I’ve never been very good at doing things out of order, especially on my blog. I like that MOOMADs has a natural diary-esque form. However, I’m just not ready to give my ten pence worth on the culturally fascinating city that I currently live in and instead I welcome you to Zoe’s Guide to the Trans-Siberian railway.
SOME BACKGROUND INFO
I had been in Russia a month when I decided to plan a trip to the famous Lake Baikal for the Russian New Year holidays. I didn’t really know anybody well enough to invite them on a 9 day trip to, what could potentially be, a frozen wasteland. So I set about preparing for my first real solo adventure in Siberia.
I booked my round trip on an English website called Real Russia. The ticket price was no different to booking on a Russian site, and I recommend booking in advance as the trains can get pretty packed.
The E-Ticket that you receive from Real Russia will tell you the local time of departure, the price of both journeys separately, your date of travel, your coach number, your bed number and your chosen train stations in English. You should make a note of what your desti-station (see what I did there?) looks like in Cyrillic.
Under поезд/train it will say your train number which you will need in order to find your платформа (пл.)/platform (pl.) on the departures board.
отправление/departure – Your date and time of departure (mine was 06.01 19:02). число/date – 06 месяц/month – 01 (January) часы/hour & мин./minutes – 19:02
! On an official train ticket, the time will be in MOSCOW TIME. My train actually left at 00.02 on 2nd January from Irkutsk. The clocks on the train will also be in Moscow time, as will the timetable for scheduled stops and most of the clocks in the stations themselves !
Under вагон/coach you will find your coach number. These numbers are displayed in the windows next to the doors to the train. If you have trouble finding yours, ask the coach attendants that are stood by the doors of the train. If they don’t speak much English you can show them your ticket.
Look for места/seat to find out where you will be sleeping. Mine was bed 20 (upper bunk).
If you looked up your stations as they should be in Cyrillic then you will be able to find them on your ticket. Eg. My stations were иркут пасс & тюмень/Irkut pass & Tyumen. You also run less of a risk of getting off at the wrong station in two days time.
So, you’ve found your train… and you’ve somehow stumbled across your coach and located your bed. If you’re boarding the train in the middle of the night, expect to make your bed, sort your things and get into bed (for the first time) in near pitch black. I wholeheartedly recommend doing everything as quickly as possible and as quietly as possible, so as not to upset the people you will be spending the next few days with.
The coach attendant will bring you sheets and a towel shortly after you board, but if she doesn’t you may have to wait until the train departs. She might be busy checking people on and off of the train.
The upper bunks have a barrier rail that keep you from falling out of bed and all beds have a small netted shelf to keep things close to you without actually having to sleep with them. There are also hooks too hang your coat/hook your bag on to (to stop from being swiped easily from your bed). For those in upper bunks, you can stow your luggage on a shelf above your bed. For those on lower beds, you can stow your bags under your bed in the compartments.
Every coach has a water boiler which you can use to your hearts content for tea/coffee/noodles/soup. A word of warning though, the water is as hot as the fiery pits of hell. On the topic of warnings; there is nowhere to refill a water bottle with normal cold water, so buy this before boarding or expect to pay through the nose for bottled water on the train.
ZOE’S TOP 10 THINGS TO PACK
- Water – As mentioned above; it is stuffy on the train and you dehydrate quickly.
- Tea/Coffee – This is a necessity.
- Soup/Instant noodles – The restaurant car isn’t so expensive but it could be a long way down the train and walking there requires effort.
- Face wipes/Baby wipes/Tiny tissues – There aren’t any showers.
- Earplugs – think of Platzcart as a 48 bed dorm room… with an engine.
- Flip-flops/Slippers with rubber soles – to wear when you’re walking around your coach.
- Russian phrasebook – not many people will know English but they’ll want to talk to you anyway. If you can practise your Russian then you should. What else are you going to do without wifi for two days?
- Sweets/конфета – to offer your bunk mates.
- Plastic mug/flask – for your tea/coffee/soup.
- Pack of cards – I didn’t, but luckily my little friend Damir did
I boarded the train at Tyumen, bound for Irkutsk, at around 4.30AM and I hadn’t had any sleep prior to this. Needless to say, I slept pretty damn hard, and resurfaced from my bunk at around midday. Or was it midday? Technically, in Moscow time it was 10AM. I changed my clocks to run on Moscow time, but this only served to confuse the hell out of me, as at some point on the second day the sun began to set at what I thought was 11AM.
I was lucky enough to be sharing a 6-bed compartment in Platzcart with some wonderful guys of all different ages. When the train began to empty during the afternoon of the 31st December (my first day) we started to gather more and more people from various different coaches to drink champagne and celebrate the New Year with. We pulled into a station at midnight and piled off the train to watch the fireworks in the (not so) distance. On another occasion we all disembarked to take silly pictures in the snow.
I’m incredibly grateful to have seen the New Year in on a train in Russia with the people that I did. I ‘raised my glass’ more times that night than I have in my whole life combined.
I slept well that night without the use of earplugs, and the next day I also did a lot of sleeping… nursing one of the worlds worst hangovers. Having a hangover on a sleeper train isn’t actually as bad as it sounds. You have nothing else to do, you might as well sleep.
Coming home, the train was much busier. Weirdly, two of the people I shared my journey TO Irkutsk were there coming back too. It was far less eventful though and I spent the majority of my time reading my new Russian phrasebook (pinched from a hostel that never came back with my change) and learning to count to ten with a ten year old.
TOP TIP: If moving between different coaches, wear a coat, gloves and proper shoes. The connecting parts of the train are open to the elements and they are COLD! And if you can help it, don’t be drunk. It hurts when you slip over.
ANOTHER TOP TIP: Wear something comfortable, like pyjamas. It can be stiflingly hot on the train AND the toilets aren’t very large so getting changed is a public affair. Just be sure to have comfortable clothes that you can lounge around all day in.
LAST TOP TIP: There is actually a step at the end of the beds to help you slither into your top bunk. Unsuccessfully trying to jump into mine from the floor (and to everyone’s amusement) lead me to discovering this incredibly handy foot ledge/cup holder.