Archive for November, 2006

The Top Ten Trans-Siberian Tips

Okay, so I was at work this week thinking about the Trans-Siberian railway and I put together my Top Ten Survival Tips. Of course, these are only formed by my experience on the railway and are just a bit of fun, but with any luck they could help anybody who is thinking of taking this amazing trip! Here goes…

1. Come Prepared
Any travel guides you may have (buy one, you won’t regret it) will be sure to have adecent list of useful stuff to bring on the Trans-Siberian railway, but here are a few extra tips. If you are staying on the train for a long stint, bear in mind that you won’t get the chance to access much more than pretty basic supplies for most of the trip so come prepared. There is nothing worse than waking up freezing cold and thirsty at 3am in your pitch blackcarriage, gasping fora sip of water of reliable origin.

The different numbered trains vary slightly in terms of what you can purchase on board and the facilities offered as standard. Some may have plentiful toilet paper supplies, others don’t,some provide cutlery and mugs, others don’t. In other words,it’s best not to take any chances. One piece of kit you should definitely bring is a plug for the toilet sinks. Nearly none of the bathrooms have these so if you want to fill the basin up for a wash or shave at any point you are going to need one. As for food and drink supplies don’t expect anything other than basics along the route, so if you can’t go without smoked salmon or quails eggs for a few days then bring your own.

2. Stay Safe
Traveling the Trans-Siberian is like traveling anywhere else and the same safety rules apply. Be aware. Remember that you will almost always stand out as a tourist and, therefore, a target. Just don’t make yourself an easy one. Generally speaking, the Trans-Siberian route is pretty safe, however, it always pays to stay savvy. Keep an eye on your stuff, and even if you get the impression that you are in a carriage with some nice people, you never know if they might be tempted to make off with a little ‘souvenir’ when they jump off at their stop in the middle of the night. Single women (and men) traveling in 4 berth cabins should be careful too, you may get stuck with some people who you really don’t feel happy with. Be sure to make your Provodnista aware if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable at any time. It is not unusual for solo traveling ladies to travel in third class on many trains as you will be unlikely to find yourself alone with an inappropriate passenger with the extra people around. When you are off the train, be aware of trackside pickpockets and as ever when traveling keep your money and documents somewhere safe, and preferably with you at all times. Remember also that when you get off the train, anybody else can still be on it so don’t leave any gifts on display for them. Don’t worry too much about people coming from off the platforms onto the train, though, Provodnistas are fiercely protective of their carriages and will always be manning the door whilst you are catching some fresh air.

I came off my train without a mobile phone.

3. Keep an Eye on the Time.
All carriages have a timetable on the wall containing times for all the major stops along the route. Keep an eye on these so that you are ready to hop off and mosey around the stations and pick up supplies when you get the chance. Some of the stations have some worthwhile attractions to check out, whilst others are completely featureless. All, however, offer fresh air and, normally, the chance to at least pick up a few supplies. It’s worthwhile setting an alarm for early morning stops, and waking up to realised you missed the last stop by an hour and the next isn’t for another 6. Late night stops can generally be missed, as the vendors tend to shut up shop and trackside merchants are scarce, especially in the winter. Also, keep an eye on the time zone changes and local times. All trains in Russia run on Moscow time, so don’t be surprised when it is pitch black and the train clock reads 5pm. Also, if you are taking the Trans-Manchurian/Mongolian train, be aware that your ticket will state Moscow times for your Russian departures then swap to local times for your arrivals once you cross the border.

4. Befriend Your Provodnista
Your Provodnista is your best friend on this trip! They are in charge of keeping your carriage in order, often lend or sell useful supplies and are generally very useful people to have on your side. Even if there is a foot thick language barrier between the pair of you try to smile, be nice and avoid irritating them as they will inevitably be the person you have to bargain with if something goes wrong. Aside from essentials or potential problems, having a good relationship with your Provodnista could even give you access to some creature comforts like extra pillows or blankets. They are generally friendly and helpful (unless you are unlucky), but they are unlikely to make the effort unless you do especially if there are language difficulties. Basically, a little effort could go a very long way.

