127 hours or 5 full days and nights and a bit. That’s the total amount of time we spent in Russian trains during our 27 day stay in Russia. During that time we traveled a dazzling total of 7,557 kilometers. That is more than traveling from Brussels to New York.
We started of our trip in St. Petersburg. We decided to kick of our crazy honeymoon in style in this amazingly beautiful city and allowed ourselves some luxuries. A nice hotel, breakfast in bed, a ballet performance in the famous Michailovskii theatre, the occasional glass of champagne, etc.
After that, the real budget backpacking began. The nice hotel turned into hostels, cheap guest houses or a crappy hotel outside of the city. The occasional nice restaurant turned into Soviet-style canteens or cooking ourselves. And the champagne turned into water. Sophie is still moping about this last part.
The first leg of our Trans-Siberian journey was quite short, with a four hour train ride from St.Petersburg to Moscow. After that, the fun really began: a 21 hour train ride to Volgograd. And what a train ride it was! Somehow we ended up in what must have been the oldest train in the whole of Russia. The train was headed all the way to Tajikistan, where it would arrive 4 days later, so the train was filled with people from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan who would be living in this train for days. Luckily, we could get off the next day.
We had booked a ticket in platzkart (third class), meaning we were sharing our train carriage with 50 other travelers. The train didn’t have any airconditioning, which can be tricky when it’s 30 degrees outside but luckily the two windows next to us were open when we arrived in the train. When it started raining and we tried closing the windows, we understood why the windows had been open when the train was still in the station. One of the windows couldn’t be closed, while the other window was missing a part. While Manolo was having visions of having to sleep in a cold, wet bed, we tried to figure out the situation with our fellow passengers. While that included lots of hand gestures, miscommunication and laughter, it was still raining inside. Finally, the prodvnik (the train carriage responsible) came to assess the situation, and after calling some technician with a screw driver, window number one was fixed. Fixing window number two involved a treasure hunt for the missing part, but once we found it, it was easy enough to fix the problem using some of Manolo’s engineering skills.
After visiting Volgograd – where Manolo could pay his respects to the millions of Russians that ensured that today we don’t speak German in the whole of Europe or even the world – we embarked on another train ride with destination Kazan. Air conditioning, a continuous supply of toilet paper in the more or less clean bathroom (we will spare you the details of the bathroom, but it suffices to say that the bathroom in the other train was absolutely horrifying), properly functioning windows, and the occasional cleaning session by the prodvonitza who even spoke a tiny bit of English, etc. Compared to our previous train ride, this train was like a luxurious five star hotel on wheels.
After enjoying Kazan and its mix of Russian and Tatar culture, we hopped on the train again, this time direction Siberia (Omsk). By now, the train started feeling as a routine. We were getting pretty efficient at buying food and supplies for the train, and the whole get-on-the-train-make-your-bed-and-get-yourself-and-your-luggage-organized procedure started to feel natural. In Omsk, we took a regional train to Moskalenki, a small village in the middle of nowhere, where a friend of Sophie and her family lives. The 1h45 train ride felt a bit like a joke. But it was nice to experience real Russian/Siberian life in the countryside and be away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities that we had been in before.
After 4 days in the countryside, our 41 hour train ride to Irkutsk passed by surprisingly fast. After spending one night in Irkutsk in a bed that for once didn’t move, we then suffered through a 7 hour mini-bus ride to Olkhon Island – the only inhabited island on the Baikal Lake. This was a perfect preparation for Mongolia, as the last hour and a half we were driving on very bumpy unpaved sand roads. Returning back to Irkutsk after four days, we then slept through our last Russian train ride of 9 hours to Ulan Ude, from where we took the bus to Mongolia.