheese and of course, vodka – need I point out the obvious. So if you follow this essentials list, you will never be left outside alone…or alternatively, starving and bed ridden. Sounds frightful.
Now there is a food carriage aboard. However, it was expensive (by backpacking standards) and the food never seemed that appealing. In saying that though, I heard through the grapevine that riding first class opens up a world of alternatives. But it’s like with anything right? Cash often (but not always) equates to quality…or so one assumes. If nothing more, the food carriage doubled as a communal lounge for social chats and card games, anyone was welcome, any time of the day.
But just remember, it is a solid 5 nights just to get to Lake Baikal – so come prepared!
But in between the card games, life chats and endless eating, there is plenty of time just to lay back, read a book and watch life roll by. The landscapes are spectacular and keep you captivated for hours. Sleeping at night is relatively easy; the Trans-Siberian train gently rocks you to sleep and is fairly peaceful (unless of course you have a snorer in your berth! Pack those earplugs). In fact, by the time we reached Lake Baikal, we had kinda become attached to our old train and didn’t want to leave….
Have you ever been on the Trans-Siberian Railway? Drop us a line in the comments we’d love to hear what you thought.