Russia On Rails!
Exotic, Thrilling, and Slightly Weird Modern Day Travel Adventure
Railroads in Russia are more than just a popular mode of transportation. One must look closely at this great opportunity to not only save money but also experience one of the most fun-filled and memorable travel experiences that are available today.
Why suffer from 4-hour waits at the ticket counter and the severe security processing at the airport. Who needs x-rays, sonar or ultrasound, radioactive metal detectors, angry sniffing dogs, and rough cavity searches?
Why sit for 3 or 4 hours, crammed into a tiny seat with your knees pulled up to your chest and the neighbor’s seat reclined into your lap? Why breathe the stinky air and feel the claustrophobic panic of the tight cabin and the sheer aerobatic recklessness of typical Russian Pilots who are also trained to fly fighter jets.
Why eat dry sandwiches and sip disgusting tea or drink some beverage that was bottled in Lower Slabovia? Why suffer this humiliating experience when there is a much more pleasant and comfortable alternative?
The Russian Railroad System
Travel across Russia is not as simple as you might believe. Because of the great distances between cities in this country, some trips take days or even weeks. It depends on your mode of travel.
Many possible destinations in Russia are not accessible by air and so a long trip in a car or a comfortable train ride might be your only available options.
If you have some extra days to spend and driving is your choice, then you will need to have a proper vehicle that can handle Russian roads and highways. Also, you will need to be happy to sleep on the seats, pee in the forest, and eat questionable food from roadside kiosks.
In this case, I recommend the Russian Railways! Your train trip might be several hours or usually at least one night for longer distances. You will find yourself traveling in something rather remarkable… the carriage… where you will join with other excited and happy travelers who will spend the hours or days together in steel can on wheels.
All carriages are more or less the same in all ex-USSR countries and you will always feel like you are returning to your Russian home. The sounds and smells are the same, beds and tables, water heater and WC... always familiar to those of us that are familiar with this train travel…you never step into the carriage for the first time; every time when traveling by train in Russia I am returning to my well-known home.
Millions of carriages are daily moving through Russian forests, steppes, mountains, and forgotten towns. Trains in Russia are a connection to the world and a trusted lovely travel home for my soul…
Open-plan carriage ("platzcart")
So let me introduce open-plan carriage, one of the most popular ways of traveling for the majority of Russians (after riding the bear, of course). People especially love it for the low price (which is not so low because of the RZD monopoly).
This ‘carriage’ will be your home for several days. Inside your ‘home’ you will have your own ‘room’ (compartment) and the 55 other travel mates are your neighbors. Oh, I forgot to mention that inside your room, which is usually set up with 4 beds… two up and two down… you will also have ‘family’ who share your room with you. You may not even know them but they will be sleeping, eating, talking, crying, fighting, and snoring the entire time you share a room with them. Before the trip is finished they will be family!
Usual way of passing the railways in Russia
What about facilities?
It depends a lot on the itinerary. I would say that the routes that get the most traffic and bring in the most revenue will get the best facilities. These routes are very popular and crowded with tourists.
The most popular short itineraries such as Moscow to major cities like St. Petersburg or Nizhny-Novgorod will be surprisingly nice and clean, where passengers are fresh after an 8-hour over-night sleep, and with clean and comfortable climate controlled cars.
On the other hand, on less popular itineraries that journey into the wild frontier regions of Russia, ones that travel from one neck-of-the-woods hellhole to another, with trains filled with hilly-Billy’s who are drinking more Vodka than tea, coffee, or water… Whoopie!... it’s another bloody story! (A lot of these people still carry their own buckets of water to wash their dishes, their children, and the floor). You don’t easily scare these travelers with crummy old train facilities!
So, you've passed through the ‘Ring Of Fire’ to buy your Russian train ticket online! Congratulations! Thanks to blockchain and other modern technologies it's now possible to get a ticket without spending a night at the train station between two ticket offices waiting for a precious ticket of Russian Railways.
If the Russian Railroad system blockchain worked and printed you a nice clean ticket then you need only your passport and the cabin crew will check your name in their High Tech devise and that’s it, but don't relax and let your guard down too early! Mistakes do happen. Come early.
Conductor (at the center) with fans!
The worst place in the train?
But the worst places in the train is located at the last open compartment (№ 33-38). THE Worst place ever is the legendary "looser's ticket 37”. The nearby toilet always smells and sounds like a nearby toilet. Passengers always pace back and forth opening the door with a wonderful sound. A garbage can near the toilet pleases you with smells of rotten eggs, spoiled fish, and old smoked chicken. And in a cold season, you feel a chilly breeze from the vestibule.
When you begin your journey and enter the train and find your assigned place somewhere in the carriage, the conductor will check your ticket once again and bring your bed linen. Now your job is to imagine how to use a small towel, a pillowcase, and two sheets, and then fit them on an awkward mattress, the pillow if you can find it, and a blanket which is there… they all await you at the luggage rack.
Four people, pushing and shoving, (you are not family yet!), and trying to organize their bed and their luggage and trying not to drop the glass jar of homemade pickles that was thoughtfully left on the table by your new TravelMate… Soviet era babushka - very special senior woman!
There's a standard rule where to put your luggage! If you have a bottom shelf – just put it underneath. If you have a top shelf – just try to place it on the luggage rack above.
Open carriage facilities defy the imagination!