5. Bring entertainment
Books, cards, music, games or even a snazzy little portable DVD player. Despite some dramatic scenery there are only so many trees you can whiz past before the view becomes a little monotonous. At other points of the journey, the view can, frankly, be a little depressing. So what better than trying to explain Uno to a Russian teenager, tucking into a foot thick fantasy novel or watching dodgy pirated Moscow DVDs with complete strangers to wile away those long hours between stops.

6. Watch Your Sleeping Pattern
Whether your cabin mates are trying their best to keep you up, you can’t get comfortable on your train bed, you are partying way too hard or you have general lethargy induced by days of not venturing more than a stones throw from the train you spend all day on, be wary of your sleeping patterns. For those prone to napping, it’s very easy to find yourself rocked to sleep by the train at three in the afternoon only to wake up at 8pm and consequently still be wide awake at 3am. Added to this is the fact that the Trans-Siberian railway stretches across several time zones which you cruise in and out of seamlessly. Next thing you know you are wide awake at 3am or falling asleep at noon, all the while gaining or losing an hour for every day or so of travel. Not a nice shock to the system when you finally arrive at your location at six in the morning having been wide awake since midnight.

7. Money Issues
Don’t forget to bring cash. You are unlikely to have any access to ATMs except for at bigger stations, and even then don’t rely on it. So if you plan to pick up any supplies or souvenirs as you go then bring plenty of rubles. Be careful, however, not to bring too much as you are made to declare all of you cash as you cross international borders and if you have a large sum you could run into problems as the Russian Government are funny about tourists taking money out of the country. Also, it is handy to have some US dollars or Euros for changing with the hordes of money changers that will flood your carriage if you are entering Mongolia. They will also take any left over rubles you want to dump. Never accept the first price you are given for your money from these money changers, and be ready for a good haggle if you want to get considerably more togrog for your buck.

8. Stock up at your stops
And enjoy the evolving cuisine as you make tracks across Russia! The food and drink on the train can be pretty disappointing and overpriced to boot. Unfortunately, the only real other source of hot food onboard is anything that be made with boiling water, available in every carriage. However, as anybody who has ever traveled unprepared on a long train journey will tell you, instant noodles get very tedious, very quickly. On the other hands the trackside Babushkas and kiosks, omnipresent at all the main stops, have more than enough to keep your stomach happy. As you move from region to region what you can buy varies, so tuck into varieties of dried fish from waterside towns to bags full of pine nuts in Alpine areas. Also expect a range of dried meats and sausages and other great nibbles throughout. Aside from food you can also pick up all other sorts of supplies from toothpaste to cold drinks and vodka, a key socializing tool on the train!

9. Don’t wander too far from the train!
More of a follow up to the last tip, but important enough to be a tip of its own! Be sure to ask how long you have at each stop if you plan to go for a stroll. Even then, don’t be tempted to stray too far. The best advice is to just to at least to keep the train in sight and be ready to dash back when you notice the platform starting to empty back onboard. If you do find yourself out of sight, then just make sure you are back at the train 5 minutes before you have been told it is due to leave as they normally start getting people back onboard around that time. They will leave without you. That said, don’t be afraid to have a wander, the train is very unlikely to head off earlier than planned.

10. Have fun!
If you can’t enjoy traveling as much as arriving, the Trans-Siberian railway just isn’t the place for you! The journey isn’t a hop from A to B but a completely unique travel experience in its own right. Whether you are working your way across in shorter jumps or traveling several days at a time don’t miss the chance to experience Russia from a unique perspective. Take time to meet new, interesting and often completely mental people. Take in the views, which range everywhere from grey, dreary industrial towns to epic forest landscapes, and fill your memory cards to the brim. Make sure you get your Russian/Mongolian/Chinese phrasebook out and embarrass yourself, sample the varying food along the way, have a good haggle and an even better laugh. It’s an amazing journey, enjoy it.

