I arrived at the train station in Vladivostok over an hour ahead of my 10:30 p.m. departure – a result of the bus moving faster than expected (shocking!) and my own desire to be the first person into my 4-person kupe (compartment) on the train.
Thanks to the advice of fellow travel bloggers, I carried not only my large backpack, purse and daypack, but also a plastic bag full of provisions for the 3-night, 2 day journey to Ulan Ude:
- 6 apples
- 4 bananas (not recommended, they spoiled fast!)
- 2 packages of salami
- 4 bags of trail mix
- 2 bags of some powdered sugar dusted corn puff things
- 1 bag of bacon-flavored potato chips
- 1 box of orange juice
- 1 bottle of water
Not exactly the most nutritious meal plan, but being gluten-intolerant and in a city with small supermarkets, my options were somewhat limited.
The train started boarding about 9:45 p.m. and while my backpack got stuck a couple times in the narrow hallway, I easily found my compartment. I had a bottom bunk so I shoved my large pack into a metal bin underneath the bed, with my small backpack sitting under the table and my purse next to me on the bed.
A samovar provided boiling water at one end of the car, a garbage bin sat at the other, and a schedule of train stops (all on Moscow time) was posted in the middle. Toilets with small sinks were located at each end of the hallway – two to be shared by about 30-40 people at any given time. I found a rolled up mattress, pillow and thick wool blanket on my bed when I boarded the train and later received sheets and a small towel from the providnitsa (attendant) shortly after departure.
My first “roommate” was a Russian woman in her 60s who threw me a pleasant smile and flashed a few gold teeth before she got settled and then whipped out a book to read. Shortly thereafter, a babushka and her granddaughter, about 12 years old, joined us. More gold teeth were flashed. Although they had the top bunks, they soon commandeered the bottom ones in order to use the small table to drink their tea and eat their dinners of pre-packaged noodles, heated with water from the samovar.
Shortly after midnight, we called it a night and turned out the lights.
It took me a while to get used to the constant ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum of the train, but eventually I fell asleep, waking a couple times during the night before finally rising for good when the sun came up.
My first gold-toothed roommate departed when we arrived in Khabarovsk mid-morning the next day. A woman in her 40s, Lena, immediately replaced her. I spent most of that day alternating between reading a book about Russian culture, trying to take pictures of the scenery, eating my pathetic meals and listening to the babushka ramble nonstop to Lena, who clearly could not care less about whatever the babushka had to say.
As soon as the babushka and her granddaughter left late in the afternoon, Lena looked over at me and asked, in Russian, to get to know each other (there is actually a Russian word that translates to “let’s get acquainted”). I smiled and said yes, but warned her that my Russian was not very good. Lena didn’t care (I think she was grateful for someone else to finally talk to besides the chatty babushka) and proceeded to ask me all the typical get-to-know-you questions you might expect on a 62 hour train ride.
Speaking with Lena ended up being the highlight of my journey.
Unlike some Russians I have encountered, who don’t have patience to deal with my poor language skills, Lena was encouraging and helpful and drew me out of my shell a bit. If I didn’t understand what she said at first, she would repeat it at a slower pace. If I still didn’t understand, she found a different way to explain it. We ended up talking for a couple hours, sharing family photos and even reading our horoscopes.
The entire time Lena and I talked, the top bunks were empty and I hoped it would stay that way as the small compartments felt quite crowded with four people. It is also typical for those with the upper berths to hang out on the bottom bunks during the day, so I was enjoying no longer sharing my space with anyone. Beginning that evening, though, a few more people came and went before I reached Ulan Ude – all in silence: a tall Russian guy who wasn’t even with us for 8 hours; a man initially in uniform who stripped down to reveal a striped wife-beater and a couple massive tattoos (he had friends elsewhere on the train and spent all his time with them); and a mismatched couple, she looking like a model and he sporting the grungy backpacker look.
By the end of my 62 hour journey, I made several observations:
The train completely messed up my sense of time. I was already off because Vladivostok was 7 hours ahead of Moscow. Going from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude, we crossed two time zones (losing two hours), but I had no idea when. One morning, I woke up and the sun was just rising but my Blackberry said it was 10 a.m. (which was completely unreliable anyway since it refused to acknowledge that Russia is no longer doing Daylight Savings Time). Another night, the sun didn’t start to set until it seemed to be closing in on 9 p.m. It didn’t help that the schedule in the hallway listed stops on Moscow time and there was not a clock to be found anywhere on the train.
The train was not a crazy vodka party. I feel like the Trans-Siberian has sort of developed this reputation for travelers spending their nights swapping shots of vodka and partying with each other or the locals until the wee hours. I did not see any evidence of this. I don’t even think I saw anyone drinking beer, much less vodka, and the train (at least my carriage) was pretty quiet by about midnight. This may be because I was going east to west (instead of the typical west to east tourist route). Or it may be due to the fact that I was in a closed, 4-person kupe and not the open 6-person platskartny. Or it could just be a fluke.
Everyone had a routine. Based on the ease with which everyone seemed to settle into the train and the routines they each followed, it was clear that no one else was a novice like me. They all acted as if they’d been there before – many times. The babushka and her granddaughter carefully set out their provisions for the next day when they boarded and brought their own glass mugs and metal spoons for tea. The tall man with us for just 8 hours stripped off his jeans to reveal sweat pants for sleeping. The man in uniform carried a gigantic jug of water and a stash of prepackaged noodles. Lena carefully made her bed each morning after waking up and carried a large collection of newspapers for reading material. And as soon as she boarded the train, she changed into tie-dyed blue flowing pants with a matching singlet that she wore for the rest of the trip.
The bathrooms far exceeded my expectations. With just two bathrooms for over thirty people, I was not expecting much when it came to cleanliness. Or availability of toilet paper. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that, despite a funky odor, the toilets on the train were cleaned regularly and kept well stocked with toilet paper. I was also surprised that, no matter what time of day, I rarely had to wait long. Given that people used the bathrooms not just to take care of business, but also to change clothes, wash their faces and brush their teeth, I anticipated more of a back-up. The only downside is that the bathrooms are locked shortly before, during and after the station stops, but even that didn’t prove to be much of an issue.
It was freaking hot. I packed a couple short-sleeved shirts to wear on the train, together with a fleece, figuring it would be a bit chilly and I’d wear the fleece for most of the trip. Wrong! My compartment was like a sauna. I didn’t touch my fleece the entire time and I usually woke up to find I had tossed off not only my wool blanket, but also my sheet. The first full day was particularly bad as the sun was shining on us for most of the day. I was actually sweating.
I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity. Not only was I finally fulfilling a longtime dream of traveling through Russia and checking a major item off my bucket list, I was doing something that not many travelers or tourists ever do. I think my friend Laura put it best in an email to me the other day:
“Have you stopped to think where you are? You’re on a train through Russia! How many non-Russians actually do that? So cool.”
A big thank you to Real Russia, who not only provided amazing service and advice as I went through the process to obtain my Russian visa, but have generously assisted with train tickets for this Trans-Siberian journey. I highly recommend both their visa and travel services.