On board of the Trans-Siberian Railway

Actually, I didn’t want to start with a summary but rather write about our stops in a chronological order. But somehow, it’s not working without some sort of wrap-up. So: Yes, we have survived. We’ve covered more than 11.000 kilometres on trains and buses between our stops. We actually made it to all the places we wanted to see. We didn’t get stuck somewhere – even though it shortly looked like that in Ulanbataar. More of that in another post.

How was it?

Overwhelming, in every respect – and exhausting. It might sound quite easy-going at first; sleeping on a train and getting off every now and then.

Neighbouring berths

Could be that it is as relaxed as this when you’re super flexible with regard to time. But when you have only three weeks and are as obsessed with seeing EVERYTHING (like me): Then you have to budget your valuable time to the hour. And every delay, every unintended (but necessary) lie-in and every train that’s already full will upset your plans. We had to deal with seven different currencies. With seven different exchange rates, obviously. That’s tiring.

Riding a train can be tiresome as well. Our longest non-stop ride was the one between Moscow and Irkutsk. For almost four days, we were “caged” into a train (it did feel like that after day 2).

Since we got ourselves the cheapest tickets, we had to share our car with 52 other persons. There were no compartments separated by doors. All beds were next to the aisle. Thus, everyone can always watch you; while you’re reading, eating, sleeping.

First world problems in the Second World

We didn’t do much more than that in those four days. Alright, Lucas played some computer games, too. We were incredibly lucky since our beds were right by one of the very scarce power outlets of the car. Frequently, one of our 52 fellow travellers came over to sometimes ask, often demand us to give over the outlet. Very rarely, we were charging our own devices. Most of the time, the plugged-in devices belonged to someone else in the car.

Typical Russian landscape

We were the only foreigners in our car. We quickly realised that nobody else apart from one Russian girl was able to speak English. After some time, I stuck to German when I tried to explain that the plugged-in phone didn’t belong to me, but to someone else and that I unfortunately had no idea who that person was – and that two others had already asked to use the outlet, so he/she would have to wait in line anyway. I’m convinced that when you speak your first language, you use the most natural gestures. And they were all that mattered really, so why bother with English? And it seemed like it worked, at least the people nodded at some point and then walked away. Or perhaps it was resignation.

We had no internet access on board, which slowed things down so much. (Quoting Lucas, before we departed: “So you don’t think they’ll have Wi-Fi on board?” – Cute.) In hindsight, the three and a half days on the train felt like one because we experienced basically nothing. It’s not like the scenery between Moscow and Irkutsk was very exciting. In fact, one sees nothing but birch trees and sometimes a village with very humble wooden houses.

Somewhere, nowhere

When after a 20 hours ride GPS-locating reveals that the trains is essentially still in Moscow in comparison to the distance that’s still before you: that’s the first of many times you’ll feel decidedly “lost”. This feeling will get stronger during the ride. It’s hard to describe, it’s like disorientation combined with the irrational, but in that moment very real, scary thought: “We won’t get there. Ever.”

The time zones you pass add to the inner confusion. You never know for sure one you are in, since the clocks of the train and also of the railway stations all show Moscow time. Even the times on the schedules are in Moscow time. By the moment it’s bright daylight outside when it’s supposedly 3 am, it’s clear that the clocks have lost their meaning. But by that moment, we were already in a merely semiconscious state so it didn’t matter much.

What we could have done better

Our biggest beginner’s mistake was that we didn’t pack enough food. In every car of the Trans-Siberian railway, there’s a samovar full of hot water. Consequently, for four days, we lived on the Russian version of cup noodles, instant soups, porridge, tea and a terrible so-called “coffee”. Two times, we indulged ourselves with a bread filled with cabbage and mashed potatoes that we bought on  the train. It tasted like heaven.

Kiosk on the platform

A warning to vegetarians: Buy your food before you go to Russia if you want to eat more than instant soups. There are no vegetarian cup noodles in Russia. In Mongolia, they even have vegan options however.

Obviously, there’s a restaurant car and in the bigger cities, there are kiosks on the platforms. The Trans-Siberian stops in these stations for about 30 to 45 minutes. But for both, mainly Lucas was too stingy. Unreasonably actually, since it wouldn’t have been expensive. All in all, our diet therefore was not very varied. Our favourite pastime became talking about the things we’d get in Irkutsk – also known as the “Promised land”. My top 3: A really good coffee, an apple, chocolate. Lucas’ top 3: Meat, McDonalds, Caramel Macchiato.

Little spoiler here; we made all our dreams come true, apart from McDonalds, which had to be replaced by KFC, since there’s no McDonalds in the Promised land/Irkutsk.

You don’t want to get up in the morning because then you have to eat the disgusting breakfast. On the other hand, you can’t stay in bed all day, since this bed is so f*cking uncomfortable. (Lucas, 193 cm)

The berths on the Trans-Siberian Railway aren’t made for tall people. I believe that up to a height of 175 centimetres it’s somewhat doable; everything above it is hard. That’s the reason we both looked forward to real beds so much. And a shower! Of course there’s no shower on board of the train. But that’s okay. After all, your fellow travellers share this fate. Which is probably a bad thing as well.  

Lucas‘ bottom line:

If you want to feel really thankful again for the small things in life, such as a good meal, a shower or a bed, I recommend a ride on the Trans-Sib. At best, take your kids with you so that they also learn this kind of thankfulness.

My bottom line:

There are a thousand more relaxing ways of holidaying. Surely there are also more relaxing way of taking the Trans-Sib. Spending a little more money – on food, maybe even on a bit more privacy and a smaller compartment – might help. But that would make for a completely different and likely less extraordinary travel experience.