The marvels of Russian engineering and the clever use of wasted space, the toilets are just perfect in old carriages! That’s hard to explain, it’s better just to see. You must plan your toilet use because they are closed 1 hour before arriving at a large station and opened 1 hour after. Not a problem if you travel Siberia, haha. (inside joke… only rare large towns there. Get it?) In new carriages, toilets are quite good with one small problem. People are not always used to them and they may throw everything there until they are clogged!
There are supposed to be a few outlets inside where you can hypothetically charge your devices despite the voltage problem. Take care of your iPhone X, Bro! No one actually knows where the outlets will be located in this exact carriage! It's a very interesting quest to buy a bed near to a charging place, haha. Google will not help… It’s Just Pure luck!
+ usually cheap
+ fun and exciting less formal travel, especially with friends.
+ you can take a lot of stuff… huge catamaran, camping equipment, and food for several people for one month, whatever (no sled dogs allowed).
- small sleeping benches/shelves, so you need to sleep curled up or be ready to introduce your traveler's socks to your neighbors.
- a lot of sounds and smells… snore, talks, sweat, alcohol, strange food, crinkling of the noodles, chewing and so on. The nicest people listen to music without any headphones. And be sure, that your preferences will match each other.
- heat in summer… it's pure hell, guys. Even a day of sweating without a shower is bad but when coupled with smells from your neighbors it’s a total muck up!
- morning queues of 52 people with only 2 toilets. Be prepared. Typically woman spend at least five minutes there doing makeup, brushing hair and dressing up! Did you forget that Russian women are the most beautiful in the world, haha?
Ticket office at the Omsk railway station
Which place to choose?
Standard open carriages have 54 couchettes for people, 18 of them are side couchettes and 36 couchettes located in open compartments. Which to choose? Hmmm. If you are tall enough (> 175 cm), choose the side couchettes only if you sleep curling up only. They are too short for a typical-size man!
If you've bought a bottom shelf, you will be sitting behind the desk and near the window. But not alone! Your neighbor from the top shelf will seat nearby the entire journey sometimes asking you to let him eat behind the desk. Not good for misanthropes! And especially bad in a summer, when families with nice well-behaved children go on their vacations. Once, I had a memorable experience of sleeping with five children jumping on my pillow and back.
Buying a top shelf is excellent for those who love privacy and have at least 7 points of agility. The shelf will be only yours! No babushkas, no children. You can always turn your face to the wall and imagine that you alone during all 10 days in Trans Siberian Express!
Disadvantages? Sure! It's not easy to get up there, you can't sit there (too low) and everyone will bother your feet while you are sleeping! If the carriage is old enough, you could also try a traditional Soviet fun of flying in your sleep to the depths of your subconscious. Actually, just to the floor. Now it's not so extreme, a special fence will protect you on the top shelf!
People enjoy continentality of Russian climate
The temperature in an open carriage could be very different. But as you can guess, it's usually too hot or too cold (Russia is a country of contrasts!) In any case, it's rarely comfortable for a normal warm-blooded creature.
There are two main ways of temperature control. In case of huge luck, you can just open (or close!) the window if it is not boarded up and all your neighbors share your opinion about the best temperature and the air freshness.
If you travel in a new open carriage, you can JUST TRY to ask your conductor to make the temperature more comfortable. But be ready because there are always several Babushkas in the carriage who prefer +30 no matter what the season is. Just a Soviet habit. In contrast to you, they speak Russian and have enormous power on surrounding people. Another Soviet tradition.
Another story is the railroad station
The rule is that the small towns normally will have short 2-minute stops but the larger cities have longer stops with perhaps 40 minutes of waiting. It’s a nice chance to not only buy potatoes and pickles but also to learn more about local life, grab a souvenir or some coffee at the station cafe and even jump the last door of your leaving train!
Being in love with adventures, I still don't recommend the last activity! Missing your train in Ishim town is a complete disaster. Even Ishim's English teacher doesn't know English! In case of such a bad fortune, just show your train ticket everywhere! And of course use a combination of a pitiful look and an amazing English accent, of course.
Passengers that are traveling in an open carriage will experience what the true Russian Soul is all about. It’s another story. The people are tired and angry, they snore too hard at night, they come and go, pull luggage on top of you in the middle of the night, touch your legs, drop their stuff on you, their smell is usually not so good, and they will ignore that you are trying to sleep and bother you with questions; even if they don't know English. (and they don't, be sure!) Isn't it this the very flavor or Russia… the very authentic adventure that you were looking for?
What to take with you?
• Earplugs… just take them! Very useful when you traveling with 52 people. Remember the first rule of the open carriage: if someone enters the train at 3 a.m. he will go straight to your compartment!
• Cable tee is very important! You are not the only owner of entertaining electronic devices!
• Power bank! Idea is the same. More distance – more mA (at least 7000 mA).
• Book, iPad, computer, a good friend… anything or anyone to help you have a good time! Books are especially good if your neighbors look suspicious when you use your newest iPhone X.
• A lot of food and snacks. Be creative! You can buy pretty good stew, instant mashed potatoes, pickles to have perfect lunch. Fruits and vegetables are the best to chew on for hours. Sweets and tea take care of you for a lot of time, which is quite important while traveling long distances.
• Alcohol. Best if you can drink without bothering people around (especially the police). Perfect for a good sleep during an over-night journey! Vodka is a true time machine if you use it the right way.