Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Trans-Siberian Railway

That's right. Railway. Not Express. There is nothing fast about this train. And it is actually not THE Trans-Siberian either. It's a network of trains with different destinations. The most known route is propably the one that takes you from Moscow to Vladivostok in 7 days. Then there is the Trans-Mongolian, that branches off after Ulan-Ude and crosses Mongolia on its way to Beijing. The Trans-Manchurian goes around Mongolia and takes in Harbin on the way to Beijing. Then there is the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM or Baikal -Amurskaya Magistral) that take a more northern route around lake Baikal to the pacific coast.
All trains no matter where in Russia's eleven timezones are running on Moscow time. It can be a bit mindboggling to figure out when they are actually leaving. The trains are surprisingly punctual (you go and have a look, nederlandse sporwegen!) and they won't wait. All trains are identified by a number, the lower the number the better the quality and the service generally. Odd numbers are headed to Moscow, even numbers take you away from the capital.
Each wagon has its provodnitsa (carriage attendant). They make sure everyone's on board when the train leaves, wake you up when you should get off the train, and provide some hot water for tea (make sure to bring a cup, some tea bags or instant coffee).

Don't worry if you don't speak any Russian, just get on board! The Russians are extremely hospitable, everybody shares food and drinks with you and tries to communicate with you. I was travelling in off season and trains were not too packed, sometimes I was the only foreigner on the train. Once word has spread that a foreigner is on board I was politely asked if I may be spoken to, only to find myself minutes later surrounded by English teachers, professors of the Russian acedemy of science, icehockey players and officers from the Russian army, asking me for my email and whether I was on facebook or linked-in.

On the last leg from Ekaterinburg (also referred to by its old name Sverdlovsk) to Irkutsk I ended up sharing a compartment with two officers from the Russian army. After a while Michail put a bottle of Putinka Vodka on the table and started pouring three glasses. We cheered. We drank. You don't mix vodka with anything. It's against the law. Also, you don't say spasiba (thank you) everytime they pour you a glass. We're here to drink, not to talk. Right. You drink what has been poured in one shot if you're a man, women may take it in sips. You drink some orange juice afterwards. You buy some snacks to have with your drink and share it. Only a fool drinks without eating. Whatever is on the table is for everyone. Good philosophy. At the end of the day you learned some more russian proverbs and the Russians insist that you accept some tacky presents. Then the laptops come out and you look at family pictures for the next hour or so. You return some less tacky presents. You learn the Russian word for friend is drug. The Russian hospitality is a drug. You return some probably less tacky presents and you're asked to sign them for your new drugs.

Other things to do on a train:
Learn Russian with a podcast.Or Mongolian. Or Chinese
Read Anna Karenina
Solve a Sudoku
Make new friends
Play cards or a game of chess
Practice yoga
Share food and drinks with your new friends
Write your journal, blog, postcards
Brush your teeth
Change your watch twice a day to local time as you pass through the timezones

The cheapest way to get tickets is through the website of Russian Railways. It's in cyrillic and you need to open an acoount first. But it's doable even if you don't speak any Russian, there are some sites that tell you how to work through the pages.
Some travel agencies offer tickets, they apply a service charge of course but it's the easiest way to arrange a trip by yourself.
And then there are tour companies that provide full service including visa support and all. Obviously that's the most expensive alternative but also the least hassle.
Tickets go on sale 45 days before departure.

For any trip on any train to anywhere check out this great site by the man in seat 61.

some impressions from the rail:

Buying some smoked fish at the station

The samovar providing hot water, bring a cup with you!

Dining in style at the train restaurant

some railroad nostalgia

1 comment:

h. said...

very interesting, and very nicely writen