Our plan for Russia was always to take the world famous Transsiberian railway from West to East. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that this train doesn’t really exist. Instead there are three main routes (Transsiberian, Transmongolian and Transmanchurian) and a huge number of trains ranging from the prestigous red arrow to the very slow local trains. When most people say the Transiberian, they are talking about the luxurious red arrow train which takes 6 days to make it from Moscow to Vladivostok non-stop. It looks very fancy but is probably pretty boring and for us a little pointless since we actually want to get off the train and see some more of Russia. With this in mind, we decided to travel the Transmongolian route using a variety of trains and making various stops. Now it would be lovely if interrail existed in Russia, but sadly it does not. Demand can be quite high on the routes across Russia so that allows for two choices; prebook all the trains, or leave enough flexibility in your travel plans in case you can’t get tickets. The first is by far the more difficult on principal but due to visa constraints it’s actually the most practical. We had only applied for the standard 30 day tourist visa so that allowed us a month to get from Saint Petersburg to Mongolia.
Our plan slowly evolved with the help of a Transiberian railway book and plenty of googling. We decided to make stops in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Vladimir, Perm, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk (Lake Baikal) and Ulan-Ude. That meant a 28 day journey and booking 6 trains (our last journey would be by bus). There are several ways to book train tickets. By far the easiest of these is to pay someone else to do it for you. Several agencies make a fortune booking trains and save tourists time, hassle and brain power. We originally thought this was the best way until we discovered that the official Russian Railways website has an English version. The one disadvantage over an agency is that tickets can only be booked 60 days in advance as this is when the timetables are released. The agencies cleverly get around this booking tickets which are ‘subject to change’ if the timetable or price changes. For the perk of someone else doing the leg work for you, you will be charged a healthy mark up of 40-60%, i.e. if you book it yourself you can pay half price vs the agency price. We were up for the challenge.
With this decision we needed to decide which trains to take (using the agency website) and then when they were released for sale it was easy to pick the train out and buy our tickets. The russian rail system can be pretty confusing when you consider there are three classes of travel and that train numbers, train types, meals and seats are all described with the cyrillic alphabet. Fortunately uncle google is quite good at translating and there are a few sources with explanations of common symbols on the internet. The other thing to throw into the mix is that the rail system runs on Moscow time but the local time can vary by up to 6 hours. Trying not to book trains that arrive and depart stations in the middle of the night can be quite confusing due to this.
Our first dilema was which class to travel. From what we read first class is luxury with two beds per berth with plenty of privacy and a high level of service often including meals. Second class is a slight downgrade with 4 beds (2 upper and 2 lower) per berth and meal options. Third class is an open car with beds arranged in bays of 6’s (3 upper and 3 lower) without dividing walls. Overall the beds become harder the lower the class and extras like air conditioning are omitted. Based on this we thought the best compromise would be to stick to second class on our long/overnight journeys and third class when we only spent a few hours on the train. Unfortunately when the booking window opened we were in Eastern Europe without a good internet connection so had to wait a little while to book our tickets. This sadly meant higher prices on some of the legs of our journey. In the end we gambled a bit and booked all of our journeys third class. All in, our bookings for trains from Saint Petersburg to Ulan-ude cost us £177 per person. Now we just had to wait and see if our planning was as good as we hoped it was.
So… our first night train came along and we apprehensively made our way to the train station. We didn’t know what to expect but we did know before we got on any train we needed to exchange our boarding passes for real tickets at the ticket office. Once we found the ticket office this was easy. After a fairly long wait at the train station we finally had a platform number and a train to board. The train in Saint Petersburg was ready to board 45 minutes early. Our tickets were checked by the carriage attendant or Provodnista (yes there’s one for every carriage) and then we had to find our beds for the night. We had booked an upper and lower bed due to the advantage of being able to store our bags underneath the lower bunk and keep them secure by sleeping on top.
The train was fairly dimly lit and had brown beds pretty much everywhere. We found our places easily and by watching other people figured out that we had been supplied with clean bed sheets, a mattress, a pillow and a blanket each. So we made our beds ready for a good nights sleep (we hoped). We chatted with the couple opposite us for a while, mainly about Russia and Moscow. They described the train attendents as ‘little Tsars’ who told everyone what to do and when. Funnily enough this is very true. They check tickets, collect tickets, turn off lights, tidy, collect bed sheets and control the tea and a small shop. It’s well worth being on the right side of them, rather than rudely awaken for not listening. Apparently giving the little Tsars tips makes them a bit nicer.
And in the morning what was the verdict?
We had both slept fairly well for most of the night. The beds were a little harder than we would have liked especially when lying on your side. The most annoying thing was the numerous mosquitoes buzzing around and biting your face while you slept. But other than that the train was fairly quiet and smooth through the night. The toilets on the train were passable but a bit whiffy. It took a little to work out how to flush the toilet and how to get water from the tap, but they worked. We didnt fancy showering using the sink and a towel like one man did, but each to their own. We had survived a night on the train and we now weren’t too worried about what was to come. We still expect a challenge or two thanks to the language and the length of time on trains but we are more optimistic that our plan might just work.