A to do-list for the Trans-Siberian

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.

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9 things we learned in Russia

When traveling, you always learn something new. These are the nine things we will not forget from Russia.

 

1. Suitcases and backpacks are great for traveling. But next time we travel, we will pack all our stuff in cardboard boxes, plastic bags or packages made with cardboard, plastic and duct tape. We saw lots of Russians travel this way on the train, so they must know something we don’t!

2.  Lada cars are still being produced today. But they are as shitty as ever. We had the pleasure of traveling in a Lada 4×4 (yes, those exist), and they are really great, except for the very hard suspension, lack of most electronic gadgets such as electrical windows, central lock or airconditioning (let’s not even talk about gps), very small trunk space and complete lack of leg room.

3.  Continuous white lines on the road in Russia do not have the same meaning as in the rest of the world. In Russia, they do not mean you are not allowed to overtake other cars, they are merely there for decoration.

4.  Machines are great, but using people for easy routine tasks is much better, seems to be the adagium in Russia. It is much more fun to buy metro, bus and train tickets from an actual person, than to have an automated ticket machine. And we still didn’t figure out what the job description is of the people sitting in the end of the automatic stairs in the metro, but we are sure they must be very necessary. (That it is not helping lost tourists, Sophie found out the hard way.) Yes, these people might have expressions of utter boredom on their faces and not care about customer service whatsoever, that is probably just because they like to be happy and joyful on the inside.

 

 

 

5.  Apparently, we didn’t really get married. Russians like to take pictures for hours when they get married. The whole wedding party will walk around the city and take pictures in parks, in front of monuments, landmarks and pretty buildings and churches. And with taking pictures, we mean do at least 35 different poses like a professional model before moving on to the next place. Sophie started practicing the posing thing in Russia, so maybe we can get married again. Properly this time.

6.  All Russian trains have a samovar, which provides unlimited free boiling water during the whole train ride to make tea or instant noodles. So far nothing surprising. What we did not know, is that the energy used to heat up the water, is actual fire. As in wood that is burning… A bit shocked, we talked to the prodzvonitza (this one spoke some English). “Is this real fire?” “Yes.” “But isn’t that dangerous?” “Yes.” So, we looked at her with a puzzled face. She shrugged, and told us like it is the most natural thing in the world: “This is Russia…”

7.  There is no such a thing as a ‘Russian’. Russia is made up of different republics and people of lots of different ethnicities. People from the republic of Tatarstan (Turkish descent) or the republic of Buryatia (Mongolian descent) for example look different from Moscovites, have different habits, religious beliefs and languages.

 

 

8.  Whoever thought Russia is a confusing country, must have been mistaken. Russians tend to make everything very simple. For example, instead of giving train stations confusing names such as the name of the city or village that it belongs to, lots of train stations don’t have a name, but rather the  number of kilometers from Moscow. How much easier can it be? Another example are the cars. Russians drive on the right side of the road, but why make life complicated and only allow people to buy cars that have the steering wheel on the left? Especially in Siberia and Eastern Russia, people like to buy Japanese (second hand) cars that have the steering wheel on the right. What could possibly be the problem with that?

9.  Stamps are awesome. Russians really love their forms, official stamps and signatures. We have received stamps and signatures for going to the bathroom, receiving bed linen on the train, drinking a coffee and having a meal.

Russian train adventures

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.

 

Trains adventures

 

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.