Trans-Siberian Banter

It was late and I was a mixture of tipsy, excited, slightly lost and a wee bit apprehensive about the trip ahead of me as I stood on the tiny platform that marked the starting point of the mother of all train journeys. My awe inspiring Russian language skills had got me this far and now it was just a matter of waiting under the announcement board for my train number to come up. I decided that seeming I had already started drinking I would continue, so I headed to a kiosk to pick up a bottle or two of Baltika 7 to pass the time. Standing outside, I spotted two lads laughing and speaking English and as I passed they made a beautifully inappropriate comment about some people they had been traveling with that made me chuckle. As I returned from the kiosk, they were still at it and I decided I had to introduce myself, it was clear they were waiting for the same train as I was, they seemed like fun, and I was eager to establish some English speaking acquaintances on the train as sooner rather than later. The very moment I decided to say “hello”, our platform flashed up on the screen and so I used that as an excuse to strike up conversation. It turned out this would be one of the better decisions I would make on my trip.

Adam and Jon turned out to be a really nice pair of young lads from London who were in Russia on a program to practice their Russian whilst traveling across the country. It also turned out they were staying one carriage down from my own and had an almost identical itinerary to my own whilst traveling across the trans-Siberian. What’s more: they had a bag full of snacks and vodka and spoke Russian. On getting to my carriage I was feeling very lucky to have met the pair of them and we arranged to meet up and hang out a bit after we left to get settled into our cabins. My luck only seemed to get better when I got to my room to find I have been moved to the Provodnista’s cabin which instead of being a 4-berth is made for 1, with a sofa seat instead of a bottom bunk and a bed on top. I dropped my bag and took a photo of what (I thought) would be my home for the next four days.

Soon after I had made the top bunk bed, my Provodnista was tapping on my door, and told me to make up the bottom bunk as that is where I would be staying. Concerned that I might be staying in the same room as her, virtually rendering my chances of partying in my cabin impossible, I cursed my luck and started making up the bed. However, it turned out to be my lucky day and the top bunk was in fact for an energetic teenager who seemed quite good fun, though we could barely communicate. He declined my offer of a beer but invited me to the smoking cabin for a cigarette, which I accepted even though I don’t really smoke. Whilst standing between carriages, Adam and Jon showed up and had a chat with the Russian lad who turned out to be called Igor, and was the son of my carriages Provodnista. We went back and introduced ourselves to Igor’s mum and then the four of us disappeared into my cabin for the rest of the night armed with some munchables, a pack of cards and a couple of bottles of vodka.

When I awoke, slightly hung over and completely unaware of what time it was, the train was stopped. I clambered off my bed, slung some shorts and sandals on and pottered, bleary eyed, onto the platform. It was a miserable day but the cool drizzle on my face did better for me than a hundred aspirin ever could and soon Igor was waving a pack of cigarettes in my face again. Soon after, the other two had joined us and we went for a stroll to pick up some food and drink. So it continued for the next few days, the four of us hanging out in our tiny cabin or the restaurant car, drinking, smoking and playing cards. We made an effort to get off every time the train stopped to have a little wander or pick up supplies. A few of the stations have some interesting things to see, or an impressive interior or such, but a large proportion offer nothing but a chance to stretch your legs. I could write for hours about the journey and the things we saw and discussed along the way but it would be of no interest to anybody but me. Likewise an exact itinerary of the journey would be a bit of a dull affair. I guess the trans-Siberian railway is a fairly dull affair at its core. I don’t know what possible appeal I saw in days and days on a train traveling through the closest thing there is to ‘the middle of nowhere’ but not for one second did I regret it. A whole host of weird things happened from stealing the key to the rear door of the train and getting photos of us hanging out the back to late night discussions with Russian fighter pilots, but in general most of the time was spent doing…not much really. I suppose ‘surreal’ is the only way to describe the whole occasion.

Whilst alone, most of my time was spent staring out of my little window, marveling at the enormity of the Russian landscape. All along the way, I was pinching myself. Whether at a decaying Siberian industrial town or making tracks through the beautiful Urals into Asian Russia I found it hard to believe that I was finally here; traveling across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway.

Then, as quickly as it had begun, I was standing on the platform in Irkutsk, saying goodbye. I left the station alone, figured out roughly how to walk to my hostel and set off across a bridge over the Angara River. It was sunny. Painfully bright. In fact, Siberia was damn hot…