Monday, 1 October 2012

Trans Siberian - Part 1 - Introduction

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - St Petersburg - Moscow - Vladimir
Part 3 - Vladimir - Ekateringburg
Part 4 - Ekateringburg - Irkutsk - Ulan Ude
Part 5 - Ulan Ude - Ulaanbaatar
Part 6 - The Final Leg - Ulaanbaatar - Beijing

The journey on the train warrants an entire story of its own and I have decided devote a series of posts for this part of our trip alone for anyone who has a particular interest in the train journey, or who might be thinking to take the trip themselves.   It also deals with our experiences along the way on the train. 

Warning:  May Contain Alcohol

Our Trans Siberian Route (technically the Trans Mongolian)

Our trip began on 1st September 2012 when we arrived in St Petersburg and came to an end when we disembarked at Beijing Station on 28th September 2012 and was organised by Passport Travel, an Australian travel agency based in Melbourne who were helpful throughout, sometimes above and beyond that which you would expect. For example, they helped us with some documents for our 90 day Chinese visa.  For the Trans Mongolian, we told them where we wanted to go and they tailored the trip to our requirements by adding destinations to their standard trips and also opting for a couple of extras such as the 4WD option on Olkhon Island.

The Restaurant Car (or "Pectopah" as
it became fondly known
The entire Trans Siberian trip (technically Trans Mongolian) lasted 28 days and included in the package were the train tickets (and all the associated hassle of buying tickets), accommodation (mainly homestays), some meals, transfers to and from stations, a 3 hour personal walking tour of each city, a 3 day trip to Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal (all meals and 4WD excursions for 3 days), the ger camp stay in Mongolia and all meals (together with a personal 24 hour guide!). We have no doubt we would have been unable to arrange this for less money - it cost us about £2700 each which seemed a lot at the time but we stopped off at a lot of places and the price included a few extras not included in their standard itineraries.

If we did it again (which we would like to do in the winter from east Vladivostok to Moscow - the proper Trans Siberian!) we would be more confident arranging it ourselves the next time round, but that is with the benefit of having done the trip and being more familiar with Russia, and a better working knowledge of the language.

I began writing this as we travelled along the final leg to Beijing when we had had time to reflect on the mammoth rail journey which was about to end (and the next stage of our trip to commence).  Each journey we have taken between stops along the way has been different.  The trains have been of varying quality, fellow passengers have been a mix of locals and international travellers like ourselves from all over the world, and the trips themselves through a diverse variety of landscapes, in turn breathtaking, astounding, surprising and at times, admittedly, monotonous, but never, ever, boring.

But first, a few explanations.
The Provodnitsa

The provodnitsa needs an introduction.  She (and it is generally a she) is in charge of your carriage, and in charge of you for the duration of your journey, make no mistake. She is usually aged between 30 and 50, of a sturdy build, and stern countenance.  She greets you at the door of your numbered carriage where you embark and will scrutinise your ticket and passport to make sure that you have the right ticket, and that the ticket is for you (and that you are the person entitled to hold the passport). This process can take up to a nerve-wracking 5 minutes but she will usually eventually relent and allow you to board the train.

Once you are in your carriage, she will then provide you with your bed linen, as well as tea and coffee for a few pence.  She will work tirelessly throughout the journey, keeping the corridor and toilets clean, and she is the keeper of the samovar at the end of the carriage which provides a constant supply of boiling water for drinks, soups and noodles.

A 4 berth compartment on a Russian Train
Generally, the provodnitsa will initially give the impression of an icy cold and strict matron type but she will often dissolve and turn out to be quite sweet really (but not always!).And sometimes she will even smile but don’t bank on it!
The provodnitsas tended to become a little less icy, the further east you travelled, but no less stern and you misbehave at your peril.

On Board Facilities

The toilets are train toilets and generally are kept fairly clean thanks to the provodnitsa (see above). We did find that some trains were kept cleaner than others but if your expectations are fairly low, then you will not be disappointed. Certainly, having now experienced Chinese trains, Russian trains are fairly luxurious by comparison however it is all a matter of perspective. Of course the longer your train journey, the more grubby you feel and personally 48 hours on a train was our limit.

There was a shower on one of our trains but unless you ensure you travel on a particular number train (the lower numbers are usually the more modern and therefore the more expensive) you are unlikely to have this luxury.

Incidentally, trains in Europe and beyond, are known by their number and not the time/destination as here in the UK.   And in Russia, the time is displayed in each carriage, but it is always Moscow time (while you are in Russia of course). The whole Russian train timetable is run on Moscow time which can get a little confusing as you cross time zones so I kept my wristwatch on Moscow time until we hit Mongolia because electronic devices automatically update but I never trust them to update to the correct time!

A universal plug is useful to bring along if you want to have a good freshen up in the loo with hot water from the samovar, and a gas key will lock your compartment door (and open the loo door if it is locked between stations, but don't let the provodnista catch you doing that - one girl did on our train to Beijing during the painfully long border check/bogey changing fiasco at the Chinese border and got short shrift for her antics!).

The compartment corridor
The inside temperature of the newer trains are maintained at a pretty constant 21 degrees celsius and the bedding is more than adequate - again the quality depends on the train but we had no complaints at all. The beds are also quite comfortable and we found it quite relaxing to sleep to the rhythm of a moving train, usually only waking when it stopped in a station for any length of time in the middle of the night!

It can get quite warm on the train and if you are going to spend more a few hours on a train, take a pair of shorts or comfortable trousers (even pyjamas!) to wear for the duration of the journey along with flip flops. It became our habit to as soon as we got on the train to change out of our jeans and boots and ... relax. Everyone does it and it makes for a more comfortable journey .

