This post is a bit a contradictio in terminis as the whole point of embarking on the Trans-Siberian train is not having to do anything. But even with that, some useful suggestions for what to do on the train during those many many hours.
1. Have a cup of tea. And then have another cup of tea. And then have another cup of tea. Every wagon is equipped with a samovar, providing an illimited amount of free boiling water. Pro-tip: boiling water is not only great to make tea, it also allows you to make (3 in 1) instant coffee, instant noodles, instant mashed potatoes, oatmeal or buckwheat porridge, etc.
2. Explore the train. Whether you are traveling second or third class, one of the most fun things to do on the train is to walk around in the different carriages and have a look at the people around. In second class, every carriage is divided into nine compartments with each 4 beds, and when walking in the hallway connecting them and lurking inside, you will see life unfold in front of your eyes. From an old babushka unpacking her carefully assembled lunch pack and savouring every bite, a couple of friends playing a very entertaining game of cards, and a mother reading bed time stories to her children, to lots of people napping, a fat half-naked angry-looking guy playing games on his phone, and two very bored soldiers lying in their bunk beds counting the time until they are arriving. Be prepared to have people stare right back at you, though. In third class, one carriage is shared with 52 people and the lack of privacy generally results in a slightly more convivial atmosphere. Pro-tip: do this around lunch/dinner time, and you will see the most inventive packed lunches/dinners, such as a plastic container filled with fried fish or fried chicken with potatoes, a cooking pot containing some kind of stew, lots of boxes with bread, tomatoes and cucumber and lots of little plastic bags with random assortments of sweets and cookies, etc.
3. Withstand the random temperature changes. This might come as a surprise to some, but yes, it does get hot in Russia in summer. While a lot of carriages have air conditioning, there are carriages without air conditioning (and even some with windows that will not close without the help of a screw driver), and when it is available, there is no guarantee that it will actually work, as with everything in Russia. Moreover, air conditioning only works when the train is in motion, so the carriage will heat up quickly during the day when stopping in bigger stations. Finally, the temperature and settings of the air conditioning for the whole carriage are controlled by the prodzvonita, and so you might be sweating on some trains while you might be wearing thermal underwear on others (true story).
4. Look up the schedule of the train stops. Not only is it nice to know when there will be a stop that is long enough so you can get of the train a bit and walk around (and maybe even score some extra train supplies or food), it is good – or even vital for people with small bladders such as myself – to know when the bathroom will be closed. Most trains in Russia still use the very sophisticated system of dumping the contents of the toilet pot straight on the tracks when flushing the toilet, so toilets may be closed up to 30 minutes prior to arriving to a train station until 30 minutes after departing again.
5. Look out the window, and contemplate life. While it is exciting at first to look out of the window and discover the Russian countryside, the countless kilometers and kilometers of repetitive taiga with only very once in a while a sign of life will soon make you get lost in your own thoughts. When is the last time you let your mind wander freely, anyway?
6. Play a game of cards. Even in the age of smartphones, playing cards is still a popular pastime on the train. Pro-tip: learn how to play Russian card games before leaving. It is the easiest way to socialize with your neighbors when you don’t speak Russian. It is however difficult to figure out the rules to their favorite game by just observing them play. And of course, don’t rely on meeting Russia s that speak English. They are still today difficult to find once you cross the Urals.
7. Offer some sweets to your fellow travelers. Russians don’t understand the point of drinking tea without eating sweets and sharing your food is an easy way to socialize. Be prepared though to be offered plenty of sweets and other food back. This is especially true when your neighbor is an old Russian babushka, who will make sure you are so full you will explode by the time you leave the train.
8. Count the number of wagons of the cargo trains passing by. Especially in Siberia, you will see an impressive amount of trains transporting oil passing by. It is difficult to say what is more impressive, the number of oil trains passing by, or how incredibly long they are.