The Restaurant Car

Or the "Pectopah" as is affectionately known! It sells beer, wine, spirits, tea and coffee, as well as snacks and meals. It is quite expensive and the standard varies. We didn't eat much in the restaurant car although we did venture there a couple of times for a few beers when we had run out of supplies. It isn't outlandishly expensively but it certainly isn't cheap and it's much better to board the train armed with your own supplies to nibble and sup on board.   The restaurant car can be somewhere to meet other passengers you might not come across if you confine yourself to your compartment or your carriage if you feel like socialising a bit more.


We were very careful all the time but security is fairly good.   If you get to know the people who share your compartment, you can usually just ask them to keep an eye on your stuff if you wander off for a cigarette (smoking is allowed at the end of each carriage), or to the restaurant car, or just to stretch your legs on the platform at a long stop at a station. We did not hear of any thefts but it does happen.   You just need to be sensible, make sure that you have your passport, money, and other valuables with you at all at all times and take your chances with the rest of your gear.  We just tried to get into the habit of being careful from the outset.

The Russian Language and Cyrillic Alphabet

In January of this year we attended a short 10 week course at a language school in Piccadilly.  This helped with the basics such as learning the alphabet, numbers, some basic grammar but we found it didn't really help with the spoken word so we turned to Pimsleur audio courses which really helped.  Unfortunately, however, Pimsleur concentrates on business phrases and courses aimed at tourists or people simply travelling around the country would be a real bonus.

Having a basic knowledge of the spoken language was not always an advantage, and we found that once you demonstrated a rudimentary knowledge of Russian, you could not revert to English when you got into difficulties.  For example, when we approached the "English speaking" ticket counter and made enquiries using Russian, but could not understand the response, the "English speaker" lost the ability to speak in anything other than Russian.  We discovered that other people who made no attempt to speak the language, got along fine.

However, we are extremely glad we learned the Cyrillic alphabet and the longer we were in Russia, the easier it became to read. We found it invaluable reading train destination boards, and other signs and would strongly recommend that if you do nothing else, you learn the alphabet.
Russians and their Famous Hospitality
Guide books are strangely silent or, at the very least, evasive about the Russian people in general. Whilst we fully appreciate that you cannot possibly generalise a whole nation and it would be ridiculously unfair to expect any nationality to live up to any sweeping opinion, we were however (erroneously) led to believe that whilst Russians appear unfriendly on the surface (ain't that the truth), if you make the effort and break through the ice, you will soon be“stuffed full of food, drowned in vodka, and regaled with stories”, language barrier notwithstanding.  This, I am sad to report, is not generally the case.

We had hoped that our efforts to learn some Russian would make it slightly easier to break through any cultural and language barriers.
We could not have been more wrong.  With a few notable exceptions, in general we found Russians to be difficult, unhelpful, rude, selfish, but above all, really bloody miserable.  We found it a constant challenge and, to be honest, while we did start to warm to them towards the end, for the most part, we considered it a huge achievement to elicit the smallest of smiles from Russians we encountered on a day to day basis.  We have since met travellers who made it a daily ambition to make a Russian crack a smile.   Their failure rate spoke for itself.

Saying that, we did meet some very friendly and curious Russians on the train so the stereotype does not of course apply to the whole population but they were a bit of a disappointment.

We soon discovered that your enjoyment of any given journey was hugely dependent upon your berth allotment. This is primarily because Russians know how to sleep on trains and will sleep for as long as they possibly can, and not a minute less.  It also became apparent how inconvenient this can be if you have the two upper bunks because if your fellow travellers don’t wake up, sit up, and practically issue a formal invitation to you to sit on“their” bed, you have nowhere to perch except your own upper bunk from where you can see virtually nothing out of the window and clambering up and down every time every time you need to disappear for a cigarette, a call of nature, or just to stretch your legs becomes an annoying chore.
St Petersburg Station at midnight

Prior to our trip we had read that there is supposed to be some sort of train etiquette that during the daytime all passengers use the lower berths for seating, and retire to their allotted berths to sleep when night falls, but I am afraid to report that, by and large, in practice if Russians have booked the lower berths (which is very slightly more expensive), then they make damned sure that only they may use them, no matter what time of day.  Clearly they don't read the same books as we do!
Means employed to dissuade anyone from parking themselves on the bottom bunk include sleeping for the entire journey (even if the journey lasts for days), depositing their luggage and/or stash of food on the lower berths leaving no room for anyone else to squeeze, or simply stretching out for the entire journey.  This also means that they have exclusive use of the little table in front of the window.

Unfortunately, neither of us are particularly forthcoming in situations such as these and on the journeys where we were both allotted the upper bunks, we spent a lot of time perched up there, even during the daytime, not being able to see very much, not being able to eat comfortably, and generally nurturing an increasing dislike and resentment of all Russians.
Of course, this could have been avoided had we asserted ourselves a little, but we are both quite shy, neither of us are keen on any form of confrontation, and in any event it is a very confined space in which to foster a hostile atmosphere, particularly with some grumpy looking Russians.

So, as usual, we went for the easy option, and just bitched about them instead, which actually provided us with a lot of giggles which I am sure, in turn, irritated the selfish Russians, but it kept us amused for hours!
We quickly established that our preferred berth allotment was one upper and one lower berth.  This meant that we could sit on the lower berth during the day and when we wanted to sleep we didn't have to kick any fellow passengers off our beds. This also meant that every time we took delivery of our tickets, the first thing we eagerly scoured the ticket for was the seat allocation! It was one of the things we wished we had known about before we left, although admittedly we personally had little control over the ticket booking but would have requested at least one bottom bunk on each journey.

We hope this helps anyone thinking about embarking on a similar journey.  My next posts will deal with each leg of the journey, some of which were fairly uneventful, others less so.

>>Next Part 2 St Petersburg - Moscow - Vladimir


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